Friday, February 17, 2017

Cognitive Bias

Congratulations to the Seward Park Wrestlers for taking Third Prize in the City-Wide Championships
February 27, 2017

Dear LoMA Family,

When I was younger I used to think that racism, sexism and homophobia happened from bad people who were deciding to put other people down to build themselves up. Images of the Ku Klux Klan, Bull Connor’s dogs attacking protestors on the bridge in Selma and men disparaging women made overt discrimination easy to identify and separate from all of the good people I knew who would never be prejudiced or biased. Now brain research and my own experience have taught me that a far more pervasive and insidious problem is cognitive bias.
Cognitive bias is not necessarily bad in and of itself; it often provides shortcuts to help us manage ourselves in society even when we are not conscious of them: We are more likely to ask a stranger for directions if she looks approachable. We make friends more easily with people who smile, avoid sitting next to people on the train who are ranting to themselves. The problem is that too often we use these cognitive shortcuts in racist or sexist ways that are just not true. Women are automatically thought to be weak, or minorities are thought to be unqualified for jobs. The pervasiveness of this false cognitive bias is depressing, but there are two ways to respond to persistent, often unconscious bias.
First, we need to recognize that we all have some unconscious stereotypes; there is no way we can avoid them in our brains. Harvard University has develop a very clever on-line test that uses our speed in connecting images and words to detect biases we may not be conscious of. You can take it at Be aware that the results can make us feel ashamed, defensive and angry. As a gay man, I am often saddened about how much internalized homophobia I have. Acknowledging it, however, gives me the opportunity to recognize it and guard myself against it, and compensate when I feel it arise.
Secondly, we need to use research to guide our opinions and actions, especially when it contradicts our beliefs. For decades women were thought to be too weak to be police officers, but had the nurturing skills to be better than male elementary school teachers. When social scientists looked at these assumptions however, they found them to be wrong and incomplete. Women can be strong and men can be nurturing. Also, female officers often had better de-escalation skills than their male peers, and male teachers make excellent role models for boys.
With conscious effort and knowledge, biases can diminish and even disappear over time. No rational person thinks anymore that women can’t be soldiers, or that that Black men can’t be successful presidents, or a gay man a teacher. Yet, all of these stereotypes were believed by most people in my lifetime. In fact, every generation of my life has been less biased and valued social justice more than its predecessors.  Our current students give me such hope in our future.  You may not eradicate all harmful cognitive biases, but together we can work understand and control them it through thoughtful effort.

Work Hard,

John Wenk

March 17                     End of the Marking Period

This week’s Shaka entry is composed of several responses from Seniors (and the last two are from staff members) who took the Harvard Implicit Attitudes Test (IAT) of their Cognitive Biases that Dr. Wenk talked about in his newsletter.  At the beginning of each response is a list of the tests that that person took.  The results of each test tell you whether you have a strong, moderate, slight, or no automatic (unconscious) preference/bias for a type of person.  Hopefully you’ll find it as enlightening as they did.  -Shaka
I took the Race IAT and the Age IAT.  I expected some sort of result like “Congrats!  You’re like 15% racist!” or something like that.  I also expected that I’d like old people better than young ones, but it turns out that I don’t show any preference between the two.  I also found out that I do have a moderate preference for non-white people.  I guess it’s true, because some of the things that the results suggest are things that I’ve caught myself doing.  It’s helpful to know this because I realized I don’t know as much about myself as I thought I did.  I guess I can use this information to be more aware of certain things and try to make myself be more open-minded than I previously thought I was.
I took the test about race.  I expected to have a result that stated that I preferred Black people strongly over white people, but my result was that I slightly preferred Black people over white.  I do not think this result measures up, and I still think that I strongly prefer Black people over white people.  I can consider this result to be true, because as a person I know that I usually do not judge people based on characteristics they cannot control, but I am very aware of the sense of Black pride I have as I myself am a young African American woman.  I do not think this test was very helpful; I’m not sure how I could use this information.
I took both the Weight IAT and the Sexuality IAT.  I was not surprised that I have a moderate automatic preference for gay people over straight people, being that LGBTQ community is a big part of my life, but I was very disappointed when my data results from the Weight IAT told me that I have a strong automatic preference for thin people over fat people.  I thought about this result and realized my own weight insecurities reflect on what I think of others.  I have friends and peers of all sizes, shapes, and colors, but I’m not denying that the image I’ve worked on and am still working on is being thinner than the average weight of a 17-year-old girl.
I took the Skin Color IAT.  I expected to have a slight preference toward darker skin tones because I am a darker skin tone and so is the majority of my family.  I was surprised and felt a little bit offended by my results, which said I had a slight automatic preference for light-skinned people over dark-skinned.  I feel this might be somewhat true only because I spend most of my life with my mother, who happens to be light-skinned.  This is helpful to know because now I can be more aware of this.  I can use this information to keep in mind some of the biased thoughts I didn’t even realize I was having.


I took the Race and Hair Types IAT’s.  Both of my results surprised me greatly.  First, my Race IAT showed that I have a moderate automatic preference for non-white people over white people.  This surprised the heck out of me, since I’m very, very white, I’m from a very, very white place, and I really didn’t expect that kind of result.  On the Hair Types IAT, I found that I have a strong preference for natural (against straightened) and against dyed hair.  I know that these results are true, but I did find them surprising and a little disheartening, since I always thought of myself as an unbiased person (which, I know, is impossible, but still).  I think that this information is really important for a teacher (or anyone working with people) to know because we spend so much time being taught to treat each individual based on their needs and abilities, but we spend very little time addressing what biases we might bring to the table.  It’s a little uncomfortable, but the biases are there anyway; it’s better to know about them then to have them working in your mind uncomfortably.
So, I took the Sexuality test. It says I have a slight preference for straight people, which in a cultural context I don't necessarily disagree with. However, I do think that this is a flawed test. Before someone takes any of the tests, there needs to be a more explicit explanation of how the data is collected and analyzed. When taking it, I know that I was slightly distracted, and I want to know how the test norms for situations like that. The concept of these tests are totally appropriate, but to have them as simple online exams seems inappropriate. This is a worthwhile investigation into a person's biases, but not nearly rigorous enough to convince me of its accuracy.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The joys of homework

February 13, 2017

Dear LoMA Family,

A former LoMA teacher named Jessica Watson shared with me a research paper she recently completed for a college class in which she looked into the history of homework, its purpose, and its success rate. Given the importance LoMA places on homework, it is important that we consider its uses and effectiveness.
Not surprisingly, she found that while nearly all students find homework “routine and mundane,” the ability to complete it “proves to be a noticeable distinction between high-achieving and low-achieving students.” One reason for this may be connected to self-management. This makes sense as students who have the skills to self-monitor and self-regulate are more likely to be successful in every aspect of life – school, sports, the arts and professional life. After all, the ability to be aware of and control one’s actions is much more important to success than innate intelligence or skill. Connected to this is the finding that the difference between whether students complete homework or not does not vary by how difficult or how much time it takes. The real difference is that students actually have a plan to get homework done, no matter how long or difficult it is. Low achieving students either ‘forgot’ to do it or simply never planned on completing it in the first place (Bempechat et al, 2011). Obviously, this means that students who regularly write down homework and make time to complete it every night are more likely to be successful.
The research-based strategies that Jessica found to increase homework completion support our belief in the importance of tutoring:
·       Something that helped students to plan better was if they had a teacher or parent who monitored their completion of it (Xu, 2008).
·       A 2008 study by Shumow, Schmidt and Kackler showed a correlation between homework completion and happiness. They couldn’t determine whether happy students do more homework or completing homework leads to greater happiness, but they did find that students were happier when completing homework with anyone besides their parents and when they did it somewhere besides home.
In her analysis of the data, Jessica concluded that students who complete their homework find success, and that success gives them a positive attitude toward completing their work, which then leads to more success. In this way, homework completion becomes a virtuous cycle – the more you complete it the better you feel about school, the more success you have the more likely you are to complete it. As this new term begins, work hard to get into this virtuous cycle of feeling successful. Then it will be much easier to keep the momentum going, and to break the vicious cycle of failure, regret and shame. 

Work hard and the work will get easier,

John Wenk
February 16                6:00                 Parents’ Association Meeting
February 20-24                                   February Break
Works Cited:
Bempechat, J., Li, J., Neir, S.M., Gillis, C.A. & Holloway, S.D. The Homework Experience. Journal of Advanced Academics, 22[2], 250-278.
Shummow, L., Schmuidt, J. A., & Kacker, H. (2008). Adolescents experience doing homework: Associations among context, quality of experience and outcomes. School Community Journal, 18 [2], 9-27.
Xu, J. (2008). Models of secondary school students’ interest in homework: A multilevel analysis. American Education Research Journal, 45 [4], 1180-1205.

Toady’s student response is from a junior who has been on the honor roll every marking period for the last two and a half years, but has had to work really hard to be there.

Dear LoMA Family,

            Homework can be hard; trust me, I would know.  Many times it is a battle with myself to even start my homework.  I usually spend time looking at it and think, “I really don’t want to do this” or “Man this is going to take a long time, I’ll start later.”  But I always end up doing it eventually because I want to get a good grade and not see any reds or yellows on my PupilPath.  To me, keeping my grades at a certain level does give me a sense of accomplishment.  When my grades drop below my standards, it causes a lot of stress and that takes a physical and mental toll on me.  For example, let’s say you don’t do a homework and get a zero for it.  Instead of dropping a few points because that homework was minor, your grade drops by as much as twenty because you’re averaging in a zero with all of your other scores.  Now you have to struggle even harder to bring your grade up by doing extra credit (if you can even get it) and doing other tasks above what is normally required.  This can cause a lot of stress in you.

            Personally, I become so stressed trying to complete the homework and to hand it in on time.  For a person who does after-school activities, sports, or is a part of some organization, homework can be even more stressful.  You get home really late and instead of being able to relax to end your day, you have to start doing homework.  My schedule usually gets me home at 8 o’clock every day, and then I have to finish projects or do all of my homework, which usually takes hours to finish.  I usually end up going to sleep at 1 AM or even later, and then I have to wake up early and do the same thing over again.  Many times I’ve thought, “I don’t want to do it”, “What if I took a little nap”, or “if I go to sleep now I can get up early and finish tomorrow morning” or other thoughts that cause me to stress out even more and get even less done.  But I’ve also spent time thinking about which is more important, sleep or homework.  Even though I lose so much sleep every day, homework is a necessary part of my education, and I need to get it done.

            Sometimes (or maybe all the time) homework wouldn’t be so bad if there wasn’t so much of it to do.  Don’t get me wrong, fellow peers.  I absolutely do not like homework or doing work in general; I’d rather relax or have something else to do.  But it pays off to do it.  Getting the highest grade I’m capable of every marking period isn’t easy, and it does take dedication and hard work to stay up there.  However, it’s not just that—you also have to do a lot of your work that is not assigned, like studying and reviewing past days’ work.  There’s more to homework than just what is assigned each day.

            Many people, including those in this week’s newsletter, claim that doing homework will make you happier, help you with self-management, and help you be more successful in general.  For me, the amount of homework has often had the opposite effect.  Homework doesn’t make me happy, it actually makes me sad.  How can I be happy functioning with such a small amount of sleep?  I might be happy with the outcome of doing my homework, but that’s only if I get a good grade on it.  If I don’t get the grade I expect, I feel double bad because now I am over-tired and it wasn’t worth it.  Furthermore, I always do my homework, but I still think my self-management skills are pretty bad.  I don’t disagree fully with the researchers, because not everyone is the same, I’m just stating that because everyone is different, the benefits and drawbacks of so much homework will affect everyone differently.


Friday, February 3, 2017

Survey Responses

Dear LoMA Family,

Thank you for all of your responses to the survey last month. The staff and I have been reviewing them, and mostly feel good about the responses. Nearly every one wrote fondly about a staff member who has helped them out; most students seem proud of the work they are putting into school, many would like a longer lunch and some would like staff and classmates to be nicer more often. Those were my questions for all of you. I thought that this week, I’d answer some of the questions students came up with for the staff:

1.     Why do teachers give so much homework? I think it is true that LoMA gives more homework than many schools. I know it is true that LoMA students do better when they get to college. College teachers generally require two hours of homework for every one hour of class. Getting students in the habit of working independently is the best preparation I can think of for college.
2.     Why don’t we have longer lunch? This is the most common request for change at LoMA. I’d like a longer lunch too, but then we’d have to start school earlier or end later, which isn’t really possible given the teachers’ contract.
3. Are the teachers annoyed by having so many students? Large classes are more challenging to teach, but they are not necessarily more annoying. See below for what is annoying.
4. What is the way that students annoy you most? I think most teachers are most annoyed when students fail to reach their potential. Given how much time and effort I go into preparing a lesson, I can’t help but take it personally when students come in late, don’t pay attention and/or fail to complete homework. Worst of all, is when some students interfere with the learning of their classmates.
5. Why did you choose to work at LoMA? Remember that many of us started this school because we felt that schools needed to be more caring in how they supported students, prepared them for college.  We may not always be as successful in this as we want, but LoMA has gained a solid reputation for caring staff and nice, hardworking students. Many other staff members saw this firsthand when they started here as observers, tutors or student teachers.
6. What is your favorite thing about working at LoMA? Many staff members also have a strong interest in the arts, and having worked in two arts schools I really appreciate the creativity and energy that aspiring artists bring to their community.
7. Do teachers have favorites? Just as students have favorite teachers, yes, teachers do have favorite students. I personally like students who are curious, thoughtful and hard-working. Having said that, I try very hard not to give any students preferential treatment. If anything, I think I have higher expectations for my favorites.

My favorite question from the student surveys is “How would you describe LoMA to a friend?”  Some students say just “OK,” many students write “a school that cares” and a bunch more say “a family.” That was the goal when we started this place, and it remains our goal today.

Work Hard,

Mr. Wenk

February 9                  4:00-7:00                    Valentine’s Day Dance
February 16                6:00                             Parents’ Association Meeting
February 18-26                                               February Break


Dear LoMA,
               Just like Dr. Wenk answered some of your questions that you had for the staff this week, I went around and collected answers to the questions you had asked for students last week.  In total, 31 students offered feedback, most of them Sophomores and Seniors.  A compilation of their answers to the questions they chose is below.
1.     What’s your favorite part of going to LoMA?
The friends I made.
My favorite part of coming to LoMA is being accepted for who I am, and everyone loving my annoying/crazy personality.
2.     What teacher helps you the most?
Ms. B and Ms. Gupta get how I learn and make me remember stuff much better.  Ms. Joyner and Mr. Barrett have helped me, because I didn’t understand math, but they both gave me a lot of chances and believed in me more than I did.  Mr. Fry and Mr. Ravdin make me interested in class because I hate when I’m the only one who doesn’t get their corny jokes.  Ms. L gives me the perfect mix of love and a**kickings (not literally) to make me successful.  Mr. Gonzalez makes me laugh when he’s mean, but don’t tell him I said that.  Ms. Garfield has helped me the most these past 4 years; I call her my best friend because she’s someone I can always talk to and joke with.  Ms. Hernandez and Mr. Markovics are so patient and nice, and always stick with me long enough to make sure I can be successful as long as I put in the work. Mr. Ahearn breaks stuff down to make me understand.  Kathleen keeps me honest, she drags it sometimes, but it’s because she loves me (no matter what she says).
4.     What stresses you out the most at LoMA?
What stresses me in this school is when acquaintances bring drama to my life when I was just trying to get good grades and graduate.
 I get stressed out by homework and by students who don’t do their work because I feel like it’s unfair that I have to work so hard, but sometimes they get better grades than me. 
The freshmen who stand in the halls and just chat while blocking my way. 
Teachers who don’t listen or who act like monarchs who are all-powerful.
Staff members who scream at students or act like police in the hall even when I’m not late.
5.     Are other students as stressed out as I am about exams and homework?
Not too much for me.  If you pay attention and know what you’re doing, it reduces stress, but I do still stress about the amount of homework I get sometimes, and I always work myself into a stress-frenzy before a test.
6.     What’s your favorite lunch choice on school days?
Chinese food mostly, but it takes a long time.  I’m tired of the fast food around here; the good stuff is either really expensive or far away.  I think the food choices around here contribute to my weight problems and my skin breaking out.
7.     Does LoMA get harder as the years go by?
LoMA got mad hard in junior year.  That’s the hardest by far.  Senior year is like 10th grade, but I wish I’d realized how easy 9th grade was by comparison when I was a freshman.
8.     Do you feel comfortable being you at LoMA?
Yes I feel comfortable because everyone doesn’t judge what you wear and how you are.
Yeah, who’s gonna stop me?!  As long as you surround yourself with the right people, everyone should be comfortable being them.  If you don’t feel comfortable being you, you are probably surrounding yourself with the wrong people.
Hell yeah!  I’ve worn crocs, I’ve worn pajamas, and people still love me! 
9.     Do you feel like a leader, loner, or follower at LoMA?
Loner because I don’t really have friends.  I don’t like to follow people because I live one life: my own.  I can’t always depend on people; I have to fend for myself.
Some people see my honesty as rudeness, but my real friends know I’m not being rude.  At the same time, I’ve got no time for soft friends or over-emotional ones.  Save the drama for the big deals, don’t get worked up over tiny s***.
10. Do you ever feel like you don’t belong?
Yes, I feel like I don’t belong sometimes because of the requirements that have been set for all seniors in this school, which is passing five Regents.  Considering it took me longer to pass these tests, it made me feel less smart than the other students.

12. Do you like learning?  What makes you learn the best?
School stresses me out, but when I like the topic I do like learning.
I learned that Buddha said learning was changing, and I fear change.