One of the coolest parts about working for Campus Calm is the opportunity to learn about and connect with inspiring, entrepreneurial women. One such opportunity I was given, thanks to Maria, my boss, mentor and founder of Campus Calm, was to interview Dr. Denise Pope. A true example of a leader and visionary, Pope has written several books and even started her own company, Challenge Success, to address the stressors plaguing children and adults today. In addition, Pope works as a Senior Lecturer at Stanford University, specializing in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service learning.
Pope’s book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, written about a group of stressed out, misguided students, was instrumental in leading me to Campus Calm. As a stressed out, grade-focused student myself, this book addressed many of the same feelings I had been experiencing over the years. It led to me to redefine my perspective on learning, and along with Campus Calm, has broadened my vision of success to include more than just grades. Thus, it would be an understatement to say I was THRILLED to be able to have Dr. Pope answer some of my own questions for the Campus Calm blog.
At Campus Calm, we help inspire women to become true, authentic leaders in their life and community. As someone who’s a clear leader and entrepreneur in their community, can you share a little bit on how you managed to achieve your success and also what inspired you to help others?
I have always been motivated to do public service. It was how I was raised. My parents used to take me with them when they volunteered for various organizations, and I participated in service clubs and activities all through my elementary, high school and college years. I also went to an all-girls school from 6-12 grade where it was part of the curriculum to teach leadership and communication skills and to assume that we would be active participants in the community. As for success, you don’t go into something looking for it. Your passion for your content and your perseverance for the cause gives you the energy to do big things and to find amazing colleagues along the way to help you reach your goals.
Your company, Challenge Success, looks to create a broader vision of success for children and parents. How does your company help to redefine success?
At Challenge we believe that our society has become too focused on grades, test scores and performance, leaving little time and energy for our kids to become resilient, successful, meaningful contributors for the 21st century. So we provide families and schools with practical research-based tools to raise healthy, motivated kids. We offer conferences and workshops for parents and educators and students to make changes that lead to better health and more relevant, challenging learning opportunities. We work to help people see that success is measured over the course of a lifetime, and not just at the end of each semester.
If you had a magic wand to eliminate one secret boundary prohibiting children from reaching their true level of success, what would that be?
I think the one secret boundary is the myth that everyone needs to follow the same straight path – and that there is a one-size fits all kind of way to raise kids and educate kids and get them to the end goal of success. I would wave my wand to convince parents and teachers to recognize that one size cannot fit all and that there are many different paths to success. Each child is an individual with particular needs, talents, and interests. Teachers need to differentiate instruction and allow more student choice and voice in the classroom, making learning relevant, fun, and challenging to more students. Parents need to allow kids to branch out, take risks, and develop at their own pace. You can still be successful in life even if you don’t get all A’s or run for student body president or don’t get into a top college or don’t play a varsity sport or…fill in the blank.
In your book, Doing School, you stress the importance of hearing from students’ themselves about their experiences in school. What are some of the lessons these students have to teach us that might be absent from other studies?
It is still fairly rare to have the student voices shine through in research studies, and yet the students are the ones experiencing school first-hand. We absolutely need to include them in the conversation around school reform. At Challenge Success we make it mandatory to include at least two students on every school reform team. They share with the other educators and parents on the team about the real stressors they face in school and their ideas on how to remedy the situation. The adults soon realize that the student voice is one of the most valuable and powerful to effect lasting changes at the school. For instance, we just had one student group discuss the need for a longer common lunch period. They don’t have enough time to make it through the lunch line each day, let alone enough time to meet with teachers about academic questions during that time (which is often the only time they can meet with the teachers). Another group of students re-designed the school honor code in order to make it more useful and relevant to the school. The students are key change agents in this process.
Your book, Doing School, features many students in high school who are stressed out and concerned about getting into the right college. Do you see these same stressed out students at the college-level, as well?
Yes – everyday!
Do college students and high-schoolers share the same stressors?
Yes – often these stressors are similar – the pressure to get high grades, to do multiple extra-curricular activities, to be a good friend/roommate, to look good and appear to “do it all”. Some high school kids think that once they get into college, they can “have a life” – that the pressure will go down and that they can sleep, have more time for fun and relaxation, and take the courses they really want to take (instead of feeling like they need to take as many honors or Advanced Placement courses as possible to get into undergraduate institutions), but these students soon find that college life can be as stressful as high school. Now they are attempting to get the grades to get into grad school or are attempting to keep up with all the other high achievers at their college. Some begin to wonder when this kind of pressured life will ever end… The good news is that high school and college students CAN do something about this pressure (see next answer.)
What are some immediate tips you can give to students to help them de-stress and be happier starting TODAY?
Students need to stop and reflect on the life they are leading. There are some basic needs that must be fulfilled: students need to take care of themselves. They need to get more sleep, find more time to exercise and eat right, and have some downtime each day. We have an acronym of PDF which stands for playtime, downtime, and family time, and the research shows that students of all ages need to schedule more PDF in their lives each day. This is hard to do when you are a busy student, so that means you will need to make some difficult choices. How many classes will you take at one time? How many activities will you sign up for? Most universities (for undergrad and grad) aren’t looking for the person who took the most courses and stayed up the latest and participated in the most activities. Most schools are looking for some kind of intellectual rigor and some kind of steady progress in an activity that you love. Slow down, delve more deeply into the subjects and activities that you love while understanding that you CANNOT do it all, and still be healthy and happy.
Make some key choices to regain balance in your life and prioritize the things that really matter in the long run – health, family, friends, intellectual stimulation, hobbies. You’ll find the right-fit school for you if you focus on the right things now.
Do you see any changes in how kids are “doing school” today? Has this trend increased, decreased, or stayed the same since writing your book?
Unfortunately the cheating and the health issues have escalated over the past few years. The good news is that many Challenge Success member schools have made excellent progress in changing the hyper frenetic culture of achievement at all costs. Schools are changing their schedules to allow more time for deep and relevant learning, they are changing their homework policies and assessments to allow students to be healthier and more engaged in what they study. And students and parents are learning to define success on their own terms to allow for more time for creative pursuits and mental and physical well-being.
Finally, what do you think it would take for the conditions that foster “doing school” to alter significantly?
We work with one school at a time, one family at a time and simultaneously we publish research and white papers and offer online courses to spread the word more widely. We are aiming for a culture shift here — a way of thinking about kids and health and learning that gets to the root of real success – self-management, creativity, adaptability, critical thinking and real motivation for life-long learning. Some simple changes in kids’ schedules (earlier bedtimes, more playtime, fewer scheduled activities) and some simple changes in how teachers teach and how schools are structured (later start times, block schedules, project based learning) for instance, can make a huge difference for our children.
Many thanks to Denise Pope for taking the time out to answer these questions!