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Why We Will Fail to Educate Your High School Student
“A still and awful red”

Recently I spent a few mornings standing by the entry gateway to the school, the place we have named the Gottleib Family Tolerance Gateway. I hope every child entering The Grauer School gateway enters into a world of peace and thoughtful scholarship.
There I stood and watched and greeted, had no agenda, and was not looking for anything in particular. 

The Gottleib Family Tolerance Gateway at The Grauer School

It is an irony to note that I had the following “wakeup call”: many of the students who entered our campus, and in particular our senior high students, looked half asleep. From appearances, they were obviously not awake enough to function in a class. The only way I could have drawn any other conclusion was to not look, which is what they were attempting to do.

Coincidentally, the first period 11th grade English teacher, Brian Dugan, had just mentioned to me that he noted a big difference in the way his two junior English classes were responding to the work. So I asked Brian to survey them: “How much sleep did you get last night?”
The results, writes teacher Brian, were that “more than half of my 11th grade classes are not receiving more than 5-6 hours of sleep each night. It definitely shows up in their energy levels and engagement.”

What’s more, the amount of sleep people get is significantly lower than the time we spend in bed. A FitBit device might be able to help you monitor this.

Since I have run several columns and given several speeches on the topic of teen sleep needs, I received this data from Brian with some discouragement and dejection—it felt a lot like climate news. I know that if a teen consistently gets less than 8-9 hours of sleep a night (meaning a hard 10:30 PM bedtime), over time, they are sleep-deprived. So, one more time: When a teen is sleep-deprived, or fails to get REM sleep, this is liable to have extreme impacts and consequences on that teen’s life and development that could include:

  • inability to concentrate
  • less efficient scholarship
  • diminished ability to learn new information
  • drowsy-driving incidents (55% of all “fall-asleep” crashes were caused by drivers under the age of 25)
  • anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts
  • hormonal changes
  • lowered ability to exercise self-control over one’s emotions and impulses 
  • higher likelihood to use stimulants like caffeine and nicotine
  • aggression, impulsivity, and being short-tempered

Your sleep-deprived child is not going to experience all of these symptoms, but it is highly likely they’ll have some, and they don’t get to pick. What’s more, it is unrealistic to think of missing sleep in terms of “getting more done.” That’s illogical. You just get different things done, and normally not as well.

Just because we don’t grade sleep as a subject in school, it does not mean it is less important. I am now thinking we should grade it. Maybe I’ll ask Brian.

Everyone laughs when I make the following comparison, but I’m not kidding: We would not expect to teach people who are drunk, angry, or depressed, so why do we expect the chronically sleep-deprived to learn much? Any one of these conditions obviously impairs their ability to process information and participate in a rigorous Socratic environment. I don’t even know what people think happens in an English class! There are all sorts of interactions that occur that teachers notice that impact classes with sleep-deprived kids: Some students will “think in black and white,” or overgeneralize, or discount the positive. Or they interpret a small thing as a catastrophe. And creativity is the first thing to go when you’re exhausted, so school becomes a game of compliance and memorization (hardly the province of intrinsic motivation!).

I went in to talk about this with our Principal, Dana Abplanalp-Diggs. Dana is an enormous student advocate, famously levelheaded, and she described vividly how the students are not wasting their time. They are in high level athletics or extra honors classes, they have consuming outside interests and avocations, they are actors and artists… Dana defended their activities to the highest! “It’s on them: some of those students are pushing themselves pretty hard—they have a lot of passions.”

But I know these kids simply need sleep. I asked, “So, if you are very active in high school and want to be a high performing student, is it more important to achieve in all these activities than to develop a healthy mind and body?” 

My real question was: “Something has to give, so what’s going to give?”  “Are you sure missing sleep is the smartest option and, if so, how did you arrive at that conclusion?”  “What are the limits to pursuing passion?”

We have all these reasons why we need to miss sleep. As though our resume building is more important than our health, happiness and wellness. As though we are trapped.  

WE ARE NOT TRAPPED!!! We have free will. There are 4000 colleges in the country and the chances that we’ll get you in the right one are vastly improved if you do not go through high school sleep-deprived. (Unless maybe you want to go through college that way.)

"I’m miserable,” says one exhausted student.
“When I’m tired, everything seems worse,” says another student.

It’s true that some people are more efficient sleepers. Short sleeper syndrome (SSS) is a sleep condition caused by a gene mutation characterized by sleeping for fewer than six hours each night. Maybe some students think they have this syndrome. I would call them “sleep deniers.” 2% of the population seems to be able to get by with less sleep. In a study conducted at the University of Utah, scientists discovered that people who say they need—and get—less than six hours of sleep a night, dubbed “habitual short sleepers,” have brains functioning in a way that is similar to how it would work if they had been drinking [1]. It is also true that getting stressed out about lack of sleep might be at least as damaging as lack of sleep.

On the other hand: you cannot “make up” for lost sleep on the weekends or holidays—you can’t catch up—what you miss is lost opportunity. Losing sleep hours is like losing money. If you have not had your full sleep cycles over the week, you can never get them back.

Not everything is impacted the same by too little sleep. So, here is my favorite fact in the whole world: breaking research indicates that teens might do about as well on a standardized test after only 7 hours sleep, two hours less than the recommended amount. The question nobody in that study asked: What does that tell us about standardized tests! The exact same study (of 12,000 teens) found that kids sleeping less than 8 hours per night engaged in riskier behaviors including:

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Smoking marijuana
  • Drinking
  • Spending more than 3 hours per day using a computer
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Feelings of sadness and hopelessness

But they can still take a standardized test! [2]  People! What does that tell you about how America defines success in education!

REM sleep is the part of the sleep cycle that sleep-deprived kids are usually missing. We cannot expect happy kids if they are not experiencing REM sleep—it’s that important. But they can take standardized tests. If you take a close look at how typical schools define their success, you would conclude that teens don’t need much sleep—you would conclude that schools could be organized more around the bussing schedule than around the conditions for developing happy children. 

The Grauer School was founded and exists precisely to avoid conditions like all of these. The Grauer School’s clear philosophy is that our students do not “need” to excel so as to build up an activity list, ranking of some kind, or college resume. We want real kids with real lives. We believe a great education is a balance of scholarship, spirituality (purpose), physical development, and intrinsic motivation. Substituting activities for sleep is like saying I’m building up my brain capacity so who cares what happens to my liver or heart.  

If our children claim they are intrinsically motivated to the point that they walk into school every day as zombies, which is precisely what I observed during my bleak week at the Tolerance Gateway, then something is wrong. 

I get it: we want our kids to get into great colleges or to excel. But no college rank is more important than health and joy. I call on all parents to help us restore sanity to this out-of-whack social condition. It will take courage. Please talk to me if you want help mustering that courage. What is this life? Let’s talk about that.

Grauer English Teacher Brian Dugan with his 11th Grade students on Halloween - October 31, 2019

So here is what I told Brian the English teacher: “If you want to do the maximum amount of good for your first period English class, when they arrive in the room give them each a pillow and tell them to sleep. No English lessons in the world will do more for their language development.” That would be the very best use of tuition dollars.

If you don’t believe me, Dear Readers, I challenge you to complete this thought exercise. I dare you to feel like an American 16-year old junior in high school, fresh off 5 hours of sleep. This experiment will only take you 3 minutes (though it will feel like an hour) so please go through it completely and tell me how you feel. Here is the set up:

Odds are you missed breakfast, and you are drifting through the Tolerance Gateway half numb, brain bathing in melatonin that you counteract with a cardboard cup of hyper-sugary coffee and, oh g-d does your shirt have a logo on it, and now slumping into your seat in English around the Harkness table, your body warm, eyes cast down hypnotically channeling a Tetris screen or something, and you feel a pulse to check your Snapchat, and now like a dream the teacher is saying, “Okay everyone, please look at the page. You have 10 minutes to analyze and summarize.” 

So, the thought experiment is to let me know what you feel or think when you look down at the screen and you see THIS [3]:

I look'd upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I look'd upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.
I look'd to heaven, and tried to pray; 
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.
I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat; 
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky,
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.
The cold sweat melted from their limbs,
Nor rot nor reek did they: 
The look with which they look'd on me
Had never pass'd away.
An orphan's curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that 
Is the curse in a dead man's eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.
The moving Moon went up the sky,
And nowhere did abide; 
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside?
Her beams bemock'd the sultry main,
Like April hoar-frost spread;
But where the ship's huge shadow lay,
The charm’d water burnt alway
A still and awful red.

[1] The Truth About People Who Say They Only Need A Few Hours Of Sleep, Self, Korin Miller, September 16, 2016.

[2] How Much Sleep for Teens?, Psychology Today, Michael J Breus Ph.D., March 20, 2012.

[3] From ''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

The Gottleib Family Tolerance Gateway at The Grauer School

Grauer English Teacher Brian Dugan with his 11th Grade students on Halloween - October 31, 2019

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