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Ask questions before cutting off activities

Q: My son has not been pulling his weight in the classroom. He receives grades in the C range, but I know he is capable of doing much better. I'm thinking of limiting or stopping his after-school activities, such as sports, until his grades improve. Do you think this approach will work?

Anonymous, Whitman

A: Talk to your son before putting the kibosh on his extracurricular activities. There's a chance that his lackluster performance in the classroom signals more than a lack of effort. Check in with his teachers; ask whether they've noticed changes in his character and work habits.

Often more stoic than expressive, many male adolescents struggle to articulate what's compromising their classroom performance. What looks like disregard for a subject can be misleading. For example, I've seen young men's grades drop as they silently wrestle with a friend's substance abuse problem, an imminent divorce, or undiagnosed attention deficit disorder or depression. I don't want to sound like an alarmist, but it's important to allow for such possibilities.

If your son's flagging effort with his studies has its roots in typical teenage ennui, curtailing his after-school activities could exacerbate the problem. Teenagers tend to need more, not less, structure in their days. A sports or dramatics schedule can provide a welcome and necessary break from the classroom and rejuvenate a student for that nightly return to the books. Of course, too many activities can lead to persistent weariness and sub-par work. The issue, alas, is balancing work and play, an ongoing challenge for students as well as parents and teachers.

Q: I agreed with your recent advice to the senior who just wasn't sure about going on to college after graduation. What do you think about a student being advised by teachers to put off college for a year or so in order to travel? I have always believed that students who do not attend college right away are less likely to do so later. What are your thoughts on this?

K.L., Sturbridge

A: A couple of years ago, a conversation in a Cambridge pub with the admissions director of a nearby university led to a discussion of delaying the start of college by one year. He said if he had his druthers, every student entering the elite college at which he worked would spend a year in the classrooms beyond the classroom. He mentioned community service programs, travel abroad, full- or part-time work, family time, internships, artistic projects, independent study, etc. He was convinced that the students who stepped away from their formal educations for one year were able to make the most of the four that followed.

In your daughter's case, travel, while often edifying, seems a luxury. Perhaps she could find her own blend of the activities mentioned above, if the two of you agree to the idea of deferring the start of college for a year. Don't worry too much that delaying the start of college leads to avoiding it altogether. Time away from school can clarify its purpose as well as your daughter's plans and potential.

Among the thoughtful responses to my last column was a letter from Brian Hopewell, the dean of admission at Dynamy, a Worcester-based organization that offers residential internship programs for high school graduates. ''Americans teens are beginning to follow the practice of the Brits in allowing themselves a 'gap year' between high school and college," wrote Hopewell. ''There's a reason that 20 percent of college freshmen don't see the sophomore year, and 40percent don't graduate. Shakespeare said it best: 'The readiness is all.' "

In addition to Dynamy, the following links represent a sample of opportunities for students weighing the worth of a year spent outside of the traditional classroom:

  • Dynamy Internship Year (www.dynamy.org)

  • City Year Boston (www.cityyear.org)

  • The Experiment in International Living (www.worldlearning.org)

  • Global Quest (www.gquest.org)

  • Habitat for Humanity (www.habitat.org)

  • Earthwatch (www.earthwatch.org)

  • Outward Bound (www.outwardbound.org)

    And here are Web links to two relevant articles: adm-is.fas.harvard.edu/timeoff.htm and www.princetonreview.com/college/research/articles/prepare/timeoff.asp.

    Ron Fletcher teaches English at Boston College High School. To submit a question, e-mail asktheteacher@globe.com. Include your name, town, and e-mail address. Questions, at reader's request, can be printed anonymously.

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