Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Musing on Expectations and Environment

I am sitting here on the third tier of the black no-slip rubber-stepped stepstool, laptop perched on my knees, writing in the garage. To my right is a white-painted 1x4 piece of wood, one end leaning on a waist high stack of (to-be-laid) patio tiles and the other on a trash can. This is an experiment. First it was a necessity. Then it BECAME an experiment.

I have a cleaning crew over to clean my house today. I usually do it (or don’t do it) myself. Actually, that’s why I ended up with a crew today…I needed a little catch-up…a little extra help. It became clear that, with the number of hours I actually had available to work on the house, I needed a miracle (and it wasn’t going to be by my own hand.)

So, why am I in the garage? Because the dogs had to go into the garage. They are not used to having people they don’t know in our house, and I wasn’t exactly sure what they were going to do. Also, the crew had to go in and out the front and sliding doors. Our dogs have been known, on occasion, to go exploring when no one was looking. We put a stop to that. I have no intention of starting it up again. Now I am in the garage.

It’s a little like a large enclosed junk yard where beloved furniture, nick-nacks, holiday decorations, gift wrap and things we might need one day on the moon, go to rest. We haven’t had a car in there since the eighties.

So, why am I ambling? I’m thinking I’m just fine in here. I’m engaged in this silly little blog and I really don’t mind the mess. If this were my living room, I’d be having a cow.
But, knowing that in a couple of hours, the crew will be gone and I will be let out (along with the dogs), makes it all alright. I would have said environment is everything. But having a particular set of expectations (I expect to be let out in two hours) changes my perception of the environment. I’m not really sure what to make of this insight, but I’ll tell you this, I’m asking this crew to come back next week!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


This morning, as almost all Saturday mornings, I drove the forty-five miles at 7a.m. to take my mom to get her hair done because she is afraid to take the door-to-door senior dropoff at $1.70 a trip. I am tired, and a bit cranky. I’m feeling slightly unappreciated and a little used, even though I willingly volunteer. I really don’t have the time. And I really don’t have the extra money. With gas prices at almost $5.00 a gallon, it costs me $20 a trip, $80 a month. I’m also tired. Mother spent the night with me last night. She doesn’t need much sleep. We were up way too late, past midnight. Then, we were up at the crack of dawn, so she had time to dress and eat breakfast, take her pills and follow her morning routine. I love her dearly, but by now I am a little grumpy.

The beauty salon is on a busy, heavily-trafficked street. It is just a little shop. I can’t say how many times we’ve driven right passed it and missed it. We usually park right in front. There are two meters. They are usually empty. I usually pull right into the slot, pull out her handicap sticker, her wheel chair and escort her into the shop. Today, we are late. It’s my fault. I couldn’t get my act together. SO…I pull up and both slots are taken. There is a driveway just past the two parking spots. I double park in the driveway, unload my mom, get her into the shop because I am panicked. NOW, we are really late. What if she misses her appointment?

As I come out of the shop to retrieve my illegally-parked car, (I am now slightly calmer), I look at the street. There are three empty parking spaces. Apparently, in spite of my expectations, there were three spots not two in front of the shop. There are also two empty spaces on the other side of the driveway where I illegally parked. Why hadn’t I seen this?

Our emotional state, our frame-of-mind, our preset conclusions, all effects our perceptions. In my mind there were only two spaces! So, that was all I saw. I was feeling slightly anxious (we were late) and I was overly tired. So the manner in which I took in information was flawed, leading to a flawed conclusion.

I think about this. Why don’t we teach perception in school? Why don’t we point out that sometimes what we perceive as ‘fact’ is influenced by our emotional state at the moment? Instead, we treat data as law (except even law is susceptible to interpretation). I think about all the information we feed children. Never do we include the consciousness that human perception definitely influences all information, including history, science and current events. Don’t we think this is important?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Online Education

On the front page of the New York Times reads the headline: "Half a million American Children Take Classes Online.” It continues to report, “with a significant group...getting all their schooling from virtual public schools."

So, I think back to my experience homeschooling my three kids. And yes, they took plenty of classes in the community and with other homeschoolers. And yes, there may have been times when an online class would have been helpful. But I can’t help but wonder about learning from a teacher who loves doing what he/she does as opposed to getting information from a computer. Where is the interaction? Where is the spontaneous burst of questions and answers, dialogue, rapport? Where is the passion?

Then, I think about situations I have seen in our public schools: Teachers with far too many students to be affective or to know what any of those students are getting from classroom-based presentations short of their test scores: Teachers who are far too burdened with state and district requirements to have the time and energy to connect to their passions, let alone communicate them.

I think about the ghetto schools I have seen. I taught in a couple for a while. I remember asking kids to hand in their knives. I saw a gun battle at the gas station across the street from the high school. I dealt with fires set in trashcans and the need to lock myself and my students into our classroom for our own protection.

I think about burned-out, crabby teachers and the interactions they might be creating with their students. I think about all the students who are pushed to move on, when, with a little bit of extra time, they could have mastered that skill or got the concept.

I put it all together and come to the conclusion that sitting in the living room, studying from a computer screen might be O.K. if it keeps a child out of a less-than-optimal situation, but wouldn’t it be better if there where passionate classrooms that met every child’s needs everywhere?

Monday, September 15, 2008

How to Pick the Right School for Your Child

Well, you’ve made it through diapers, potting training and preschool. Now what? The weight of your child’s future lies in your hands. Will he end up the CEO of some big company or living under a bridge? Will he be happy, or will he be thwarted with mid-life crisis because you pushed him in a direction that did not make him happy. How do you pick the right school for this wonderful child you loved and nurtured?

Where do you start? In the obvious place, a place too many often overlook…your child. Who is he? What does he need? And then, how can you get that for him? Every school has an underlying philosophy. Find out what it is. Then go visit the school. See if the school matches its own philosophy. For instance, they say they aim at positive self-esteem, but everyone is yelling at each other. The teacher talks sternly to the children as if the teacher anticipates they are all going to do something terrible at any moment.

Then check out how much personal attention each child gets, particularly in kindergarten for their first experience. It is so important to start off on the right foot with school a place for positive experiences. What is the teacher to student ratio? Are there any aids in the class? If you can’t teach 28 five year-olds at the same time to read, why do you assume a teacher can? We are all still human. Some of those kids will go unnoticed. The ones that require the most attention will probably get more than their share. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. The polite, quiet ones will probably go unnoticed.

Observe your child. Is he physically active? If so, either put him in a school that can accommodate that, or make his early experience Montessori. How does your child learn? If it’s by doing, does your local school have lots of manipulatives or just workbooks? If it’s not experiential, it’s probably not a good match for the active child.

Create your own checklist: physical environment, playtime, supervision on the play yard. You don’t have to be a teacher to have common sense. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid. After all, it’s your baby we are talking about. And above all, try to see the teacher your child will have. If it’s someone you wouldn’t want to spend every day with, why should your child? Don’t be afraid to make changes if necessary. You have more power than you think.

Monday, September 8, 2008

They Can Drop Out, But Where Can They Hide?

According to researchers from John Hopkins University, one in ten U.S. high schools should be labeled a ‘Dropout Factory.’ Associated Press reports, "It's a nickname no principal could be proud of: 'Dropout Factory,' a high school where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year." The U.S. Department of Education reports that 30 percent of our kids across the nation never make it to a high school diploma anyway. That’s three out of every ten! I also understand that number does not include the kids who drop out, but get a G.E.D. high school equivalency certificate at a later date.

So, what I want to know is, where do these kids go? What kind of society are we creating? As an educator, and a mother whose boys would never have made it if I left them to the system (late readers, dyslexic and more) I think there but Grace go I.

We create our high school students in kindergarten. If we lose them from the starting gate, not enough of them catch up. Kids who can’t read well enough, or can’t write well enough, or can’t pass state math exit exams, don’t get better in high school. They get lost.

When it was obvious our boys were going to be late readers, we first put them in a Montessori system where they could go at their own neurological and psychological rate. Then, when our local Montessori stopped at the fourth-fifth grade, we created our own school. Both boys graded UCLA in their areas of strength, math and computer electronics. They were fortunate. We were proactive.

So what if our local public schools were more developmental on the elementary school level. What if they taught the three R’s at each child’s individual rate. No more children being dragged through curriculum when they cannot keep up. No more children bored to death and turning off at a young age, because they already knew the material and needed to go faster. No more high school dropouts.

So here’s my final question. When rain falls, we know where it goes. Some of it goes into rivers, lakes and oceans. Some of it waters our flowers. And some of it falls into our sewers. Where, every year, do these million high school dropouts go? We absorb them into our communities, our society. Do some end up making things blossom? Or do they end up in the sewer? What do you think the probabilities are? If this system does not work for so many kids, isn’t it time we rethink it?

Monday, September 1, 2008

International Competition

The Olympics are on. I watched the opening ceremony on T.V. Stellar! The incredible syncopation and coordination of human mind, body and, from the look of their faces, even spirit, of the performers! It just shows what is possible when we focus our time and energy on a goal together.

I also watched the determination on the faces of the athletes. The way the young female gymnasts worked together as a team. The way they hugged and comforted each other when the faltered. Their coach’s sense of triumph and pride when they finally qualified in spite of a number of challenges. I listened to the news. It’s all about the Olympics. The ads claim that the United States as a nation is “so into the Olympics.” I think about our sports policies…how kids who did not do well in school can get into major Ivy League Colleges along with free tuition and all expenses paid. I think about high school sports and how competitive they are. I think about how our identities, so many of us, are tied into the triumph of our sports teams. It is a national goal.

Then I read the newspaper…not the sports section…the headline of the Washington Post. According to the Post, “U.S. Teens Trail Peers Around World on Math-Science Test.” It reads, “The disappointing performance of U.S. teenagers in math and science on an international exam, in scores released yesterday, has sparked calls for improvement in public schools to help the country keep pace in the global economy.” It said that in the last two years the science scores of U.S. 15-year-olds lagged behind those in 16 of the 30 industrialized nations. Worse, their math scores trailed behind 23 of those nations. So, where is the national fervor we have for sports applied to math and science? Almost nowhere.

Mark S. Schneider, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, shed light on these statistics only to darken the picture. He said that the international exams were designed to test a student’s ability to use "more sophisticated concepts and deeper reasoning skills." They were not designed to just measure a student’s recall of facts. Furthermore, he stated that most U.S. 10th graders received an average science score of 489 out of a 1000 points, 11 points below the average of 30 countries. In math, only four countries did worse than the U.S. and 23 countries had higher scores.

So, my question is this: If we, as a nation, are into competition, what happened to academia? If we want to succeed, it had better not just be in sports. I wonder what would happen if we backed our science and math programs like we do our sports programs? I wonder what we could do if we showed the same public support for math and science as we do for gymnastics and volleyball? I wonder what would happen if we cheered our students on, where’d we really be as a nation? Or will we just be known as all brawn and not enough brain…at least in math and science?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Uniqueness of Every Child

I’m mesmerized by the teamwork I see in the Olympic diving teams. The precision of pairs of young women who seem to know not only what their bodies are doing spinning in space, but manage to keep perfectly in sync with their diving partners. I think to myself, if a human being can accomplish this feat, who knows what else we can do.

I look at the girls on the Olympic swimming teams, grateful for the world that they found their talents and passion. We are all the richer for their dedication and talent.

I think about all children. I think that every child is unique and each is born with his/her own particular set of strengths and talents. But I see that most children never get a chance to discover their gifts and miss their calling. I wonder what our world would be like if everyone found their talents…what a different world it would be! There would be so much more inner peace. People who are living their passions tend to be more content, more compassionate, and more willing to create a better world.

So, what happens to most of us? We lose our way. We either lose or never had the opportunity to connect to our gifts. In fact, if our schools focused on helping each child find their gifts and talents, we would have a whole different world. No more angry adolescents…kids who graduate high school, or even college, not knowing who they are or what they love to do…kids who do not know how to create in the real world.

So if our schools are not able to help our children connect to their passions, we must. As parents we must help our children find, develop and sustain their interests, skills and talents. We must help them ignite the passion that leads to their own unique brilliance. We owe it to them and we owe it to our world.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Success Can Be as Simple as Staying in the Moment

Four years ago, the Olympics came and went in my life. Nothing to phone home about.
This time, however, it was quite different. It captured me. I listened as the moderators talked about not just the physical, but also the mental and emotional preparation of the athletes. This Olympics, for me, was full of lessons and metaphors and heart.

But one lesson sticks out more than the rest. One of our girls on the gymnastic team did not fair so well. On her first event on the beam, she fell. It was a difficult maneuver and she didn’t quite make it. But other gymnasts had also taken tumbles and come up with medals. Here was her mistake. On the second competition, according to the moderators, she brought her feelings of insecurity from the first experience into the second event and, as a result, tripped over something really simple. On the third event, the moderator said that our athlete had to ‘stay in the moment’ to succeed. If she wanted to stay in the running, she had to drop her experience from the first two events and not carry it into the third. She had to be fully alert and aware. Being distracted by reliving her feelings and memories about the two prior mistakes could only take her away from the moment and contribute to failure.

I thought about the application of ‘staying in the moment.’ I thought about all our school children who carry feelings of insecurity and incompetence forward, into the next lesson, the next semester, the next year, and into adult life. (I thought about how nice it would be if schools actively built on a child’s successes, not his failures). But in the meantime, I wonder what would happen if schools helped each child wipe their slates clean…if they didn’t average a child’s grades together…if they said to them, the problem you had with math happened LAST week. Now, let’s start over.

I wonder what would happen if along with physical education classes, we had mental education classes? What would happen if we learned early on to be conscious of our thoughts and feelings? Maybe then we could truly stay in the moment and succeed at the tasks at hand.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Is Homework Really as Useful as We Think?

Why do teachers give homework? Why do parents support or even ask for more homework for their children? We treat the assigning of homework like the automatic doling out of vitamins. We all got it, so it must be good for our kids! Right? Maybe not.

I wonder if the time kids spend on homework would be better spent looking for and nurturing their interests, passions and talents. If we take the child who hates homework, and use that same time, effort and energy to help him look for his gifts, perhaps he would become a concert pianist or composer or writer or inventor. Just an hour a day of homework adds up to 200 hours a-calendar-school year (40 weeks times 5). If we focused that same time on finding a child’s gifts, what would that child become in a few years? What talent could we cultivate? How would that child feel about himself? How would his whole future and relationship to the world change?

Some argue that the intent behind homework is to enforce skills or concepts taught in class. But many of us find that most homework is just busy work. It is given to kids who don’t need it, and the kids who might need it, often keep practicing the same mistakes over and over again. Is homework ‘automatically’ a good thing, or should it be used only when necessary?

I think about all the ‘automatic’ in our lives. I wonder how much time and energy we waste on things we have not consciously examined, like homework. I wonder what we could do instead…donate time to a charity…add culturally to our communities in art or music…create projects that beautify our neighborhoods…or perhaps just even find our own inner Mozart.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Should parents be allowed to homeschool their children? (Part 2)

I found this information in a news article that cites a report from the Frazier Institute. The Fraser Institute is an independent research and educational organization based in Canada. Its mission is to measure, study, and communicate the impact of competitive markets and government intervention on the welfare of individuals in Canada and the United States.

The article said, "Poorly educated parents who choose to teach their children at home produce better academic results for their children than public schools do. One study we reviewed found that students taught at home by mothers who never finished high school scored a full 55 percentage points higher than public school students from families with comparable education levels."

I thought that was interesting because it blows the argument that homeschooling 1. should require a credentialed teacher, not a parent, and that 2. only privileged children from well educated families can get a good education being schooled at home.

I personally think that nothing 1. replaces a one-on-one education within a loving environment and 2. the structure of our educational system is so severely flawed in so many ways, that anything anybody can do to help any child should be encouraged, even facilitated----especially if we are to build a strong tomorrow.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Should parents be allowed to homeschool their kids?

I think the real question is: WHO should be responsible for raising our children? If it is not us, as parents, then WHO? And WHEN?

Do I think that some stranger, who does not know my young, elementary-age child, can 'educate' this child better than I can? I look at teachers and ask myself this question: Would I like to spend seven hours a day with this person? If the answer is 'NO,' then why would I subject my child to that situation? I ask myself, "Is this person warm and caring? Will this person care about MY child in the same way, with the same sense of concern, as I do? Would I hire this person to move into my house and take care of my child?" If the answer is 'NO," then why would I let my child spend most of his or her waking hours in the presence of someone I would not let into my home on a daily basis? Could I, as a parent of an elementary-age child, do reading, writing and math with that child? Absolutely! It's not brain-science. Could I provide a wonderful, warm and caring environment for my child? Of course! Could I work carefully with my child, without needing to fill the needs of 20 to 30 other kids at the same time? (Isn't that a luxury most teachers don't have?) Yes, yes and yes.

Now, how about a high-school child? I could still 'get it done.' We could use junior colleges, online courses, and study groups in the community and many other resources to tackle the more complex subjects.

SO...the real question is WHO should raise our children? The state? (Because they do such a good job with everything else...balancing budgets...the drop-out rate...health care? Because they share my particular world view, ethics, belief system?) Or me. I think that perhaps we should stop automatically turning our children over to an industrial system that is antiquated, (founded in 1852 and has basically not changed) over-burdened and ineffective for so many kids. I think we each have the responsibility to find what works for our children. If they manage to thrive in that system anyway, that's wonderful. But for many of our children, the traditional system does not work. And if we are willing to take the time, effort and energy to educate our own children, then the state and everybody else should be grateful.