Just Drill – but no Kill? New Article for NPR Mind/Shift

On Friday, my second piece for NPR’s Mind/Shift, “Can Repetitive Exercises Actually Feed the Creative Process?” posted, something I wrote due to my obsession with the new book (and upcoming Parent Book Club pick) Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better. I wanted to investigate the real-world applications of author Doug Lemov’s Rule #4 – “Unlock Creativity with Repetition.” Lemov asserts that automating certain processes actually increases creative potential — once you can do something in your sleep, you can then concentrate on variations or discoveries. Lemov has seen this firsthand in his research training teachers, and thinks it can apply to lots of learning – he even told me in our conversation, “I see the drill, I just don’t see the kill.” I have had some experience with this myself, in my former life as an actress — one of my favorite Shakespeare teachers instructed us to perform a scene so many times that it “lived in our bodies.” Then, once we knew it cold, we could experiment and “find the truth of the scene” – which is where all the creativity lies. But does all learning work this way? It didn’t get by me that both acting and teaching are a kind of performance. How do creativity and repetition work together when learning grammar rules? Or long division?

Teaching veteran Sherri Scott said it’s easy to see how rote work pays off in creativity: “If you want to know what 100 ‘is,’ having those math facts internalized allows you to deal with 100 in so many, many ways. Rather than just knowing 10 x 10 is 100, or 4 x 25 is 100, you’d be able to pull 100 apart and put it back together without analyzing it.”

When I took this to the experts — educators and cognitive scientists — they agreed that rote learning is necessary to innovate, to a point. Cognitive scientist and creativity expert John Kounios told me that first, we needed to define creativity. He wrote to me in an email: “From the scientific standpoint, creativity refers to the formulation of something novel and potentially useful. So, performing a piece on the piano is not necessarily creative if one is simply reproducing an interpretation of the piece that was worked out previously.  But coming up with that interpretation to begin with, that is creative.”

I really liked Kurt Wootton’s idea that letting kids be creative first – to get their hands dirty in activity and allowing them to see “the whole game” – gave them the motivation to go back and put in the time with rote drills they needed to get better. In his opinion, drill and creativity work together. He reminded me of how I learned acting as a teenager: “As an actor you started by performing on the stage. In your first performances you realized perhaps you needed more training in certain areas (voice, dance etc.), but you started by actually getting to participate in the creative process and then you gained the desire to really put the time into the repeated work that was necessary to become a proficient actor. Because you knew what it was for, you were willing to go through the repetitive process of learning dance steps in order to serve your larger artistry of acting.” 

I also liked the reader comment that came from T Ficher, who says when it comes to drill/kill and creative thinking, we should put side the idea that it’s either/or. “When two sides are set up as an US vs THEM debate, it misses the oppoprtunity to combine perfect practice with creative inspiration. Putting together a perfect meal is based on proper choices of various food combinations. Putting together a perfect learning environment is very similar in that a combination of repetitive learning and creative opportunity helps the learning as well as creative process.” I love that!

But back to my obsession: Lemov’s book is excellent, both in practical application (I have been reading parts to my son, who really wants to get better at baseball) as well as a cultural observation of what Lemov terms the “humble power” of practice. 

Check out the article and let me know what you think!

“College or No?” for NPR Mind/Shift

A week ago Friday, I wrote a piece for Mind/Shift about a couple of ambitious teen school reformers and their differing views on college degrees. As you might guess, the choices for college are getting more complex – do students get a degree at a prestigious university and go into debt? Or is it better to find work first, take a ‘gap’ year, work on a degree piecemeal? Two young men have totally different takes on how to end up on top. Take a look and let me know what you think:

 

College or No? Stuck Between Future Promises and Present Realities

Higher education options are changing for all students — not only for gutsy school reformers and tech enthusiasts dropping out with hopes to become the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. As MOOCs proliferate and college costs keep rising, more young reformers and “edupreneurs” are looking for a way around a four-year degree, some opting for a gap year to work on personal passions they hope will take off, and some looking for meaningful work experience in the world’s classroom.

They’re not alone. In fact, they might even be the majority. According to a panel of higher education experts, only 27% of today’s college students have a “traditional” four-year college experience away from home. The rest work toward a degree in pieces while living their lives – holding down jobs, having families, and taking care of other responsibilities.

But while economists and entrepreneursdebate who’s right for college, and we question the value of a college degree, young school reformers who are trying to figure out what’s on everybody’s mind: Can dropping out or putting off college advance their budding careers in reforming the system, or will the lack of a college degree put them at a disadvantage?

Nineteen-year-old Zak Malamed, a freshman at University of Maryland College Park majoring in government and politics, is looking for ways out of the four-year degree track to spend more time on his growing school-reform organization, Student Voice. He’s been considering a break, like the Gap Year Program offered by UnCollege, an organized year off that includes international travel, internship, and instruction in “building your personal brand.” The hands-on learning available in the Gap Year, Malamed says, would be helpful to him in building his organization. And he believes the program plays to his strengths.

“In high school, I really felt like I learned more outside of the classroom. I was more of an experiential learner. I loved student government most because I learned how to work with people,” he said.

While guidance counselors report that the gap-year trend is on the rise, the logistics for Malamed are mostly financial – UnCollege’s program costs $12,000 for the year, and Malamed made it clear that for a gap year program to work for him, he would have to be paid, not pay. And while Malamed’s not exactly sure a degree will help him with his goals, it couldn’t hurt.

“I really don’t like the way school works. I believe that, as it stands now, I could learn more outside college than in. But, I have to take the opportunities given to me. If I can’t support myself financially with work that I’m passionate about, then I’ll stay and get my degree.” In the interim, Malamed has promised his parents that he will finish, even if he takes a gap year (or two) to grow Student Voice.

NO CHOICE FOR SOME

For 20-year-old Mpaza Kapembwa, a Gates scholar and sophomore at Williams College, there’s only one way to become a formidable school reformer: get a college degree. College was one of the top reasons Kapembwa’s mother moved him and his sister from Zambia to the U.S. six years ago.

The first years of American life were a struggle, and for a period of time they were essentially homeless, while Kapembwa continued to earn the highest grades and found his passion in American education reform. He believes that for many living at or near the poverty line, a four-year degree is still the best and most reliable way to move into the middle class.

If a major education think tank or policy group wanted to tap his talent early, would he leave college — even for a year? No way.

“A college degree gives you legitimacy in a way,” he said. “If you hear people tell us we don’t need to go to college, they have college degrees and I bet their children will also have college degrees. I don’t get their logic.”

[RELATED: For the Future Student, Higher Education Will Be Redefined]

Kapembwa feels that, for him, dropping out — even for a good job — poses a serious risk. “Very few people who are movers and shakers don’t have college degrees. If you are a low income student, living in or just above poverty, forgoing college to pursue something might be disastrous because you have no safety net in case you fail.”

He also believes that, in order to be an effective school reformer, teaching inside a classroom is a must — and that requires a four-year degree (at least). “I don’t take people who want to talk about education seriously if they have never been in a classroom, or don’t plan to.”

PROVIDING ALTERNATIVES

While ambitious college students search for alternatives to four-year degrees, school reform efforts have fostered a group of startups attempting to help younger students navigate a changing landscape of growing choices. The Future Project, founded by two Yale grads, is one such startup: Chief Dream Director Sallomé Hralima, a Weslyan grad and former educator, is in charge of hiring and training young people just like Malamed or Mpaza for Dream Director positions inside of high schools. She describes the salaried Dream Director job as “part human catalyst and part social entrepreneur,” and says the job requires the ability to help kids recognize, organize, and implement their passions.

Hralima, a former “straight-A student” who didn’t feel challenged in school, feels that for many kids, college should be Plan B. “So many people have been indoctrinated into the belief that college is access to the life that they dream of. And for so many people it has resulted in lifelong debt. We live in a time where arguably our most influential people either didn’t go to college at all, or they dropped out. The kids are looking to these icons and saying, uh-huh, they have the life I want and they didn’t go to college.” Hralima herself is $45,000 in education debt.

Would The Future Project hire young Zak Malamed or Mpaza Kapembwa to be Dream Directors, even though they don’t currently have college degrees? Hralima hesitates, then says, yes, probably. “On the application, under educational qualifications, it says, ‘undergraduate degree preferred, but not required.’”

[RELATED: Should Work Experience Come Before College?]

For these ambitious student school reformers, conforming to what they consider an ailing system and getting a degree continues to be the most promising choice. Zak Malamed’s upcoming Student Voice Live! conference will be sponsored and hosted by Dell Computers, making the gap year option look more promising. Mpaza Kapembwa is currently on a Williams-led trip to Uganda, designing technology and curriculum for an HIV-awareness initiative.

Whether a well-paying job and career opportunity is available for school reformers without college degrees, even as “college” morphs and changes, is still questionable. For now, each appears to be forging their own path.

 

“Talking to Other Parents About Guns” at the NYT Motherlode

Today, a piece I wrote for the New York Times Motherlode blog about whether – and how – parents should talk to each other about guns in the home received some interesting and thought-provoking comments. I thought that writing about guns in this way – for parents, dealing with the reality of the nearly 40% of American households that contain guns, and with the recent reality of so many lost lives that still haunt us – might be an opener for us collectively to attack the issue of keeping kids safe from guns. I enlisted a couple of my friends, one of whom recently outed herself as gun-free on Facebook; she encouraged me to do the same, and I did.

Evidently, other parents have been thinking this way, too —  after the article posted, I received an email from a father in Pennsylvania who has made it his number one New Year’s resolution to not enter any homes that contain guns, and another from a mother who moved into a town where a young girl had just died from an accidental gunshot by her brother. This mother was not at all ashamed to ask each and every parent who spent time with her child if they had firearms, and whether they were locked away safely.

Seasoned parents know, however, that lock and key doesn’t stop some kids — and some of the comments reflected this. “Gunnie” from Texas wrote, “I got my first rifle when I was 12. Single shot 22. At 13, my dad got me a single shot 20 gage shotgun and we went bird hunting. I was instructed on gun safety and n the field followed the training. When I was home alone, I would take the shotgun and play with it, my parents never knew.” I think this should alarm all of us, gun owners and not, that even the best attempts at gun safety education could go awry, especially when kids get big enough to hang out without parental supervision.

Yet some, as always, felt offended that I want to ask about something that is considered “a private matter.” I can’t understand why we can’t collectively agree that keeping kids safe is paramount. This seems as American – actually more so – than any right to any firearm. While I can understand that asking might feel like judgement – some commenters compared it to asking about parental sexual history or driving record – it would be great if we could get past all the assumptions and come together on this. I don’t think that gun owners are bad parents; I think that we have seen horrible things happen to a lot of good people when one person makes a bad decision.

The reason I wrote this piece is because I want to elevate the conversation beyond the two sides – gun owners and non-gun owners – feeling offended by the other. I don’t feel I need to quiz parents on their private histories at all – as a matter of fact, that makes me extremely uncomfortable. But I do think that by talking openly about guns in the home instead of hiding the info, we could come quickly to the mutual understanding that one more child hurt or killed by a gun, whether intentional or accidental, is one too many. From that place of understanding, we could work together to keep all guns away from all children.

That’s my dream, anyway.

 

 

“Babes in Fairyland” for The Nervous Breakdown

Check out a new essay about my kids’ magical experience at their Waldorf school at The Nervous Breakdown. So excited to be a contributor to such a fantastic culture magazine. Thanks Brad Listi and everyone at TNB. Here’s the essay:

Babes in Fairyland

My sons play in the rain. Not just a few sprinkles, either, but the hearty, soak-your-clothes kind: they continue building forts and swinging pop flies even as their clothes hang heavy with rain water. Just a year ago, this would have bothered them – most likely because they were unused to it. But since we have moved to Nashville and enrolled them in our local Waldorf school, they are required to spend large amounts of their school time outside, no matter what the weather holds. Now they downright enjoy soaking rain. I look out the kitchen window and watch them, at nine and six years old, running, falling, throwing, jumping fearlessly, befriending the pouring rain.

My sons are all in for fairies, too. In school, they have locked eyes and hearts with elves, woodsprites, and most especially, knights who slay dragons. Waldorf education, founded in the early 20th Century by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, honors and develops children’s imaginations, believing imagination is key to a successful life. Along with outdoor play, fairy tales and myths make up a large part of the “head, heart and hands” Waldorf curriculum. Einstein, calming an anxious young mother in a library, apparently told her, “First, give him fairy tales; second, give him fairy tales, and third, give him fairy tales!”‘ Our Waldorf school has taken Einstein’s prescription quite literally: my kindergarten-aged son is not working on reading or calculating at all until first grade. For now, he receives a steady diet of language- and image-rich fairy tales.

As my sons tromp their muddy boots through this new world where learning is treated as an adventure, I can’t stop thinking how much they look like children. As a matter of fact, that was my impression the first time I stepped on the leafy Waldorf grounds: there were children everywhere—dirty, bruised-knee children—running, laughing, playing kickball, reading paperback books in clumps under trees, having a science lesson on a nature walk. At the time, my sons were still in public school in Texas, and I couldn’t help but think how different these children looked from my own children.

When I visited my kids at public school, they looked like adults. They were uniformed, lined up, quiet, organized, task-oriented, rushed through lunch, only allowed outdoor recess in optimal weather (otherwise, their 15 minutes of exercise all day was a TV show in the auditorium), then loaded down with more work to bring home. Usually worksheets. I couldn’t help but whisper “another day at the office” to my husband. It seemed that the time for childish things was over by first grade. My oldest son admitted to watching the clock nearly all day; he had stopped using crayons in kindergarten.

Now my sons’ childhoods are back, larger and more vivid than the ones they might have missed if they hadn’t been filling in so many worksheets. It’s as if the fairies visited them while they were sleeping, and filled their heads with poetry, art, and music. It’s as if they woke up from a dream and realized, like Peter Pan, that they didn’t have to grow up. Not yet.

Out of earshot, my husband and I joke about Waldorf’s hippy New Ageyness (a recent email home to parents warned, “Don’t tell the kids about today’s special ‘dragon bread’: they believe the elves made it!!!”). But we happily write the difficult tuition checks, because our sons love school. They love it. And like Superman in the face of kryptonite, my husband and I find it difficult to remain cynical and detached in the face of such genuine magic powers; we melt. Waldorf might lay on the magic a little thick, but magic is precisely what was missing from our children’s orderly lives.

For the majority of kids, however, the sparkling fairy dust of playtime has long gone missing from school. Through accountability-obsessed reform measures supposedly created to make learning better, public education has inadvertently stripped the elementary school day of magic—by reducing time for recess and lunch, by de-emphasizing art and music (or getting rid of it altogether), and beefing up quantifiable ways to “prove” learning. In an effort to push academics down to earlier and earlier ages, school officials have forgotten that magic—not Harry Potter magic, but childhood magic—has a way of bringing joy to learning. They have forgotten that childhood magic is real.

—————————————–

Current circumstances make it easy to believe that public schools don’t have the capability to infuse elementary children’s lives with wonder and amazement: after all, budgets are stripped to the bone, classes are crowded, teachers overloaded. There is an unruly achievement gap, most evident between rich and poor children, that forces public school to press academics early on, in hopes of erasing the chasm. All of these things are indisputable. But childhood magic doesn’t depend on money, and isn’t exclusive of academic rigor. Instead, magic depends on a mindset that childhood itself is a foundation for an adult life, not small-adults-in-training. Here is where our American imaginations, bent on Puritanical models of success framed by adult achievement, are sorely lacking.

More than budget or time, it’s our idea about what public education should be that gets in the way. Especially since entering the age of accountability in the early 2000s, education has aimed to prepare children for adulthood as quickly as possible by simulating it with seriousness, hard work, and organization. Author and parenting expert, Alfie Kohn, aptly calls this attitude “Better Get Used To It”—the belief that, in order for kids to get to adulthood successfully, they must act like small adults while they are young.

I once thought “BGUTI” was the best way for kids to learn. Having long believed that the more early academics, the better, my husband and I started our Waldorf experience eager but skeptical. We found ourselves asking, will they get enough math in fairyland? How rigorous can African drum circle be, anyway? And hey, are they really learning anything in those bushes, or are they just playing around?

But recent studies show the Waldorf fairies may be onto something. In the paper “The Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development,” Doris Bergman, Professor of Educational Psychology at Miami University, points to several studies that link “cognitive competence to high-quality pretend play.” Children who engage in fantasy on a regular basis are linked to qualities “such as mental representation ability (i.e., theory of mind), problem solving and other cognitive strategies, social and linguistic competence, and academic skill development.” Developmental psychologists like Alison Gopnik are beginning to doubt that “direct instruction” from teachers to preschool students is the most effective way for them to learn. In an article for Slate, Gopnik sums up the research on how free play helps children in this way: “While learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes them less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution.”

Childhood experts have sounded the alarm as well, warning parents of the dangers of erasing free play in favor of STEM for preschoolers. In  “All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed,” Brown University pediatrician and clinical professor Dr. Esther Entin makes a connection between the diminishing opportunities for imaginative play and rising rates of childhood depression and anxiety. Referencing Boston College Professor of Psychology Peter Gray, she writes, “There has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression from 1950 to present day in teens and young adults and Gray cites several studies documenting this rise. One showed that five to eight times as many children and college students reported clinically significant depression or anxiety than 50 years ago.”

While I find these studies validating, they are insufficient to describe what I see my sons experiencing. Easing our early fears, my sons’ academic skills are right on target, and continue to grow. But there is another skill they are learning through Waldorf education, something that is impossible to measure with a test: experiencing the joy of being alive. I see it now in the way they touch the fur of a dog they just met, the way they put their full faces into a patch of wildflowers. I see it in the way they dance around the Maypole in honor of the Fairy Queen, their small bodies jangling with hippy flute music. Considering the kind of schooling they had before, I can only conclude that this is the result of copious amounts of poetry, singing, and art. It’s surely the result of lots of recess and nature walks.

I’m surprised at how different my sons are—more thoughtful, more curious—than they were before. Why is this wonder for the natural world, for art and music, strangely absent from our reforms?

I wish I could shake the whole American school system, and shout, “dump the worksheets, bring the magic!” And it doesn’t have to be the Waldorf method—if fairies and gnomes creep you out, then make it angels, animals, music, art—whatever. Make it anything where kids are awakened to the wonder of everything they see, and more importantly, everything they can’t. There is only one childhood, and only one opportunity to wring every precious drop of magic and fairy dust from life’s branches—branches that will always be dripping with more worksheets and deadlines and objectives. Unlike obligations, fairyland will only be with our kids for a very short time, and then it is gone forever.

Certainly we owe our kids an education—the ability to read, to calculate, to solve problems, to think critically—but we also owe them the academic and emotional benefits of learning to play in the rain. A lifelong learner, after all, must find some joy in the process of learning. Have you ever heard someone say, “What I remember best about my childhood was all the worksheets?”

What’s Next For Parent Book Club?

Practice Perfect

Ask Santa for Parent Book Club’s first pick for 2013!

First there was Halloween, then Hurricane Sandy. Then, the election, and soon after, Thanksgiving. And somehow, through all these internet-disrupting, life-altering events, Parent Book Club got understandably pushed to the side and other matters beckoned. But now… but now, Book Club is back! If you are interested in finishing up the wonderful Teach Your Children Well, Parent Book Club will tie up all the disparate parts and wrap up the discussion on the rest of the book – Parts Three and Four – in a live, real-time session next Tuesday night at 8:30 PM CST. It’s our last PBC of the year, and we don’t want you to miss it!

And now, assuming the Mayans were wrong, on to the very exciting 2013! An education colleague and Starbucks buddy pointed me toward Doug Lemov’s new book, Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better, as a gratifying read for any parent, teacher, or coach who wants to help their kids (or themselves) get better at something. Doug Lemov’s previous bestselling book, Teach Like a Champion, has many devoted fans, like the outstanding learning journalist and author Annie Murphy Paul.  While Teach Like a Champion describes in detail the “new teaching methods transforming education,” Practice Perfect outlines the importance and the key techniques of practicing that leads to getting better. Lemov writes, “Our purpose for writing this book is to engage the dream of ‘better,’ both in fields where participants know they should practice, but could do it more effectively, and also in endeavors where most people do not yet recognize the transformative power of practice. Deliberately engineered and designed, practice can revolutionize our most important endeavors; in that, we speak from at least a little experience.”

I read through the first couple of chapters to get a feel for the book, and while the language is snappy and conversational, I think there is some real wisdom to be gleaned here. When I saw my son struggling to get better at baseball this fall, I told him about the “focused practice” method Lemov describes in the book – he really took to it, used it, and his practice improved. And this excerpt on how to get better at receiving and implementing feedback – in essence, “being coachable” – is invaluable for anyone doing anything, ever. I think this is a worthwhile read, and I think you will, too.

I started Parent Book Club to make myself useful – I found reading up on the latest learning and education information helpful in making decisions for my kids’ educations. Now is a good time to find out – is it working? I want to hear – right here, in the comments section – what you think is working with PBC, what you’d like to see more (or less) of, what kinds of books you’d like to read next year.

Book Club: Chapters 3, 4 and 5 in “Teach Your Children Well”

Welcome to the live, real-time Parent Book Club chat! To have access to all the comments and replies, please click on the title of this post; the post will go to a new page, and comments will be located at the bottom of the post. To see new comments/replies, just hit your refresh button from time to time. For more discussion, follow me on Twitter here or on Facebook here. Thanks!

Unwrapping the Bubble Wrap Kids

My sons are nine, six and two, so my eyes should have been on chapter three, “The Tasks of the Elmentary School Years.” But that chapter didn’t grab me as much as the other two, on middle and high school. As I read through Part Two of Teach Your Children Well, flying through the pages with intense absorption, several times my tears wet the pages of the book and stuck them together. I couldn’t stop thinking of my sons as they are right now, dressed in their small clothes, appropriately prepared for their carefree lives, the ones where deciding whether to have cereal or yogurt after school (and of course, who gets to the fridge first) is their most pressing concern. Yet Part Two reminds us that more lies ahead for our kids; they are going to change, and struggle, to grow up.

Growing up is so simultaneously painful and beautiful, and reading this section, which lays out a pretty good map for what’s going to happen on our kids’ road to independence, is a reminder that the yogurt/cereal quandary will only be with us for a short while longer, then it will evaporate, like t-ball stands and training wheels, into the ether. From the anxiety-riddled piece of my brain – the one that’s screaming please don’t ever grow up! – what’s left after reading the parts on “The Middle School Years” and “The High School Years,” is nothing less than a quiet panic.

It could be my own growing up that causes me to want to lock my boys in a well-stocked closet for a few years – especially for, say, grades 6-7-8. What’s strange is that my growing up wasn’t so painful: I had great parents, great brothers and sisters, good schools, close friends – the works, really, and I couldn’t be more grateful. And yet alongside all those things, I felt outside and alone, awkward and completely misunderstood – things that I now understand are developmentally appropriate for the age. Yet that does not stop me from wanting to hold a cast iron shield between middle school/high school and my sons, to protect them from all that messy uncertainty and confusion. While reading, I had an almost visceral reaction to wanting them to not have to go through it – to not have to be a witness as they break apart (as I did in front of my parents) because they get rejected by someone they adore, or because they can’t make algebra work right, or because they were last to be picked for a team in gym, or because they are confused how to dress, how to act, how to be themselves.

Yet Levine assures us that learning to deal with and understand these very feelings – I’m alone, I’m different, who am I?, what matters to me? – is what strengthens kids’ coping skills. As a veteran high school teacher told me recently, “The kids these days come bubble-wrapped, complete with parents who want to be sure that nothing bad ever happens to them. But life is so complicated for kids today, I can’t really say that I blame them.” I want to be the parent who offers up my kids to the universe – hell, to middle school – without the bubble wrap; but I can’t say that I’m going to enjoy it.

It is perhaps anxiety-filled reactions from moms like me that encouraged Levine to write the book – that we do our kids a disservice by focussing solely on the importance of academics and ignoring the social and emotional growing up that will also determine the course of their lives. That we shouldn’t approach these years with panic. That that might be a bad thing.

After all, Levine does seem a little relentless in her assurance to parents that it is all going to be ok. My favorite passage from “The Tasks of the Middle School Years” says of the ups and downs of adolescence: Think of yourself as a sociologist. Keep your distance. Observe. Resolving the vast majority of high-drama crises that unfold over the middle school years is exactly the kind of challenge that your youngster needs to strengthen confidence in herself.  I find this passage so clarifying, so reassuring, because I think my natural reaction would be exactly the opposite of that. (!)

Levines says, Our system of education for this age group (middle school) is largely a misery, and the middle schooler’s well-documented needs for adequate sleep, flexible study time, multiple breaks, and quiet, restorative time are ignored. Add to this a stew of hormonal and brain changes. And just a few pages later, she writes, With all the push on kids to grow up quickly, there is evidence that they benefit from an extended childhood rather than a precocious adolescence.

Tonight’s talk: What Levine is asking we parents to do is basically the opposite of what’s culturally accepted and has become the norm for how we treat our kids – like the cast-iron shield I was thinking of buying. So, how do we un-bubble wrap our kids?

 

Book Club: Reprise of Chapters 1 and 2 in “Teach Your Children Well”

Welcome to an encore of the October 30th Parent Book Club chat! To have access to all the comments and replies, please click on the title of this post; the post will go to a new page, and comments will be located at the bottom of the post. Please read and feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below. For more discussion, follow me on Twitter here or on Facebook here. Thanks!

According to psychologist Madeline Levine, one of the reasons we parents can’t see that we’ve gone crazy over caring for our kids is because we are too busy – overscheduled and overcommitted ourselves, we’ve simply failed to notice that changes in culture and technology may be unmooring us. In Chapter 2 of Teach Your Children Well, Levine says,

“Perhaps we have become so seduced by the possibility of being able to cultivate ‘outstanding’ children because we are a bit lost ourselves. Technology has revolutionized communication. While smartphones, tablets, Skype, Facebook, and LinkedIn increasingly connect us they can paradoxically make us feel disconnected as we devote less time to basic human needs for empathic, resonant communication, eye contact, and touch. Increased mobility robs us of the stable community that once provided the emotional resources to weather the challenges of child rearing. Instead we are immersed in a culture that emphasizes individuality, competition, and self-centeredness. This cannot possibly nourish our own needs adequately, and it often leads us to feel isolated and even a little bit desperate. We hunker down and immerse ourselves in our children’s activities at the expense of adult relationships and our own continued development. Decreasing the sphere of our own lives makes us increasingly dependent on our children for a sense of meaning and accomplishment.”

Ouch.

Since the first two chapters of the book – “The Kids are Not All Right” and “How Did we Get into This Mess?” – clearly address the parents, I thought it would only be fitting if Parent Book Club addressed us tonight. So, for tonight anyway, forget the kids. According to Levine, our kids don’t receive the message that life is a series of high-pressure pass/fail tests, devoid of free time or play, from the ether; evidently, they are getting the idea that life is a performance, and a chore, from us. Levine emphasizes over and over in these first two chapters how modern parents have no time for themselves, and many of the parents she knows have carved out little time for their own hobbies and friendships. (Ostensibly because they are “too busy” and life is too demanding to have the time.) But why is this? She suggests that parents put their children first at ever opportunity, choosing to do for their kids and careers what they dare not do for themselves. Levine even goes so far as to point out that people who only fulfill the needs of others on a constant basis are going to feel overwhelmed, overscheduled, desperate, and depressed – the exact emotions she sees in her young patients. Could it be that we parents are modeling the very behavior causing so much distress in our kids?

And, let’s be honest, it’s causing distress to us, too, if we took the time to admit it. But until we admit that it’s a problem, we can’t fix it. I can’t help but think of a moving article I read recently about the happy, healthy, relaxed inhabitants of the Greek island of Ikaris, called, unnervingly, “The Island Where People Forget to Die.” The long-lived residents, who work in their gardens, get up when they feel like it, and stay up all night playing dominos and drinking wine, seem to have openly admitted the secret to life – having fun. I couldn’t help but contrast it with my own current situation: we rush from one half-assed activity to another, and whenI do see other parents, we complain about how busy we are, and how we wish we could be less so. Looking at why kids can’t be kids in our current culture, I can’t help but see Levine’s point: we are doing nothing more than showing our children their future, and the future is this – life is a chore, created to be endured.

Not to say that there isn’t meaningful work, or pride and accomplishment in doing something well. But have we fallen over the deep end entirely? This book suggests that it’s a possibility.

The one burning question I had after finishing these two honest chapters is the subject of tonight’s talk.

Tonight’s Talk: How on earth do we possibly change our own behavior? What are the things you are doing to resist the temptation of throwing yourself into everything but yourself – including your kids’ lives? Or, are you safely out of the danger zone – enjoying your own activities, career, friends, life? If so, please share your secrets.

I am so looking forward to reading what you have to say!

Book Club: Best of “Teach Your Children Well”

I’m still reading Part Two, and need another week. You?

Part Two of Teach Your Children Well, called “The ‘School Years’ Are Not Just About Academics”, is long and hard to break up. In addition, last week’s Book Club attendance was down due to hurricane Sandy and Halloween. So I decided I’m going to re-run last week’s talk again this Tuesday night, November 6, at 8:30 PM CST, for another live chat. It’s a good one, and deserves another shot. We’ll then cover the entire Part Two section, broken into three different parts, next Tuesday. 

Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well is longer than our last book, and contains more information, too. I’m trying to get us finished up by Thanksgiving, so I decided to do all of Part Two next Tuesday night instead. If you are just beginning the book and want to catch up, check out our discussion on the introduction with author and educator Kurt Wootton. See you Tuesday night!

Book Club: Chapters 1 and 2 in “Teach Your Children Well”

Welcome to the real-time Parent Book Club chat! To have access to all the comments and replies, please click on the title of this post; the post will go to a new page, and comments will be located at the bottom of the post. To see new comments/replies, just hit your refresh button from time to time. For more discussion, follow me on Twitter here or on Facebook here. Thanks!

According to psychologist Madeline Levine, one of the reasons we parents can’t see that we’ve gone crazy over caring for our kids is because we are too busy – overscheduled and overcommitted ourselves, we’ve simply failed to notice that changes in culture and technology may be unmooring us. In Chapter 2 of Teach Your Children Well, Levine says,

“Perhaps we have become so seduced by the possibility of being able to cultivate ‘outstanding’ children because we are a bit lost ourselves. Technology has revolutionized communication. While smartphones, tablets, Skype, Facebook, and LinkedIn increasingly connect us they can paradoxically make us feel disconnected as we devote less time to basic human needs for empathic, resonant communication, eye contact, and touch. Increased mobility robs us of the stable community that once provided the emotional resources to weather the challenges of child rearing. Instead we are immersed in a culture that emphasizes individuality, competition, and self-centeredness. This cannot possibly nourish our own needs adequately, and it often leads us to feel isolated and even a little bit desperate. We hunker down and immerse ourselves in our children’s activities at the expense of adult relationships and our own continued development. Decreasing the sphere of our own lives makes us increasingly dependent on our children for a sense of meaning and accomplishment.”

Ouch.

Since the first two chapters of the book – “The Kids are Not All Right” and “How Did we Get into This Mess?” – clearly address the parents, I thought it would only be fitting if Parent Book Club addressed us tonight. So, for tonight anyway, forget the kids. According to Levine, our kids don’t receive the message that life is a series of high-pressure pass/fail tests, devoid of free time or play, from the ether; evidently, they are getting the idea that life is a performance, and a chore, from us. Levine emphasizes over and over in these first two chapters how modern parents have no time for themselves, and many of the parents she knows have carved out little time for their own hobbies and friendships. (Ostensibly because they are “too busy” and life is too demanding to have the time.) But why is this? She suggests that parents put their children first at ever opportunity, choosing to do for their kids and careers what they dare not do for themselves. Levine even goes so far as to point out that people who only fulfill the needs of others on a constant basis are going to feel overwhelmed, overscheduled, desperate, and depressed – the exact emotions she sees in her young patients. Could it be that we parents are modeling the very behavior causing so much distress in our kids?

And, let’s be honest, it’s causing distress to us, too, if we took the time to admit it. But until we admit that it’s a problem, we can’t fix it. I can’t help but think of a moving article I read recently about the happy, healthy, relaxed inhabitants of the Greek island of Ikaris, called, unnervingly, “The Island Where People Forget to Die.” The long-lived residents, who work in their gardens, get up when they feel like it, and stay up all night playing dominos and drinking wine, seem to have openly admitted the secret to life – having fun. I couldn’t help but contrast it with my own current situation: we rush from one half-assed activity to another, and whenI do see other parents, we complain about how busy we are, and how we wish we could be less so. Looking at why kids can’t be kids in our current culture, I can’t help but see Levine’s point: we are doing nothing more than showing our children their future, and the future is this – life is a chore, created to be endured.

Not to say that there isn’t meaningful work, or pride and accomplishment in doing something well. But have we fallen over the deep end entirely? This book suggests that it’s a possibility.

The one burning question I had after finishing these two honest chapters is the subject of tonight’s talk.

Tonight’s Talk: How on earth do we possibly change our own behavior? What are the things you are doing to resist the temptation of throwing yourself into everything but yourself – including your kids’ lives? Or, are you safely out of the danger zone – enjoying your own activities, career, friends, life? If so, please share your secrets.

I am so looking forward to reading what you have to say!

Bonus Material: Kurt Wootton and “Teach Your Children Well”

Tuesday night’s Parent Book Club on “Teach Your Children Well” was so packed with information that Kurt and I decided to cut a part of his terrific essay, “Dance Like No One’s Watching.” But after re-reading the parts we cut, and talking with my father, who (also) taught public school for his entire career, I decided that these small but important bits are vitally important to another part of the discussion: if we are going to foster true learning and help kids develop a roadmap for authentic success, we’re going to have to talk about teaching, too.

Here’s the part of Kurt’s essay that didn’t make it:

My father, who was a public school teacher, told me once that teaching in a large, traditional, neighborhood school isn’t a sprint—it’s a marathon. One of my colleagues who teaches English in a Boston Public School sees 140 students every day. We know that giving students multiple choice tests, pop quizzes, and other quick assessments doesn’t truly measure their learning, but you can imagine how long it takes to grade an essay. Let’s do some quick math: 140 students x 10 minutes to read and grade a paper = 23.34 hours. That’s time spent outside of school and doesn’t include the planning time needed to prepare classes. You can see why teachers and school districts might take shortcuts by giving students multiple-choice tests that can be graded by a machine. 

The morning after Parent Book Club, my dad called to talk about ‘authentic success’ and the innovative classroom teaching that leads to tinkering, investigating, and deeper learning for students. When I told him what Kurt’s dad had said, he backed it up, and added, “There are teachers who are taking the material and presenting it in innovative ways; there are lots of creative teachers out there, no doubt. But the combination of factors that a teacher faces on a daily basis make it extremely difficult to sustain.”

We forget many times that teachers are people, too; they have families and friends and bills to pay. I know an extra unpaid 23+ hours a week would make me cranky. Yet if we are gearing our kids toward authentic success, and want them to be less focused on grades and test scores (and therefore less stressed out, depressed and freer to enjoy learning), then we must address the way the current system works – and its dogged chase of, well, grades and test scores. After re-reading this cut paragraph a few times, I got frustrated and emailed Kurt.

“What can we do about this?” I typed testily. It was only a few minutes later that I received a long, detailed list of why the school system is unable to support the kind of open-ended learning we are talking about in reference to Levine’s book – besides the obvious time constraints. He rattled off ways in which teacher development could be better, more creative, and involve teachers’ self-reflection more, and Kurt was quick to mention that it’s a complex issue and shouldn’t be looked at in clear black-and-white, but still I wanted to share a few key nuggets of the long list he wrote at 10PM:

  • ” A radically wrong-minded emphasis on testing and the results.”
  • “High student workload and little planning time. Some teachers teach 140 students a week with a 45 minute planning period during the day. They are exhausted and they are just trying to get by.”
  • “Lack of possibility and opportunity. Many teachers don’t know about and schools don’t support radical teacher professional development (like the Habla Teacher Institute.) Teachers should have the chance to travel, to take summer courses in universities, and to work with diverse organizations—and schools should pay for it!”
  • But here’s the kicker, the one that really got me: “Lack of valuing exploration and creativity from a policy and administrative level. This relates back to 1 (testing and results), but creativity can’t be quantifiably measured. It’s more difficult to evaluate learning in a creative space, and therefore the “effectiveness” of an education environment.  Great teaching and learning is messy and a bit chaotic.”

Hmmm. It seems that administrators and policy makers should join our Parent Book Club, so they could also read “Teach Your Children Well,” and see what lack of valuing exploration and creativity is doing to our kids in the long haul.