Sign up to get a letter from me

In between working on journalism and fiction (and taking my three sons to baseball practice), I realized there are even more stories I’d like to tell, these ones about my family and hometown of Evansville, Indiana. So for the next few months, I’ll be writing you letters – sending Mini-Memoirs to your inbox every Monday morning.

Here’s an excerpt from last week’s letter, “Roaring off to Balloonland”:

Before deciding to attend balloon college, my mother had been a florist. Working in flowers was kind of dreary, because the occasions where flowers showed up were always complicated and tough: when we delivered flowers to a wedding, the bride was either fighting with her mother or crying; funeral sprays, crawling with gladiolas, looked like sad spiders and, well, they attended funerals; people were always buying flowers for people whose feelings they’d really hurt. Balloons felt different – you’d only buy balloons if you wanted to celebrate the happiest of occasions, like a birthday, or telling someone to ‘break a leg!’ on opening night. They were shiny and garish, unavoidable, the Joan Rivers of decorations. They made a loud noise when they rubbed together, which made me think of mischief. I couldn’t imagine anyone would ever bring balloons to a funeral. 

“Does that mean you’re going to be a clown?” my sister Annie asked her.

“Well, that might be fun,” my mom said, tilting her head so she looked at us over the tops of her glasses with her special twinkly eyes. I tried not to grimace. Family fun made me cringe, especially since earlier that year (around the time she’d announced her decision to attend the College of Balloonology, come to think of it), I had decided to drop the fun-girl act and become a serious intellectual.

Now, don’t you want to sign up? You can even send me a reply! Sign up for my letter here and start getting stories delivered right to you.

“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.



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: 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.”


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!

Is “Grit” Just Puritan Work Ethic in Disguise?

Before we reach the conclusion of Paul Tough’s bestseller How Children Succeed tomorrow night, I wanted to inject an opposition view into the conversation: a recent article by parenting and education author and expert Alfie Kohn. Kohn’s piece “Do kids really learn from failure? Why conventional wisdom may be wrong,” featured on The Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post, questions why exactly we think grit and perseverance are good qualities to engender and develop.

“When you hear about the limits of IQ these days,” he writes, “it’s usually in the context of a conservative narrative that emphasizes not altruism or empathy but something that sounds suspiciously like the Protestant work ethic. More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseveranceself-discipline and will power. The goal is to make sure they’ll be able to resist temptation, override their unconstructive impulses, and put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do.”

Kohn asks, “Is failure useful?” He says that no research actually shows that failure makes kids better learners, or more successful. “In fact, studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure. (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they’re doing.) In one study, students were asked to solve problems that were rigged to ensure failure. Then they were asked to solve problems that were clearly within their capabilities. What happened?  Even the latter problems paralyzed them because a spiral of failure had been set into motion. By the same token, if an adult declines to step in and help when kids are frustrated, that doesn’t make them more self-sufficient or self-confident: It mostly leaves them feeling less supported, less secure about their own worthiness, and more doubtful about the extent to which the parent or teacher really cares about them.”

He notes that often, the reason kids fail at tasks is twofold: because they don’t see a good reason for doing them, or because they were ordered to do so, without any context or decision-making power of their own.

But this is my favorite, and perhaps most substantive, of Kohn’s reasons he believes kids fail at school: “Maybe the problem is that the educational environment emphasizes how well students are doing rather than what they’re doing: It’s all about achievement! performance! results! rigor! and not about the learning itself. Educational psychologists have found that when students are induced to think about grades and test scores — particularly, though not exclusively, when the point is to do better than everyone else — they will naturally attempt to avoid unnecessary risks. If the goal is to get an A, then it’s rational to pick the easiest possible task. Giving up altogether just takes this response to its logical conclusion. “I’m no good at this, so why bother?” is not an unreasonable response when school is primarily about establishing how good you are.”

Putting this in perspective of our Parent Book Club book, what do you think of this? Do you think developing grit is just a way to teach our kids to be compliant with orders? Or, do you think that grit and perseverance offer something more?

Introducing the What Is Education? Project

A couple of weeks ago, I kicked off the school year by asking a question I’ve been thinking a lot about: What is education for? In our quest to make education better and more meaningful for all students, I find myself asking, “why do we do this again? what’s the point?” Formal education takes up a large part of our lives, yet we rarely ask questions about the big picture for education, and whether or not our day-to-day experiences fit inside our ideals. And because the world is changing rapidly, and new kinds of learning will be called upon to catapult us into that exciting but uncertain future, the question What is education for? becomes ever more important as the entire way we educate our children morphs and changes.

What do you think? Can you tell us, in your own words, what education is for? I’d love for you to submit a short video and tell us what you think. I’ll post every single video here, and hopefully we will get a bigger, clearer picture of what education means to all of us.

Looking forward to seeing all the wonderful videos!

What Do Parents Know About Education?

Do you know if your child is getting a good education? Not the quality of the school, but the education? It’s not hard to get familiar with school reform issues as they are portrayed in the media, but I think it’s much harder for a parent to try and figure out what comprises a great education, especially without weighing in with some experts – ie teachers, researchers and school leaders. But a group of policy-heavy parent organizations insists that parents already know everything there is to know about education – and that local public schools don’t.

Several of the parent-led education groups I follow on social media have been circulating a hair-raising video called “Parents Know Best,” which was put together by policy PAC American Federation for Children, a charter school and ‘parent choice’ advocacy group. Even casting aside some of the more objectionable content so obviously taken out of context (TMZ-style rush cutaways of educators and NEA staffers saying that parents don’t always know what’s best for their children, while knowingly on camera), I still find the main message of the video at the very least counterproductive, and at the most disturbing: your public school is out to get you. It wants to tell you what’s good is bad, and what’s bad is good. Type made to look like child’s handwriting scrawls across the screen: “Parents are under attack,” then we are shown that public school officials aim to make a mockery of us. Silly parent, how can you be so gullible to trust your teachers?

Policy-heavy PAC’s posing as grassroots parents groups are popping up all over the country, encouraging parents not to dig in and understand what comprises a great education for their children, but to come to agree with them on education policy decisions having to do with how schools are managed – ones like the “Parent Trigger” laws that 20 states have either passed or considered. Groups like Parent Revolution and Parents Know Best, a part of the American Federation for Children, aim to sway parents toward a “freedom of choice” ideology, one in which every parent knows the school that will best fit their child, which are usually charter schools. The videos made by these groups, which are armed and ready to help parents choose the “freedom” of a charter and voucher system, present the public school system as a clear and dangerous enemy that has bad intentions for them and their children. The current public school system, they argue, wants to trap your child in failure because it means big money or big power for groups like the unions; inside this narrative, it is the parents’ job to rescue their children from becoming nothing more than a pawn in a dangerous, zero-sum educational game.

There is nothing wrong with charter schools, or any type of education where real learning takes place. But I have to stop and wonder in whose best interest it is to tell parents this is a war, and they should be outraged. I know that there is good and bad education taking place across a variety of settings right now – and that both can be hiding where you least expect them. I can’t help but question the motives of groups like Parents Know Best, who might prey on the fears of families who are searching for a good education for their kids. Instead of using their platform to inform parents of what to look for, what to help their kids do at home, and what kinds of schools might best suit their kids, these ‘parents groups’ only add to the acrimony by engaging parents’ darkest fears.

I wonder why more grassroots parents groups like these don’t focus on teaching parents about learning? Before I began researching learning and school reform as it pertained to my own children, I admit I didn’t know much about how kids learn, and how they need to learn. For example, until I consulted the early childhood experts, I was unaware, that my five-year-old should still be engaged in a play-based curriculum that caters to where his brain is at developmentally — and this is diametrically opposed to the current kindergarten standard, which is academics-based and only getting more so by the year. Using this as the only example, imagine what parents could do in their local schools armed with this information and how it might transform learning and achievement? Imagine what parents could do if they were presented with knowledge instead of fear? Imagine if it was a community working on a problem instead of a battle in a war?

The real parent revolution will come when parents come to an understanding about teaching and learning, and each is armed with tools to support teaching and learning both at home and at school, whatever that school might look like.

More Rescources:

How Much Parent Power is Too Much? by Sam Chaltain on CNN Schools of Thought

Parent Unions Seek to Join Policy Debate by Sean Cavanagh at Education Week

For Parents Who Are Thinking About Learning

After moving from Dallas to Nashville over the Christmas holidays, I had to – by sheer force of geography – give up my blog about Texas public education, Parents for Educating Texas. Although that chapter has ended, I’m excited to continue a conversation here that takes an inquisitive look at the parent perspective on education, school reform and learning issues more generally.

A tip-of-the-iceberg quality hovers over my education writing and thinking so far: it seems that the farther I fall down the rabbit hole, the more I want to know about the reasons we parents think and believe the things we do about our children, their teachers, and the schools that encapsulate the majority of their childhoods. From standardized testing to child consumerism to preschool homework, I’m interested in the culture that has brought us the schools we have today.

And I’m wondering: do we parents have the power – or maybe it’s the imagination – to turn this ship around?

There are more vexing questions that deserve a second look: Is the ‘Parent Trigger’ a good or a bad thing for parents? How much does poverty play into how a child gets educated? Can standing up to your school about a variety of complicated issues help or hinder your child’s chances at a great education? Does better education take place at a private school vs. a public one – or a public magnet vs. a neighborhood school? How can you tell? How can parents tell if their child is learning what they need? Who should parents ask?

Like Parents for Educating Texas, I will continue to read and review education books and try to connect parents with resources that I find valuable, and hope you will share the same with me. It’s with great pleasure and passion I bring you the best discussions I can muster on these topics and more. I hope you’ll join me.


Holly Korbey