Happy 25th Anniversary Berlin!

Happy Friday everyone! During the last 10 days or so, we’ve been enjoying another road trip around Europe during the kids’ fall break from school. Although I have yet to evolve a stress- and anxiety-free way to enjoy these longish, multi-country excursions with Stefan and the kids, they will undoubtedly still go down as one of the best parts of our time living in Italy.

This journey ended up taking us to interesting places that aren’t only historically significant, but that intermingle with our own families’ histories as well. We found connections in Dachau, Prague, and Vienna, but it was our visit to Berlin and its infamous wall that once separated democratic West Germany from communist East Germany, that was especially meaningful for me, and not just because this weekend marks 25 years since it fell. My family emigrated to the US from communist Cuba, and it was both comforting and frustrating to uncover just how similar the German and Cuban experience has been. As in the case of East Germany, the communist government in Cuba has erected obstacles, much like the very long and winding Berlin wall, which have split families apart and isolated a population.

That’s probably why I was glued to my little TV set in my college dorm room in 1989, teary- eyed at the sight of East Germans insisting on passage through the wall. A still very young news network, CNN, was broadcasting all these jaw-dropping images, and I remember calling my mother to ask if she was seeing what I was seeing. We sat there in silence on the phone just flabbergasted by the moment. Most of the East Germans weren’t interested in staying in West Berlin, although some had surely been yearning for that freedom for decades. Instead, the majority just wanted to be able to go where they wanted to go, see who they wanted to see. Shop, eat, visit with family and friends, and then head back home.

Somewhere between the long silences, we decided that my mom should just come over to my dorm room, so we could watch the coverage together. She was there within the hour and we watched as the gates opened and hundreds of faces poured through. Some were crying, others yelling happily, yet others looking completely astonished, as if they couldn’t believe this was happening at all. We were overjoyed for these Germans, as we saw a sister run into the embrace of a brother waiting on the West side; a group of teens, in all their late-80s gear, dance on top of the wall; and an East German soldier smile widely and give a rose to a girl on the other side, as if no one in the whole wide world was more relieved than he was. It was quite emotional up in that university high rise apartment. In part, of course, because the parallels to our family, stranded behind the formidable waves of the Caribbean instead of a cement wall, were far too clear. We couldn’t help but wonder, what if…

 

(Click on photos to enlarge.)

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The part of the wall that has been preserved with murals commissioned right after its fall, is part of the East Side Gallery. The neighborhood now feels like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, grittier and cooler than the rest of Berlin, but just as sophisticated and modern:

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This one’s for you, Mami!

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Leeloo’s come up with a very endearing new habit… listening to history through architecture. “Mom! It’s like I’m there and the soldier is giving the girl the flower!”

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For my Italian peeps/ Per i miei amici italiani:IMG_0512

 

This image evokes a way of life with which I’m quite sure my relatives are painfully familiar:

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How do you say “perestroika” in Spanish?

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Somebody made sure that I didn’t get too romantic about the whole thing with this insightful graffiti, in Spanish nonetheless! (Sons of bitches. Stop lying. We haven’t learned anything.)

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Yet, a girl can keep dreaming. IMG_0545

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I like that Leeloo serendipitously added her face to the hundreds in this scene, re-playing what I saw on my TV in ’89. She’s got quite a few cousins that I can’t wait to see pass through their own wall someday. Hopefully, not another 25 years from this anniversary.

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Testing Time

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This week is the first round of the contentious State Testing that the kids at Noah’s school, and at public schools throughout NY state, must endure each year. In grades 3-8 (the children are aged 8-14) three-day tests are administered in the subject areas of English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics (and it’s three days for each subject). The kids in grades 4 and 8  have to take an additional (three day) science test, too.

These aren’t the tests that we parents remember from grade school–those end-of-the-week spelling quizzes we took on a folded-in-half sheet of lined paper or the photocopied ones that came from the teacher’s manual at the end of each math unit. These tests can’t even be compared to the more serious California Achievement Tests we were given back then (CAT TESTS–remember those?).

If you don’t remember them it’s because, all that time ago, elementary schools and teachers didn’t make such a big deal about things likes standardized tests. Yes, there were systemized examinations and, yes, they were annoying (though I remember them just being loooong), but the results of the tests were meant to offer a litmus test of the school’s rigorousness and a measure of the kids’ progress and learning in general and so therefore they carried little weight (or anxiety) for the individual students. Not the case for these Common Core English Language Arts and Math Tests (that data contained in that link is enough to make me start to twitch ).

For weeks Noah has been talking about these tests. He’s been annoyed by them (they’ve been practicing taking these tests since October instead of, you now, LEARNING NEW THINGS) (or playing outside). He’s worried about them (he likes to get good grades and these tests are intentionally tricky)(who ever said that overcoming trickiness measured future success? I think it just measures, well, trickiness). He’s also pleaded with me to get him out of them (there’s a whole movement dedicated to teaching parents how their kids can opt out of the things).

I’m not going to use this space or your time to argue for or against the politics of these tests. You can find a hundred thousand articles online and offline, that will outline both their evils and their usefulness. I’m also not going to get crazy (right now anyway) about the tests’ pedagogical value. All our lives we learn stuff that is meaningless and quickly forgotten and that is okay–vital to our sanity, even. Everything we do shouldn’t always be profound or erudite.

The thing that has gotten under my skin about these tests, however, is the robber baron of time that they have become. So much TIME talking and fighting and defending and preparing and scoring and reporting these tests. So much of the kids’ time. So much of the teachers’ time. And the parents’ and the administrators’ and the politicians’ time. So much time being spent thinking about these tests. Time that could be spent making art or music or poetry or planting gardens or reading to senior citizens or pulling weeds (of both the literal and metaphorical variety).

As I creep into middle age, navigating the inevitable passage of Time (time that seems to speed up incrementally with each passing year) has become the most challenging test I’ve ever taken. I cringe when I think of so many hours of our babies’ lives being frittered away so that there can be a record of how good each of them is at regurgitation stuff (by way of bubble sheets with number 2 pencils). What is the teaching in that?

If you read my post about homework you know that I think that downtime is as important (or more important) as any other kind of time during a child’s day. This testing business eats up kids’ time–time that could be spent doing a thousand other things–or nothing at all. That is the real kicker of these tests for me. The time suck of them. Because, really, what are we teaching kids about time and being present and living consciously when we force them to endure hours and hours of test prep? What are we teaching them about using their time wisely? What are we telling ourselves?

 

 

 

Talking About Testing While Trying Not To Burn The Sugo

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As I begin this post, I have to tell you that for the first time in 18 years, Stefan has left me in charge of making his much lauded arrabbiata sauce (spicy tomato sauce) for tonight’s dinner. We’re having a family from school over, and since he has some errands to run and tennis to do with the kids, I’ve been left here by the stove. I literally won’t move more than 5 feet from the stovetop for fear of burning the sauce, and forever being branded as not responsible enough to be left alone with pureed tomatoes, not to mention ruining dinner for everyone. Talk about a test!

But the conversation Christine has in mind for today is about an altogether different kind of test. (One sec…I must stir the sauce!) I hear that Noah and his schoolmates are enduring Statewide standardized testing this week, and I know that Christine has a few thoughts to share on the matter. When faced with the question of what kind of experience we’re having with testing over here, I realized that I don’t have much to say. We don’t really have tests in our regular curriculum. There is an international schools’ test that Zoel’s 5th grade took this year, but from what I understood, it involved writing several essays as well as answering other types of questions, so it was standard in that kids around the world have to answer the same questions, but no sheets of ovals were to be found. However, we opted out of it anyway because we weren’t going to be in town. It wasn’t a big deal. The principal didn’t get involved in the decision. (Ahhhhhh!  I forgot to stir!) And Zoel’s teacher was the first to note, emphatically, that we should not change our plans for the test.

So, how do I feel about testing? Awesome! Nobody here misses them – standardized or otherwise. The kids do assessments with their teachers periodically to gauge how their doing, but this information is only used internally to adjust the teaching if needed. (Sauce!) Leeloo does have a spelling quiz once a week, but it’s for 5 words so I barely consider it a test. And what’s the effect of this lack of testing? Not much from what I can see. They appear to be learning anyway. (Sauce! The smell of garlic, tomatoes and spices has now permeated the kitchen and it’s hard to think, except about stirring, which I guess is good for forgetful me and the sauce.) Once again, I don’t mean to say that our school’s curriculum or methods are perfect, because they aren’t, and I don’t think any school system can be. I’m just saying that tests do not seem to be the… (Wow! You get too deep into a thought and that sauce just wants to stick right down on the pan.) Tests don’t seem to be the key, ahem… ingredient, or even a very necessary element in gaining knowledge, at least not in these primary school years.

As far as I can see, the only solid purpose of a standardized test may be to prepare you to sit through the mother of all standardized tests, the SATs, but I don’t see why you would need to start practicing in third grade, beginning in freshmen year of high school would seem like enough preparation. (I think I’m almost there with this sauce. The color is almost crimson, the smell is sweet, garlicky, and peppery, and the consistency is that of a spreadable paste instead of a liquid. But now if I stop stirring for even a second, it’ll burn…) I suppose that the other meaningful use of the test is to gauge how a school, its teachers and its administration are doing, but of course, it can’t give you the whole picture, maybe only wave a flag to signal when a closer inspection is needed. And that hardly seems to be a good reason why our children would have to cram and prep the way they do. I’m pretty thrilled that we didn’t lose a month of teaching time to getting ready for the tests as I’ve experienced in the past. Here, we’ve probably lost a month of pure class time to many other things like performances, assemblies and presentations, but I’ll happily take this option. (Yes people! I think this sauce is done! Looks good… I can’t wait to hear what the chef has to say about my sauce!) As I’ve just seen in making this delicious arrabbiata, the learning was in the act of doing it. What are kids doing, hence learning, when they prepare and take these tests? After a few years of being part of the system and reading so many articles about them, I still haven’t heard a good answer.

Imagination, Helicopters & Grit

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Noah and his teammates celebrating sweet victory.

This past Saturday, Noah’s middle school Destination Imagination (DI) team won first place at the NYDI Eastern Regional Tournament and will be moving on to the state competition next month. DI (as it’s referred to by its fans and affiliates) is a creative problem-solving program that teaches kids theatrical and technical skills, independence, leadership, cooperation/teamwork, organization, sportsmanship and brainstorming. (To learn more about DI, click on the link above.)

The structure of the program is this: each DI team chooses a ‘challenge’ that they will resolve over the course of a 6 month period and then present their finished project and research during an 8-minute presentation to be appraised and scored at a region-wide tournament. Noah’s group chose the science challenge, Going To Extremes, which required them to explore an extreme environment that exists in our universe and then present a story (the solution) about how characters (human and/or other) could adapt in order to survive in their chosen extreme environment. The team designed extreme gear to be used for survival, created a life-size model of their environment and wrote a story of their mission including dialogue and music (and jokes!) for the performance. (I’m being vague because Noah insisted that I keep the details of their project a secret–he doesn’t want the winning components leaked to other teams competing at States. I will reveal to you that they made a gorgeous six foot tree out of hemp and recycled potato chip bags (Utz Sour Cream and Onion = green) and a time-keeping clock by measuring and modifying the rate of rainwater dripping into their rainforest cave.)

One of the (many) unique elements of the DI program is the very limited amount of adult input the children receive while working on their challenge. Each team has an adult manager who helps the kids stay on track, but the managers may not directly advise or offer suggestions to team members as they develop their solution to the challenge. DI goes so far as to set an Interference Policy (the kids and adults sign an agreement at the start of the season) obliging the team members to imagine, create and develop solutions on their own. Parents and team managers are not allowed to suggest ideas or force teams toward certain directions or outcomes. We cannot correct their mistakes. Outsiders can only facilitate the acquisition of skills and knowledge, and even then only after the kids ask a specific question and can demonstrate several avenues (besides Google) they’ve investigated in an attempt to figure it out on their own.

The practice of limiting adult input is a tall order for American parents of my generation to fulfill. Our frantic and bloated presence in nearly every nook and cranny of our children’s lives has led to the wide use of the term helicopter parenting–a style of contemporary child rearing in which parents take an overprotective and/or excessive interest in the life of their child or children. Some education experts believe this overindulgence is leading to the development of young adults who are dependent, helpless and lacking in resiliency.

I’m certainly guilty of it.

It’s hard to watch any kid, especially your own, struggle–heck, it’s hard for me to watch my dog struggle–but there’s a lot of research out there now about how struggle is actually good; that kids need to struggle in order to learn and that mistakes create opportunities for growth and investigation and inquiry. I was talking to the other DI parents about this very thing at the tournament on Saturday (as we waited for five hours for the scores to be tallied and the kids climbed trees and rolled around on the still-snow-dusted-hills). We are parents who have children who came to us endowed with an interest in and affinity for academic activities–competent, skilled kids who get good grades and actually don’t need much help at all–and we often assist too much, worry too much, decide too much for them.

Even at 11, Noah can act helpless at times (a lot of the time) and more often than not I succumb to his call. My want for his comfort and happiness and affection takes precedence over my knowledge of child development. Despite the fact that I know better, I assist, I insist and I accommodate. It’s ugly.

Sometimes I really appreciate the way the universe works and how messages come through at the exact moment you need them or, probably more accurately, when you’re paying good enough attention to the lesson you need to learn. On the way home from dropping Noah off at school this morning a story came on NPR’s Morning Edition that essentially confirmed everything that I have been thinking and talking about as I watched Noah blossom during his participation in DI (and as I evaluated–and became disillusioned by–my helicopter ways). The story was about how important it is to teach kids to have grit (persistence, determination and resilience) because having grit is a better predictor of future success than IQ scores or other measures of achievement like grades or awards. The quality of being able to sustain a passion–and work really hard at it over really disappointingly long periods of time–is imperative to long term success.

Grit is the thing imperative to success? Huh. Not having a mother who gives up her passions and her husband for her kid? Not wearing matched socks? Or climbing into a made bed? Or having folded pajamas on the pillow? Or leaving the house with perfectly combed hair?

It’s a theory, of course, the significance of this grit thing…and the tides turn in education as often as they change direction on the big blue sea, but there’s a truth in this idea of teaching grit that I’m going to explore for awhile. I’m tired of all of the over doing that I do. I’m tired of being so tired. I’m also curious if I can hone more grit in my own life. It’s time to let Noah be Noah for awhile and see what happens. (Though I’m still gonna make him brush his teeth 3X a day.) I’ll keep you posted.

A recording and transcript of the whole story is here and it’s worth a listen/read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homework Hubris

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Before Noah became a student at our local public school a year and a half ago, he attended a small, private, progressive one about thirty minutes north of where we live. A particular private school that not only avoids assigning regular homework, but also doesn’t administer tests. Ever. It was quite a significant transition: from having completely unsanctioned after-school time to needing to complete at least an hour and a half (often two) of homework every night–for Noah and for all of us.

This homework (that is compulsory and deemed necessary by the Common Core) that hangs over our heads every afternoon makes us turn grumpy and cranky and annoyed with one another almost as soon as we walk into the house after pickup. Our afternoons have become one long negotiation: Yes, you can have a snack and watch a 20 minute show on Netflix, but as soon as you’re done you need to start your math. Yes, you can go outside and play basketball with Jack, but only for 30 minutes because then you need to come in and practice your spelling words. Yes, you can take drum lessons/be in the play/take ballet/be on the swim team but as soon as you get home from rehearsal/practice/the training session you’ll have to SIT RIGHT DOWN AND DO YOUR HOMEWORK. It is a dispiriting routine for everyone.

The thing is, Noah’s a pretty good student and he wants to get good grades. The work itself isn’t really all that difficult for him, it’s usually just time consuming. And also boring. The worst part, though, is what I see happening to his spirit of inquiry (and enthusiasm for learning) when he sits down in front of thirty long division problems or six pages of comma-rule exercises. You can almost see the enthusiasm leak out of him. His shoulders slump. He scowls. His buoyancy just withers up and disappears.

Kids are born to learn. They are natural investigators. Hang out with any three year old for long enough and your head will soon be spinning around the sheer number of questions a toddler’s mind is able to generate (and the rapidity with which they can deliver them). Compare that to the experience of hanging out with a middle schooler. Only the most precocious will ask questions. Many will remain silent, fidgety, unsure. Sure, being reserved is a personality trait and the shyness of ‘tweens’ is partially the product of a self-awarness that comes with age, but I think the reticence of adolescents also has something to do with them forgetting how to ask things, of not knowing how, or learning, to consider. Most homework doesn’t encourage exploration, it only concerns itself with answers so, somewhere along the way, many kids stop asking and just start regurgitating.

To be sure, sometimes the kind of homework that children are assigned is flawed. Hollow text-book activities are not knowledge-inducing; the completion of a worksheet, even correctly, doesn’t necessarily mean a skill has been mastered. But my bigger issue with all these hours of homework is the time it burns up. The time it takes away from our time together as a family. The time it takes away from Noah’s after-school afternoons–time that Noah could be spending playing with the dog or painting or listening to music or riding his bike or laying on his bed doing absolutely nothing.

Busy-ness does not always mean growth, and saddling kids with work in order to “build character” only produces worker bees.

Yes, some things must be learned through memorization and rote practice and it’s important to understand that some work we must do can seem boring, and sometimes a worksheet really is the best practice for a specific task. It’s important for children to understand these things. I want Noah to learn these things–all the things–but I also want his learning to be laced with passion and delight as often as possible and the thing is, kids discover their passion during games of pick-up soccer by the river or when they teach themselves a new chord when they are messing around on their guitar. Kids find delight in mud puddles and hornet’s nests and in the freedom of walking to a friend’s house on the first afternoon of spring. There’s very little passion or delight to be found in homework just for homework’s sake. Or in assigning homework because of this basic distrust we’ve developed regarding our children’s choices during their downtime.

My problem with homework are the things it displaces–even when the homework is good. Freedom. Stillness. Time. Agency. The raw ingredients necessary for true intellectual and creative edification.

I Compiti/Homework

Homework? What homework? This is often my older child’s response when I ask if he has any work to do after school. And I’ll confess it freaks me out a bit. We’ve just come from a U.S. school where there was homework every night, and a special project to work on at least once a quarter, in addition to daily homework. Most of the time, it wasn’t overwhelming, rather a steady flow of occassionally interesting, but usually boring, worksheet-driven tasks. As our old school has gotten more deeply involved with teaching “Common Core“, it seems that homework has increased for Zo’s former classmates, and I read that that seems to be the case for thousands of kids across the States. The general argument in favor of the increase is that there is a certain amount of material that needs to be taught in each grade, and it simply can’t all be done during the school day. Articles like this one, where a dad attempts to do his middle-schooler’s homework for a week and fails miserably, and others like this one, that make the case for less homework, paint a different picture, one where the homework that’s being assigned is not only excessive but counterproductive, and sometimes actually hurtful. Yet, I cringe a bit every time my son says he has nothing to do, or has homework that takes him all of 10 minutes to complete. I can see that, through school, his hobbies and life in general, his knowledge about the world, as well as his confidence about his place in it, keeps on growing, so you’d think that’d be enough for me to relax. Alas, I only partially succeed in being cool about it. The rest of the time, I make him spend time on Khan Academy practicing math skills, and plot other ways for him to exercise his brain without noticing!

For my younger child, who’s in second grade, things have been seemingly more balanced. She has weekly homework, which she tackles enthusiastically, probably because most of it is very thoughtful. It usually includes reading a book of her choice and responding to a question about it, and doing an exercise having to do with her particular unit of inquiry that month. (For example, this month is about buildings, their design, construction and impact on people.) The unit homework  is usually connected to the real world, which makes it much more fascinating to a seven-year-old. But if they could just a do a bit more math… I guess that’s the rub. There’s always more that could be done. What I’m learning (albeit slowly) is that I’m much more concerned with the quality of my kids homework, having it be relevant and interesting work, than with the quantity (same goes for their classes!) At the moment, I’ll take a little quality work, over a ton that’s of varying quality or worse yet, just mindless. I can always devise a little challenge here or there!

How’s homework going at your house? What’s working for you? Or what’s not working that you wish you could change?

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Mending Fences

sled1We’re still buried under a foot of snow here in the Hudson Valley and I’m trying my best to make the best of it. So, on Saturday morning, instead of complaining about another 22°(F) day or fretting about a forecast for yet a(nother) impending storm, Noah and I got dressed in our thermals and boots and scarves and hats and set out up the street to the sledding hill.

Yep, our bucolic little village does, indeed, have a sledding hill situated right in the middle of town. The hill overlooks the river and the mountains and front porches with swings and the roofs of a dozen antique boutiques. Standing on it feels like walking into a Norman Rockwell painting. The hill gets packed with bundled up kids dragging around gum-drop colored sleds the minute after snow stops falling–long before roads are plowed or the restaurants and shop stoops are shoveled out.

The gradient of the incline of the sledding hill in town is actually quite steep and the trail isn’t really all that long, so toboggans and their passengers are often tossed out onto the sidewalk that borders the hill and Main Street. Kids quickly learn to bail before they slide past the sidewalk and onto the road.

Often parents of younger children stand sentry at the bottom of the hill, blocking rogue sledders from bouncing over the curb and yelling out, “Bail!…Bail!……BAIL!” as sledders whiz by. In short time, for the older kids anyway, ‘bailing’ late becomes a badge of honor, a competition, a contest of who will wait the longest before jumping out.

Noah is eleven and seasoned in the ways of sledding and bailing. At his previous school he used to sled every day at recess and he’s a pretty good skier; his comfort level (and confidence) while sliding around on snow is high. He’s also VERY cautious so, on Saturday morning, while alone alone on the hill (because other kids, who have far kinder mothers, were all still in their pajamas watching TV) I was busying myself with the dog and with my phone as Noah played on the snow covered knoll.

Let me preface the rest of this story by saying that, though we still have a foot of snow on the ground here, it’s not the nice, soft, fluffy play-stuff it once was. We’ve had veritable days of sun and above freezing temperatures (if barely) that plunge into sub-zero nights with flurries, so the once-congenial snow has morphed into a hard, cold amalgamation of ice, debris and, well, more ice. AND it’s really slippery.

It was on Noah’s second run of the morning when, out of the corner of my Twitter-checking eye, I caught sight of his red and grey hat careening towards–no, not the traffic of Main Street–but the impeccably painted, new-as-of-October fence of the house next door to the hill.

Me: “Bail!…Bail?……BAIL!”

[….Crack!]

 

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The fence. Lower left.

The hill is a rather large expanse of space next to a church that was built in 1868. I like to imagine the scores of kids who have trudged there in the snow, the generations of children who have sledded and laughed beneath its trees, who have fallen and gotten up, who have….put a hole right through that very neighbor’s fence. When Noah got up off his sled, his eyes were dilated in horror and tears had already leaked down his cheeks.

Miraculously, I was able to control my first reaction to the scene (which was to SPANK him), and calmly ask if he was okay. Oftentimes, my initial response to situations like this sucks. Instead of safeguarding my kid, or staying calm, I worry about getting in trouble myself. I think that his mistake will betray my second-rate parenting. And then I snap (and yell)(and yell) because I simply don’t want to deal. [Noah’s first reaction to things like this sucks, too. (The apple doesn’t fall far.) He doesn’t want to get into trouble. He doesn’t want to be a bad kid. He doesn’t want to deal.]

But it was a freezing cold winter morning and we were sledding in the sunshine and my good and kind and responsible 11 year old was crying his eyes out because he just put a hole in the neighbor’s fence and this wasn’t about me or my parenting but was, as I have learned from educators through the years, a teachable moment. For both of us.

Instead of screaming or crying or running away, I told Noah that we (he) were going to march right over to to that house and confess our (his) culpability. And offer to fix that fence. And/or pay to have it fixed. And we were going to smile.

I’ve spent so much time on the ramp-up to this story that I hardly have time to tell the tale, but to make a long story short, the folks weren’t home. Noah and I stood at the broken-fence-neighbors’ door, panting & sweating out our various neuroses for a good ten minutes before we had to come up with Plan B. We ended up walking to the hardware store just down the block and confessing our sins to the lady there (who we know because we buy mouse traps from her and she loves our dog and gives him treats). We asked to use some paper and a pen so that Noah could leave the broken-fence-neighbors a note explaining what happened, asking them to get in touch with us so we (he) could help set things right.

This wasn’t easy for my kid. Or for me. It sounds silly, but an accident like this can sometimes feel like a failure of the highest degree. Later that morning, after we got home and after we left the note, Noah was sad for a good long while. And he was a little bit scared (he thought the broken-fence-neighbors might yell at him when they called). But mostly he was quiet. And thoughtful. He sprawled himself out on the snow in our backyard for a bit. Thinking. (Learning.) He sat in his room with the dog. Thinking. (Learning.) And when he was ready, he came into the kitchen for some tea and said: “Mom, I bailed a little bit too late on that run and I broke the fence because I was trying to bail really late and show off. And there wasn’t even anyone around to see me! I was mad at myself, but now I’m not anymore. I can fix that fence.”

Despite the fact that we have yet to hear from the broken-fence-neighbors and that Noah can’t even look at the hill when we drive past it (which is approximately seven times a day) Gina’s right. Learning can come at any time, in any form. (Motorcycles, ski lifts, sledding hills, broken fences.) You’ve just got to be on the lookout for the right moments. And remember to get out of the way.

Bail! Bail! BAIL!

 

Ski School of Life

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The snow below my skis was choppy and slippery. I clung on to the t-pole that was pulling me up a rather steep and long incline towards the top of the mountain, using all my core, inner thigh, hamstring and calf muscles to stay upright and avoid one of my skis pulling away from the lift and taking my body along with it. All the while, I was thinking to myself, I must be doing this wrong. Other riders looked far too relaxed to be flexing all the muscles that I presently had clenched. Then I saw, way up the hill on a section that looked to me to be almost at a 90-degree angle with the ground, that a little person, who was about 6 or 7 years old, had lost hold of the bar, causing a domino effect, as two of her friends did the same, and tumbled a few feet down before coming to a stop. Their ski instructor jumped off her bar and slid towards the girls. Before the lift had pulled me up to their level, the girls had taken off their heavy skis and were carrying them across their chest along with their poles, digging their large, stiff ski boots into the mountain, trying to maintain their balance as they climbed. After a few more steps, one threw herself on the snow, yelling back to her teacher, “It’s too heavy!” The teacher’s simple reply was: “Pick them up and keep going.” So she did, and eventually they made it to the top. Now, isn’t that what we all want our kids to learn? Hell, isn’t that what we all want to be able to do? Just pick them up and keep going until you make it to where you want to go!

Although I’ve heard enough times that there are life lessons in everything from motorcycle mechanics to surfing to house cleaning, I naively thought we were putting the kids in ski school to learn how to get down a mountain without falling. Instead, much more was served up alongside how to snap on skis, use lifts, turn while zipping downhill, and snow plow to stop. In a nutshell, they learned that they’re much stronger than they thought they were, inside and out. Their powerful muscles kept them vertical while trying out new things, and their mighty will to figure out this skiing thing picked them up every time they fell down. And all of this they had to do without any help from Mom or Dad, because Mom was off with her own class trying to finally make it out of beginner skis, and Dad was whipping around the mountains on his expert skis, exploring the back country with Uncle Seb.

In some ways, I’m sure this was a very welcomed change for our two children because, although I love to read about parents who are purposely hands-off, who provide a wide berth for their kids to try and fail and try again, I’m pitiful at emulating their behavior. I’m sure my kids know that I’m never very far away, and sure, that has its good points, but it’s also probably a little claustrophobic. I’m way too quick to help with tying of a shoe here, spelling of a word there, explaining for the 100th time how something is done, or even, I’m embarrassed to say, doing it for them, occasionally, when my patience has completely run out. But in the case of skiing, my hands and mind were, thankfully, totally busy keeping myself from biting it, so by default the kids got a lot more space to figure out stuff on their own.

It must have been scary for each of them to find themselves at the top of a big hill for the first time, having to follow a bunch of kids down for whom this was known territory. In that moment, they must have had to talk themselves through the nerves, or maybe they just decided to throw themselves into it, and avoid overthinking the task at hand. The method doesn’t really matter, what I hope sticks with them, is that in that moment, they were able to deal with their fears and rely solely on themselves to meet the challenge.

More so than the metal pins given out at the end of the week, their reward was this further understanding that they can count on themselves, as well as their pride in their new abilities, and the knowledge that something that is difficult and sometimes disappointing, can also bring a great deal of happiness. They also have ownership over what they’ve learned in a way that’s very different from when it’s spoon-fed to them. They figured it out themselves. She jumped over that small ramp. He went down that powdery red run. As a result, they went back to school on Monday walking a little taller, a bit more confident in themselves than before.

Ah, the things that are learned outside of formal schooling… And of course, the biggest lesson, might be the one learned by mom. Back off lady.

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IB Units of Inquiry – A Different Way to Learn

 

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Nana comes in to school, to the delight of the 5th grade, after discussing her personal migration story via Skype earlier in the year. Other speakers included migrants from Sri Lanka, North Africa and France. The students wrote reports on each and followed migration in current events as part of this unit of inquiry.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, our kids are in the midst of their first year at an IB (International Baccalaureate) School. One of the main tenets of their education philosophy is that children are “naturally inquisitive and will learn most effectively through inquiry driven curriculum”, so as a result, Zoel and Leeloo spend a good part of each day, you guessed it, inquiring. About what you may ask? Well, each grade has six pre-determined subjects into which they will inquire over 6-week sessions during the school year. For example, Leeloo who is in 2nd grade has tackled: Where in the World Are We? (a study and comparison of places and cultures around the world); The Arts (a look at different ways in which humans express themselves); Communities (research into how people work together to provide services and meet people’s needs); and she’s presently working on Buildings, a study about the design of structures and their impact on our life. Zoel, who is in 5th grade, has been looking into: Body Systems (a study of the body systems and personal health); Migration (a look at historical and present day migration, its causes and effects, challenges and opportunities); Identity, (research into how people present themselves, the impact of cultural and societal norms, how identity changes over time); and he’s now working on Governmental Systems, how different systems work and their impact on people and institutions around the world. Last I checked, he had been named head of the 5th grade Communist party (Since my mom and I presented our family’s experience with Communism to the class in the Fall, I choose to think that this is his teacher’s way of having a little fun with me.)

When they’re working on these units, there is a lot of discussion, expressing of opinions, research, student and expert presentations, and the creation of materials relevant to the topic, but there are not a lot of worksheets, quizzes or otherwise easily gradeable stuff. In fact, there are just two report cards per year, one in December and one at the end in June. The result is the loosey goosiest year of my kids education to date, and that may be why Noah’s new online progress reports (that Christine mentioned yesterday) with all their detailing of quizzes, modules, packets, and the like, initially seemed so appealing. From over here, a bastion of bureaucratic incompetency, it looks so magnificently efficient and organized. I’m sure the Italian and International parents at our school would oh and ah at it, marveling at the ingenuity and modernity of those Americans. But in the end, although I do so miss the efficacy of our culture, I’m still with Christine on this one. I don’t think I want to be able to dissect my kids’ world at that level (although I understand why it would be tempting with such a splendid spreadsheet at your fingertips!)

I’m uncomfortable with the Orwellian aspect of it, but I’m also wary of the backend that has to exist in order for this data monster to work. It requires input that can easily be expressed numerically, and I think by definition that means more things done via worksheets and packets that can be graded swiftly (How do teachers do this much grading and still have time for teaching?) Since a school day can only be so long, I suppose that means less taught in a more hands on way, with students researching and discussing their way through a new topic or a confounding problem, building and creating to understand subjects or  taking time to go down deadend roads only to be gently guided back by teachers or other knowledgeable folks. This more interactive way of teaching and assessing is definitely more subjective and would be very difficult to capture on a database.

This is not to say that our new school’s system is perfect. One negative of all this inquiring (and also of its international, multilingual nature) is that some basic skills in the areas of math, reading and writing can get lost in the mix, and because there are only two marking periods a year, it’s really up to the parents to be vigilant, even deciphering the grunts of a tired tween, so that they can wave a flag if they see their child has missed something. We’re lucky that both of our kids have come here with a very solid start in the basics (Thank you Garrison School!), so that they can take full advantage of the pool of knowledge and culture they get to dive into while inquiring. Perhaps because of that foundation, I can feel totally comfortable with nothing but their reactions to what they’ve done in school on a given day as my progress report. This week it’s been Leeloo’s glee at being able to present to her classmates her favorite building in the world, Prague’s Dancing House (Dad is appalled that she’s discovered and loves Frank Gehry, but these are the perils of autonomous research.) And for Zoel, the joy came from creating a propaganda campaign for his Communist party and winning the primary elections in the elementary school (Mom is appalled and has made a pact with son not to speak of this, ever, to his Cuban exile grandparents.) So far, we’re doing okay with limited information, and were thrilled they keep asking questions.

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As part of the unit of inquiry having to do with communities, the 2nd graders wrote and perfomed a play about the different roles that people play in a community. Here Leeloo, the local obstetrician, helps deliver her friend Isabella’s baby, with a plastic knife no less!

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Almost out!

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Elementary school students watch the delivery! A riveting Friday morning assembly!

Report Card Rumination

Each (school)year at Noah’s middle school is divided up into four marking periods. At the end of each quarter, test and project scores are tallied and averaged and a report of a student’s grades is sent to his or her parents. This year, unless otherwise requested, middle school parents are receiving their child’s report cards (though I think they are technically known as ‘progress reports’ these days) via email. Gone are the days of crumpled yellow envelopes in backpacks and a teacher’s perfect script cataloging tardies and sharing comments about lunch room antics. Gone is also any kind of suspense or doubt. I receive automatic updates of Noah’s “progress” via email bulletins each and every week, so his end-of-the-quarter grades are hardly a surprise.

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reportcard hrThrough a parent/teacher/student information portal system called Powerschool I have 24- hour access to Noah’s permanent record. I can log onto his account at anytime for an up to the minute report that details his attendance, math quiz scores and whether or not he turned in his homework that day. Teachers are required to upload, in real time, a child’s attendance each period of every day, mark off every single completed (or incomplete) homework assignment and post test scores as soon as they are available. Very brief commentary is included from time to time.

I feel conflicted about this data-sharing system, which feels big-brotherly in both its reach and its anonymity, because it supplies parents with some useful information, too. To be sure, Powerschool provides an efficient way for parents and teachers to stay connected to one another and to the quantifiable elements of a child’s education. Middle schoolers are notoriously surly and secretive and sometimes “fine” is the only response you can coax out of one of them on the walk home from school. To be able to determine, ahead of time, that their crankiness might be due to a poor science grade or a forgotten current events assignment or an upcoming test can help bridge the ever-widening dialogue gap that can begin to form between adults and adolescent kids. It can also help parents spot subject areas that might be more difficult for a child and determine points of concern before they turn into full blown problems.

Checking a kid’s “progress” too often, though, knowing too much about what might be going on in another person’s life, also seems a lot like stalking. I rarely log on to Noah’s account because, even though he knows I have the password–his TEACHERS have the password–I always feel like I’m breaking some kind of trust pact with him when I do. I want Noah to understand that I am confident in him. That I know that he will to talk to me when things get to be too much for him to handle on his own (he typically shares the good stuff right away). I also want him to know–to feel–that he has ample time and space to learn, to assess situations, to figure out ways to fix things that need fixing and then determine how and when to talk to me about them, without me breathing down his throat (armed with reams of data, no less).

If Noah wasn’t such a talker to begin with (and not such a momma’s boy) I might not be so insistent about this self-sufficiency business regarding his grades. But, to me, the most important elements of an education (i.e. character development, collaboration, reflective practices, finding inspiration, starting to recognize who you are) can’t be recorded on a data program anyway. All the kinds of learning that isn’t quantifiable, like negotiations in the locker room and playground politics and which table to sit at (or avoid) in the lunchroom, Noah has no other choice but to manage on his own. If he thinks I’m constantly monitoring his every action, if he’s waiting for me to notice when he’s off track and then correct his course, how will he ever learn to navigate the world on his own? How will he ever understand that he must learn listen to himself above all else?

If anything I’m a hovering parent. I’m not good at risk taking (or watching my kid take them) but with each passing day–as Noah continues to talk to me and share moments of his life: that he got a 98 on the science test and that he was chosen first for the four square tournament and, yes, that he forgot to hand in his homework because he was too busy figuring out the brackets for the four square tournament, I’m reminded that this child of mine isn’t really mine. He’s mine in as much as it is my responsibility to help him become the best, most Noah he can possibly be, but my role isn’t loitering around every corner of his life. My job is to helping him stock his toolbox with the very best implements, demonstrate everyday kindness and instill in him faith and hope and the certainty that I believe in him. No matter what the data says.