Friday, May 31, 2013

Between the Idea and the Reality

"Stranger and Stranger," by Maureen O'Hara Ure

(This is a re-post from last June, but year-end awards ceremonies are on my brain at the moment. Thanks again to Tea Levy for being brave enough to voice her words and allow me to share them on a bigger stage.)

Twice a year, we formally assess students' writing. I hand out a prompt and grading rubric about one week before the date of the assessment in order to give the students time to organize their thoughts in advance of the prompt. They then have two class periods to write their essay. It allows us to create a portfolio of writing samples from about second grade on, and the assignment also gives them some practice writing timed essays in class. Usually, the prompts are expository, based on the literature we have been reading in class - the mid-year assessment was about Great Expectations in the seventh grade and A Tale of Two Cities in the eighth - but in the spring, when the flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and attention spans are short, I opt for a more creative topic. 

This was the prompt I handed out last week:

Crossroads Academy’s core virtues curriculum is a central part of your education. Just as your education in math, literature and science informs your academic development, your education in the four core virtues informs your moral and social development. For your essay, please choose one of the virtues – justice, temperance, fortitude, or prudence – and write about a moment, experience, or event in your life when you relied on your education in the core virtues to guide you.

I love grading these essays. The students take it very seriously, and I am fascinated by their perspective on the core virtues, character education class, and the way students rely on the virtues to guide their actions. 

The essays were sublime this year, and I loved reading all of them. 

But this one...this one stuck with me. I was impressed with the writing, but I was also deeply disturbed by my part in her ordeal and the lessons that she and her classmates may have taken  away from the experience she describes. The author, Tea Levy, and her parents, have given me permission to share her words. Tea hopes that her words will help educators understand what end-of-year awards assemblies feel like from her seat in the bleachers. 

The Problem With Awards

In seventh grade during one of the last weeks of school, everyone headed down to Bancroft to attend the “culminating final assembly.” At the assembly, awards were given out to the students who had earned them during the year. I watched as nearly all of my classmates walked down to the podium to receive awards, but when the awards ceremony was finally over, my name had not been called. One of the teachers asked everyone who had gotten an award to come to the front of the room to take a group picture. When all of the award-winners had left the bleachers, three of my classmates and I were the only ones left sitting. The experience was devastatingly humiliating for me, but through my anger, I learned the importance of perseverance and optimism.

When my name was not called during the assembly, it made me feel inferior, as if my hard work had not been recognized, and my efforts wasted. I had done the very best I could on the National Mythology Exam, studied hard for the Grand Councours, and prided myself on my Latin poem, but after that morning the significance of all that seemed greatly diminished.

Suddenly I was angry. Angry with my teachers for creating what seemed to me at the time to be an exclusive and competitive atmosphere, but also angry with myself. I couldn’t understand why I was unable to be good enough to win or why everyone else seemed to be so much better than me. Optimism helped me cope with my anger. I had to remind myself that if I wanted to redeem myself, I would have to maintain a positive attitude. I reminded myself that the only way to have my efforts recognized in the future would be to remain as unfazed from this incident as possible and not limit myself based on my experiences.

The optimism I used to overcome this obstacle was linked closely to perseverance. My self-proclaimed failure gave me a new motivation to succeed that would push me through to the end of middle school. I wanted to prevail against the odds and become the perfect student. I quickly realized how unreasonable this goal was, but my desire to have my efforts acknowledged never faltered. I worked harder and concentrated harder and my work paid off. The first trimester of 8th grade I received my first straight A report card. This achievement made me feel as though my perseverance had been noticed, and I was elated.

Although I still look back on that morning with dissatisfaction, the experience taught me many things. First of all, I acknowledged the fact that they couldn’t give prizes to everyone without making the whole thing seem like a joke. But more importantly, I realized how much I wanted my efforts to be rewarded and that I have the power to ensure that they are. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Party Time. Excellent.

As we move in to June, and the end-of-year party invitations pile up in my school mailbox, I am forced to dig deep into my list of polite, socially-appropriate regrets. "Your party sounds lovely, and I so wish I could come, but I have my son's graduation ceremony that day." Or I have to pick my nieces up at the airport, visit my parents, attend a birthday party...insert appropriate excuse as needed.

I am an honest person, and while my default move is usually to stick with the truth, the truth of this matter truth is ugly. This truth, particularly when explained at drop off or pick up or in the moments between classes, is a box of unruly, writhing worms I can't contain once I lift the lid.

But this morning, while I was copying the day's class handouts, a parent expressed her disappointment that I RSVP'd regrets to what promises to be a lovely end-of-year school gathering. I inhaled, prepared to make a face of disappointment and utter some false excuse, but instead, the truth popped out. The moment was right, and if anyone had the gumption and self-esteem to handle this news, it was this particular parent, so I came clean.

I've been teaching for a long time, long enough to have become wary regarding parent-sponsored, school-related social events, particularly when the ominous descriptor "wine" appears with the otherwise innocuous pairing of "cheese." Don't misunderstand; I'm a huge fan of both the wine and the cheese, but a glass or two of chardonnay and the informality of a social occasion has the power to untether words and resentments that have otherwise been kept well in-hand. The email that a mom never sent - even though she really, really wanted to - about the injustice of little Janey's midterm C will re-surface at the party in the form of a casual, "Just so you know..." comment delivered with a smile as you swirl your baguette cube in the fondue pot.

At least I have some quality horror stories to share at non-school sponsored parties. The drunk mother who sternly reprimanded me in front of twenty other parents for a long and challenging homework assignment I'd assigned her son a month before. The dad who loudly outlined his daughter's negative opinions of Latin - the language generally and my class specifically. The mother who threatened - albeit with smile on her face - to report me to my boss if I did not ease up on her daughter in English class.

Make no mistake about it, these moments are party-killers.

So if you invite a teacher to your house this graduation season, don't take it personally if she or he responds with regrets. Assume that the teacher appreciated the invitation, and remember that polite regrets expressed on an RSVP card are preferable to regrets expressed angrily, under one's breath, on the way out the door.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Being on Time Means Being Early

I was watching Judd Apatow's This is 40 [again] last night with my husband in order to decompress from a troubling day, and was delighted to see my favorite scene come up about halfway through the film. The main character drops her kid off at school and the homeroom teacher greets her with:  

Teacher: "Hi - um, listen, Charlotte really needs to get here on time because she really just needs the extra time to settle in."

Mom: [mystified] "We are on time." 

Teacher: [deadpan] “Being on time means being early.”

Parents laugh at this line because they think it's a line meant to satirize the arbitrary and stupid rules teachers impose on parents. 

But as a teacher - the teacher in charge of sixth grade homeroom attendance, no less - I know the truth. I suspect that Judd Apatow just might have the soul of a teacher. 

This line is truly funny; and funny because it's true. 

When your car pulls in to the drop off area thirty seconds before homeroom and you push your kids out of the car at a rolling stop, that’s not on time.

When your child bursts through the school entrance as the minute hand hits the twelve, that’s not on time.

Let me fill you in a middle school student’s morning needs – and keep in mind, I have left out the superfluous stuff in favor of the essentials.

Let's say you drive into the school parking lot at 7:40, a full twenty minutes before homeroom. And let me just say here, well done, you. By the time your kids get out of the car with all of their belongings - backpack, coat, sweater, lunch, history project - it's 7:43.

7:43 First things first. Check zipper, hair, adjust potentially embarrassing adolescent bits, and do a final check for food caught in braces. Check in with friends. Have friends re-check food in braces situation and comment on outfit. Figure out who is absent and why, and recount everything that has happened over the hours since they last checked in with each other on Facebook and Google Chat (but not Twitter, because that's for adult dorks like Mrs. Lahey). This first chapter of the school day can easily take an hour, but as homeroom doors close in :17 minutes, there's only time for the vital information.

7:45 Enter middle school, go to locker, unload books, put lunch away, put math journal on the math teacher's desk, figure out what books are needed for the first couple of periods. In a perfect world, the student sees the loose papers and textbook being squashed under the weight of four other textbooks and organizes those items. Avoid middle school head's eyes as she proceeds to homeroom so she won't notice that students' skirt is too short or her locker is tragically and cataclysmically disorganized.

7:52 Close locker door, if physically possible. Check in with friends again on some of the non-vital issues not covered earlier.

7:57 Move toward homeroom. Return to locker, retrieve forgotten math book.

7:59 Rush out of homeroom for plan book squashed under textbook at the bottom of locker and look for that piece of paper with the French verbs for today's quiz written on it.

8:00 Slip in to homeroom as Mrs. Lahey gives a disapproving look, flips up the doorstop with her toe, and closes the door.

Keep in mind, this schedule is for the kids uninterested in playing foursquare or basketball before homeroom. Some kids really need this time to work out their heebie-jeebies and figure out the daily re-adjustments in the social pecking order that governs middle school. 

So when I mark your child tardy when they arrive as the minute hand hits the 12, I'm not [just] being a nitpicky hardass. First period is going to be a nightmare for the kids who rush in at 7:59. Their brains, bodies, and belongings will be disorganized, and it will take them the twenty minutes they should have had before homeroom to pull themselves together. 

Judd Apatow is right. Being on time does mean being early. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Radio 101

Yesterday, I recorded my first installment for Vermont Public Radio's Commentaries series. I have wanted to be a part of this program for a long time, particularly as I get to write about the Upper Valley, and what makes this place so special. I wanted my first piece to be a departure from the education and parenting topics I usually cover, so I went with dairy farming and underwear. I figure that's about as 180 as I can go...although dairy farming requires some serious grit. 

My education in milking at Robie Farm happened a while ago, but it provided great fodder for my first 500-word piece. The producer of the Commentaries series, Betty Smith-Mastaler, liked the essay and invited me in to the VPR studio in Norwich (under the King Arthur Bakery!) to record it as an audition piece. I've done radio before, and as I read to my students often, I figured I had the chops to lay that baby down in one take.

But that pesky producer, she had her own opinion on my chops.

Consequently, I spent about a half an hour in Radio 101, taught by Professor Smith-Mastaler. I mentioned this to some of my writer friends, and they asked me to share the wisdom of Professor Smith. So here goes. Radio 101.

First, word count. I already understood the importance of word count, but when an editor or a periodical's submission guidelines page instructs me to aim for 800 words, I can submit 793 or 810 and no one will blink an eye. So when I submitted my piece to Professor Smith-Mastaler at 517 words, I figured I was all set. Not so, she said. In radio, every word is time, and Commentaries has a hard time wall of 3:14. I can cut the piece or she will cut the piece. My choice.

I cut the piece. Killed those darlings until they numbered 497. I thought about adding an "and" or a "however," but figured I was close enough if I was under by a word or two. Or three.


I've done speeches before, and figured I'd bump up the font size a bit for easier reading. While my instinct was right, that only got me part of the way to formatting perfection, radio-wise. Professor Smith-Mastaler sent me some additional tips that would help me read more clearly and fluently.

  1. Always bring the text to the studio. This particular studio has issues with wireless internet, so don't assume you can read off of a screen or print out at the studio. 
  2. Bring two copies, one for you, one for the producer, who will need to take notes on what needs to be re-recorded and if changes are made to the text during recording, she will need to mark up the copy. 
  3. The eye's natural scan width is four inches, so drag the right-hand margin over to 4. The text will look weird, but it really is easier to scan when you are in front of a microphone and a little bit nervous. 
  4. Use 16 point type, and if possible, choose the font used by the series. Commentaries uses Times New Roman. At least I knew that one. One point for me. 
  5. Page numbers should got at the top of the page rather than the bottom. The producer will be referring to them and it's easiest to find them quickly at the top of the page, in the upper right-hand corner. 
  6. Double space after every sentence. There's a reason for this that I will go to in the next section. 
  7. Eliminate all sentence breaks at the bottom of the page. Either shift entire paragraphs down to the next page or raise them up, but make sure the page ends on a terminal punctuation mark. You will be moving the pages after a pause at the end of each page, so you want to make sure you are at a good spot for a long pause. 

Once you get to the studio, hand the producer her copy. She'll likely offer water, but just in case, bring your own. My students have given me a cold, so I had a cup of tea before I arrived.

At VPR, the text goes on a music stand at face height, one page at a time. I laid mine out two pages at a time, thinking I was helping, but I was asked to put it back the way it was, with only one page on the top. When you shift your gaze at all, it changes your distance to the microphone and changes the volume.

While the producer is setting things up, go ahead and warm up. read the first page and just get your tongue working. Before you really get rolling, make sure that you get over the idea that you will be able to nail it in the first take. Not gonna happen.

Professor Smith-Mastaler let me go through it once without stopping me, but I think that was just to allow me to warm up and build my confidence. I thought it sounded pretty good, but again, I was deluded.

She told me that everyone gets very serious when they step in front of a microphone. She mentioned how animated I had been when I arrived and asked me to return to my baseline. Find the personality and lose the dour.

She then filled me in on the reason for the double spacing and a trick I have filed away as the most important tip of the day. She read my first page to me twice while I was watching. The first time, she did not look at me through the glass (she was in the production room, I was in a recording room). The second time, she looked up at me at the end of my paragraphs. The difference was amazing. Her voice...well, it changed somehow, and I felt as if she was talking to me.

She reminded me that people listen to the radio in noisy places - the car, the office, etc. - and I have to reach out and tap them on the shoulder, let them know I am talking to them, telling them a story. Somehow, looking at the producer allows the voice to become personal. Who knows why, but it was an obvious difference.

She told me to imagine the story when I read it. Imagine what it felt and smelled like when I peeled off my poopy, smelly clothing in the mudroom, shat the scrape of the cat's tongue felt like in my palm. And again, she was right. The reading was more vivid. The images shone through much more brightly.

We went through the entire essay twice, and then looped back around to the bits that needed what she called "gloss," or a special something. What words to hit, what pacing to give the parallel construction. She gave me the freedom to re-write the text, but in the end we stuck with what I had on the page.

The entire session took about 45 minutes, but I left with what felt like a semester's worth of knowledge in my head and a list of ideas for my next commentary.

And next time I won't feel like such a rube.

Thank you, Professor Smith-Mastaler, for a great first class.

Friday, May 17, 2013

As the Cuckoo is in June

It seems a "writer" named Kevin Ashby liked my piece in the Atlantic a lot. A whole lot. So much that that he pretended he wrote it and passed it off as his own without so much as a how-do-you-do. Fortunately, a reader was paying attention and called him out on his intellectual property theft. 

This morning, I received the following tweet:

It seems that the Publisher, Dustin Hughes, of the Uintah Basin Standard and Vernal Express published the following apology on Wednesday, May 15: 
A column from Uintah Basin Standard / Vernal Express Publisher Kevin Ashby ran in the April 9 and 10 editions of the sister papers that should have never run in the form it did. 
An alert reader noticed that large passages from Ashby’s column, roughly three-fourths of it, resembled something he or she had read in the Atlantic Monthly, a monthly magazine with a widespread physical circulation and a large online presence. 
The reader sent an anonymous email to the newspaper and to Brehm Communications (the owner of the papers) corporate heads linking to both Ashby’s column and the January 2013 Atlantic Monthly article. Indeed, much of the earlier column was quoted verbatim for much of Ashby’s April column. 
This is a serious transgression. Something went wrong and I had to figure out what.
Ashby said that during the writing and editing process of his column, he did rely heavily on the information in the Atlantic Monthly article. Ashby, the head of the two papers and my boss, said he consulted the source material that the Atlantic article quoted for his information. 
Ashby said he intended to include a paragraph before leading into the quoted material citing the source, but became rushed and did not do so in the end. 
This highlighted several flaws in the process. For starters, time should not have been a factor and he need not have been rushed. Ashby’s column was not timely and could have held for another week for a more thorough review. Indeed, that’s often the case with the columns which appear on page A4 of these papers. There is no need to rush through them. As it happened, the information was submitted the morning of April 8, when the Uintah Basin Standard was being pieced together by staff. It was then reran in the next day’s Vernal Express (the papers are assembled Monday and Tuesday mornings respectively, and hit the stands Tuesdays and Wednesdays). 
Also, in my opinion, Ashby should not have included such a large degree of the source material in the first place. More apt would have been to introduce the source and quote perhaps a paragraph or two. This should have been in a way so the reader would know it was not the columnist’s own research and work, but that he was drawing from another source.

In the past, when source material has been quoted more extensively, the source material has been italicized or otherwise set apart as an additional step to let the reader know it’s not the columnist’s own work. That did not happen in this case – an additional failure in the writing process. 
Lastly, I should have caught the change in tone and noticed that it did not sound like Ashby’s typical writing style. I did not read it with a critical enough eye and ask enough questions of him about the source and inspiration for the column. That was a failure on my part. 
Ashby has expressed remorse and regret at the plagiarism incident and has stressed to me it was not intentional.

The information age has made it easy for anybody to read about any subject that interests them. It also makes it easy to cut and paste that information. And failing to attribute the work is easy to do. 
However, that is wrong. It amounts to plagiarism, whether intentional or not and is tantamount to theft of intellectual property. 
In the end, all these failures added up to us failing you, the reader, and to Jessica Lahey, the author of the original piece, and to The Atlantic. I need to alert you, the reader, as to what happened. 
We need to do better. 
I apologize. 

Not that I would have known about the apology; neither Dustin Hughes nor Kevin Ashby felt the need to apologize personally, but I understand how they might not want to draw any more attention to their theft. 

As the topic of the plagiarized article was failure, and the lessons that can be learned from failing, here's hoping that Kevin Ashby (@vernalpublisher, if you care to tweet him) and Dustin Hughes (, if you care to email him) have learned a little something from this particular failure. As the original article is still posted online, it appears they are not too sorry about their theft. 

I will be making hay out of this situation by teaching a lesson on plagiarism on Monday in my English classes. At the very least, I can use Kevin Ashby and Dustin Hughes' failures in order to teach my own students how to avoid plagiarizing other writers' work. 

Although, I can't imagine one of my students lifting vast swaths of someone else's work, "forget" to attribute it, and publish the words as their own. 

But then, my students are people of character.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

I Came to Live Out Loud

I caught a lot of heat a while back for an article I wrote for the Atlantic positing that introverted kids need to learn to speak up in school. As is often the case, I learned a lot from the criticism swirling around my article, particularly from the rebuttal article in the Atlantic by Susan Cain and another rebuttal in the Washington Post by Katherine Schultz, not the least of which is the distinction between "introverted" and "shy." As usual, the serious scholars/journalists on the topic of introverted and shy children - Ms. Cain and Ms. Schultz - were my most articulate critics and my most ardent defenders. As scholars and writers, they understood my points regarding the value of public debate, ongoing discussion, and continued scholarship on the subject of education as it applies to disparate personality types.

This time of year, I am aware that I push my students out of their comfort zone. It is graduation season, and every Crossroads Academy 8th grader must deliver a short speech at the graduation ceremony on something they have learned during their education. For some, it's what they have been looking forward to for years. For others, it's hell. The deepest, darkest, most horrific ninth circle of Dante's hell, the worst possible sentence, handed down by the mean ol' Mrs. Lahey.

But here's what all of those critics of my methods did not know when they wrote of my supposed anti-introvert power trip: I teach my students for three years in a row, three years in which they learn to trust me, to know I would never humiliate them, to know I would never allow them to make fools of themselves, never leave them to flap in the wind.

Today, after three weeks of writing and practice on graduations speeches, I took all of my 8th grade students down to the bridge over Hewes Brook, a lovely, loud spot on the edge of our campus, so they could practice their speeches over the roar of the water and the whine of the wind. A few of my students were so nervous, they trembled.

I drew a line in the dirt along the path toward the bridge. Their classmates had to stand behind the line in the dirt. Far enough away that the speaker would have to project above the sound of the water and the wind in order to be heard. I instructed their classmates, safe behind the line in the dirt, to raise their hands if they could not hear or understand the speaker.

Every year, some the kids freak out with worry. And every year, they get over it and their graduation speeches are better for it. They learn to project. To articulate. To enunciate.

In about a month, they will stand before their schoolmates, teachers, parents, and extended families to deliver their graduation speeches. I could allow them to cringe and worry and fret, but instead, I do what I can do help them work through that worry, battle that anxiety, and become the public speakers I know they can be.

I've watched Susan Cain - representative of introverts everywhere - speak to huge audiences, over the static of her introversion, and she kicks ass.

I know my students - introvert, extrovert, brave, shy - can do the same, and I do everything I can to help them reach that goal.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Doing the Hokey Pokey

I know I am supposed to be able to tell the difference, but I am not sure if I'm leaning in or leaning out. Leaning out from what, and into what? Leaning into my writing, leaning out of teaching? Leaning into my family, leaning out of the complex details of a home/work compromise? I don't know. I'm simply leaning in and out as I have done over the past fourteen years of my parenting life, as needed, doing the hokey pokey. Right hand in, right hand out. Left foot in, left foot out.

K.J. Dell'Antonia's new feature at Motherlode, "How I Do It" inspired me to really think about precisely how I do it - nay, how my entire family does it - and realistically evaluate my family and professional life as new pressures arrive on the horizon. I happen to have a very supportive husband, but even my supportive husband needs his early morning hours to work out and his evening hours to conduct meetings, so I tend to stick closer to home and deal with many of our kids' appointments. I work within three miles of my house and he works twenty miles away, so we make compromises based on geography and scheduling.

When I sold my book to HarperCollins earlier this year, I sincerely believed I could continue to function as both a teacher and a writer. I am a teacher. Ergo, I teach. I am a writer. Ergo, I write. How hard could it be to put those two lives into delineated boxes? I can teach 50% of the time and write 50% of the time. When I announced this brilliant plan to my employers and my family, I considered myself enlightened and brilliant. Easy, peasy.

But wait. What if my classes are spread all throughout the day, and I can't get away from school? My prep day is Wednesday, and in my experience, students ask me questions all day long, even if my door is closed. I can ask to consolidate my classes in certain hours of the day, but the school schedule is complicated...

Fine. I will leave campus, even for an hour or two, off to my local library. I love my local library. Coffee, fireplace, quiet...

But what about advisory? Even part time teachers have advisors - I already have four of them, three of whom will really need me next year, and I will be expected to take on two or three more.  I meet with them during my free periods, which will fall during my free periods, which are...well, I can figure that scheduling out later.

And what about faculty meetings and meetings for advisory? There goes Wednesday afternoon. Wednesdays are dedicated to two long meetings - talking about our advisees and meeting as a faculty to learn and discuss and debate. But that's only until 3:30 or 4, at which time I can return home and do the dump duty (our dump is only open two days a week) and clean up and make dinner, and once my younger kid is asleep, I can write. Except that my older kid needs me in the evening. That's when he talks to us about what upsets him and thrills him and motivates him. And then I get to sleep around ten.

Wait? Where did my writing time go? And how is my teenager going to get to and from his high school, about fifteen miles away from our house, without the benefit of public transportation? My husband works twelve-hour days, so where will dinner come from and who will make it? Who will deal with the laundry? Dog? Chickens? Rabbits? Gardens? Lunches? Dust bunnies? Toilets? How will it all get done?

I spent an entire week bound up in anxiety attacks at three A.M. and got out of bed for walks around my neighborhood at five A.M., but no matter how many times I re-arranged my priorities and rationalized my personal days, I was flummoxed. 50% + 50% = 100% Except when 50% really = 100% and 50% really =100% and I still have not figured my family and household and orthodontist and sports and transportation into the equation.

Finally, after a week of little sleep and a lot of nausea, I asked my amazing and supportive 21st century husband to weigh in. He'd been reluctant to tell me what to do, believing that I'd find my own balance (does he not KNOW me after twenty years?).

He told me what he'd do in my position, and when he was honest with me, my gut relaxed for the first time in weeks.

I was able to breathe because my gut knew what my brain did not - that I can NOT do everything, no matter how much I want to believe I can.

Two weeks ago, I announced my intention to take two years off from teaching. I cried. And cried. I can not imagine anyone else teaching my students and felt as if I had betrayed their trust. I teach my students for three years in a row, and they count on me to be there for them, to mentor them and prepare them for high school. However, I have only these two years to write and promote a book that I believe in. A book I hope will influence the education and well-being of parents and children around the world. I only get one grab at that brass ring, and I don't intend to squander that opportunity. After I have ushered that book from brain to paper to reader, I will return to the classroom, because I am a teacher, and that's what I do. In the meantime, I am at the top of the substitute teaching list at Crossroads, and I will be guest teaching at a couple of different schools next year.

Parents engage in the hokey pokey dance of parenting and career every day. We lean in when we have to and lean out when circumstances dictate. The leaning out is understood in the press as leaning out from professional life, but some lives are not so easily categorized. I lean in and out simultaneously, and in my leaning out and in, I keep my life in balance. At the moment, my feet are securely planted under this precariously balanced life, and that's the only way I can move forward.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Oh, Say Can You See?

Mark Bauerlein wrote a fantastic piece for yesterday called "What Do U.S. College Graduates Lack? Professionalism." In it, Professor Bauerlein laments the marked decline teachers are seeing in student work ethic and the impact that decline is having on the emerging workforce.
I gave an exam last week, and one student showed up 25 minutes late. When the hour ended and I collected the papers, he looked up from his seat, cast a pitiable glance and mumbled, “Please, I got here late -- may I have another 20 minutes?” 
I shook my head and said, “Can’t do that.” His request echoed in my head all the way back to my office. Where in the world did he get the idea that an exam doesn’t begin and end at a set time?
I am both relieved and worried to read that I am not the only teacher who has noticed a decline in student work ethic over the past decade. This decline has not been subtle, in my experience, and when I talk to other teachers, I hear the same complaint.

Bauerlein writes,
Even more than employers, fully 64 percent of professors observe an increase in a sense of entitlement in recent years, while only 5 percent say it has decreased. The students text-message during class, send e-mails to teachers with grammar and spelling errors, and act “unfocused.”

I posted Bauerlein's article to my Facebook page, with a question about where the decline in work ethic is coming from. My smart and observant friend, Carol Blymire, who teaches part-time, observed, "Because Mommy and Daddy will do everything for them...?" and the writer Tetman Callis agreed, in his usual poetic style, "The ills of the republic are nested in the homes of the citizens."

I don't know what's going on in the homes of other citizens, but this citizen's home will be ground zero for a cultural sea change this summer.

This will be the summer of my sons' independence, and I'm not talking the country idyll version of childhood independence; running around in the woods all day long in the summer and only coming home at the call of the dinner bell. That kind of independence is great, but we've already got that going on. My kids are decidedly free-range. I'm talking about the kind of independence that requires initiative and diligence, life skills that enable us to render abstract ideas, desires, and needs into reality.

I want to foster the sort of initiative and diligence apparent in the difference between a kid who asks his mother in a tone of accusation and annoyance where his blue t-shirt is, and a kid who knows precisely where his blue t-shirt is because he's the one who washed, dried, and folded it when it got dirty.

Yes, it's true that I am operating under the influence of the mountain of parenting and education books I'm using as research for my book, texts that outline the evolution of our increasingly anxious and overprotective style of parenting in excruciating detail. Children used to have a work ethic because they were - gasp - expected to work. It's only once we started treating them as precious commodities to be coddled and pampered that teachers started to see a decline in the life skills that comprise work ethic, or "grit."

Despite the fact that I should know better, I have allowed myself to fall victim to one of the the classic parenting cop-outs, "Nevermind, I'll do it myself." I've failed my boys because I give in to the rationale that things get done faster and better if I do them myself rather than teach my children how to do them on their own. While it is true that I'm faster and better at most household chores, every time I do them myself, I deprive my children of the opportunity to practice both skills and diligence, and that's worth a few minutes extra here and there.

Part of my responsibility as a parent is to raise children with a solid work ethic, kids without the sense of entitlement described by Professor Bauerlein. More than the livelihoods of our children are at stake; the American economy is in the hands of today's parents. American college graduates are generally acknowledged to be less educated, less intellectually flexible, and less creative than their international peers, and to add insult to that critical injury by depriving our children of a strong work ethic could prove to be the fatal blow to our country's educational and economic future. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Mark of an Educated Mind

One of my sons got in trouble at school today. It doesn't really matter what he did - as long as he did not hurt himself or anyone else - because I know his teacher will help him understand what he did wrong and why he made poor choices. That's the magic of a great teacher. I trust her, I trust their relationship, and I don't need to intervene because she's holding him accountable for his actions, and I support her in that.

She asked him to fill out a reflection on his behavior, a reflection I was required to sign this afternoon. The prompts for his reflection are:

Here's what I did;
Here is why this was a poor choice;
This is what I should do next time so it does not happen again;
The virtue I violated was.

I will not bother to go in to the details of what he did wrong, mainly because that's his business, not mine, but it's pretty much what a lot of boys encounter in school as their energy levels increase and attention span decreases.

The virtues my son believed he'd violated were (in no particular order, other than his own mental processes): loyalty, self-control, gratitude, generosity, responsibility, heroism, stewardship, wisdom, and perseverance. Don't get me wrong, I know he did some mischievous stuff today, but I have to admit to being proud of his understanding of what he'd done wrong. That's what character education is all about, and I put my money where my mouth (or keyboard) is.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a teacher is the response some parents have to the news that their child is being held accountable. I've received angry phone calls, irate emails, and more than once, parents have stormed in to my office before homeroom to demand that I reconsider my actions, that their child could not possibly have done what I say they did. Demanded that I not discipline their child for anything unless I discuss it with the parent first.

Please, parents. Let your kids fail. Let them take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them. Allow them to learn from failure. This is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children.