What I Will Fret Over, 2018

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A few years ago I wrote a blog post about what I would fret over regarding my two sons and their futures. It’s near the end of 2018 and what I will fret over is some of the same but more and with a different urgency.

At the time I realized:

On my deathbed I will not be wishing I had fret more over my children’s education.

Rather, when that day arrives I may fret about their futures. About whether they know how much I love them. I will hope that they know how rich they have made my life. I will hope that they understand themselves to be capable and extraordinary human beings. I will pray that they have learned to trust others, how to reach out for help, how to care for and love others especially when loving is hard to do. I will fret that we have not had enough time to say all the things that we wanted to say to each other. I will fret over whether their passion for life and learning will be enough to see them through, in and on whatever paths they pursue. It is extremely unlikely that I will fret over how they did or are doing in school.

Today, following the election of an openly fascist president in the largest country in South America, who joins the ranks of world leaders poised to desecrate nature in hopes of power and profit, to punish indigenous populations for existing, to carry out nationalistic policies which openly discriminate and uphold racist divisions. In the midst of these developments, I fret for the future not only of my own children but children across the globe who will grow up knowing perhaps only the unrest, anger and deception that lie at the heart of the rise of unjust regimes.

And I fret over education and how we practice it. While I have found wonderful nurturing communities of educators who are deeply committed to opening minds rather than closing them, I need to remind myself at times that we are not necessarily the majority. The willingness of my allies and accomplices to face their own biases in order to better serve the children in front of them is not the norm. The rigorous pursuit of inquiry, liberation and radical imagination is not the focus of our professional development programs or degree granting institutions. Rather, we insist that new teachers learn to look past inequity and miraculously raise test scores. Education officials may suggest that gun training for teachers is a higher priority that ensuring that all children have adequate access to counseling services in every school. At the ballot box, funding initiatives to guarantee the coverage of school necessities in communities across the US struggle to pass and take effect.

We are living in a time where we have become comfortable with idea of stealing. From our children and grandchildren. With our political choices we are showing them that we are indeed selfish and short sighted, stingy and cruel, poor historians and lazy thinkers. All of our proud speeches about respect, care and critical thinking run smack into the reality of what they can witness on a daily basis – dehumanizing rhetoric, never ending violence against the vulnerable, the hardening of a ruling class that refuses to change itself.

My fretting today is the kind that has me writing at 4 am instead of sleeping. It’s the fretting that is physiological and that rekindles old worries and insecurities. It’s the kind of fretting that these new regimes aim to foster. Because a fearful, disoriented and unsure populace is much easier to manipulate with strong man arguments and false promises. But I am an educator. I’m not a superhero. I am a parent. And at this moment I am fearful.

And I have a little faith. I have two sons who know some things about care, respect and critical thinking. They are avid readers and understand that this matters. They have strong imaginations and dreams about what they want to achieve. In my classes, I work with eager students who have seemingly boundless energy to climb, jump, run and tumble. As they grow, I hope that they also build their strength of character and learn to recognize and counter injustice wherever they find it. Many of them will. Among hundreds of previous students, several have already made that commitment.

So this morning I have fear and some faith. I have community and back up. I know which side of history I am on. Today I will fret. I will also fight.

image via Pixabay.com CC0

Ski Jumping and Parental Awe

The more I write, the more I ask myself: Which stories are mine to tell?

My youngest son participates in ski jumping. It’s a fairly spectacular sport: Jumpers in a squatting position on especially wide and long skis, place the skis into a metal track, zoom down the steep track at high speed and cast themselves into a straightened body position which allows them to glide down the steep hill and land safely in an upright position before returning to a squat in order to brake the skis.

By now I have watched this process hundreds of times, weekend after weekend, performed by children as young as six on small hills, to the 8 and 9 year olds who advance to hills from 15 to 30 m, on up to the next group of older kids who may jump on hills anywhere from 40 to 70 m in length. As a family we’ve been at this for a little over 2 years and our son’s progress has been swift.

As a spectator I have learned a lot but I remain remarkably ill-informed about all the ins and outs of the scoring process, the finer points of measuring the distance jumped, and which wind is the good kind. I suppose, this is part of what makes watching a joy. I can lose myself in the aesthetics and daring of the enterprise. The risks are real, yet observed cases of real injury have been extremely rare.

My son asked me what it’s like for me to watch him in action. “Well,” I started, “I think I hold my breath, actually. I can film you and keep the camera still but I get pretty nervous, especially for the first jump.”

Meanwhile I was thinking but could not really find the words to describe the pride that swells in my throat, the relief that settles over me every time he returns from his flights unscathed, the sheer awe of watching him test the laws of gravity a little farther each time.

There is an unusual joy in being able to see our children succeed first hand. To witness my son’s satisfaction with his own performance becomes its own great gift.

While I cannot tell his story of sailing through the air on skis, I can tell my story of what it feels like to be connected to the person doing the sailing. Miraculous.

This is what my son watches for inspiration:

 

 

The Last Day of 3rd Grade

My young son who is 9 years old had his last day of school today and has officially completed 3rd grade at his Austrian elementary school. Traditionally the first and last days of elementary school (perhaps even in secondary) are very short and sweet. A bit like a meet and greet, except on the last day it’s a meet-and-pick-up-that-all-important-report-card-for-which-I-hope-you-brought-a-plastic-sleeve-to-take-it-home-in. The teacher says some nice words to the kids while parents gather to enjoy a final burst of pre-vacation small talk which differs only slightly from first-day small talk. For the most part you can keep the same activities and just change the verb tense from future to past.

I actually kind of like this tradition. Probably because it’s tradition and I’m also reasonably chilled out because my school year ended two weeks ago. I have time, so of course, it’s no problem to wait outside while the teacher-student thing is happening and then pick a low stakes activity to do with a couple of other families who have time and kids on their hands.

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At any rate, the boy received his Zeugnis (report card) for the first time with “real” number grades. In Austria the scale goes from 1 – Excellent to 5- Not adequate (in between are 2-good, 3-satisfactory, 4-adequate). On our walk to school he was already speculating what his grades might look like. He was pretty confident they’d be good or better but also wondered what might happen if he got a 3.

That’s where I had to stop him and explain that exactly nothing happens. Nothing. No upset, no punishment, nothing. On the way back home I also put the idea out there that his report card tells me very little about how his school year was, what he learned, how he learned it, what he liked most and what he didn’t like at all. It doesn’t tell me what kind of person he is in his class group, where his special strengths are, where he might need more support and where he made the greatest efforts. Nope, the report card as is, is simply a sheet of paper which tells me the broad subjects in which he was instructed and provides a number sign for each one indicating to what degree he met the teacher’s expectations.

If I really want to know about his learning then I have to ask him. And listen to his responses. I need to pay attention to what happens when we read a story together, to the questions that come up for him pretty much any time we are together. If I really want a picture of his progress then I can pour over the stacks of individual papers he has brought home all year long. I can read the stories he writes for homework. If I really want to know how the school year is and was, the most I can do and perhaps also the best, is to be available, open, present.

Report cards are what they are: institutional records of school attendance and academic…achievement? maybe.  Academic clearing (like clearing the bar in high jump)? Closer perhaps.  Let’s say “clearing” for now (yes, I just made that up). It’s about fulfilling external criteria and being judged on that. OK. Report cards are an institutional tradition. The weight and significance we assign to this tradition and the actual document will vary – among families, between kids, within a school, across school levels and types. My hope is that I can convey to my son that we have choices in deciding how big a deal it is in the grand scheme of things.

My 9 year old is not too bothered about any of this now. He has moved on to video games, read aloud time and a big long stretch of summer plans.  I bet he’d be alarmed to know I just spent almost 700 words on it right now.  Srsly, mom? Yup.

 

Soccer-Tennis Mom

My youngest son is 8 years old. He’s a spunky fellow who does well when his day includes plenty of physical activity (and watching television, he would certainly add). Not surprisingly he happens to be involved in a couple of sports. Since September he’s been playing tennis mostly 2 times a week and for almost half of his life he has played soccer on Saturdays. What has been interesting in this process is to observe how I as a parent have been brought into the picture with my son’s sporting engagements.

Let’s start with soccer. soccer-183684_1920

First of all, the program he attends is called the Soccer Factory and is run by a chipper Irishman, Conor.  The Soccer Factory holds its sessions throughout the week at the international school where I teach. My son attends a bilingual Austrian primary school and Saturday soccer means time that we spend together in my environment, all in English. My son started when he was not quite five years old. At the time, he liked running after the ball but didn’t quite grasp the idea of direction. Conor always assured me that as long as N. was having a good time, the direction thing would come.

One of the best traditions ever is the parents’ -kids’ game at the end of each session. This happens for every age group, 4-6’s, 7-9’s and even 10-12’s. (As the kids get older, faster, and better skilled, the number of playing parents decreases significantly I’ve noticed.) Typically, we play for about 10-15 minutes: all the kids, numbering anywhere from 12-30 versus how ever many parents feel up to the challenge. Of course it’s a bit of a free for all but generally kids are everywhere and there are a few adults who really know what they’re doing. These games are crazy, fun, a little risky and from my pedagogical, psycho-social perspective, an absolute goldmine of learning and bonding.

In my day job, I am a physical education specialist. I work with children on developing their movement skills along with their cognitive, emotional and social capacities. Usually I am the only adult in the room. I wonder what my teaching might look like if I had to do it with some or all of my students’ parents looking on. Yet this is what goes on at Soccer Factory week after week. My appreciation for what the team of coaches creates in terms of a positive and fun-loving atmosphere for kids and adults is high. The parents’ -kids’ game shows parents that they belong and that their support makes a difference. It shows kids that adults vary in their skill levels, make mistakes and like to have fun, too.

After each game, there is singing. The two teams line up facing each other arms over each others’ shoulders and the winners (usually the kids) sing the refrain from We Are the Champions at the top of their lungs. Then the kids run to their respective parents to be picked up or hugged. From outside, it might be considered a rather moving scene.

On to tennis.

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Regular tennis is a relatively new addition to our schedules and now about 5 months in, I can safely say our schedules because I have started to play, too. When there are sparring matches for the kids on Sundays, I join a group of women for a lesson with my son’s coach. On Tuesdays I can play with one or two other moms for the first hour and if there’s a need, the coach will get us on the court to play short tennis with the kids. In this case, my son is not only there to have fun. He and his 6-10 year old teammates are being asked to level up in order to play age group matches in the summer season. His coach has a playful sense of humor and also demands focused effort.

While I consider myself athletic, playing tennis challenges my body and psyche in ways that are revealing and at times surprising. It’s hard to stay concentrated.  I can’t keep track of all the details that need correction. I can move to the ball but not in the right way. My steps are too big, my stroke follow-through too short. There’s so much to work on. It’s a struggle and it’s also fun. Which is why I keep coming back. Because I can feel myself getting better, staying calmer, experiencing success. And the point that the coach makes again and again: “this is what you need to be able to play with N.” His plan for players integrates family involvement early on because he recognizes the importance of these alliances. Successful tournament players require supportive and committed parents. While I could be on the sidelines, this coach has used the opportunity to bring me fully on board where I am spending not just money but time, attention, and physical effort. Talk about effective sales.

I bring all this up because while this has become our family’s norm, I realize that these examples are not necessarily widespread. The approach at Soccer Factory has always been one which encourages fun while introducing manageable challenges. My son attends Soccer Factory not because he has designs on becoming a soccer star, but because it’s fun and it has become a family tradition, a mom-son thing that has stuck. We may not know where tennis will lead, but for now sharing a coach and the experience of learning a sport together provide space for me and my son to grow and develop with each other.

At the same time, as a physical educator, there can hardly be a more effective (and efficient) form of professional development. Not only do I get to observe and experience other coaches’ styles and techniques, I am also reminded, sometimes painfully, of the plight of the learner. It’s not easy feeling incompetent (tennis) or clueless (soccer) but in a cheerful atmosphere, in the company of other learners and a generous teacher, those feelings can direct one to productive action, humbly known as practice.

These experiences leave me wondering what our kids’ sports might look like if we found more ways to let parents get in on the game without overshadowing kids’ need for plain old fun. Or what might change if we opened our PE classrooms to parents once in while to share in their kids’ accomplishments and try out a challenge or two? I see from my experiences so far that sharing my son’s sports helps me be a better parent and teacher.

 

images via Pixabay.com, CC public domain