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

Unassigned Reading

Just about everything I read now is unassigned. I am no longer in school. I believe that I have acquired all the academic degrees that I care to acquire in this lifetime. And while there may be the occasional course of study to deepen my understanding of certain professional or personal development topics ahead, the reading choices at this stage of my life are entirely voluntary and self-determined. If you have followed this blog for any length of time you will know that I am an enthusiastic reader and I have the privileges of time, resources and access which afford me a tremendous wealth of opportunity to engage with texts of all kinds.

I say all this now because I have been thinking about the reading that I have done which 1) has nothing to do with education directly, 2) I do with someone, 3) is something routine that we do simply for pleasure. I am thinking about a year or actually several years’ worth of reading aloud to my sons. My youngest is 8 and reading aloud to him counts as one of my greatest parenting pleasures. He’s an astute listener for whom the length of bedtime reading is still an extremely effective bribe.

Looking back over the course of this year, it’s hard to count how many books we read all together. The first 4 Harry Potter books were big, I think we re-read A Cricket in Times Square and Charlotte’s Web. The Fantastic Mr. Fox was a recent birthday gift which we enjoyed. Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf turned out to be an unexpected hit and as well liked as Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk. Chapter books were always punctuated by various picture books: Piggy and Elephant are among our favorites to read in tandem. Classic fairy tales also hit the spot: The Gingerbread Man, Jack in the Beanstalk, The Three Billy Goats Gruff – we read those over and over. With his dad he has discovered the fun in Asterix and Obelix comics (which is rather lost on me; I think it may be more of a European thing).

The librarians at my school have been wonderful supporters of our reading endeavors, not only supplying us with books that have been sorted out but also directing us to great new possibilities. While I began reading Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck on my own, my son was drawn in by the detailed illustrations which run throughout the story, so that we read a big chunk of it together. Although I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret on my own, it was a highlight when a 5th grader at school saw me with it and said he was reading it, too. And it was the elementary librarians who turned me on to Jaqueline Woodson, whose autobiography, Brown Girl Dreaming in verse felt like a rare gift.

So many words, characters, and plot lines and all for the sheer pleasure of hearing, discovering, following, and anticipating what might happen next. My son remembers details from books we read months or even years ago. He quotes lines from one story that remind him of what we’re reading now. And with him I am miraculously able to remember too (most of the time). Recently we observed that a lot of children’s stories involve (and often open with) the death or unexplained absence of a parent. And we tried to understand how this kind of sets up the kids in the story to be heroes of a special sort. (We’ll be chewing on that theme for many more reads to come I’m sure.) Since I put a hold on continuing the Harry Potter series until the boy is a bit older, I’ve been attentive to introducing books and stories which can pick up some of the excitement slack in a more age-appropriate fashion. We’re currently reading The Abominables which is a delightful story about extremely kind and gentle Yetis being transported across Central Asia and Europe to England by a friendly truck driver and two pre-teens. (This is a book I dared to pick up based on its cover, I admit.) When my son commented on how much he liked this story, he said, too “I like everything you bring.”

All this unassigned reading for both of us. There’s no log. There will be no reports, book trailers, or other creative expositions of our literary excursions. Studies show our vocabularies are expanding, we’ll be more successful writers, we’ll do better on standardized tests.  Fortunately for us this is not the objective. It’s just us cuddled up, turning pages, giggling, pausing in surprise, finding just the right rest stop for the night. We have to good fortune to enjoy the very best of unassigned reading: joy and connection.

Who We Are Is Often What We Teach

While perusing my Twitter feed for info and inspiration I came across this post by Debbie Donsky: The Mantras of School Principals and Shaming Helicopter Parents. She talks about being a principal dealing with angry parents and how she consistently reminds herself that their behavior is coming from a place of love. That even as those parents may be threatening and intimidating, they are in that moment very likely also feeling powerless – to protect, help or cope with their child’s behavior or situation. This struck a chord with me on many levels: as a teacher who has been the bearer of bad news to parents, as a parent who has been told that their child is lacking and requires a dramatic intervention, and also as an aspiring school leader.

I was so moved, that I wrote this in response:

Thank you for this wonderfully insightful piece. It highlights the core of what I think makes teaching so very challenging, humbling and also rewarding: who we are is often what we teach. Implicitly and explicitly. Intentionally and unwittingly. Today, tomorrow, yesterday, again and again.

Every time that I recognize a situation as a problem, I go on a hunt. And I have choices in what to hunt for and how I will go about it. I can be on the lookout for someone or something to blame. I can also try looking at the situation itself, not only from my perspective but from the perspective of the others involved. The latter is a decidedly more complex, time and labor intensive kind of hunt. It’s hard and the results are not always readily visible or apparent. What you describe in your piece is an attempt to take a chance on the second kind of hunt. You encourage us to look not only at the other in judgment but to also look in the mirror.

What I continue to find at once troubling and affirming in my teaching is there is so much work I have to do on myself — on being, on becoming and also changing myself. This is the work that is never ending. It is precisely the work which also allows us to grow with and alongside our students. It is the work which allows us to partner meaningfully with parents and colleagues. This is the work for which there are no certificates or degrees and the criteria for success keep shifting case by case.

For this reason I feel utterly uplifted by your post in which you describe what this work can look like and where it can lead us — to a place of understanding and cooperation; exactly in the face of turmoil when it certainly feels a lot safer to lay blame and run up the high road. And of all things, LOVE! Who dares talk about love in our day-to-day educational interactions, especially in connection with parents? Remembering and centering love as a source and motor for a whole range of behaviors is not necessarily the professional practice we are taught to employ. Yet we need this capacity to see, witness, understand and also work with evidence of love in so many aspects of our lives in schools. Thank you so much for the rich reminder of the tools we have at our disposal to learn, understand, empathize and therefore also educate.

I had been off my writing rhythm for a while and was certainly feeling it. Donsky’s thought- and emotion-provoking piece brought me back to life, in a manner of speaking. When a message resonates deeply, I almost have no alternative than to write what is on my mind and heart. I want to think more about where love fits into the curriculum of who I am whenever and and wherever I may be teaching (or not).

Poetry in Motion: My Son’s First Great Video

My son created this video when he was 16 and in high school. I remember sharing the video with friends, family and colleagues and laughing about what a relief it is not to see it happening live when I would most likely have
tried to prevent it from happening in the first place.

I hadn’t viewed it in while and I see that in the meantime many more folks have: over 17,000. And yet to watch it again, to see the pure joy of accomplishment on my son’s face, is to experience a thing of rare beauty. Only now do I get that IRL stands for “in real life.” There is a richness to these 48 seconds that astounds and amazes me. The editing, the second take in slow motion  with this eerily sentimental music, the brevity – all of it makes for a wonderfully compact composition.

Back then, that is how my son spent much of his time – on the computer, creating, editing, producing video – outside of school; the ongoing genius hour for which there was no time or space in school. His interests have since moved on to music production, DJing, and serious gaming. When I need a lift, this video is one place I’ll remember to come back to again and again.

School Is Going To Be Awesome!

The Start (Pixabay.com)

The Start (Pixabay.com)

One of the greatest insights I have ever received on the topic of school answers the question of why kids continue to go to school day after day, school year after school year without more protest. Put simply: because school is where all the other kids are.  (I am inclined to credit psychologist and author, Michael Thompson, PhD, with this insight, but I have not yet been able to retrieve the specific passage.)

And if we think about it honestly, as parents, teachers, or just as grown-ups, doesn’t that make perfect sense? Of course kids want to be where other kids are. That’s where the action is. It’s where they can really learn the stuff that interests them. With other kids is where kids learn how (and how not) to be themselves. They develop their own idiosyncratic metrics to determine who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out, what’s cool and what’s not. What’s going on at school for kids has everything to do with these factors first and foremost and all else (i.e., academic achievement) has to be viewed within this critical context.

For this reason I love reading Michael Thompson on the topic of child development and school. In The Pressured Child  (2004) he describes why he feels that the psychological aspects of school are missing in most talk about education.

We always talk about what we’re trying to teach children in school, and whether they are learning what they need.  However, this is only the first of three different levels at which children experience school: The Lesson, The Strategy and Self-Knowledge.

The Lesson is the adult agenda for children. The Strategy is what children develop in order to cope with both the reality of The Lesson and the many other things they are interested in learning from school…Self-Knowledge is what children actually achieve in school.” (p. 14-15)

As adults we typically have a very hard time seeing things from the child’s perspective. We have forgotten what it was like being a child. We can no longer fathom the way they think and how on earth they reach the conclusions that they do.  And we have responsibilities: to make sure they are safe, warm and fed, that they are educated, and that they are loved. We’re working so hard to make sure they get what they need and often a fair amount of what they want. Why can’t they see that?

***

Getting back to my own thoughts on school, I realized that my own positioning is decidedly ambiguous. Having my six year old start first grade in September has thrown this ambiguity into stark relief.  While I want my son to have a great school experience, I am clearly braced for the possibility that this may not materialize. In fact, I am sure that my grown-up reservations about school being the perfect place for children are as plain to my son as the nose on my face. This led me to wonder about adjusting my message.  What if I told my son, “School is going to be awesome!” and actually meant it?

What if I consciously added this perspective to the mix of messages he is receiving? He is six years old. The song, “Everything is Awesome” makes sense to him. So much of his world is still occupied by magic, miracles and super-hero powers. In his mind, school could become like the secret lair of a bunch of mini masterminds or the enchanted forests of a distant planet. All of that is still so possible – in his mind.

Yet my maternal, adult, educator mind is still saying: “You’ve got to be ready” and “You’re starting school in September” which are both ways of saying, “There are expectations you’ll need to meet, there are challenges you’re going to face” and actually meaning “I hope you’ll be OK,” and “I sure hope it goes well.” And deep down, “Yeah, I’m pretty scared, too.”

Maybe there’s the crux. And I think Michael Thompson would agree: My fears are my own and they surface as I watch my own child venture into new territory. Having that awareness and acknowledging it puts me in a real position to grant my son license to create his own adventure, both with school and without.  It’s possible for kids to absolutely love school. And for so many reasons I need to do all I can to support that possibility, to keep it alive in my son’s mind as well as in my own.

 

I highly recommend just about anything written by Michael Thompson, PhD. Especially, however,

The Pressured Child (2004) NY, NY: Ballantine Books (w/Teresa Barker) or

Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, Michael Thompson, PhD and Catherine O’Neill Grace with Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD. (2001) also Ballantine Books.

Got control?

Negative stress, my husband informed me, comes from the feeling of not having control. Yeah, that makes sense, I agreed with him.
It’s a straightforward insight and yet I hadn’t heard it put in such clear terms before. I’ve held onto that thought ever since.

I began observing myself in situations where I became impatient, annoyed or disengaged and discovered distinct patterns. In a short time it became readily apparent that when I felt helpless, at someone else’s mercy, or dependent on an outcome over which I felt I had no say, those negative emotions were almost certain to surface and persist. I found many more examples at home with family than at work which helped me recognize that the real work I needed to do was, above all, on myself.

So I learned to pay closer attention to my sense of control in various situations. Below are some of the things I do to regain control when I am on the verge of losing it or have already lost it. See if any of these make sense to you:

1. I go exercise.
If I can get out on my own, an extended walk helps me re-establish some degree of equilibrium. Just moving, thinking and being outside works wonders. If I don’t have the luxury of going solo, I just get into a space and do some sit-ups, push-ups or sun salutes. The point is, it doesn’t have to be much. I don’t need to change clothes. Simply straining myself a little shifts the energy in my body from overpowered to empowered.

2. I do a little housework.
My husband is an excellent housekeeper and does a lot of the stuff that I tend to avoid. Tackling a small duty, however, makes a positive difference. Folding and storing a load of laundry, sweeping the floor, or washing some dishes by hand. These are all tasks where I can see the results and I feel responsible.

3. I do my hair.
This may sound funny but it works. Doing my hair involves some effort. While I am fond of my naturally wavy-kinky tresses and the versatility of style I enjoy, washing, combing and styling my hair – typically in some form of braid or twist – takes some time and a bit of forearm strength and finger dexterity. Left to its own devices, my hair is wild and dense. Taming it on its own terms into neat side twists or multiple playful braids without the aid of a chemical relaxer becomes a source of stubborn pride and nice visual metaphor for the order I am striving to create and maintain.

4. I prepare myself a healthy meal.
A couple of years ago I undertook the Metabolic Balance program to work on improving my overall nutrition. Strict adherence in the beginning brought great results but after about a half year of seriously disciplined eating habits, I gradually let up and some of my less favorable habits snuck back in. Nevertheless, the basic principles (moderate portions of protein and veggies, minimal carbs, plus a daily apple) are still with me and have had a positive influence on my food intake. So when I prepare one such meal, I usually steam chicken with broccoli seasoned with some ginger, lemon, salt and pepper and then add a couple of cherry tomatoes for color. A tall glass of water to wash it all down and I feel like I have just won the discipline trophy of the year.

5. I write.
Journaling more than two or three times per month is often just enough to remind me that I have a valuable outlet that I may be neglecting. Giving my funk a name, address and telephone number lets me take ownership of my situation in a different and more balanced way. My journal doesn’t argue with me the way my head does. That makes writing a gift that keeps on giving. The more regularly I write, the more familiar I become with my mental and emotional neighborhood, the better I can cope with all manner of crises in my neighborhood and beyond.

Not quite 6. Time out.
I would love to be able to say that I find a quiet corner and go meditate but that is not the reality. When push comes to shove, I may have to leave the room quickly and go sulk for a time. While it may seem childish, it is also sometimes what I need to do before I can attempt a course correction. This type of time out is the ultimate signal that unless I claim that time and space for myself right then and there, the results are likely to be worse rather than better.

This last point is the one I waffled about including. It is not the strategy I am proud of or would recommend. Nevertheless, it is one of the things that I do when it feels like the battle for control is lost, if only briefly.

My primary finding here is that one of the best tools we have for recognizing control is understanding how we feel and behave when it is missing. Identifying these six ways I try to restore or boost my sense of self-control moves me that much closer to growing a resource which can quickly become scarce when the pressure is on and I need it most.

What do you do to manage and negotiate your sense of control? Please share. I would like to hear your thoughts.