Are the Frills Essential?


Only connect… —E. M. Forster

As spring begins and the tiny yellow-green mulberry leaves start bravely out from their branches, students begin picking them. They pick them with the same care their parents use when making breakfast. In the classroom they feed the leaves to silk worms. The worms raise tiny faces to look into the children’s eyes, clinging to hands with hind feet. Pulling them off feels “weird.” The students’ reverence is akin to awe. By May the silk worms are spinning their cocoons and the art department has a box full of pure white silk amulettes as light as two raffle tickets and as big as your thumb. Students dye the cocoons turning them into all manner of marvelous creations, and make thread which they use in other works of art.

Cute, but is this activity really essential? Is this the kind of thing that should be going on in school?

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Education and Schooling

Children’s Day pre schoolers are measuring maniacs these days. I had my wingspan measured. It is 101 unifix cubes long. It is also 73 inches, 18 crayons and 13.5 hummingbird wingspans long—same as Malcolm, Annabel’s Dad. Anna Priya’s wingspan is half of Mr. Rick’s.

Experiencing that 101 unifix cubes, 18 crayons, 13.5 hummingbird wingspans and 73 inches are different ways of expressing the same thing is important even if it happens years before they can manipulate the numbers…even before they can associate symbols with quantities. Understanding that there are many ways to see the same thing is a critical educational objective.

Convert the fraction 3/8 to a percent. Turn 37.5% into a decimal. What is the fraction for .375? Students learn how to perform these calisthenics in 5th and 6th grade. However, this business must rest on a complex mental framework in order to be very valuable. Education is building that framework. Learning how to convert fractions to decimals and back again builds only a few tiny links in the fully developed, complex brain.

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Strengthen the Reality-Testing Mechanism

How truthful can we be with kids?

Jim, a single fifty-five-year-old raising a five-year-old son, Luke, posed the following child-rearing question:

“I decided to have Luke when I was 49. Why a single man would suddenly decide to have a child at that age is another story, but I did. I did the whole thing: I used an egg donor, my own sperm, and found a surrogate to carry Luke. Last week, as I was making coffee, Luke asked: ‘Where did I come from?’

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Are You Overparenting?

Are you an over-involved parent, or are you a “slow parent?”  Do you make yourself known to the teacher on the first day of school or do you think it is better to just watch and wait? How involved are you with your child’s homework? Are you pushing your child too hard or not enough? These days parents are criticized for being “helicopters” or “snow plows” on the one hand, and on the other criticized for being “unengaged” in school–sometimes in the very next breath. These questions all reflect that our eye is on the wrong ball.

The question isn’t: “Is your parenting slow or fast,” but “Whose foot is on the accelerator?”

Last week, a proud mother wanted to show me how beautifully her fifteen-month-old daughter was progressing. “Show Mr. Rick how you can walk,” she said. When the child refused, the mother said, “She doesn’t do it when we want her, too.” That’s right, I thought, and that is something for you to be proud of and nurture. She is on a mission, and it comes from within, but pleasing you is not it.

There is a natural tendency for parents to want to have their children meet or exceed the benchmarks of “normal” whether it is walking, talking, reading or learning algebra. This is often taken too far. In many of our schools it is taken for granted that more, faster, sooner is better. Those who are “below average” are examined for some sort of dysfunction.

As a parent, grandparent and long-time school principal I am happy that many parents are feeling the need to stop pushing their children and are attracted to movements like “slow parenting.” But we are still asking: How slow should we go? How hard should we push? Those aren’t the right questions. What’s this “we?” It’s not about us; it’s about them. Carl Honore‘s titles distract us from the real issue. His son has it right: “Why do grownups have to take over everything?”

Children naturally to want learn? Schoolwork is play for them. Ask most kindergartners what they looking forward to in first grade and they will say: “Homework.” We take their love of homework away from them by owning it. It’s their homework.

Our children’s success is going to be a function of their comfort with and self-discipline in pursuing goals, not how fast or slow they move through the curriculum. Overparenting is forgetting who the chief decision maker is

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Kids Online: How involved should parents be?

“Children need people in order to become human…. It is primarily through observing, playing, and working with others older and younger than himself that a child discovers both what he can do and who he can become—that he develops both his ability and his identity….”Urie Bronfenbrenner

CommonSenseMedia tends to go over the top in trying to motivate parents to use common sense when addressing the dangers of new technology to their children. At a recent gathering of over 200 parents and other educators in San Francisco, they opened the evening with a movie which communicates: “Watch out, or OMG will happen to your kids.” Although the video was NR, I would have rated it X for all the sex and violence it portrayed.

Is technology a force for evil or a force for good? What’s a parent to do? Although the scare tactics are unnecessary, the question is good. One parent, for instance, emailed me: “I’m concerned with the intrusion on schoolwork, the exposure to sex and violence, the creation of jaded kids instead of enthusiastic, inspired, and pro-active kids. And I’m equally concernedwith the health risks of not getting enough sleep, not getting enough time outdoors.”

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Arrogance is a Learning Disability

The Education of Character is Education Itself.

Many years ago I was consultant to a school that had a reputation for “strong academics,” but was experiencing a lot of “behavior problems.” The kids were mean to each other and to their teachers.

In one conversation about a seventh grader named Justin the teachers expressed their frustration that Justin interrupted his classmates, sounded like a know-it-all, blurted out answers, put others down for their questions and insulted teachers. One teacher said: “He takes after his father.” Others agreed.

At one point in the conversation one of the teachers said, “It’s a shame because Justin is such a good student.” At this point I said: “Wait. That statement is oxymoronic. Arrogance is a learning disability. He may get good grades on tests, but he is inhibiting his own learning as well as others. A know-it-all will not learn as much as someone who will listen to others.” I paused. “And we will never get his father to help us help him change if we label him a ‘strong student.’ That’s what his father cares about.”

By placing “academics” and “morality” in separate categories we compromise our ability to educate. Whether a student is searching for the right words to address a classmate or the best way to state a thesis in an essay, the challenge is essentially the same. Collecting oneself before entering the exam room, the sports arena, or the playground requires the same disciplines. The skills for solving math problems and social problems overlap. Educating “the whole person” starts with understanding that our work is to fully educate each kharakter in our care.


Humility, perseverance, openness, courage, patience, creativity, integrity, resourcefulness, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness are not so much virtues as disciplines, and they serve us well in all endeavors from the social to the academic, from the artistic to the athletic. The habit of taking responsibility is necessary for both homework and interpersonal conflict. The habit of always being respectful no matter what produces best results both in and out of the classroom. Respect, like other disciplines, is not a character trait, but a skill that can be learned. Parents and teachers need to work together to teach our children the disciplines that will help them build character. In the end, education of character is education itself.

 

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Kids and Social Media

The parent of a sixth grader emailed me from her iphone:

” My adjustment to Marcus’s emerging, pre-teen social media life is akin to the four stages of grief—denial, anger, depression, and acceptance. I started with ‘get off the computer now,’ as I witnessed this new viral habit consuming his attention (that previously went to piano practice, reading, and family time). Then, I tried the logical approach. ‘Hey, why don’t you finish up that chat (as the screen pings and his fingers fly across the keyboard in cryptic abbreviations) so that you have time to finish preparing for your math test.’ But I started to recognize that I need to respect his new social media world enough to give it some degree of privacy. I began to notice the rare (and not altogether reliable) sparks of maturity when he might sometimes ask me to help him: ‘Mom. Interrupt me in 20 minutes. I have some other things I want to do besides be on facebook.'”

I congratulate this parent on coming up the learning curve rapidly. The standard adult knee-jerk reactions of denial and anger are bad for many reasons: a) anger is not helpful, b) denial models decision-making based on ignorance, c) the technology is actually turning out to be very useful, and d) it is here to stay. In most cases controlling a child’s use of the technology is proving less effective than staying up-to-date with the latest advances. As parents we tend to forget that our kids have to learn good decision-making by actually making decisions.

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Taking Responsibility

The Story of The Three Little Girls has generated a great deal of conversation (on and off line) about the role parents play in getting their children to take responsibility. More than one parent has talked to me about the difficulty of trying to be fair and listen to both sides of a conflict.

While it is true that each party in a conflict usually bears some responsibility, our job as parents and educators is to teach children how to take full responsibility for their actions. Otherwise, they can give themselves a pass, and not do the hard work of learning new behavior. They can’t control what other people do, but they can gain mastery of self.

I like to use a trip to the principal’s office as a place where students can learn those new behaviors and develop their social skills. When a student is sent to my office for disrespectful behavior the conversation often goes something like this:

“Why are you here?”
“I don’t know. Mr. Soandso sent me. It’s not fair.”
“Well, what did you do?”
“Well, Mr. Soandso…”
“Wait, I don’t want the whole story, I just want to know what you did that caused you to be here.”
“Well, Johnny…”
“No. First you say ‘I’ and then there is a verb.”
“I threw the ball over the fence.”
“That doesn’t sound bad enough for you to be sent here. Why would Mr. Soandso send you here?”
“Because he told me to put it away in the ball bin.”
“Well, that makes sense. Do you think that makes sense?”
“Yes, but…”
“Don’t go there yet. First I want you to tell me what was wrong with that and then what you are going to do about it.”
“He said it was disrespectful.”
“Well, do you agree?”
“Yes, but…”
…and so on until he gets it.

I don’t allow the conversation to drift to the faults of the other party. I don’t concern myself with what is fair or unfair. I simply insist that the student identify the part he played and then take full responsibility for his behavior. That’s a teachable moment.

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Leading Genius into the World

One day when my daughter Brooke was one, she decided to take a walk. She opened the screen door to our summerhouse, stepped onto the flagstone walk, and headed down the dirt road that led into the woods. She walked with a purpose. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t even look at me. In fact, it was as if I weren’t even there. She just stood up from the pots and pans she had been banging on the kitchen floor, made for the screen door, and pushed it open.

As you can imagine, my first reaction was to stop her. I thought, “I can’t let a child that age, who has barely learned how to walk, just walk out the door without even checking with me. Where could she be going? All sorts of things could happen to her. A responsible father does not let his one-year-old daughter take off into the woods on her own. It’s just too dangerous.” In that first second, another thought arose: “Wait—there is no immediate danger. Let’s just keep an eye on her and see what happens. I don’t have to act … yet.” And so I just watched.

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The Story of the Three Little Girls

Once there were three little girls, Kathy, Lilly and Susan. They were all new to my school in the seventh grade and had come from different schools. But in eighth grade, when they were together, they turned themselves into a gang that was mean to other kids with increasing frequency and ferocity. Teachers knew it was happening, but the girls were clever and slippery. We could rarely catch them in a teachable moment or a punishable act. The most we could do was talk to them. As you can imagine, that didn’t change anything.

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