The Importance of Being New at Rosh Hashanah

 Genius: (n) the tutelary spirit of a person, place or institution.

 At sundown yesterday, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year started. I always felt that it was part of the genius of Judaism that they had the wisdom to start the new year when the children go back to school. (Yes, yes, I know they decided to do that long before there even was school.) It’s just that for my whole remembered life (starting at the age of 3) the new year started in September when school opened.

Eaglebrook School had a tradition (do they still?) that the opening assembly of the new year ended with the declaration: “You are new.” Continue reading

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Overparenting: How Not to Get Kids Ready for School

Last school year, I saw a young mother and father in the Decatur Public Library leaning forward over a small table overparenting their three-year-old daughter as she tried to put together the puzzle of an alligator with 26 green pieces A to Z. Continue reading

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Blessings on the First Day of School

On the first day of school, Peter had had a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast. His teeth were brushed, his lunch and snack were in his backpack, and his favorite shirt was on his back. As his father scurried around the kitchen, he talked to Peter saying things like, “Have you got your lunch? Have you got your backpack?”

Peter was in the lead as they stepped out the door and down the steps to the car. Five feet from the car his father yelled: “Peter! You don’t have any shoes on!”

Looking down at his stocking feet, Peter saw that it was true and said, “Okay. But you don’t have to get mad at me.” Continue reading

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Teaching Empathy at Home and School. Can Schools Teach Empathy?

Last week a parent asked,  “Can schools teach empathy?” Here’s my answer.

Empathy isn’t taught. The human brain is wired for empathy (mirror neurons). Adults shape an environment; that environment shapes the child’s empathy. So schools can’t not educate a child’s empathy. If they don’t do it well, they do it poorly. Continue reading

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Vulnerability on the First Day of School: Weakness, Worry, Worthiness, and Seven Ways to Ensure Success

On the first day of school Leila’s mother said: “Leila was looking forward to school all summer. Then two nights ago she started getting anxious.”

I know Leila struggles with “giftedness.” Nonetheless, I asked, “What was she anxious about?”

“Will my friends be in my classroom this year?”

All children are completely different, each with their own peculiar set of strengths, weaknesses and things to worry about. However, the number one reason children go to school is to be with other children, and regardless of whether they charge into school on the first day all smiles or cling to their parents’ legs, they are all the same in one major respect: their bottom-line aim is to avoid embarrassment.

And embarrassment is a possibility for each one of them. “Will I say something stupid in opening circle?” “Will I measure up?” “Will anyone like me?” “Am I worthy?”

We humans are social animals. We all want to be worthy and are aware that our weaknesses put us at risk. We are anxious that our vulnerabilities will trip us up. So in most social environments we lead with our strengths, trying to hide our weaknesses. We can expend a great deal of psychic energy trying to hide those weaknesses.

And yet, school is usually designed to make hiding hard. Continue reading

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Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really.

Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really.

Why do Americans want one set of things for our children and then behave as if we want another? Parents and teachers I talk to want their children to be self-confident learners who are good at working with others, and they want school to help with this.

Of course we want our children to read, write and learn the language of mathematics, but we want much more, too. We want them to learn the requirements of our family and our society and to become active participants—leaders, actually—in an increasingly democratic world. We want them to grow up with self-discipline, respect for others, critical thinking, self-confidence, resilience, a love of learning, and the internal motivation to make something of themselves. We want them to be people who take responsibility and make a positive difference to others, their community, and the world, …and the world needs people who think creatively—now more than ever.

When it comes to school, however, we often behave as if all we care about is test scores and what colleges our children attend. In urban systems our expectations drop even lower to things like “Our goal is for all students to be at or above grade level.” We are even blind to the obvious fact that such a goal is impossible and self-defeating.

Why? Fear.

When we are confident and courageous, we act as if authenticity matters. We trust the part of us that knows that success and happiness depend on pursuing your own calling and finding your own niche in society. We realize that great colleges are looking for leaders, people who think creatively and make a difference. We, therefore, act as if we believe in the genius of each individual child and encourage them not to lose sight of their own personal mission as they find their fit in society. We create environments at home and at school that value inquiry and are open to the wisdom of silly questions. Achievement is put in its proper place as a subset of learning. We have a sense of humor.

In an atmosphere of fear, however, our minds are taken over as if by an evil empire dominated by a social pyramid where life is a race to the top. In this model it is quite reasonable to be afraid that some children will be left behind. In fact in this model the vast majority of children will be left behind, and only a few will make it to the top—it’s a pyramid, right?

We seem to believe the many myths of this model–lies like: Continue reading

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Daphne Goes to School

It was a hot day on the upper west side of Manhattan. I had just dropped my freshman stepdaughter off in her dorm room at Columbia University and was experiencing a rare and marvelous moment of directionlessness. Daphne, age five, stood at Broadway and 114th at a table with her father and held a sign saying “Lemonade 50 cents.”

I said, “Wonderful. Lemonade. Perfect thing on this hot day. How much does it cost?”
“Fifty cents,” Daphne replied with a smile.
“Fifty cents. That’s cheep. Can I have a glass?”
“Certainly,” said Daphne.
I gave her a five-dollar bill, and she reached into the zippered purse around her neck, giving me back two quarters.
“But I gave you a five,” I said. Continue reading

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Leave and Learn

Having trouble separating from your children on the opening day of school? Separation from our children goes deep.

The sun rose at 6:30 on the morning of August 22 in the hills above Philo, California. I know because I was awake to greet it having risen, myself, at 5:30 like clockwork. You’d think I thought it was my responsibility to make sure the sun got up all right.
And indeed, it did rise beautifully. This Sunday morning the dense fog bank that has plagued northern California for a month seemed to be thinning out over the coastal range to the west. In the east the mists now lay (as they should) like blue-tinted cotton batting in the valleys below me, and they were beginning to rise in fibrous filaments toward the bluing sky.
However, it was much later that day that it finally dawned on me that in five days I would be leaving California. My 28-year-old architect daughter Katie and I had agreed that our goal for the weekend Continue reading

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