Treat Children As the Scientists They Are and Skip the Terrible Two’s

My one-year-old grandson, Musa, is fast. No, I mean very fast. He can be safe on the sofa and in the time it takes me to get up and take a book off the shelf, he can be waving a poker from the fireplace in all directions.

One can easily foresee the onset of the “terrible two’s,” where all his relationships are defined by a continual string of “No’s” and a battle of wills. But on my last visit with Musa before I returned to the Midwest, I got a clear picture of how it doesn’t have to be that way. Continue reading

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Should Parents Give Their Children Books For Christmas, or?

 Love

When I was nine and my father asked me what I wanted for Christmas I said, “Something I can build and then when it’s built I can play with it.”

Fifty years later, when my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas I said, “Fifty pieces of rebar two feet long.” Continue reading

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How Do You Use Blocks? An Excellent Interview Question When Hiring an Elementary School Teacher

Ah, those smooth, splinter-free blocks of maple! Just reading about them in the New York Times last Sunday connected me to my childhood like almost nothing else could. I spent hours on the floor with them on into my early teens when sports, girls and boarding school finally tore me away from them. I built and built and built, designing and redesigning as I went, learning the relationships among quantities 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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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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How Schools Can Make Kids Stupid and What Parents Can Do.

If the deadening weight of school ever threatens to extinguish the love you came here with, don’t let it. We were wiser than we knew when we wrote those college personal statements. Remember the person that naïve teenager wanted to be. Be that person, and more.

–Aarti Iyer—Columbia College Senior*

Episode 1: Taking Recess Away

Teacher: “Class, you can have your lost recess time back when you show me that you can sit quietly and focus on this worksheet for the next fifteen minutes without talking or staring out the window or bothering someone else.”

With one voice Class replies: “No deal. Here’s the deal: 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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An Educational Summer

There is not much disagreement that reading to your children for at least 20 minutes a day is a very good thing–and that’s good. A quick scan of a google search for “read to your children” will give you a pretty good outline of many of those reasons. However, the most important one is underrepresented: Continue reading

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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.

Continue reading

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