Class Rank

The conversation started out innocently enough. We were talking about the grades my daughter earned in the third quarter, which ended on Friday. Of course, nowadays, with programs like PowerSchool, there really are no surprises when it comes to grades. If parents open that report card and don’t know what their kids’ grades are, they’re not paying attention.

But then my daughter stared talking about a student in her AP English class who was missing much of her work for last quarter because she just didn’t hand it in. Or something. This particular student was ranked number one in the class last year, but this year… not so much.

If you’re wondering why a child would choose to slack off junior year—the year that is probably the most important, as far as college admission goes—read on. The rest of the conversation is quite telling. While the subject continued on grades and class rank, the focuse shifted to my youngest.

“I’ll bet you’re valedictorian in your class,” my daughter said to her brother. Her tone was almost accusatory.

“No I’m not,” he assured her, and he named the student who is.

“Well, you’re just a freshman,” she told him. “Your classes are easy and you don’t even do any homework. Wait until junior year. The people who are working hard now will get overwhelmed and start to struggle. Then you’ll be valedictorian.” She seemed pleased with her logic.

There was a pause in the conversation, and I thought it might be over. Then she said, “But if you’re valedictorian, you’ll have to give a speech, and you won’t want to do that. You’ll have to slack off a bit. But not too much because you don’t want Guidance to notice and ask you what’s up.”

“If I’m a junior and I’m number one in the class, I’ll have to slack off more than just ‘a bit.’”

“No you won’t,” I inserted myself into the conversation. “The top few students are really close. If one grade slips just a little, you’ll slip to number two with no problem.”

“But you don’t want to be salutatorian, either,” his sister cautioned him. “There’s really no point. If you aren’t number one, may as well go for third. Then you won’t have to give a speech, and you won’t have to be second.” If there was such a thing as an audible wink, she would have inserted one here.

And that explains why the top student in the class might slack off junior year—apparently, it’s all about the speech. And this is where I insert an audible groan….

 

Student Emotion

I was walking through one of the study areas at work yesterday, and I passed by one of my student tutors. She was sitting at a computer desk, her homework spread out around her. The non-work items on the desk were few since it was a public space, but she had a brightly colored box of tissues next to her. The box sported pictures of cartoony-looking fish from Finding Dory, giving me the impression it was not the nondescript pattern typically associated with institutional tissue boxes. Because we are (hopefully) emerging from the thick of cold and flu season, I pointed to the box. “Are you bringing your own tissues to work with you now?”

She looked up at me from behind the large the desk where she sat. “Yeah. It’s that point in the semester.” She blinked sad eyes for effect. “I brought them in case I need to cry.” Her face was more serious than usual.

I stopped abruptly. “Oh!” I studied her face. “Are you all right?”

She smiled. “They’re not really mine.”

“Okay,” I released a relieved sigh. “That sounded just like something my daughter would say,” I added.

“Yeah. It’s a girl thing,” she shrugged. But then she considered what she had said. “No, maybe not. I think it’s an age thing.”

I studied her face for a moment. In it, I could see hints of my daughter, of several of the students I work with, of so many people I know, young and old. “Maybe,” I pretended to accept this explanation as I turned to walk away, but I was certain it wasn’t an “age thing.”

What I really wanted to say was, “I think it’s a life thing!” But some things are better left unsaid.

Car Snacks

fullsizeoutput_2ae5I recently renewed the registration for both of our cars. Since both cars are registered in my name, they both came due in my birth month. After I completed the registrations, they sat by my front door waiting to be moved to the cars.

A week or so ago, I finally went out and stuck the new stickers on my license plates and put the documentation in the cars, first my car and then the car my teens use. As I rooted around in the glove compartment for the little plastic sleeve that we have to hold the registration, I noticed two individually wrapped ring pops.

Back at the beginning of the summer when I was in the car for some reason, my son had shown me the various snacks he was keeping in the glove compartment—ring pops being one of them. Therefore, I was aware of the car food and not surprised to find the ring pops there. I was a bit concerned about their condition, but since they were unopened, I figured I would deal with them another day. I slipped the registration into the sleeve and shut the glove compartment.

Yesterday, my daughter had somewhere to be and it was snowing. She took the car that was better in the snow, and W and I took the smaller car on our errands. As we drove down the long road home, he decided to search the glove compartment, a hobby of his when he is in either one of our cars. Of course, he discovered the ring pops and decided he was going to help himself.

Keep in mind, we are several months from hot weather, and candy that has been in a hot car over the summer has likely seen better days. And W certainly found that out when he opened the first of the two pops.

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It was no longer its original shape, having melted several times over. The second wasn’t any different. While he did taste one before we threw them out, they were chewy and not what he was expecting.

Now I’m trying to come up with the best moral for this story. Perhaps it would be, Sometimes things don’t maintain their original form in a hot car. Or maybe, If you don’t throw out your car snacks before you go off to college, your little brother will do it for you.

Maybe we can just go with this one: Don’t store your candy in the glove compartment.

Seeking Inspiration

I am trying to write. Something funny, something creative, something inspiring. but my mind is overworked, active day and night as it deals with life and loss and moving forward. I am looking for inspiration and something to sink my words into. And then there was this:

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Hardly an invitation to creativity.

This book appears to be as uninspiring as any book I have seen, despite the claim on its cover. I am wondering about the conversation in the design room the day this book was being completed. “Hey Boss, I need a cover for this textbook on creativity….”

“Yeah. It’s a textbook. Make it look like one.”

“But Boss, it’s a handbook. Of creativity. Shouldn’t it be fun? Creative, maybe?”

“Nah. It’s a textbook. Make it look like a textbook. Throw some color on it if you want.”

Hmm.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen some much more appealing textbooks. I’ve seen some downright fun textbooks. Most even have pictures or designs on the front cover. Just because a book is designed for learning doesn’t mean it has to be boring. In fact, a splash of color on the cover might make the reader more excited to read this book. I know that for me, the appeal of the cover definitely affects my interest in a book, but apparently, this is a centuries old debate, as indicated by the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” You know, the whole first impression thing….

But then I have to wonder why it is that we are so quick to judge based on what’s on the outside. There is much information held within the pages of this book. The fact that the cover is dry and stilted and downright uncreative is of little import to the material contained within the book. It just seems to me that a handbook on creativity should be… well… CREATIVE.

But I am trying to creative-ize my mind and clear the fog that has been hovering there. Perhaps the words of this book might inspire me. Or maybe they’ll serve to distract me just enough that creativity can slip back in.

The Process of Learning

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At dinner recently, my children mentioned the struggles some of their friends face with their parents. They recounted stories of friends who are grounded for having unacceptable grades when their parents check their Powerschool account.

Ugh, Powerschool. For those not familiar with academic technologies, Powerschool and other similar online grading tools can be valuable for checking on grades and making sure your child is on task, and also allowing them to adjust their studying and homework as necessary before grades close. But this type of technology can just as easily be abused as a micro-management tool.

When I was a student in high school (as with most parents of teenagers today), my parents saw my grades at the end of each quarter when I received my report card. Between report cards, I had the choice of what I would share with them and what I wouldn’t. If I chose not to share an “oops” grade, I had to be pretty certain that I could bring up my grade in that subject before the end of the marking period; and not sharing a bad test grade would give me extra drive and motivation to do so. Nowadays, parents can see grades along the way. Every day, if they’d like. Every. Single. Grade.

Here’s the thing. Learning is actually about growth, not grades. Learning is a process—one that we hone over time—that is sometimes successful, and sometimes not so much. The process of learning requires constant revision and self-evaluation.

Grades are part of the process of learning, and can help students with the self-assessment and re-evaluation necessary for improvement. Grades are not merely a product of the learning process, as people often think.

I work with college writers on a daily basis, and by the time students come to my office, they are already focused on the grade they will receive and not on the process of improving their writing. Very seldom does a day go by when I don’t say to one student or another, “Writing is a process.” Students want to focus on the product—the final, graded draft—and be done with it. But it is a rare writer (at any level) who can write a quality, finished essay the first time around and not have to go back and revise.

Overall, learning is a lot like writing. As students learn more challenging material [or learn a different subject matter … from a different teacher… in a different textbook or context], they have to put into practice what they know about learning, the subject at hand, and their past experiences, all while they constantly adjust their process to fit the situation. What worked last week for one bit of material might not work as well this week. A poor grade on a test or quiz will alert the self-aware student to what is not working, and will allow that student to re-evaluate and revise what he or she is doing.

Come to think of it, this is a lot like life. We are constantly editing and revising; we are examining our approach and making adjustments—fine-tuning, if you will. If we, as parents, don’t step back and offer our children some space to figure things out and some room to grow and examine their own performance, we are teaching them that learning is about the product, in this case, the grade. This parental approach to academics does a grave disservice to our children. Not only are we hijacking our children’s learning process to get the result we desire, we are teaching them that the grade is more important than fostering the innate intellectual curiosity and creativity that comes when they follow their learning in a direction that is of interest to them.

When children are conditioned to only look at the end result—the grade—the fear of failure can become paralyzing. And more than likely, children in this situation will learn not to take risks, but to take the “safe” path. Learning how to deal with failure, on the other hand—how to bounce back from a low essay grade or a bombed test—is a far more effective life lesson than learning to be afraid of failure. They also begin to realize that failure is an integral part of the process.

My son recently completed his first semester in college. For the first half of the semester, he struggled with one particular class—it was a subject he had never studied, and the professor had a well-earned reputation for being tough. In the end, my son received his lowest grade of the term in that course. However, I believe that grade was the one he was most proud of because he learned more about the process of learning, approaching the academic rigors of college, and self-advocacy from that class than he did from all of his other classes put together.

If I were to give advice to parents, I would say, step back. Give your children some room to fall while they still have you there to guide them and help them navigate the rough waters they encounter. Without a little room to figure things out on their own, not only will children have no motivation to get up when they fall, they will not learn how to get back up—to recover from setbacks and move forward.

Let your children stumble so they can assess and reassess and redirect. Help them to learn the important lessons that lead them toward resilience. Now, more than ever, our society is going to be looking for people who can not only face setbacks with grace, but can help others do so, as well.

Summer Jobs

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Since there has been some talk of teenage jobs in my house of late, I got to thinking about some of the jobs I held in my early working life, jobs that were increasingly interesting and varied. I had some not so good jobs and some really great jobs. Being open to the experiences that come along is always a good way to approach life.

My very first job was stocking shelves in my father’s hardware store. But beyond my family circle, the early jobs I held were fairly typical high school jobs. I worked in fast food and motel housekeeping. The fast food job hung on for two years while I simultaneously worked other jobs. The motel where I worked (only for one summer) was owned by a man who felt the tips left by guests were his to fuel the bets he made on the horse races. When we arrived for our day’s work, he could often be seen making the rounds of all of the rooms before the maids went in to clean them. The only time we ever got tips was when the guests would hand them to us directly, which wasn’t very often.

My first summer home from college, I took a job in a gift shop. I worked long days, and the work was not the most interesting. However, it was better than flipping burgers. I didn’t go home smelling like food and feeling greasy, and the people I worked with were ridiculously mischievous. There was always a prank… or ten… in the works, and one never knew what would happen on a given work day. I fit in quite nicely. You said prank? I’m in!

That same summer, I created newspaper advertisements for my father’s business. I caught the attention of the ad salesman who also happened to be the salesman for the gift shop. He would often stop by to chat, and at his recommendation, I took an internship working in the art department of the newspaper during the January term of my sophomore year. That internship grew into a summer job that filled the summers before my junior and senior years of college.

The second summer at the newspaper, they allowed me to take three weeks off so I could go back to my college campus to work as a teaching assistant in a program for gifted upper elementary and middle school students. One of my professors was the site coordinator for the program, and he had offered me that position. The funny thing about that TA job is that one of my present jobs is for the same organization in their online program.

My all time favorite summer job—and one that was truly one of those opportunities that most people never have—was working in the photo lab of an art museum. I spent six to eight hours of every day during the summer in a darkroom. I cataloged the art work that was in the vaults, and I made prints from stacks of negatives. To this day, I am not sure why I did that….

But the most exciting part of the job was dealing with actual works of art. If my boss was working on a particular project in the studio, he would talk to me about it and explain what he was doing. He would tell me about painting and light and the best angle to capture damage or decay in a painting. He would explain how infrared reflectography would create an image that could  “see” the various layers of paint used by an artist. For example, this technique would show the various leg placements Degas used for his ballerinas before he got it right.

One day, as my boss was photographing some paintings from the vault, he called me out of the darkroom. He told me what he was doing, explaining his chosen angle and what it would show about the pieces in question. And then he handed me a seldom seen Monet painting that spent much of its time in the vault–for lack of wall space. Upstairs in the museum, these paintings were connected to alarm systems in rooms with guards. If a visitor accidentally leaned on a painting or touched it, an alarm would sound and the guards would come running. And here I was holding it in my hands!!

Yes, I held (in my hands) the very same canvas that was painted and held by Monet, himself. It was one of the amazing perks of that summer job. Because summer jobs are like that. You never know what might come up. The job might lead to a position that you will hold for many years, or it might just lead to an opportunity of a lifetime!

Slap bracelet

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Because I grew up in a family with one sister and no brothers, I find it fascinating to watch the interactions of my two nearly grown boys. On Friday afternoon, C came home from college for a brief visit to watch his sister perform in the high school play. I went to get him, and when we arrived home, C walked in the door, and his younger brother was standing in the kitchen.

“Bro!” C exclaimed. “Give me a hug!” He wanted he hug (I think), but he was challenging his brother. Pushing to see if he’d oblige. C approached the younger, arms outstretched, and wrapped his brother in a hug.

What he didn’t expect was the snappy response he’d receive. W whipped his arms around his brother, wrapping him in a bear hug and pulling him off balance. From where I stood, I only heard the snapping of W’s arms against his brother’s back.

“Oh man!” C coughed as he caught his balance and straightened up. “You’re like a slap bracelet,” he said, referring to the way his brother wrapped around him.

I had to laugh. “Slap bracelet” was the perfect description of the aggressive, albeit playful—physical exchange (i.e. the “hug”) I had just witnessed in my kitchen!