Saturday Wanderings

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Back when he was in fifth grade, maybe sixth, my son created a simulated Black Hole for a project for science. Now, this was not just a table-top diorama. No. When my kid creates a Black Hole, it is going to be a big one.

He thought long and hard about how he would complete this project. On Amazon, he discovered that he could purchase a large sheet of black lycra. He set about to create a frame for the material, and he used PVC pipe and joints.

Actually, the finished product was pretty impressive. He carried it to school unassembled in his sister’s duffle bag. When he put it all together, it was three feet tall and four feet from one side to the other. His teacher was impressed. But as impressive as this project was, it is not the point of this blog post.

Fast forward to this past fall. The large sheet of lycra had been hanging around my house for awhile. We all knew it belonged to W, but it was in the living room; it was in the bedroom; it was in the basement. It really hadn’t found a home. After it had kicked around for too long, W picked it up one day and said, “Do you think I could make a hammock out of this?” And the next thing I knew, I had a hammock hanging from the beams above the ceiling tile in my basement. The best part was that the ceiling tiles had to be pushed aside to make this work.

But then he decided he wanted to make it into a real hammock rather than just a piece of lycra tied to some rope tied to the beams. He spent the better part of a day pleating the material and stitching it together on my sewing machine. The parts that were too thick—where he looped the lycra over and connected it to the rope—were sewn by hand. His newly reconfigured hammock passed the basement test with flying colors.

So last weekend, he took the hammock on a camping trip to test it out for real. Yes, it is February, which means that here in New Hampshire, it is the middle of winter. Personally, I am not sure if I would rather sleep on the frozen ground or in a hammock at this time of year. When I was discussing this issue with my daughter, she had the same first response I had. “Bridges freeze first!”

(And that, my friends, is a clear indication that if nothing else, my daughter learned one important fact in her Drivers Education class, and it is one that she will never forget!)

The argument on whether it’s warmer to sleep on the ground or in a hammock (if you must sleep outside in the dead of winter) is still out for debate, but here’s what I did learn. Getting out of a hammock in the middle of the night in the dead of winter to use the latrine is not too much fun.

[Image credit: FreeImages.com / Orlando Alonzo]

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

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Today was the official last day of school, though only one of my children actually had to attend school. The high school finished up last week, with today set aside for students who needed to take make-up exams. The middle school—and lower grade students—had a half-day of school today. The last day.

When my son came home from school at 11:40 this morning, my daughter looked at him, confused. “Where did you go today?” she asked him.

He looked at her, a steady, blink-less stare, as if to say, Really? But he turned and walked away without saying a word.

Today is the first official day of summer, and my house is full of teenagers. A pile of shoes greets anyone who dares to enter the house. I think my boyfriend and I—both seasoned educators of teens—are the only ones who dare. The parents who arrived for drop-off and pick up waved tentatively from their cars.

Giggling, laughing, screaming, some piano playing, a bit of singing, chatting, and a lot of texting were the activities of the day. Swimming, pizza, and more laughing and giggling were sprinkled in for good measure.

Because I reside in a townhouse and share walls with others, I warned my neighbors of my houseful of teenagers. They didn’t seem to mind. Then again, it is only the first official day of summer….

Meanwhile, I sit at my kitchen table trying to complete the day’s work. Over the years, I have learned to navigate the noise and commotion of children in the house while I work. Because in the summer, I work from home. My crazy home.

Over the years, little has changed. Friends have come and gone. Voices have grown deeper and the shoes… they have grown bigger.

It’s officially summer. Welcome to my crazy home. Hopefully, the pile of shoes at the door won’t scare you.

 

Daily prompt: summer

Editorial

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“I don’t know how to write an editorial,” W told me when I arrive home from work one day this week. “And I need to write one for language arts.”

I was rushing around to get dinner started before I had to run out again to pick up J from theater practice. “Why don’t you Google it, look at a couple examples, and I can help you when I get back from picking up your sister?” I acknowledged his statement, though I didn’t completely register what he was saying.

When I returned, he tried again. “I have to write an editorial from the point of view of a character in our book, and it has to be ‘historically accurate.’ Can you help me?”

“What do you need help with?” I asked.

“I don’t know how to write one.”

“Didn’t your teacher go over it in class? She must have given you some examples,” I queried, hoping he would think back to the class and remember what he was supposed to do.

“Not really. She never told us how to do it.”

“I’ll bet she did, but you shut off,” I stated, probably more bluntly than I should have.

“What?” he asked, unsure of my meaning.

“You shut off,” I repeated. “Your teacher was talking about it, and you decided it was information you would never need. So you shut off.” A smirk of recognition crept across his face.

“She never talked about it. She gave us newspapers, but she never said we’d need to know it.” Imagine that!

I stifled a groan, and I hoped he couldn’t hear my eyes rolling….

Minivan

It seems I may have kept my minivan about a month too long. Last month, I could have traded it in on another car and gotten a thousand dollars toward my purchase. Maybe more. But this month—what with the van’s sudden desire to ask for a new catalytic converter—its value has dropped. To nothing. “It will cost more to fix it than the car is worth,” I was told, and I get it. Which is why I’m not planning to fix it. And that’s why my son and I were discussing the minivan problem.

The minivan is currently the only vehicle we have that can transport furniture, lumber, bikes, camping gear, farm animals… whatever it is we need to haul. Not to mention, more than a few passengers. This was the vehicle that I acquired back in the pre-school years so that my children could bring friends and we could all fit in the same vehicle, even with car seats.

But the minivan problem for W is all about the fact that we now have no way to transport bicycles. Apparently, he is planning many trips over the summer that will require the hauling of two or three bicycles, and the fact that the minivan is no longer functional is a problem. But W’s brain does not work the way the average brain works, so I was not surprised when I was preparing chicken for dinner and W stated, “How about if you get a tank?” He was in the other room, so I wasn’t quite sure I heard him right.

“A tank? Like a military tank?” I questioned.

“Yeah, a military tank. It’d be really cheap to insure. I don’t think you could damage it.”

“But you could definitely hurt other people with it,” I returned. “Insurance is as much about liability as it is about damage to the vehicle. Besides, I don’t think tanks get good gas mileage.”

“Nope. I suspect not. But,” (and his face lit up with the but…) “They are exempt from the gas guzzler tax,” he added, as if that somehow made driving one around town more appealing.

“Nice!” I agreed. “But I’m sure there might be a blind spot or two in a tank,” I continued my litany of reasons not to replace the van with a tank.

“Yeah,” he laughed. “There are a few of those. And it probably doesn’t even go in reverse.” Huh. I’ve never really thought about that.

“And I don’t think your brother would be thrilled about driving a tank to school. Hey C,” I called into the living room. “You wanna drive a tank to school?” Isn’t driving your mother’s minivan bad enough?

“Nope. I’m good,” came his unenthusiastic reply.

“I think it would be great to drive it to the high school,” W continued. “Everyone would get out of your way in a hurry!”

“Well, you’ll be driving in another couple years. You’d have to drive it next….” No doubt, this piece of information might drive home the impracticality of the tank as an option.

In W’s mind a tank might just solve the problem of our mini-van. In my mind, driving a tank would create far bigger problems than not being able to transport bicycles!

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Perspective

Every now and then, we catch a glimpse of our children’s lives through reflection on our own experiences, past and present. Recently, I had one of those moments… when my thoughts on my children’s attitudes suddenly clicked into place in a new and unexpected way. It was an “ah-ha” moment, of sorts.

Over the weekend, I was introducing my sister to some people who grew up one town over from our own hometown. Since it was a small town in a rural area, growing up in the next town implies that we shared a fair degree of history. We knew some of the same people, competed as rival schools in sports, hung out at some of the same places, frequented the only local movie theater, and shopped in the same stores.

As we briefly discussed the fact that my sister graduated from a different high school, my mind wandered back into the past. My sister and I had different teachers. And just like any school, a handful of teachers were known to be “difficult,” more in their behavior and attitudes toward students than in their educational expectations.

For the most part, I had teachers who were memorable in positive ways: they wanted to teach, and they genuinely liked working with students. However, there were exceptions. There were teachers for whom unflattering nicknames had been passed from one class to the next for near generations. And it was one of these teachers with just such a nickname that I stumbled over while I was taking my ‘mind journey’ down memory lane over the weekend.

And after stumbling, I sat sprawled on memory’s path, realizing that we hadn’t been very nice back in high school. And then, I was pulled to the present, to the words I had recently said to my son when he called one of his (male) teachers a diva. “You shouldn’t be disrespectful to your teachers, C. They have a tough job teaching you guys all the things you don’t think you want to know.”

Gulp!

There I was, stuck straddling a line. As a teacher myself, I would normally advocate for the teacher in this instance. Getting up in front of a classroom full of apathetic, sometimes ungrateful (insert year here: sophomores, seniors, you name it) day after day is not an easy task. It can be brutal.

Then again, being a kid in a class with a teacher who has forgotten what it is like to be a teenager—a teacher who hasn’t updated his or her approach to teaching since the age of the dinosaurs, and chooses not to (ever) smile—is not easy, either.

Suddenly, I realized that what I perceived as “disrespect” was really something of a rite of passage. As we work to figure out our relationship with the world and how to deal with people we don’t necessarily want to get along with, but need to get along with, we seek to find a comfortable place to fit them into our experiences. We use nicknames to diminish these people so they are slightly less intimidating and they fit more neatly into our experience. For teens, this can be the way they survive the classes that otherwise threaten to bore them, annoy them, or terrify them.

And straddling this line between kid and teacher is the constant battle I face as a parent. This is the battle that determines if I am successful or not. I am constantly faced with the need to remember what it was like to be in my children’s shoes—whether they are teenagers or toddlers, while still teaching the skills necessary for them to function in a world which requires an ever changing mix of diplomacy, sensitivity, and candor.

For the most part, my children are respectful and polite when they walk out my door and into the world. Perhaps then, they really are learning what they need to know to make their way in the world. Perhaps a little name-calling, in the right context, can help to put relationships in perspective.

Culinary Issues

My culinary kid admitted to something by accident last night. And now I know the truth.

He started the school year in his culinary program with the basics: knife skills, chopping and cutting, and moved on to stocks, soups, salads, and sandwiches. I asked him if he got to bring anything home. “No Mom. We package it and sell it in the café,” because yes, vocational schools have cafés where teachers, students, staff, etc. can buy lunch and ready made dinners. It’s a great idea, really. Except for the fact that the culinary students don’t get to take any food home to test on their parents.

Second semester, my son moved to baking, and he has been studying the various processes involved in baking. So far, I have heard about the banana bread, the blueberry crumb cake, and the rolls. For the last two weeks, I’ve been hearing about the rolls. When I (once again) asked him if he would be bringing any of his baked goods home for sampling, he said no. Then he said, “The blueberry crumb cake wasn’t very good, anyway.” Okay then.

Last night, we were talking at the dinner table, and he started to talk about the “sculpture” he made in the middle of the school lunch table from everyone’s trash, i.e. leftover packaging. (In our house, we have a long history of making things out of—um—recyclables. That’s just the way we roll…). “First, I had a milk carton, then another milk carton, then the big bag from the rolls I brought, then another milk carton, then the ‘mushroom’ I made from my lunch bag….”

Stop. Right. There. My mind got stuck on the big bag from the rolls I brought. I didn’t hear anything else that was part of the sculpture because my mind stopped at that phrase. I realized he brought rolls from culinary.

“I’m sorry. Did you say you brought rolls to school?”

He stopped talking and looked at me with a crooked half-grin, then quickly looked away. “Yeah,” he said, fidgeting in his chair. He turned back to his siblings and continued his story, trying his best to ignore the piercing stare I was throwing directly at him. “So anyway, I offered one to my—“

“And you gave them out to your friends? At school? Without bringing any home?” Clearly, I must have misheard him.

“Yeah, Mum.”

“Why didn’t you bring one home so I could try it?” After all, I’ve only been asking since September, I wanted to say.

“Because I only brought six,” he paused here while he attempted to concoct a reason. “And I had plans for them.” And he turned back to his siblings and started talking about the people who were lucky enough to get a roll. Freshly baked. From his culinary class.

“You know what, C?” I interrupted his story.

“What, Mom?”

“I’m going to bake some cookies tomorrow, and I’m not going to give you any.” He turned to me. I looked him right in the eyes, my stare intense and unwavering. “Because I have plans for them.” I winked and smiled.

So now he knows the truth.