Saturday, December 3, 2011

Service Lessons/Service Lessens?

Last night, I went with my daughter and some friends to see a local musical production of A Christmas Carol. Watching Ebenezer Scrooge humbug his way through numerous requests for charity and benevolence, I could almost understand his barking demand that the hordes all leave him alone.

We are bombarded by more information and more pleas for help than most of us can process. The 1% vs. the 99%. The unemployment rate that stays too close to 10%. The people with dead-end jobs. Children in at-risk homes. Women in abusive situations. Obese Americans. Animals in kill shelters. People experiencing violence every minute. People who don't vote. People who give up. People who don't have what they need to make choices about what they do in life. People with heartbreaking medical conditions. People with no access to medicine or clean water or safe homes.

A glance in my mailbox, virtual or real, shows overwhelming and overflowing need. From the NAACP, a reminder that Justice, Equality and Civil Rights need my attention. From Planned Parenthood, a warning that President Obama needs support to keep women's health issues within their control. From the local food pantries, a plea for staples: dried beans, rice, canned tomatoes, powdered milk. From a home for mentally ill children, a grim picture of institutional walls and children without family connections. From Amnesty International, reports of abuse of human rights. From Oxfam, Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, World Wildlife Organization, the ASPCA, Heifer International, numerous organizations devoted to researching cures for particular cancers or other health issues, religious institutions, my own school's fundraising letters, we get the picture. There is enormous need out there.

The world would be a terrible place if we just told everyone to leave us alone.

With pounds and pounds of appeals, do we even open each one any more? With 77 new emails in the inbox, do we read them all? And how do we teach children about starting to make those decisions?

First, it helps to remember a whole lot of truisms that are actually true. Whether it's Mother Theresa, “If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” Or Annie Dillard, "The dedicated life is the life worth living. You must give with your whole heart." Albert Einstein,"A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving" or the Talmud, "He gives little who gives with a frown; he gives much who gives little with a smile." We can understand that small things aren't small things, they're everything and we can try to do whatever small things we can.

As a classroom teacher, I want to give the children opportunities to participate in a way of life which considers the needs of others. This happens in many ways, within the classroom, with our younger buddies, as part of every meeting, every lesson of the social studies curriculum. In the past, through selling pizza every Friday at a slight markup and donating the profits, the children also gave generously outside our community. In addition, a tiny portion of this money was used to purchase bright red empty stockings from the dollar store. The children then purchased items to fill the stockings and we delivered the filled stockings to a nearby homeless shelter in time for Christmas. The children were asked to do extra chores at home as their contribution to the family's shopping endeavors and were excited to think about how someone would feel receiving these gifts.

This year, we're wondering if we can keep up that service project. We no longer fundraise through pizza sales. Our school is a non-sectarian, progressive, independent school. Many, but by no means all, of the children hang stockings by their own chimneys. No matter what their family traditions were, in the past, the students were excited to imagine the joy on the faces of the recipients of their stockings. They knew they were adding cheer to the lives of even a few in need. This year, the local shelter has at least 120 children in residence. At the same time, many in our own school community are facing tougher economic times.

While no one can agree on the number of homeless people, and while that number is always shifting, one study done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty states that approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2007)(Quoted from the National Coalition for the Homeless)

Is it right for a school to ask families to purchase stocking stuffers for 120 of these homeless children? Can the school leave this shelter in the lurch after 10 or 12 years of being there for them? What is the responsibility of the school? Most schools are facing such severe funding cuts that they can only offer the essentials. Are service lessons part of the essentials?

As Scrooge told the gloomy and silent dreadful Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, "The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on. . . "

I can only hope that in all the ways that we can we will teach caring. I hope we can learn Scrooge's lesson. "He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." As much as we must teach our children math or science or reading or writing, we must teach them to give. We can't take care of all the problems of the world. But we can do what we can do.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tucker Everlasting

By some divine sense of comedy and tragedy, we began to immerse ourselves at school in the book Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt at the same time that it appeared that Tucker, my English Cocker Spaniel and best friend, might not be everlasting.

When Tucker runs, his ears bounce around so much we like to say he is "bunny rabbiting." For eight and a half years, he has loved every opportunity to bunny rabbit off-leash both on (and off and on and off) paths through the many beautiful woods we are fortunate enough to live near. He gets better exercise that way and can sniff this bush or that stump for as long as he pleases while I get to keep walking at my pace. His typical stray is much less than 50 yards - not so far that I can't talk or sing to him while we walk, and he makes frequent passes back to me for a kiss or a treat. He has taught several puppies how to be great off-leash woods walkers.

Tucker, before his summer haircut. He's as beautiful inside as out.

On roads, he needs a leash. He is curious, friendly, and utterly without street sense. He thinks cars are friends to go up and sniff, even if they're moving. He's smarter in the woods. He knows not to bother bikers and joggers and, although he loves to chase deer, he soon gives up and comes back to his humans.

The fourth day of school, September 12, significant to so many people as the day after the tenth anniversary of 9-11, was a warm and sun-dappled gift. My daughter and her friend decided to walk the dogs in the nearby woods. Unusually, I decided not to go with them. About a half hour into the walk, I got a panicked phone call from my daughter.

"Tucker took off in the thick bushes barking. Then cried loudly in pain and then he was silent. We can't find him."

With several loving friends, we searched, calling and clapping, whistling and yelling, pushing through bushes and prickers, sludging through muddy bogs thick with mosquitoes and smelling strongly of rotting vegetation. Confident that Tucker would come back to us any moment, I was both calm and clueless about how to find him if he didn't come to us. Since he had never gone missing before, I had no tricks or strategies up my sleeve, but that was okay; I knew we'd find him.

After a long and mosquito-bite-filled evening, the others needed to get home. Dinners needed to be made and eaten, homework needed to be done. Lives needed to move on.

I stayed until it was too dark to see anything. By then, it had hit me. I was about to go home without Tucker for the first time in his life. Was he alive? Was he hurt? Was he still in the woods? Why didn't he whine or cry? Why couldn't I find him? How could this be happening to us? Not much sleep that night!

Over the next week and a half, my daughter and I asked countless joggers, walkers, bikers and bystanders if they had seen Tucker. We made flyers. We called the police and the pound. We kept searching and so did many friends and, amazingly and inspiringly, strangers. Countless people wished us well and tried to help us find our black-eared, four-legged gentle friend, but we have yet to find an explanation that works or even one clue.

For the first few days, I was always on the verge of tears. Not just tears, but sobs. Who knows what we ate. I certainly wasn't keeping up with cooking and chores. Keeping up with my work for school, at least a little, was both necessary to my ability to teach a lesson and also to my sanity. School was a reprieve from walking obsessively and repetitively in the woods, yelling and clapping and whistling for a dog who didn't show up.

For five minute snatches, I can sometimes forgot he's gone. Then I am hit with the realization all over again. It's a hole that can feel too deep to cross over. Our puppy, Mocha, lets me kiss her nose twice as often, which helps. Her antics are as funny as ever, and her need to be cuddled, held and noticed helps my daughter and me fill some of that furry quota. She reminds us to laugh and play tug-of-war and to live each moment in the present. When she shakes her toy and growls at it to remind us to throw it for her, she suggests that guilt and regrets are about as useful as excrement. Undeniably, she tells us minute by minute that life goes on. I believe her.

From an interview of Natalie Babbitt I learned that an ancient meaning of "tuck" is life. Tucker has been my life teacher these past eight years. I hope to have news of him to report one day on this blog. Meanwhile, my thoughts and love for Tucker are everlasting; I just have to learn not to flinch every time we use the word Tuck.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Do Animals Belong in our Classrooms?

When I was growing up in suburban New Jersey, keeping pets was considered "normal." We had two dogs, a cat, and, during my pre-teen years, a large number of gerbils and teddy bear hamsters. My older brothers had enjoyed the shorter term companionship of many ducks, chickens and rabbits, as well as a couple of parakeets, which somehow, by the time there were three children, were no longer part of the household census. We also rescued our share of baby squirrels and other creatures left motherless and in need. We had a goldfish pond and a fish tank filled with guppies and we contributed to conservation funds to preserve habitats. Consequently, I grew up knowing that I could and should take responsibility for the creatures and ecosystems around me and feeling particularly connected to my dog, Thistle.

As a mother, I tried to pass along those teachings through similar experiences: dogs, cats, mice, gerbils and hermit crabs have kept us company, demanded our help and care, taught us daily and weekly routines and responsibilities outside our own selves, and helped us keep our eyes and fingers on the love that guides our daily decisions. When a bat wandered uninvited into my bedroom, my daughters courageously and helpfully showed it to the window, returning it to the sky diving and hunting that must have been more interesting than the back of my bookshelf. When the cat brings in living prey, the girls leap to take of it; insects are trapped and escorted out of doors, dead animals are mourned and missed as the friends or strangers they were. Both girls are vegetarians and consequently, most of the food in our household is vegetarian, mostly in response to the inhumane and terrible conditions which are the reality of the lives of most animals raised by for food and sold in supermarkets.

As a teacher in elementary schools, I have to think hard about whether or not to include a classroom pet in our room. There are many positive lessons to be taught by living closely with, caring for, and observing other species. Yet, there are moral/ethical/philosophical dilemmas to consider when keeping animals in captivity or as domesticated creatures. If we are to keep animals in our classroom, we should certainly examine what we are teaching.

On the one hand, when we present our children with animals outside of their natural environment, we are presenting an altered animal, and one which had no say about the change. We are saying, however quietly, that having the ability to pluck them up from their burrows or dens or nests or hidey-holes under the rocks makes it acceptable that we exercise it. These caged animals typically do not meet any other of their kind for the rest of their lives; their desert environments are reproduced using theatrical approximations; the range of weather is nil; the hunt for food, which would usually use up most of an animal's day and calories, is non-existent. The quality and activities of the caged animal's life is very different from one which lives in nature.

On the other hand, "mankind" has been having this type of effect on the world for all of our time in it. We can chop or grow trees, plow and plant land, catch wild horses or cattle or fowl or dogs and raise them. More than any other animal, we not only can do these things, but we can think and talk about them, write books or movies or hold meetings and make laws about doing them. We have both the ability and the responsibility to do everything we do thoughtfully and deliberately, acknowledging that there is not one single act that we can carry out which doesn't have a whole range of consequences and repercussions.

We want to go see our cousins in Boston; we have to either take a few months off from school and walk there and back or we have to take our car and burn hydrocarbons and come back in time for school on Monday. We want to get new furniture because the old furniture didn't quite make the statement or serve the purpose that the new can do, but we don't have time to grow the trees and chop them down and carve them and grow the cotton and pick it and spin it and weave it, so we go to the store, which sits on land which 100 years ago held magnificent maple and oak trees but now is next to hundreds of other stores on a highway covered in asphalt, etc. etc. You get the picture. All of our actions have consequences. Nothing we do, and nothing we have done since the dawn of time, could really be called pure and simple. That's our curse and our blessing.

Back to pets in the classroom. We have classrooms filled with children who come for 6 or 7 hours a day to learn in an environment that presents literally zillions of opportunities to explore and wonder and grow. None of those opportunities is without its costs. We use paper and pencils - thoughtfully and resourcefully, but sometimes extra copies of papers are made by mistake. We turn on lights and computers and heat and air-conditioning - conscious of saving energy, but using it, nonetheless, and sometimes, the heat is too high or the air-conditioning is too low and we have just been a party to adding huge amounts of carbon to the atmosphere without meaning to. We buy new computers or furniture or buildings, mow the lawn, do the laundry, wash the dishes - - and always, there's the environmental cost. We serve snack and lunch and try introduce children to new tastes and textures; sometimes, in order to follow sanitary guidelines and give children the opportunity to try new things, some food gets wasted.

We try to teach lessons about taking care of our planet earth in all that we do, and we all aspire to do an even better job with this - but we live in a real world where budgets and time constraints and each person's individual preferences have a lot to say about the final decisions made about each and every use of resources in the school.

In the end, as with all decisions, we have to decide if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The cons of bringing a pet into the classroom are real: some children may have an allergy, some children may see animals in an unnatural surrounding and may not respect the importance of animals living in their own habitat or may think that animals in captivity is the best place for them to be, the animals may not be well cared for, the animals may be dangerous to the children.

The pros are also real: classroom animals give children the chance to live with an animal which many children do not have at home, children learn about and attend to the needs of a being outside their species, children observe the habits and behaviors of an animal which may be very different from the anthropomorphized beings they meet in stories and on tv, children take part in the life cycle of an animal, which is generally much shorter than the human life cycle, so there can be an increased familiarity with birth, death, maturity, etc. and children's emotional well-being may be positively influenced by spending time with an animal.

“Being around animals is extremely good for children”, says Dr. Harvey Markovitch, pediatrician and editor of The Archives of Disease in Childhood. “They’re good for morale, and teach children about relationships and about the needs of another living being – learning to care for a pet helps them to learn how to care for people.”

In classrooms, many children choose to spend time playing with the classroom pet at every free period. Choosing an animal, naming the animal, taking care of the animal, learning about the likes and dislikes of each animal, taking the animal home over school breaks are all important parts of the cooperative work we consider essential to our community.

I think we have to recognize and discuss with our students the possible negative lessons of having animals in cages in our classrooms, and we have to be super-vigilant about caring for the animals' needs in that setting, but the long-term and bigger picture benefits of having animals in our classrooms far exceed the possible negative lessons of caged animals. The companionship of animals has been central to every culture for thousands of years. I'm sure Thistle wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Summer: the furry realities of planning for September while raising a puppy

About half-way through summer vacation seems like a good time to take a moment to notice how much I've accomplished. A kind of progress report for a conscientious teacher.

In thinking about summer before it began, I enjoyed making lists and piles of all the things I would accomplish: make a quilt for my college-bound daughter, get a puppy for my tenth-grade-bound daughter and start to train it, clean up the piles of "stuff" all over the house, get the garden in shape, visit friends, take tons of long walks, make serious in-roads into planning the new curriculum for next year, get some rest, read oodles of books, organize the freezer, schedule appointments with dentists and doctors and eye doctors and hairdressers, file last year's unfiled papers. . .

You know the lists. . . I have begun most of those projects and finished few - - something must be wrong!

I think the smoothly silky adorably clumsy little girl named Moki might be a clue. Did I really think that raising a puppy could be just another item on my list, like cleaning the bathroom? Moki says no. While I try to read or take notes, she bounds across the floor, legs all moving at different paces in different directions, the hair that grows between the pads of her feet giving her absolutely no traction on my smooth hardwood kitchen floors. Skidding into the folded comforter that serves as a dog bed, she looks up to see if I'm ready to throw her a toy. I throw. She races off after it, going as fast as her six inch legs allow (which is a lot faster than my thirty inch legs allow!) grabs her toy, growls at it while biting and shaking it, and comes back empty-mouthed, ready for me to throw another. I throw. How much reading did I do while Moki sported? You guessed it. Zero. The same goes for all other tasks. If she can get her mouth around it, she will. If she can't (as in the case of the cement stoop outside the kitchen door, she'll try anyway. The only thing she won't put in her mouth on her own is her high quality, all natural puppy kibble. That she prefers to eat out of my hand, preferably with a bit of hard-boiled egg or plain boiled chicken mixed in. Are you rolling your eyes? If my eight year old English Cocker Spaniel could roll his, he would. Valiantly, he tries to help her join the clean-bowler club - - if only it were a team sport!

So, I guess it's time to scale back my vision of all I could accomplish, celebrate each page read rather than each tome. There's always next summer, right?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander

Bullying is pervasive, persistent, ageless, boundary-less. It's in our schools, our homes, our jobs, our on-line networks. Even though we're increasingly aware of bullying, we know it's hard to stop it. The bully has the power to silence the bullied. A bully can silence one person,an entire family, a staff or even a community. Some kinds of bullying are officially discriminatory acts against someone due to their age, sex, race, sexual orientation, disability, class, job description, ethnicity, and so on. Some kinds feed on less obvious differences. But in every case, the bully has power over the bullied. It's often illegal and it's always unfair.

How do bullies get their power? How do they keep it?

Sometimes, the power difference is actual. The bully is older or bigger or has a higher status (teacher/student, boss/employee). Sometimes, the power difference is perceived. We see someone as being able to hurt us or take something away from us and we don't know how to stop them without coming out worse in the bargain.

Letting them bully us appears preferable to the alternative. Being labeled a tattle-tale. Being exposed as someone "different". Losing our jobs. Being alone.

I just read about four sixteen year-olds who formed a teen rock band called Radio Silence NYC which is touring to denounce bullying. They want to let kids know it's okay to be themselves. It's a great message, and I wish it were that easy. Many times, kids who are themselves are teased, taunted, shamed, even hurt until they conform or are too hurt to respond. As a country we try to say we are multi-cultural, we try to say we embrace differences, yet according to

+Eight in ten LGBT students had been verbally harassed at school
+Four in ten had been physically harassed at school
+Six in ten felt unsafe at school
+One in five had been the victim of a physical assault at school

And, according to The University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School’s Center for Problem-Oriented Policing’s director, Michael Scott,

+Bullying is widespread and perhaps the most underreported safety problem on American school campuses.
+Bullying occurs at all grade levels. It gets more subtle as kids get older.
+Boy-bullying tends to be more "direct" - physical aggression; girl-bullying relies more on "indirect" methods - teasing, exclusion, social isolation, rumor spreading.
+Bullies have little empathy for their victims.
+If there's no intervention, young bullies tend to grow up and continue bullying.
+Previously bullied students have been the attackers in at least two-thirds of recent school shootings.

In the classroom, we tell kids to come to a grown-up if they see or experience bullying. But victims worry that telling a grown-up won't help. By coming to us, they worry that they invite further bullying.

In the grown-up world, where can we go? In many cases, we stay silent because we (rightly) worry about the outcome of reporting. Blow the whistle, lose your job or your friends or your status. Get undesired attention. Be shunned.

Sometimes, it seems easier to put up with being bullied.

Interestingly, it turns out that being a bully is actually bad for the bully. According to,
+Childhood bullies are much more likely to commit a crime by age 24
+Often, childhood bullies are violent when they are older
+Childhood bullies may not change and may be bullies as adults
+Bullies are more likely to get into fights and steal, to drop out of school or to get bad grades.

Many anti-bullying programs in schools are ineffective because the bullies are clever enough to act when they are out of earshot of the adults. Fortunately, there's another ingredient in the bully mix: the bystander. The one who hears it, sees it, or hears about it. This might be another child in the school yard, a co-worker at the office, or another visitor to a Facebook page.

Ken Rigby has been researching bullying since the 1980s. He has found that while most children don't report bullies and bullying generally happens in front of peers, rather than in front of teachers, most children want it to stop.

Often, the bystander does nothing because:

+They felt it was none of their business.
+They feared consequences, including embarrassment, being branded as a “sissy,” and the bully turning on them.
+They felt the victims should take care of the situation and stand up for themselves. As students move into the teenage years, they tend to become less sympathetic toward victims of bullying.
+They felt helpless to stop the bullying – or feared that their intervention might make things worse.

Importantly, at least half the time when a bystander speaks up, the bullying stops. The bystander can take action, knowing that most kids don't like bullying and will support him/her. Also, bullies like an audience and when their audience doesn't approve, they change course.

Bystanders seem to have the most power in the bullying situation. Speak up. Talk about what is wrong. It's not risk-free, but it's worth the risk. As Edmund Burke identified it: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’”

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Got a moment to read some students' work?

This week, I am writing end of the year reports, so I won't be posting anything of my own, although my fingers are busy on the keyboard! However, my kind daughter typed all the poems that my class was ready to share and I posted them on Jan's 4-5 Blog. Please visit, read, leave a comment if you have a moment.

Thanks so much!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Best Laid Plans

The best thing about making lesson plans is that they can change! Sir Ken Robinson says, "Human life is not linear. You can't plan it like a production line." (Here's a link to the video in which he says that.) Well, that certainly is true of classroom life - and only more so in May.

This week, there have been rehearsals and performances and Grandparents Day. And, it's spring. School is ending soon. The children are a bit edgy. They have big research/writing projects to fnish. There's a lot going on.

Flash to Thursday morning. My plan book clearly said, "Attend Lower School Assembly, 8:25. Teach Greek game, Plakato,8:45,then play it. 9:30, Social Studies, Mini-lesson: how to use the Revision and Editing checklist.Recess/Snack, 10:15." My morning was planned.

Enter the real live class. Off to the Assembly. Then back to the class to finish up pizza orders for Friday and review the schedule for the day. Time to teach the game. A hand shoots up.


"I made a presentation I'd like to share. May I do it now?" the student asked.

"Okay," I answered, knowing it would be fine to give her a few minutes, excited at her initiating this, wondering where we were going.

The student, a cheerful, steady, quiet fourth grader, came up to the front of the room. She carefully opened up a sheet of paper she had typed in preparation for this presentation. The class shushed themselves and sat forward to hear her better.

The student shared her concerns about how we reaching conclusions about people based on looking at their clothing and appearance; she wondered why there are popular kids and unpopular kids; she talked about how terrible teasing makes people feel; she proposed a change.

It's a conversation we've had from time to time all year long, but somehow this particular morning, it took wings. Almost every student in the room had something powerful to add.

One child talked about being teased for being too short. Another child shared what it felt like when people made comments about her parents' car. Another talked about other children shunning her when her brother was very sick with cancer. Another student talked about how much she wished she didn't love the attention and concern shown her when she had a dangerously allergic reaction to nuts. Another student said that popular children aren't always the nicest children in the class. Another suggested that popular kids may look like they have many friends, but in reality, they only have a few true friends. Another said it was sometimes hard to know who his true friends were. A student with Tourette's Syndrome quoted, with difficulty, a comment he'll never forget: "Thank G-- I don't have what you have."

We agreed that judging people based on what they look like doesn't make sense. We sympathized with each other, we shared stories. We heard each other. We threw away boundaries and popularity scales. I tried not to cry. The importance of the conversation that resulted over the next 40 minutes far outweighed the plans I had laid for that moment.

We'll get back to researching next week. Ancient Greece won't have gone away!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Heart of a Teaching Mom

Yesterday, while dashing back to school from a meeting at the district, I listened to a radio essay (for which I've just failed miserably to find a link) which contained the quote from Elizabeth Stone, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

I want to take that one step further. To be a teacher is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around in hundreds of bodies.

I don't think it's just me. I think it happens to many parents who are teachers. Our hearts break, bend, tear, expand, fill with joy or anxiety or pride or love or despair for our own children as well as for our "children", our students.

It's why we teach, it's why each day is so rich and full, it's why it's so hard to say good-bye when they go off to another school or another class at the end of the year.

This year, we decided to let the fifth graders lead their own conferences. This changed the entire dynamic of the conference. What was especially new to me was the opportunity to sit and see my pride and hope mirrored on my students' parents' faces. Usually, I don't get to see the parents too often, interacting with their kids. Usually, it's just me, watching their kids and feeling that pride (or frustration, or pain, or excitement) alone.

Then there was the one conference that didn't go the way I hoped it would go. The joy and pride weren't there on the parent's faces. There was only criticism and defeat. Yet this was a child for whom there was so much to celebrate. His reading and writing have improved, he is a hard worker, he is a caring and thoughtful friend to other kids in the class, he never gives up - even though many school tasks are very challenging.

Listening to the derision and watching the child's posture slump noticeably with each barb, and not knowing how to protect him full time from something I only glimpsed for half an hour was one of the most heartbreaking experiences I've had as a teacher.

The pain was no different from watching my own child being treated unfairly. Actually, maybe it's worse because I feel less able to do anything about it.

Happy Mother's Day - to all who feel a mother's feelings for those who need us.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Parental involvement

I'm a mom. I'm a teacher. The lines are rarely that clear.

As a teacher, when parents ask me about parental involvement in homework, I advise that the parents help make sure that there is a physical space that works well for that child's homework - whether it's a desk or a cleared off corner of the kitchen counter, they need some kind of nest to work, to spread out, to store things they don't need to use every day. I recommend that the parents help look at the child's schedule with the child and allow the child to be a part of deciding whether homework is done right after the child gets off the bus or before dinner or even after dinner. I advise that the parents make sure there are some cleared off parts of each day that allow homework to be accomplished. I tell parents that the work itself is the child's responsibility and that I want to see what the child can do with the work, not what the parent can do with the work. If the child tries his/her hardest and comes back with little to show, we'll work on it in school. If the child doesn't try at all, we'll talk about it in school. The parent need not take on the role of correcting the homework, doing the homework, or teaching the child how to do the homework.

Then, I switch hats. I'm home with my girls and they have homework. They're in high school and their work is quite challenging, so I'm delighted that it's not my job to do the homework. No issue there. I couldn't do the calculus homework to save my life and I have no time to read the volumes of books needed to write the papers assigned to them. I have no artistic talents, so when they were young and projects were assigned which other parents DID for their children, my children brought in wonderfully lopsided creations which were entirely their own. I don't do their homework.

We recently moved to a bigger house, so, at last, there is actually enough space for them to keep their extra piles of books and papers on a shelf where they have a reasonable shot at finding them again. The girls don't have desks, but we all love to work at the counter or table and we don't drip too much food on the computer or papers. Okay, I've provided physical space for them.

The schedule: well, we do our best with that one. When the dance classes and rehearsals are an hour away and last for three to four hours on a school night, we have a late night and sectioning off the homework part of the day is challenging. Solution: drop some dance classes, so this only hits twice a week and we all do the best we can with that.

Things go along pretty smoothly, until they don't. When there are extra commitments, whether it's extra rehearsals, performances, an occasional desire to see a friend, a sick animal who has to go to the vet, huge house chores such as leaf raking or lawn mowing, big holidays to clean and cook for, a family member in crisis who needs extra care or loving, or when there is a big piece of homework and it hits on the wrong day and there's no human way possible to get it done before 2am. . .

Mostly, I just let my children navigate those difficult times. These are the normal challenges of life. The girls stay up late or they hand the work in late and it's up to them to manage. Once in awhile, and always after a big internal debate, as well as an external debate with the mortified child who doesn't want to need my help in the exchange, I jump in to the conversation with their teachers. I call or write an email.

Getting involved is a very difficult decision because it's so ingrained in me that homework is the child's responsibility. Any step I take over that boundary feels quite shaky. Also, I know that their teachers don't necessarily want to hear from me; they'd rather hear from the child. I am torn, by their pain and by the contradictions of my two jobs.

As a teacher and as a parent, I understand the importance and value of a child's learning to communicate and stand up for herself. As a parent, I see the child during all those hours that the school does not. It can be painful to watch and sometimes I have to take action. I think teachers should know when the homework puts an unreasonable strain on a child. When, no matter how conscientious or diligent or eager to do her best she is, a child is unable to meet a deadline.

And, once in a while, the snags are bigger.

Last Thursday night, my sister-in-law passed away. All of our homework lives came to a grinding halt as we contemplated our loss and comforted each other with stories and memories of a woman I didn't expect to lose for at least another forty years or so. She was a remarkable person. When I joined her family, we decided that the "in-law" part of our connection wasn't needed; we'd just be sisters. She was honest (often beyond what anyone could take), loyal, loving, funny, talkative, generous and very troubled by mental and physical issues that took her away from us too often and ultimately, too early. Never expecting to lose her, I had in recent years avoided spending the time it would take to keep in close connection with her. I took for granted that we would have time "later" when life was calmer. I do regret that and, while trying to make amends, will keep that lesson in my mind as I think about other people and relationships I take for granted.

We spent the weekend and the first couple of days and nights of Passover reeling from and dealing with our loss and with the extra complications involved because their are some very difficult relationships within this larger family. We gathered with the rest of the family at her funeral and burial. We camped with them on the floor of a tiny apartment and breathed together all night long. Today we're going to plant flowers and vegetables in honor of my "sister", the girl's aunt. Meanwhile, while we grieve, we fall further behind in our obligations.

How can we ever catch up? Life goes on, and we'll jump back into our schedules and responsibilities, but somewhere along the way, we'll all be grateful to anyone who can make room for us to be late with a few things. The girls may need a lot more time to finish all the papers and work assigned, I may not have everything as prepared as I should.

Perhaps the first people we need to get permission and acceptance from is ourselves. Perhaps my job as a teaching mom is really to help my children relax their high standards at times like these. Then, they'll know inside themselves that if their teachers extend their deadlines fine, and if not, it's not the end of the world to get a disappointing report when the circumstances were way beyond their control. However, I still want their teachers to know that this has been an unusually rough time. . . Maybe they'll read my blog?!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

It's a balancing act

Thanks to the fact that I now spend some time each day on Twitter, I have much more exposure to articles and videos promoting technology in the classroom than I ever realized existed. It's new, it's exciting, it's cutting edge, and it should be continually examined for it's educational implications.

I just watched about a nine minute PBS news video about a school in North Carolina which provides a laptop to every student from grades 4 to 12. I saw children engaged with their screens - listening, looking, "interacting"; teachers explaining that making a video or podcast is the same as writing a paper, kids saying that school is a lot more fun now. The principal sent a message to a child who was playing a game instead of doing his work. The school no longer buys textbooks and they save money on paper. They feel that the old kind of school was preparing kids to drive a car by teaching them to ride a horse. They feel that now they're preparing kids for the world they'll be living in.

Then I read an article about the obstacles to using technology in the classroom. In brief, it says that administrations don't take advantage of the number of mobile devices that kids already own which could be used as learning tools, such as smart phones and that schools think they're using technology well, but kids don't agree.

At one point in my childhood, I ate meat three meals a day, if it was available. Then I became a vegetarian for eleven years. I know plenty about all or nothing thinking! When it comes to technology in the classroom or home, I don't want to see all or nothing thinking going on. For kids to spend many hours of their school day on mobile learning devices, whether cell phones or computers, and then go home to relax and go on Facebook, play video games, share music, etc. is not the diet I would want for my children or my students. Nor would I banish the 21st century technology. Balance. That's where we need to keep aiming.

Making a video is a fabulous project which can certainly incorporate any educational goals, from acquiring knowledge to analyzing and interpreting it and applying it to new situations, critical and creative thinking, opportunities to write and revise and edit. I just don't agree with the teacher on the PBS news show who says it takes the place of writing a paper. There are excellent movies and excellent books. Why say that one medium could take the place of another? We need to be able to use written and spoken language to describe, analyze, interpret, respond to the world around us. Words have the power to incite, to destroy, to create, to organize, to promote change - whether we speak them, text them or write them, we need to continually improve our ability to use them.

And when all those children are facing screens all day long, what about the discussions? People say computers are interactive, but it's a different meaning of interactive than the one I value in our classroom.

My 4th-5th grade class recently finished reading The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Discussing it in small and large groupings, sharing humorous quotes, looking for ways that the author built tension, summarizing, predicting, visioning, analyzing, agonizing when one character didn't share her concerns with another character which endangered them all. . . No digital "interaction" could ever replace any of those discussions.

Then there's the issue of censorship. Our school blocks certain searches, but, since we are a small, private school, students can ask permission to have the block removed. In these larger districts, that's unwieldy. According to the PBS report, a student in this North Carolina school district can't research topics the district has declared off-limits. They block youtube, facebook and any access to information they feel is dangerous, such as sites accessed by the key words, "hate crimes" or "terrorism" or "gun control." Does that sound too much like the Chinese approach and not much like American education?

Of course technology has allowed us access to information in unprecedented ways - and we need to provide safe ways for our students and children to enjoy that access. It has also allowed teachers and students opportunities to collaborate beyond our school walls in ways that no horse and buggy world ever allowed. Let's just remember that our face to face interactions, sharings, discussions, even arguments all have enormous value as do our many uses of written language. Let's go for balance!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why ISN'T the military having bakesales to buy bombers while schools have all the money we need?

A recent issue of the issue of the monthly newsletter from ALATFF (Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations) cites these twelve ways libraries are good for the country. They are:

1. Libraries sustain democracy
2. Libraries break down barriers
3. Libraries level the playing field
4. Libraries value the individual
5. Libraries nourish creativity
6. Libraries open young minds
7. Libraries return high dividends
8. Libraries build communities
9. Libraries support families
10. Libraries build technology skills
11. Libraries offer sanctuary
12. Libraries preserve the past

Couldn't the same be said about schools?

Why is it so hard to get towns, counties, states and federal governments to make schools and children a priority?

Every day another school district announces budget shortfalls, freezes, cutbacks. What can the districts do? They just don't have the money. We need to make the money available. Haven't we already learned where we get with such short-sighted thinking?

It's appalling.

One of my students at Manhattan Country School, more than 20 years ago, suggested that we fund schools first, and if there isn't enough money to buy bombers, let the military have a bakesale. I later saw that sentiment on a tee-shirt, but I was there when nine year old Asha invented it on her own.

When the military budget was expected to be 708.2 billion dollars for 2011 and expected to rise by 3.6% for 2012 (according to the United States Department of Defense Budget Request) and education budgets are being slashed from 137.6 billion dollars in 2009 to 77.8 billion dollars in 2011 (according to the Education Department Budget Summary) what's the message about what's important to this nation?

Isn't it time we listen to Asha? While we still can?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sharing our wonder

For this post, I'm going to direct you to Jan's 4-5 Blog, my class blog, because I used their Everything Journals quite freely in the writing of it. Please leave your comments there. The class will be delighted to read them! Thanks!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Community of Learners

This weekend I feasted on learning with others. First, on Friday after school, my daughters and four teen-aged friends, another mom and a super-patient and wonderful beading enthusiast met together around my dining table and learned bead-weaving. Having never even strung beads together to make a simple necklace, I was the most beginner member of this gang, but we were all starting together to learn the peyote stitch. The first hour or more was filled with whining, moaning, under-the-breath cursing and a few exclamations of, "I've got it!" During the second hour, most of us had finished taking our piece apart repeatedly to start again and actually understood how it worked, and by the third hour, we were hooked! The ones who "got it" were able to help the rest of us, and our instructor stayed with us until we felt confident, and the stories and jokes and tidbits we shared made the time fly. I felt so fortunate to get to stick with it until I got it, rather than to stop after the first 45 frustrating minutes - which made me think about what it's like for our students when the class has to stop one thing to do the next. The teenagers kept going until after midnight, but I couldn't. I slept well knowing that I had been a part of something exciting to all of us!

Usually, I look forward to "sleeping in" on Saturdays- not quite the glorious treat it was before I became a mom, but if I'm lucky, I can stay asleep just past 7am and if I read in bed for awhile, I feel pretty decadent just the same. But, yesterday was the Teacher's College 80th Saturday Reunion of Reader's and Writer's Workshop teachers and the three of us who teach combined 4th and 5th grade classes decided to attend together. We were all up bright and early enough to meet at the 6:40 train and enjoy watching a nearly full moon set as the sun rose over the Hudson River.

We arrived at Riverside Church in time for John Scieszka's hilarious opening address. His stories of his life growing up in a household of six boys included enough urine and wrestling to make it clear that his first mostly-female faculty meeting when he became a teacher must truly have been culture shock and his irreverent gift of his book "Knucklehead" to then-President George W. Bush plainly illustrated his ability to say what's on his mind, no matter who's around to hear.

After John Scieszka's address, many thousands of teachers paraded across Broadway to Teacher's College where four hours and a huge selection of workshops awaited our free participation. Choosing where to go was tough, but I was delighted with the rooms I crammed into. Lucy Calkins talked to us about the need for children to read more difficult books and to read them with deeper comprehension. She identified a few specific skills, such as retelling, prediction, envisioning, empathy, reading like a writer and interpretation and she talked about how to help kids begin to improve them. Another time, I'll go into more details about some of these because they were enormously interesting and will help greatly in class.

Then I jogged and jostled my way into a talk about inquiry based learning with Stephanie Harvey and then fairly flew up four flights of stairs and through many winding halls to a talk about using blogs for reading logs -- all fascinating and full of things I can use immediately, which is important to most teachers who attend workshops.

The closing talk was given by Linda Darling-Hammond. For an excellent article about her views on the current administration's approach to education, you can follow this link. She told us how with 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's inmates and more than 25% of our children living in poverty, the US is choosing incarceration over education. She encouraged us as teachers to stand up for our profession and to stop others from dictating what we must do in the class, as we really know perfectly well what works and what doesn't work. In countries such as Singapore and Finland, teachers are part of a system which supports good teaching, won't allow children to be hungry or homeless, and values the professionalism of teachers.

As I listened and scribbled some notes - the best chance my memory had these days is if I scribble some notes! - I realized what a rare atmosphere I was breathing in. Not only was I seated in the balcony of a gorgeous church, modeled on a thirteenth century Gothic cathedral and featuring huge stained glass windows and soaring wide ceilings , but I was surrounded by thousands of teachers whose commitment to teaching and learning brought us all together in one place to listen, reflect, laugh, take notes, ask questions and return to our classrooms renewed and recharged. This was a crowd I had more in common with than any other random crowd at a concert or shopping mall and it felt great just to look around, eavesdrop soak it in.

Maybe I could have learned the peyote stitch from a computer - I won't say it's impossible - but it wouldn't have been as fun! And how would the computer know when my mistakes were bad enough to require a restart and when I could keep going? From what I can tell so far, although there were plenty of tech-savvy speakers and audience members at the Readers and Writers Reunion, there has been no attempt to try and bring this day of workshops to us digitally, and for that I am grateful. I prefer the experience of learning with others and digital learning just can't replace the experience of learning in a live community.

P.S. I have been so focused on blogging that I just burned the black beans! Here's a perfect time to be on-line instead of in my kitchen. . . You aren't having to smell the beans!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

What is Progressive Education?

My father was brought up by two progressive educators who taught at and later ran the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Alabama. For those of you who don't know, Fairhope itself was a pretty radical concept: every household could be a shareholder in the town, but shareholders did not own the land itself - that was owned in common by the town. Marietta Johnson offered very radical ideas in the 20s and 30s, including child centered education, no tests, no grades, and an approach to curriculum that included Morris Dancing and shop on an equal plane with reading, writing and 'rithmetic. His educational experience was, my whole life, the gold standard for education, and, like many teachers I know, I have spent my entire adult life thinking about, promoting, teaching in or parenting in progressive schools.

I currently teach at a child-centered school with no tests or grades and a rich variety of drama, music and art along with all the rest of the academics. We consider ourselves progressive, without having any common definition for what we might mean by that word. I think that each one of us at my school has a few strongly held tenets - and that they probably overlap and conflict with each other in interesting ways. We have a powerful mission statement - and we all have different ways of interpreting how to achieve it. (I purposely said "and" not "but" because I think that leaves us open to exciting philosophical discussions.)

Before coming to my current school, I taught at a progressive school whose founder was still actively teaching and administering. The discussions about progressive education were lively and frequent, and because the founder participated in them, and because we were all so passionate about the vision of the school, our philosophies were much more closely aligned.

I have been associated with my current school for about eighteen years, but only employed for six of those years, as I took a LONG time to return after having children. Meanwhile, I was a parent and board member at yet another progressive school, where I had the opportunity to share in the growth and development of a school choosing to expand to eighth grade instead of fourth grade.

Throughout those years, there's been more than enough to reflect on about progressive education, and I have reached some level of clarity about some of what matters most to me as a progressive educator.

I see the picture with a wide-angle lens, taking in the relationships between all parties, administration, faculty and staff, parents and children as well thinking about what the curriculum is and how we create and "deliver" it. It's about seeing opportunities to help people (all the people in the school!) flourish and grow, and giving them the tools, time, support and love to do so. In a progressive school, the way we teach, the way we talk, the way we make decisions - it's all vital to the lifeblood of being progressive. We're learning all the time as well as teaching students to think, be compassionate, be open-minded and responsible, be problem-solvers, work together, work alone - - and in the midst of that most important curriculum, we teach them to read and write, do sums, create, explore and express themselves in all the variety of classes we offer.

In a progressive school, it's imperative that the kids, parents and teachers feel they can speak up or share their interests or concerns, that they are invited to share their thoughts openly and honestly, that they'll be heard and responded to respectfully and honestly, that trust and communication underlie everything that goes on in the school. There's no good replacement for those relationships and that trust. That's why I give out my cell phone number to the students and parents of the kids in my class; that's why I spend so much time reading their work or preparing for their classes; that's why I bring small groups and large groups of kids together to discuss disagreements or other issues that arise; that's why we sit in a meeting area where we can look at each other and respond to each other's ideas many times a day and why we take it very seriously if anyone laughs at anyone else's ideas or insults anyone; and that's why, before I have 9 and 10 year olds spend much school related time on a computer, we put so much time and thought into paying attention to face to face communication. We need the community and trust to come first.

Once all that trust, respect and communication is in place as the most important boulders of a classroom's foundation, then we can set about working on the mortar. Are we going to teach phonics? Are we going to use writer's workshop - and which model do we like? Are we going to use textbooks for any subjects? Will we teach spelling? Handwriting? How does our social studies curriculum progress throughout the grades? How do we make the learning experiential? How do we make sure learning is intrinsically valued? At what age do the children write research reports? Who makes the curriculum decisions? What type of assessment do we use? What is the role of homework in the curriculum?

There aren't necessarily right or wrong answers - progressive and traditional answers - to those specific questions. There are only progressive and traditional ways to go about answering them. That's what defines a progressive school far more than which math text they do or don't use. A progressive school values the community and the trust above all else and from that flows all the opportunities for students to learn to be compassionate responsible problem-solving creative and fabulous citizens of the complicated future we are leaving for them.

I keep thinking of more points to make and more questions to ask, but I'd love to hear your thoughts about what progressive education means to you!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cain and Abel?

I listen to audiobooks and podcasts every chance I get. Sometimes, I fall several days behind in the news because I'm catching up on my TED talks or my "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." These days, the book I'm listening to on my ipod is "Kane and Abel" by Jeffrey Archer. It occurred to me that I don't have a good understanding of the biblical story, so I looked it up in my Children's Illustrated Bible. While I was reading that, my children walked into the room and wondered what on earth I was doing, (I was stretching and exercising on the floor at the same time, so it was a valid question.) Curious, they actually invited me to read the King James' version of that story to them over lunch.

It was helpful to read it together; the girls raised further questions I couldn't answer, but I could ponder with them. We wondered:
Why didn't the Lord like Cain's offering? Was he offering inferior grains and fruits? Was he the less favored child?
Why did Cain murder Abel? What are we to learn from that?
Was banishing him, but not allowing him to be harmed, a more terrible punishment for Cain than death would have been?
If, as it seemed, Cain and Abel were the first and for a while only people on the earth besides Adam and Eve, who were the masses of people that Cain feared might want to kill him for his crime? Other children of Adam and Eve? Then they'd be his siblings. . .
Why is the first murder in the bible between siblings?
Did Cain repent?
What does this story tell us about the people telling it to us?

I don't want to offend anyone who reads the bible as a religious text. I have no ax to grind or religious affiliation of any kind. My interest in the bible is primarily as a piece of important literature which contains the origins of most of our modern literature. I have barely scratched the surface of the bible's literary gifts, but I enjoy reading portions and trying to understand them whenever obvious references show up in my novels. In my quick look through blogs on the topic of Cain and Abel, I saw many different and interesting interpretations, but nothing that really satisfied me. Maybe you have ideas you'd like to share!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Did you drip salad dressing on my homework?

I love teaching and I even love reading the student's work. But occasionally, it can get overwhelming. The pile of papers to read and respond to is never-ending, like the dishes in the sink. I can get them all in the dishwasher (not the papers, the dishes!) and even Ajax the sink, but if I look away for a few hours, there it is again.

Well, that's how the pile of papers is as well. I empty my "Hand In" box and sort the papers before I take them home. Got the spelling packets, got the social studies packets, and seventeen - - - oh, no, they're not all here. Okay, who didn't hand in the reading cloze? I stop, put the papers in alphabetical order, see who's is missing, go look in some backpacks, cubbies, folders. Got them! And seventeen clozes.

By now, I'm late for a faculty meeting or I'm scrambling to a parent conference, or maybe it's Monday, the one day I must leave by 3:20 to get my daughter to her dance class an hour away. Anyway, I pile the papers all in my bag, pack up my computer and dash. Is the classroom tidied? Oops. Suddenly it's 7 or 8 or it could be 9 at night by the time meetings or dance classes or puppy training classes, dog walking, dinner preparation, working with my own children if they need something and even the dishes are momentarily done, so now it's time to tackle the pile.

I make it valiantly through seventeen spelling packets, seventeen responses to the social studies reading about bull jumping in Crete (Was it a primarily religious rite or a source of entertainment?) Of course, many of these papers need further attention from the students, so they go back into the "Work to Look At" folders. After the next independent work period, these papers will jam up the "Hand in" box along with any new work the students have done.

"Have the students correct their own work" some kind souls have said to me. Well, that can work for certain tasks, but not for the vast majority of what we do in school. In theory, it would work for the clozes, as there is only rarely more than one right answer. Occasionally, we read the cloze all together and kids correct their own papers as they go. But then, I don't see how they've responded and I don't have a clearer picture of what types of comprehension difficulties certain students may face. So, accomplishing the task takes away most of the value of the assignment on my end.

It certainly is no help to have the students correct their own spelling packets. Let's say one group has just done their best to learn the rule about doubling the final consonant before adding a suffix that starts with a vowel, and they may have correctly written betting, stopping and skipped, but then along comes sailing and a few kids wrote sailling. If I don't catch that and circle it, are those kids going to go through life over-applying the rule? (Cue to gasp or start up the argument that spell check will do away the need for anyone to learn any rules! So I'll just say right now that unless the student can recognize the correctly spelled word that spell check offers her, she can't use a word processor effectively.I'm not ready to throw away spelling instruction for those kids who need it.)

And most importantly, I want to know how the students presented their answers to the question about the bull leaping in Crete. We've been working hard on persuasive writing. I want to read topic sentences and reasons supported by information from their various readings. I want to see clear, comprehensible and complete sentences. I want to know what kind of work we still need to do to help the students present their thinking in a well structured and convincing manner, whatever their opinions were.

"Have them type their work and then spell check will take care of everything." Clearly, that kind soul has never seen much work done by a group of 9 to 11 year old students. Spell check catches if they write "teh" instead of "the", but not if they write "stake" instead of "steak" or "I write my mother" instead of "I wrote my mother." And while some children do have access to computers and have worked hard to learn enough typing skills so that doing homework on a keyboard is a reasonable alternative to writing it in a journal or on a piece of paper, not all have that access or that dexterity.

I can't see any alternative to constantly keeping up with the never-ending pile of work. Yes, I read their work while I jam a meal down my throat; yes, there might be a few drops of salad dressing on a spelling packet because I'm correcting it while jamming said meal down my throat; yes, I am still bringing work home every day and spending my evening reading student work and preparing for the next day's lessons; yes, I was mistaken when I declared that there would be a way to leave school by 4 or 5 o'clock, empty handed; and no, I don't think there's a way to get around it. I won't leave the pile of dishes untended in my sink for days on end and I won't leave the pile of papers unread for days on end. I'll just try to eat my salad more neatly!

I would love to hear how other teaching moms manage to write their own curriculum and read their students' work and take care of their children and household chores!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Do you share my concerns?

I worry about the direction that schools are heading with regard to technology. This summer, at the urging of my school, in order to improve my ability to use the technology that my colleagues and students were using, I completed an on-line course in Web 2.0. I learned about Delicious, Voice Thread, Blogs, Wikis, embedding and linking, and Google Docs, among other new toys. It was really interesting, but I found only a few things that I thought were directly or immediately applicable to my life as a teacher of fourth and fifth grade. As the year progresses, I am finding ways to share those helpful tools with the class, but only after we've spent the early months developing a sense of community and practicing the skills that will make our time on the internet valuable. I worry that in our rush to embrace the new technologies, we'll skimp on the important community building time and the equally important pencil and paper time, book time, blocks corner time, board games time, discussion time, scissors and markers time, read aloud time, drama and movement time. (There, I said it. Now you can jump on me and tell me what a backwards thinking teacher I really am!)

I worry about how long are our children spend in front of a screen. As a teacher and as a mother, I have strong feelings about how much time kids spend using what types of technology. It could seem ironic that I am using technology to write about my concerns about technology, except that I feel fairly confident of my ability to balance my time and use my judgment about what types of sites I visit and what influence they have on me. I have already put in plenty of time with the developmental tools that allow me to use this technology and not be used by it. On the other hand, I know that many children and teens (and adults) do not yet have the self-control to have a computer screen in front of them and maintain focus on their teacher or homework assignment or group project (or job). How many young kids spend less time creating projects out of cardboard scraps and toilet paper tubes or less time building shelters or fairy homes in their backyards because the screen is more compelling to them? How many teens spend less time bicycling or hiking or joining a club or babysitting or building a shed because they are on facebook or absorbed by computer games?

I am the kind of parent who offered cookies on a limited basis while my children were young. As fit and healthy teens, they now have the self control to eat cookies on a limited basis and they can choose wisely from the cupboards, unsupervised. As a teacher, I would like to proceed similarly with screen time. Offer limited access to safe and healthy sites, used with direct teacher supervision at school and direct parental supervision at home, with the clear goal that when it's all available as an unsupervised smorgasbord, it won't be as challenging to maintain balance and self-control.

I worry about the types of on-line activities which can gobble my own children's and my students' time. Are they activities to which the on-line world is uniquely suited and which improves their ability to grow up and interact and problem solve in a world of unique and multifaceted people and ever growing environmental challenges? Or are they learning to lie to get facebook accounts before they're old enough, inappropriately learning about adult products while watching family television on hulu, learning to contain their thoughts to a posting of 140 characters or less, learning to hide their bullying behind layers of on-line gossip or you-tube postings, learning that all emotions should be able to be expressed by a l.o.l, :) or :( or forgetting how to engage in meaningful conversation or correspondence because a facebook status is as deep as it gets?

I'm not anti-computer and I'm not anti-progress. I just want to be thoughtful about all of it. I want the students to experience the opportunities of connecting to people in new and meaningful ways; I don't think there's any hurry, and in fact, in hurry, I think there are major drawbacks. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Let me introduce myself

I am a mother of two girls and the teacher of seventeen fourth and fifth grade children. I love both my jobs, and sometimes want to cry or tear my hair out about one or the other or both! I hope to use this blog to process some of what goes on in trying to balance my jobs and maybe to connect with others who run into some of the same questions or have figured things out and want to share their thoughts with me. I am new to blogging, so please excuse my mistakes. For example, this giant video! This was meant to be a practice at embedding, and it looked like a cool video, so I thought I'd use it to launch my blog. But, something went wrong on the way to the publishers, and now it's huge! Ah well, a huge video is not worth pulling out my hair! Enjoy the video and let's keep in touch!