Category Archives: education

The “Jesus was an American” Assembly

 

I haven’t written about Darcy’s new preschool yet. And because she really loves her teacher and the school is such a sweet place I’ve stayed away from writing anything that—while I would mean it as humorous cultural commentary—would come off as hurtful. Truly, it’s a lovely little school.

Let me just set the scene though. I’m a solidly Northeastern girl who grew up Catholic, went to Catholic high school, and then onto Catholic university. Despite attending Methodist church for the past few years, Catholicism is really the dominant religious tradition in my mind. So the “bible” churches or nondenominational churches in Texas are a whole new world for me. While I love my faith and the faithful people around me, this is culture shock…big league culture shock.

Just as someone who went to church/school in Texas would likely feel if they walked into a Catholic school on the Feast of St. Blaise. Why are they blessing throats? What’s with the candles to the throat? How does one get to be a throat blesser? If you grew up Catholic, this feast makes perfect sense…especially if it’s school musical season. Get your throat blessed by St. Blaise! It really helps! But if you didn’t grow up in this culture, I can imagine it would be jarring.

So Darcy’s school is Christian. Just Christian. No denominations. I have elevated this school to “Super Christian,” like “Super Tuscan” wines or “supermodels.” Most of the time I really love her school. But there’s a small percentage of the time where I do a double take and say, “Yep, file that under Super Christian.”

Like when Darcy corrected Jackson for stating (correctly) that J is for Jackson.

“No, J is only for Jesus!!!” she yelled. Calm down evangelical TV pastor. We know J is for Jesus.

Or like when Darcy came home and randomly blurted out, “Baaaaddd decisions against God.” Turns out, the class was reading a story about sheep who didn’t obey God. But I felt the need to clarify something, “Wait, were you saying that to a kid in the class that misbehaved?” She didn’t. But for a second I was all Calm down, handmaiden.

Yesterday morning was the Veteran’s Day assembly, a ripe mixture of patriotic and religious narratives that simply cannot be ignored. It was an excellently produced pageant I have since dubbed “Jesus was an American.”

We began with the preschool singing some patriotic songs. I knew none except for “My Country Tis of Thee,” a song whose lyrics I still insist should be “of the icing.” Because icing is part of cake and cake is awesome and so is America.

My daughter’s class was downright adorable. When they finished, the classes were ushered off the stage as quick as their little legs could carry them. Darcy held up an index finger to my parents and I as if to say “#1.”

Maybe it was America is #1. Yes.

Jesus is #1. Agreed. Number one in my book.

Darcy is #1. Nailed it.

I saw that chubby finger and smiled at how she’s my little Texan baby.

Then came the pledges. You read that right. Plural. As in four pledges. Here’s what I pledged:

The Pledge to the Bible. Didn’t know this one.

The Pledge to the Christian Flag. Yes, there is indeed a Christian flag. It may be the same as the Crusades flag. My recollection of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves fails me here.

The Pledge to the Texas flag. This one is so redundant in its wording and yet I can’t seem to get it. At least I’m not just moving my lips and awkwardly looking around to see who notices that I have no idea what I’m saying. I was doing that for a LONG time.

Then, finally, the American Flag Pledge. Yes! One I know. Now I don’t feel like a terrorist. She doesn’t know the pledges! Take her down!

At this point we have been pledging for like 8 minutes. At least now, I understand while Darcy prays by saying the end of the Pledge of Allegiance. She’s conflated praying to God the father with pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes. But with four pledges and only four years of life, who could blame the confusion?

I stood between my parents. My mother didn’t know there were four pledges and false-started the Pledge of Allegiance three times.

“Not yet,” I kept whispering snidely.

My dad was on the other side of me, all basking in the red state glow, “You would never see this in New York.”

And then mom was all like, “A Veteran’s Day assembly? We had one every year. It was in Newsday.”

So while Mom was indignantly reminding everyone about Davison Ave School’s amazing Veteran’s Day assembly and Dad was all Making Jesus Great Again, I was in the middle figuring out how we could scoot from this event early. Darcy had, after all, finished her part of the performance.

I know I sound awful with my wanting to skedaddle. Here’s the deal though. I taught high school for seven years. I sat through countless assemblies—Veteran’s Day, 9/11 Assembly, Honor Society Assembly, Leadership Assembly, Graduation, Baccalaureate Liturgy. I don’t do assemblies and I don’t do lunch duty anymore. I go to an assembly if my kids are in it and then I have to fight every fiber of my being that wants to leave or play Candy Crush.

And I was hungry. I wanted pancakes. Mom and Dad promised to take me to The Original Pancake house for breakfast. This celebration of the American military stood in between me and pumpkin spice pancakes.

But my daughter’s class was seated right behind us. Drats! So I had to console myself with deep thoughts about America and how great it is to be American and how free I am to sit here and think about pancakes when I’m supposed to be thinking about America.

And then came the keynote. A 16-year Navy SEAL veteran whose title was “Master Chief.” He was there all the way from Tennessee to share his story about his commitment to God and military. And my first thought was “Yes, this guy has been ‘in the shit.’” I immediately imagined him yelling at his battalion or squad or whatever and saying things like “Stay frosty!” and “Get some!”

The children sat on the stage as he addressed them. It reminded me of a part of the Methodist worship service where the pastor calls all the children up to the front for a mini-sermon wherein he/she makes the scripture relatable to their age and stage. Do you like animals, children? Oh, ducks, you like ducks? Well, God created the whole world and everything in it. That means God made ducks.

Master Chief had lots of good reflections and stories. But I was surprised that he broke from the Veteran’s Day façade of “Thank you for your service. As far as the whole our-taxes-pay-you-to-murder-death-kill-our-enemies…Let’s not go there. But thank you for your service.”

Well, Master Chief was going there. He told a story about how his squad was taking fire and how it all happens in slow motion when you think you might die. But his faith carried him through and he stood up with his machine gun and started firing back. This Rambo move was the reason his squad was able to get out of the firefight.*

I only caught some of his story because I was using the restroom for the second time. But I filled in the gaps in my mind with Master Chief killed Bin Laden and Master Chief killed all of ISIS and Master Chief was Quinn from Homeland.

My dad wondered aloud if this ultimate sacrifice/price of war was a bit much for elementary school kids.

“Dad, everything here is a ‘bit much.’” I whispered back. Hello? Did he miss the four pledges?

Also, did he miss the music teacher conducting the audience through the Star Spangled Banner? That happened, by the way. The music teacher conducted the audience instead of the choir during sing-alongs. She wore a lovely sparkly wrap from Chico’s that fell off her shoulders as she waved her quivering forearms at us. And while no one is a better choir conductor than Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act, this lady is a close second place.

And you know who didn’t think Master Chief’s Rambo-ISIS story was too much? The lady in the last row. She wore an American flag dress jacket with sequins all over it. I imagined her admonishing the dry cleaner about how to properly clean such a garment. She looked like she was about to coach the 1980 US Women’s Gymnastics team in Lake Placid. It’s the height of the Cold War. The only way to stop the Commies is with sequins and sticking the effin’ landing.

*At no point did Master Chief refer to himself as Rambo. Because when you’re a frickin’ Navy SEAL Rambo, you don’t have to use weak ass Hollywood references.

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My dentist, book clubs, and Jump Rope for the Heart

I’ll be honest. This post is just one big lead up to how much I dislike Jump Rope for the Heart.

I went to the dentist yesterday. I love the office but they are a chatty bunch. The dentist, Dr. Rooster-in-the-hen-house, is a friendly, older man with a sanguine face and a deep abiding respect for people who floss. He sets the tone for the hospitable atmosphere.

These toothbrushes are pregnant. They’ve been “impregnanted.” So much to say. So little time.

The hygienists and assistants were particularly loquacious yesterday because they’d all attended conference. The office staff took a team building seminar–a class that seems wholly unnecessary for this group. And my hygienist was all “We took a team building seminar and talked about our personalities, but we never took a personality test!”

So she’d taken it upon herself to send a personality test via group text. (Of course they have a group text. Try to keep up.) She cleaned my teeth whilst interrogating everyone about their results. To my surprise once again, most people had not only taken the test, but were willing to share their results and comment on the test’s accuracy.

“Have you taken that personality test? The Myers-Briggs?,” she asked me.

My mouth is open and there’s a hook scraping the inside of my lower jaw. I was only paying attention to their conversation to take my mind off the scraping sound echoing through my cranium. And I was trying make sure my mind didn’t go to that dark musical place: Steve Martin singing “I’m Your Dentist” from Little Shop of Horrors. This song is an ear worm. I didn’t want it in my head for the rest of the day.

Too late.

So I grunted an affirmation. Yes, I have taken the Myers-Briggs. Then I think how absurd it is that some countries don’t even have access to running water and Americans are worried about what four letters correspond to their unique snowflake selves.

Then came the air suction thingie and the tiny water gun. What happened to filling the little dixie cup and letting the patient sit up for a hot second? When I finally did sit up, the hygienist commented that since I closed my eyes, I got to relax. I think this is something that people with adult children say to people with younger children.

“Must have been nice. Getting to close your eyes for awhile. Not think about anything.”

Completely aghast, I said nothing.

Are you crazy? I’m happy you’re stewarding my dental health but that wasn’t a massage. And it certainly wasn’t a nap. I closed my eyes because the light you shine in my mouth rivals the sun in brightness. Even with the fake Oakley sunglasses you give me. 

And I’m always thinking, always worrying. It’s kind of the hallmark of having anxiety. Here’s where my mind went yesterday morning: Jackson’s book club and Jump Rope for the Heart and how I’m failing at both. All interrupted by show tunes.

Anyway, while plaque was getting scraped off my molars, I thought about Jackson’s second grade book club. When we were rifling through his backpack this morning, I saw a rather thick chapter book.

“Have you read this one yet? It’s long.”

His eyes dart around, “Uh, no.”

“Okay, well you have time, but start reading it.”

He won’t. I thought of how Jackson may not have read any of the Book Club selections this year. After all, the librarian didn’t assign Captain Underpants or another graphic novel that employs toilet jokes as its main source of humor. So Jackson is basically treating his kid book club the way all adults treat adult book club. Maybe the librarian should just give up on the discussion. Just serve some some small bites from Trader Joe’s and let the kids gossip and drink Chardonnay with ice in it.

(NB: That’s a joke. I’m not actually suggesting the elementary school librarian serve alcohol. And she is a responsible person and wouldn’t even joke about kids getting loaded.  She a fine teacher and an even better person. Her Myer-Briggs letters are better than mine.)

My spa appointment/teeth cleaning was also interrupted by Jackson’s last words as I dropped him off at school. They are the same last words everyday for over a week.

“Have you done the Jump Rope for the Heart yet?”

Don’t. even. get. me. started.

Jump Rope for the Heart is one of those programs where the participant gets money donated and then promises to do an exercise on a given day. Like on Facebook…when you see your FB friend’s Go Fund Me page and it reads like this:

“Hey, I’m going to do a marathon in Santa Monica. I’m training so hard. Donate to Muscular Dystrophy so I can go run this marathon.”

And you’re like, “Is my money going to research for Muscular Dystrophy or am I funding your vacation to Santa Monica?”(Notice how it’s never the Big Mud Run of East Bumble.) Either way, is this tax deductible? I hate to be that person but unless it’s one of my charitable causes or a really good friend, the tax deduction is the only thing that’s going to get me involved.

So replace Muscular Dystrophy with Heart Disease. Replace marathon with kids trying to jump rope. And finally replace trip to SoCal with worthless trinkets from Oriental Trading Company. Will Jackson actually jump rope for sick hearts? I don’t think so. Therefore, Jump Rope for the Heart is my homework.

And now that he’s in second grade with all his second-grade-sass, Jackson told me that I don’t care about saving lives. And this past weekend, he reminded me that my father had open heart surgery.

So far, I’ve been a good mom and responded with deep, cleansing breaths and then ignoring him. But soon, I might lay it on. No, I don’t care about lining the pockets of the AHA’s Board and CEO just so you can “collect ’em all.” And PopPop’s heart disease is hereditary–he’s German and can’t resist Boars Head cold cuts.

Furthermore, Jump Rope for the Heart is a constant reminder that I still don’t have my double unders in CrossFit. That’s it. Double whammy.

Love you, Dad.

 

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Helping Your Middle School Student with his/her failing grades [FULL TEXT]

Originally published on March 30, 2017 in On Parenting, the Lifestyle section of the Washington Post. It needed trimming for WaPo but I wanted to put the full text on my site. It was really well received and even tweeted by the National Council for Teachers of English & Dad 2.0 Summit. 

Treat your middle schooler like a rattlesnake.

So it’s the end of March and your middle schooler’s grades are still unstable. And, to make matters worse, poor performance at school is eroding your child’s self-esteem. I know a few students who feel like their academic life is happening to them. Furthermore, parenting a middle school student is complicated. Questions about when you are helping or when you are helicoptering loom large.

But there’s still last quarter/trimester and that means there’s still time for improvement. I’ve taught English at secondary level, tutored middle school students in writing, and I’m a parent myself. Below I offer practical suggestions for helping your child become more self-directed and advocating for him in a way that’s not *gasp* helicoptering.

First, gather as much information as possible. There is so much lost in translation between the classroom and the home. Here’s what you need to know:

What are my child’s grades in each class? What are the consequences of failing a class?  How can I monitor those grades in between progress reports and report card distribution? Many schools use an online grade book where teachers, students, and parents have access to scores. This makes for fewer surprises when report cards are distributed. Find out what the consequences of academic failure are. Most schools address failing grades by removing students from extra-curricular activities. This policy is usually explicitly stated in the school handbook. If your child is highly invested in the musical or soccer team, this policy can be an effective motivator to improve those grades.

In each class, how is the final grade for a marking period computed? Not all grades count equally. A quiz usually counts for far less than a test, project, or research paper. This information was probably outlined at the beginning of the school year. And while it’s likely that each department calculates grades differently, it’s unlikely that your child will remember how the grading in each class works.

What units will the teacher cover last quarter/trimester? What are the big assignments? Many teachers already know due dates for projects or can approximate dates for tests. Teachers plot out each marking period with learning objectives and assessments.

 Does the teacher have his/her own website where students and parents can access information? When I taught English, I had a simple website powered by Google sites. I uploaded PDFs of short stories, assignments, graphic organizers, and informational handouts. I updated my site regularly with homework assignments or “housekeeping” items (i.e. field trip money due). Browsing teacher websites is a good way to keep yourself informed about what’s going on in the classroom without having to email the teacher multiple times and wait for replies. Moreover, you can synthesize the information on the websites along with your child. This makes for teachable moments about web literacy at home.

Where does my kid lose the most points? Is she crumbling on tests? Does he hand in essays late? As a teacher and tutor, I can usually identify the defining factor in a student’s failing performance. For some it is time management. For others it is lack of study skills. Some come alive when we read aloud in class but have problems reading at home. If you want a full picture here, this conversation with your child’s teacher is best done over the phone or in person. Email works perfectly when your questions require concrete answers. But when a situation is emotionally charged (like one about your child failing at school), email fails because it requires too much nuance.

Second, make a plan with your child. I realize this is easier said than done and will require an unremitting amount patience and energy.

Choose what to focus on. If you get answers to the questions above, you can use them to help your child budget her time. If your child knows what big assignments are coming up, he can focus on tackling one task at a time.

Get extra help. You don’t have to hire a tutor or pay tuition at a learning center (i.e. Mathnasium). Those are viable options, sure, but many teachers offer extra help. Encourage your son to ask when and where extra help takes place. It’s usually after school but sometimes teachers give extra help during unscheduled periods. And extra help is typically a smaller group. There’s more opportunity for your child to build rapport with her teacher and get questions answered.

Incentivize good grades. From sticker charts for chores to promotions with larger salaries at work, reward systems work regardless of age and stage. The key is identifying the right incentive. Set some challenging but doable goals with your middle schooler. Then establish something worthwhile to motivate your child. Be explicit in your conversations about both the goals and the rewards.

Invest in a planner. Transitioning from one teacher in elementary school to 6-7 teachers in middle school is jarring to students. Moreover, assignments have longer lead times. When I taught freshmen, I spent some time at the beginning of the year going over the school’s planner (a combo handbook, calendar, weekly organizer). Most adults keep some form of calendar. But maintaining an organized planner is not intuitive to most adolescents.

Teach your child how to email his teacher(s). Speaking of skills that are not intuitive, your child might be well-versed in new apps, but in sixth grade, she probably doesn’t know how to compose a good email. Writing polite, focused emails is necessary for success today. A few weeks ago, as my tutee Owen and I discussed his current English project, I realized he didn’t know enough about his teacher’s timeline or expectations. Instead of aimlessly circling the issue, we spent part of our session that night sending an email to his teacher. Owen asked questions about email etiquette like why does it need a subject or how do I write the salutation and closing. He was amazed at how quickly his teacher replied and how easy it was to get clarification. He’s a confident and capable adolescent. Knowing how to write an email is going to give Owen more agency in his academic life.

Third, work the plan. Consistent and clear dialogue is key as you move forward. I’m willing to bet that once you have the necessary information and a plan, you and your child will feel less anxious. Less anxiety will make conversations with your child go more smoothly. I’m a believer in frontloading: invest a good amount of time in the beginning and you’ll be able to pull away the scaffolding as your child builds his/her own study skills. Good luck!

 

 

 

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“Three Miles”: A Visceral Response

I was never a podcast person. I barely even listen to talk radio on the morning commute. Listening–in the car, at the gym, around the house–is for music. But that all changed when I started listening to Serial, a podcast by This American Life that took my facebook feed (and the iTunes charts) by storm.  Since finishing Serial, I’ve mostly been complaining to myself that there isn’t more Serial. But this week, I decided to try This American Life. A quick look at the description of the podcast “Three Miles” was enough to draw me in. It was about the connection between education and equity and exposure. They were speaking my language. And with two little children at home, this podcast was sure to be a nice break from playing weebles and filling sippy cups. Ah, fifty minutes where I don’t feel my brain cells weeping.

“Three Miles,” like all This American Life content I’m sure, is superbly made. It’s informational, it’s well-paced, it’s provocative. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, I highly recommend it. Since this podcast alone has prompted numerous conversations on my social media feeds, I decided to try to come up with a cohesive response to it. My reaction to “Three Miles” was multi-faceted and visceral at times.

This American Life logo“Three Miles” is about the experience of two groups of students from very different backgrounds and educational experiences interacting with each other through the curation of two English teachers who thought it would be good if their students met. One group is from University Heights, a South Bronx public school and the other group is from Fieldston, a private school three miles away. Fieldston tuition per year = cost of one BMW (roughly).

After writing letters, the teachers decide it would be beneficial if the students met each other. This seems like a good idea. (I still believe it is.) The podcast notes that for the University Heights kids, the field trip to the private school could show them another world, a world where you don’t have to be poor, hungry, angry, on your way to nowhere. And for the private school kids, many of whom will become leaders in the corporate and political world, the exposure to how “the other half lives” is beneficial. Chana Joffe notes “And part of the point of programs like these that try to bridge the divide is– seeing as the private school kids will likely go on to be important, influential people, maybe write education policy or finance new businesses– it’s good for them to know not everybody’s life looks like theirs.” How can you write policy or affect change (something that you should be doing if you’re privileged) if you’ve never encountered someone who could benefit from the changes? Sounds good, right?

Not really for Melanie. She freaks out when they get there. And you know what? I understood the freak out. Joffe presented it as an odd reaction but I could easily see one of my former students from Preston reacting the same way. I sympathized with Melanie and imagined myself as her teacher. I agreed with her. Yes, why do the Fieldston kids have the idyllic high school experience you envisioned for yourself. The experience where, as one interviewee remembers, you could leave your bookbag on the floor of the library and no one would take it. I left my bag everywhere in my high school. Sure, I had some stuff taken from my locker but I could leave my bag somewhere without fear of someone rifling through it. What would they take? The keys to my 1989 Nissan Sentra? Sure, just make sure you leave me the keys to your mom’s SUV of which she tired after a few months.

The part that hit me the hardest was when the journalist finally caught up with Melanie. (Ten years later…) Melanie described going through the process of the Posse Foundation, a scholarship that provides a full ride to underprivileged kids who show promise. These are the kids who exhibit an alternative set of predictors for college success. Some of these kids I met in my time at Preston.  Melanie made it to the third round of the process, I think. She started crying when she described the rejection. You feel like the whole world your whole future is riding on this scholarship and when it doesn’t happen, you’re crushed.. She says “But it’s a really beautiful thing if you do get it. At least that’s the way it looked. But what you put children through to get there is hard to then be turned down. I’d say, why didn’t I get it? What was wrong with me?”

I’ve been part of the counseling students through a few of these scholarships at Preston. I usually taught freshmen and sophomores so I never saw a student through the process of say, the Gates Millenium Scholarship or the NYT Scholarship. But I’ve reviewed essays, talked to students about what to wear and what to say in interviews for colleges and various programs that would help them finance college or just put another feather in their college application cap. I remember the disappointment students felt so acutely when they got their rejection letters, probably more than I remember the excitement of a student getting accepted to their college of choice or getting the necessary funding to go there.

Melanie’s recounting of her disappointment, the absolute despair she felt, how she felt she must not deserve a better life, filled me to the brim with pity. I wept hearing her voice shake as she retold it. To think that with all the compassion and dedication some educators pour out every year and still Melanie would think that she wasn’t good enough. I can remember having a few emotional conversations with students about their disappointment, about the pain of rejection. In the back of my mind was always the adult voice saying, “Oh this is just life sometimes. But good things will happen too.” But “Three Miles” presents you with someone whose life is such that good things don’t happen. And it’s incredibly sad to think that so many people go through life never expecting something good to happen.

Robert_E_Hill_Fieldston_plaqueIn the end, while I found the podcast interesting, I felt sad. One of the teachers, Pablo, says that he’s an example of someone who got out of the projects and he’s working on his PhD now. He’s “made it.” He says that he keeps telling students that more education, that college is the way out of their current situations. However, he knows that only a handful will cross class barriers. I feel the same way. If I were still teaching at Preston, I’d be doggedly pushing that same message. Get into college. Get your next degree. Move up the food chain.

I started writing this blog post because so many of my friends on twitter and facebook were talking about it. The mention of Fordham was enough for fellow grads to start the dialogue. Everyone had sensitive, sound responses and offered ideas for how to better support the “University Heights” kids when they get to college and have to sit in the same room as the “Fieldston” kids. But what was devastating about the podcast was that so many of these students have such a low sense of self-worth. They don’t expect to succeed. They are literally the opposite of entitled. They have supports and they don’t reach out sometimes. Jonathan, who won the Posse Foundation scholarship, failed out of college. He just didn’t go to class. He couldn’t afford the books. He didn’t ask for help. Jonathan tells Chana: “So now I’m embarrassed to be the only black guy that doesn’t do the work and fulfill that stereotype. So I’m not going to class. It’s a catch-22, because now I’m still the black kid now that just doesn’t come to class, and doesn’t do the work on top of that.” He gives in to this insidious self-fulfilling prophecy that poverty constructs. He tells TAL that he never felt like he deserved this opportunity, that he was scared. How do educators combat that level of low self-esteem? I’m not saying that the programs are not worthy or that they don’t work. I think these are noble pursuits but to hear that someone like Jonathan didn’t make it just breaks my heart.

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