Monday, January 31, 2011

Race to Nowhere: On Choosing a Route and Destination

I wrote last week about my thoughts on homework's role in education in response to our community's showing of the documentary film Race to Nowhere.  Tonight, Big Sis's homework was some simple experiments with weight distribution--trying to pick up an object with heels against the wall, and determining if her body was more stable standing or sitting.  Her assignment was fun and easy but encouraged deeper thought and some "Aha!"s.  It didn't require glitter or popsicle sticks or a parent's master's degree:  that's what I'm talking about

But the film Race to Nowhere is about more than homework; it argues that "the whole culture needs to revise what is important and what is not."  So this week I explore the role of families in helping kids define What Is Important, and how our schools can support healthy options.

Posted on the bulletin board at Little Sis's preschool is an article titled "Want to Get Your Kids into College?  Let Them Play."  The article's authors, an early childhood teacher and professor of medicine and sociology at Harvard,  allude to a study which shows that more opportunities for imaginative play in early childhood (particularly in groups) yield greater chances of success in school and beyond.  Make-believe activities support the development of self-regulation, and self-regulating individuals are less likely to drop out, commit crimes, and abuse substances.  It turns out that our daughter's preschool, with its multi-age classroom and fairly unstructured curriculum, allows ample opportunity for free playtime. 

Big Sis attended this neighborhood preschool too, which I confess we chose primarily for reasons of convenience and because relatives' and friends' children were happily enrolled there too.  But on Big Sis's first day of kindergarten, when she placed her backpack over the chair at her tidy new desk, sat quietly on her designated square on the mat, and brought home her first official homework, I was grateful for her preschool in all its free-flowingness.  On that first day of kindergarten I could see the remainder of my daughter's life stretching before her, with playtime coming second to All The Important Work She Had to Accomplish. 

At various times I had my concerns about the fact that our daughters' preschool didn't emphasize learning letters, numbers, and sounds.  Some neighbors opted to enroll their children in more academic preschools.  Our kids stayed, though, and not because we thought our preschool was "the best," or even "better"  than others nearby.  Our daughters, while different in many ways, have in common that they're hardwired for traditional public school:  content to sit still and focus on one activity for relatively long periods. My daughters could benefit from a less structured learning environment in preschool.  In a similar setting, we can appreciate that different children might be bored or stressed.  The key is understanding the needs of your own child. 

Race to Nowhere suggests that our current system of schooling, with its perceived emphasis on test scores, GPAs, athletic scholarships, competitions, and college acceptances, is sapping the souls of our students and we've got to fix it.  But many of us educators and/or parents derived a common conclusion from the film:  what's most important in navigating the stresses of school is knowing your own child, and how his strengths and challenges will be enriched or exacerbated by choices you help him make.  The more that schooling is viewed as an individualized journey advancing each student's unique interests and goals, the less it can be characterized as a "race."  If winning is getting into Harvard, most of us are going to lose.  If winning is developing into self-sustaining, contributing, and satisfied members of society, most of us can win.  Redefining achievement and success in our culture has to be part of the dialogue.  And families can begin with how they talk to their children.

A mother in the film acknowledges that "even though we know better, we push (our children).  I want them to have choices."  Choices aren't a prize at the end of teenagehood; children should be guided in making wise and meaningful choices for themselves all along.  Tiger Mom Amy Chua's children are likely to have the choices of "top" colleges--she has pushed them to excel academically and musically--but they aren't permitted to choose their own extracurricular activities nor an instrument besides piano or violin to practice.  There's got to be a happy medium between allowing one's child to choose to do nothing and prescribing one's child's interests--and scheduling his time--for him.  Knowing your child means understanding if you are parent to a child who pushes himself (even too hard) or to a child who needs encouragement to stretch himself.  You adjust accordingly, for the sake of your individual child's health and well being. 

It has occurred to me, as I cook dinner and set the table while my daughter does her homework, that we might shift the focus of our pushing and pressure to our children's acquisition of independent living skills, and spend more time teaching them to make a meal, assume responsibility for their belongings and environment, and interact politely and assertively with others.

As parents we also have to acknowledge that we're the consumers in the system we decry.  It's easy to claim we have no choices:  "Everyone is playing year-round soccer; if my son doesn't, he won't make the team," "Our daughter has to take an SAT prep course or she can't compete with her peers," and "If we don't start ballet now, she'll never have a career as a dancer..." 

Reflexive sign-ups result in students who are overscheduled and overburdened with AP courses and activities that may be inappropriate for them, or just...pointless.  When the passion for soccer wanes, when the SAT scores don't rise, when the ballerina wants to draw pictures at home instead, it's time to reconsider how we're spending our time (and money).  The race is to nowhere when a child--and her family--can't meaningfully link who she is with what she's doing and where she's supposedly heading.  How sad to look back at hours of time on a soccer field (working with a team, strengthening one's body, negotiating success and failure) and determine it was all a waste if there's no college athletic scholarship awarded.  How sad to look back at experiences in advanced high school courses (critically analyzing topics, pushing the limits of one's cognitive skills, negotiating time and demanding studies) and determine it was all a waste if there's no Ivy League college acceptance. 

How sad to recall one's former teacher asking, "You did all that work to go to an Ivy League college and all you want to be is a teacher?"

Childhood and its experiences aren't means to an end; they are stages in a human's development.  Throughout childhood children develop their abilities to identify and choose meaningful activities and pursuits, manage stress, balance work and play, build skills, advocate for and support themselves, and collaborate and coexist, with the guidance of their families and schools.  And therefore we owe it to our children--and this society--to recognize, embrace, and nurture the gifts of individual children and their application to becoming satisfied and self-sufficient adults.  

We're surrounded by friends, family members, and neighbors who pursued individual paths and defined success in a variety of ways, but we often forget about them when we dream for and then design traditional routes to success for our own children.  As individuals we value the artisans, technicians, inventors, mechanics, chefs, assistants, landscapers, and builders whose work we appreciate and admire.  We will value them more as a society when families increasingly validate their children's diverse dreams and schools offer more programs and electives to nurture interests and talents in those areas. 

Race to Nowhere focuses in part on a family whose thirteen-year-old daughter ended her life, ostensibly as a result of the pressures of performing in school and a disappointing math grade.  When I shared with my seven-year-old that I watched a movie about a girl who hurt herself after she did poorly on a test, my daughter nodded.  "I understand, Mommy!  When I got 'basic' on a test, I slapped myself in the face."  Jaws  dropped and my husband and I were stunned for a moment.  This will be the first year our daughter takes state tests, and there is pressure on schools and teachers--and, oops, students--to perform.  In our family we quickly activated Operation Do Your Best and Do Not Stress.  Schools, too, with the support of the state and the media (responsible for reminding us how unfavorably Americans compare to other countries' students), need to put testing in its proper place, and use scores as diagnostic tools to support students needing development of basic skills. 

Perspective is what we can offer our children as they navigate the choices and pressures of school and activities.  Neither we nor our kids are expected to "do and achieve everything," and if we work under that assumption we ought to take a good luck at who is responsible for setting those expectations:  most often, ourselves. 
Few of us, I suspect, pursue in adulthood the activities which "got us into" college and our current careers (heck, I'm not even working in the area of my college major).  For most of us, those sports and activities have been replaced by joyful pursuits for which we require little recognition:  gardening, cooking, photography, travel, reading, writing, sewing, fishing, collecting, entertaining, yoga, hiking.  Shouldn't our children have opportunities to invest in activities for which they may not receive "credit" but may achieve personal fulfillment? 

Let's teach our children to be who they are, versus enlist them in an army of aspiring varsity athletes and 4.0s.  We need club founders and joiners and community volunteers and quiet artists and "average joes" who draw people to them.  There have to be times, while our children are safe in our nests but growing their wings, for quitting, for starting over, for failing, for obsessing, for taking risks and time-outs.  For dusting off and bouncing back.  For taking roads less traveled by or hanging in the slow lane.   

Our daughters have both said yes to dance class and no to Little League this spring. We're disappointed; we love balmy evenings at the ball fields. We want our daughters to catch and throw. And there's the possibility of discovering a daughter's innate talent or love for the sport. 

But we're listening to them this season.  I need to remember to sign them up for dance; for now, we're enjoying the free time.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Homework: Not a Failing Grade

There I am in the 2004 Yearbook, posing beside the AP Chemistry teacher on the "Staff Standout" page above the caption "Most Likely to Give Homework Due After a Break."

Guilty as charged. I was teaching AP and IB Literature to high school seniors and often assigned reading over holidays. I wasn't dismayed by the student-determined distinction; I felt secure in my relationship with students and confident that I was a good--not oppressive!--teacher.  I was even voted "Most Helpful" the year prior.

All this was before, of course, I became a parent of a homework-doer myself.  Before I fully understood that for every novel I assigned, a number of students were not reading it.  Before I became an administrator and spent hours at high school sports matches, performances, and competitions--the same hours my students were spending before they went home to eat dinner and do homework. 

My perspective has changed.  I've thought about that often over the years since I took this job as vice principal, with its more global view of students' daily lives.  It was easier to forget, as my students' English teacher, that my students were also students of math, science, art, history...with teachers who valued their disciplines and their students' investments in them as well. 

I wanted my students to love books as I did, to love our discussions about characters, and to love writing, too.  In order to love literature, I knew they had to understand it.  To understand it they had to know it.  To know it they had to read it. 

So I required that they read, and they had to read a lot--almost as much as I had to read in college English courses.  But this was a college English course, you see:  it was an Advanced Placement English Literature course, which earns students a weighted grade and college credit if they pass the end-of-year College Board exams. 

And, my students were practicing for college, by not reading every book assigned.

But high school students are not college students.  Students in high school traditionally attend all their classes every day and complete daily homework for each course.  Colleges generally offer some flexibility in scheduling; students enroll in fewer classes which meet less often than students are accustomed to in high school. 

The daily grind of high school, overscheduling of children, and competition for college--along with parents and schools who are perceived as promoting and perpetuating these problems--are the subjects of recent dialogue.  "Tiger Mom" Amy Chua, profiled in The Wall Street Journal's article "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," has elicited outrage and a slew of responses

Meanwhile, parent groups brought the documentary film Race to Nowhere to audiences of educators and community members in our city, and it has prompted daily discussions and proposed policy changes in our school district.  Whom the film targets in its portrayal of the stresses wearing down our kids depends on the opinion of the viewer.  But there's no doubt that homework is cast as an antagonist. 

Homework is an easy target.  It's a universal enemy, as it represents the tasks imposed on us which we're obligated to perform, in seemingly Sisyphean ritual.  Even now, domestic duties--bills, laundry, cooking, dishes, assembling school lunches--loom each evening as forms of  parental "homework," enjoyable sometimes, but often inspiring take out and piles of unfolded clothes on the couch. 

When I was an English teacher I recall the various ways I both avoided and negotiated the burden of grading homework--by assigning myself nightly apportionments, by dedicating chunks of hours to the red pen on weekends, by doubling up so I could give myself a night off.  Under duress, under a serious time crunch, I would render inconsequential a pile of reading questions or vocabulary sentences on occasion.  My subsequent guilt reminded me to vow to assign only what I could humanly assess and give credit. 

But therein lies the rub.  Athletes, musicians, artists, writers, chefs, technicians, scientists all practice their craft for hours in excess of the moments--or performances--on which they are assessed.  It's not unreasonable for coaches and teachers to encourage their charges to practice, and to do so without the expectation of points or credit or reward.  It's possible that mastery requires more work than a coach or teacher can observe, assess, or comment upon.  Therefore it falls upon not only the teacher, but the student and/or parent, to determine when enough is enough. 

A senior approached me at lunch today to ask me if I would distribute "homework passes."  "To all students?"  I asked him.  "Yeah..." he nodded.  "Or just me...I had a game last night, and then I was tired, and I didn't do my English homework." 

"What you need to do is own it; be honest," I suggested.  "I pay bills late once in a while.  One late bill is no big deal, as long as my other bills are on time.  But if I continue to pay them late, my credit score will suffer.  Tell your teacher you chose not to do your homework last night, but you'll do it from now on.  And it." 

He looked at me.  "Ms. M, you are no help." 

Maybe putting homework in perspective is what we all need to do, in an effort to stem the fear, the drudgery, the shortcuts and copying, the shame, the excuses, and the overemphasis on it.  As I've chronicled, homework has the potential to hijack our household, and there are nights we set it aside.  But I wouldn't argue for getting rid of it altogether.

Here are my reasons why:

1.  Homework connects families to what children are learning at school.  If Big Sis didn't have second grade homework, I wouldn't know that there are better methods for adding and subtracting than borrowing and carrying.  Observing your child doing homework provides clues about how your learner approaches problems and what your learner finds easy and challenging.

2.  Homework reinforces prioritization.  There are nights when homework should take a back seat and the consequences of missed points and credit are worthy prices to pay.  Having Something You Have to Do, though, around the Things You Want to Do, is simply a function of Real Life.  The extent to which one wants one's school--or work--life to infringe upon the rest of one's life becomes one's own discretion.  With consequences, of course. 

3.  Mastery Requires Practice.  And learning a topic in depth often requires reading outside class time.  We don't eat all our food in restaurants (or the dining hall) (I hope).  We eventually have to go out, gather ingredients, mix them up, work it out, hopefully eat.  That's real life.  We do better when we've had independent practice.  It can't all be served up on a platter.

And here are suggestions for more wholesome, healthy (dare I say happy?) homework:

1.  Advance Planning.  In college, professors hand out syllabi for their courses on the first day of class, with due dates and exams calendared.  In elementary school, students often get packets for the entire week.  With this kind of information in hand, a student and  family can plan ahead and around major events.  We enjoy nights of no homework--evenings for dinner out or with friends or for Family Games.  Having it all up front and the chance to get ahead helps.

2.  Creative Approach, and Choices.  One of the functions of homework is to assess mastery.  But where practice isn't the purpose, assessing critical thinking skills should be, and inspiration can reign.  Not all homework will or should be exciting, but proof that students read the chapter can take many forms, and options for students improve motivation. When I experimented with genres and allowed students to write essays as dialogues between characters, writing literary analyses became more intriguing to students, and grading them more fun for me.  Educators must vow to fight fiercely associations with "busywork."  As Lily Tomlin said, "I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework."

3.  Balance.  How much homework is too much depends on many variables, including an individual student's preparation or capacity to tackle the material and how efficiently he/she works.  An educator's healthy practice includes reflecting on assessments and their volume, purpose, and necessity.  If homework functions, in part, to determine what and who needs more attention in the classroom, then balance means not assigning or grading so much that careful feedback isn't possible.

Parents can do their part by recognizing that a rigorous and challenging curriculum isn't measured by the volume of homework in their children's backpacks.  In my AP Literature course we moved through novels at a steady clip that required outside reading, but I acknowledge that I sometimes assigned homework to maintain the daily habit and routine.  I recognize now that as a collective team, my colleagues and I were providing students with the discipline of daily homework.  As individuals, we shouldn't feel compelled to pile on because of the unspoken expectation of daily homework in every course. 

Balance ultimately means putting homework in its place as only one seat at a table reserved for a large party of aspects of a child's education.  Schools must continue to determine ways to level the playing field for those students without the benefit of parents who supervise homework or a home environment that fosters learning.  Schools can help by providing supports for students who struggle to meet standards, who don't complete homework, and who fail.  Teachers can help by continuing to reflect on the value of homework in achieving their courses'--and individual students'--objectives.  Parents can help by reinforcing healthy approaches to schooling at home and honest accountability for schoolwork, both finished and incomplete.  Students can help by offering teachers respectful feedback on what they find valuable and meaningful, and by acknowledging the role of their own efforts and investment in their education. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Trolls Under Every Bridge

I once wrote about street artists on this blog, and about a former student who was inspired by them.  And then this fall, Shepard Fairey participated in the "Viva la Revolucion" show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and painted an incredible mural in the neighborhood adjacent to ours.  (Read here about one of Fairey's San Diego murals which was vandalized during the exhibit). 

So I was excited to see this article about another former student in today's paper.  Kyle has transformed himself from an angry, disconnected, and illegal tagger, and he is channeling his talent productively.  While his tagging didn't appear to have had political messages or the aim of raising social awareness, there's something fascinating about the public attention-getting that inspired it.  Certainly taggers and "legitimate" street artists have that in common. 

What I was not excited to see were the comments left by readers after the article, many of them mean and dismissive.  Most of them don't know this young man and his journey, struggles, and true character.  The commenters who know him signed under screen names.  I am more and more dismayed by the audacity of readers operating behind the mask of anonymity, or the likelihood of never seeing their target again. 

At least the Westboro Baptist Church stands behind its vitriol. 

Goodness, people, have your opinions!  Please, have your opinions; the world is richer with opinionated people.  But consider the vehicle you put them in and how you drive it.  It's okay to leave that Hummer in the garage sometimes. 

Speaking of driving, yesterday I made a rather bold left turn into parking lot traffic at Ikea, inspiring a man to snarl, "Nice driving!" at me as he passed my minivan.  I had to explain to my daughters that it wasn't my smartest nor safest move (although, in my defense I'd say it's a stretch to suggest I cut anyone off or caused more than a tap of brakes).  Honestly, that guy kind of bummed me out; I'm not so good at shrugging off negative commentary.  It's not that I don't have my own internal growling at fellow drivers running in my head.  I just think in your head is a good place to keep it.  I'm guessing the woman who gestured angrily at me in an intersection several years ago wishes she had kept her frustration to herself--after she realized I was her daughter's teacher.

I once left a comment about my experience with professional development after an article about the International Baccalaureate Program in our local paper.  When someone personally attacked me and my benign response, I identified that "someone" as a woman from another state with a website and mission to "reveal the true facts" about IB.  Though I happen to be a fan of the IB curriculum, I am interested in hearing why others are not.  But when "dialogue" opens with a detractor making broad assumptions about me and my livelihood and motives, I quickly lose interest in discourse.  Even being defensive isn't fun when you're caught in an endless loop of reprisals; I just pack up my bat and ball and go home.   It isn't even ironic that the anti-IB website has a page dedicated to bemoaning the hateful responses in defense of IB that the site has inspired. 

The Internet has provided us with an immediate outlet for our strong opinions and proclivities for spiteful backlash.  We no longer have to type, print, lick and affix stamp (steps which provide opportunity for reconsidering one's thoughts), mail our commentary, and wait to see if it's published.  We can watch the drama unfold minute by minute as we react and our responses spawn retorts.  I try to imagine the "trolls," the anonymous and often irrational Internet instigators, in their homes, at their computers.  Who are these people?  Do I work with them?  What would they say to my face?  Collectively, I suppose they represent the pettiest, meanest, nit-pickiest, and most biased and judgmental parts of ourselves. 

I have to wonder what happened to wondering.  To inquiry.  To thoughtful probing, followed by listening.   Reasonable and respectful expression of thoughts and opinions ought to beget similarly rational responses.

Let's go back to acknowledging no one is right all of the time, that being right doesn't matter all of the time, that we're all busy trying to figure it all out, anyway.  Muddling through. 

As my grandfather loved to quote, "I never make mistakes.  I thought I did once, but I was wrong." 

A little humility, I think, is what we need.

Feel free to disagree.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fumbling Toward Forty: To Grey, or (Not) Too Grey

My plunge into school administration coincided closely with the birth of Little Sis almost five years ago.  So closely that I spent the first year of my vice-principalship attempting to block the three doors to my office while I pumped breastmilk.  So closely that I struggled to determine the greater source of my stress and sleeplessness:  new job or new baby?  So closely that I suspect hormones played a role in the crazy nightmares I experienced shortly after assuming my new role, most of which featured me drunk driving and subsequently ruining my career.  Forever. 

So I had my irrational moments that first year of being Mom of Two and Vice Principal.  These days I am clearer thinking but grey haired.  I suppose I will never know if my greyness is purely a function of my age, or if the foggy haze of Little Sis's infancy combined with wondering what the heck I was doing in my new office burned additional brunette-producing follicles at the root. 

I swear my mother was not this grey at my age.  In fact, at my age, she sported few enough greys to name each hair as she plucked it, thereby preserving her visage of youth:  This one is for that "boyfriend" you had in tenth grade; this one is for when you burned up the engine in the diesel Rabbit...

To achieve the same objective I would have to shave a stripe at each temple, and attribute them to Things I Shouldn't Have Worried About

Mind you, I don't think I am prematurely grey; you should see my husband, Silver Fox.  I long, in fact, to grey as early and gracefully as the members of his family.  Or just go grey later.  Instead, I am almost 40, I think I am 32, and this issue is black and white to me:  I don't feel grey. 

The first time I dyed my hair (excepting some timid experiments with peroxide and sprays of lemon juice at the beach in high school), I was studying in Italy during my junior year of college.  An Italian friend suggested strisce di sole would suit me, and with Superga sneakers and more navy blue and lime geen in my wardrobe, I could pass for Italian.  Still obviously American, I came home to California the following summer blonder than I've ever been. 

I didn't color my hair again until I was 26 and living in Africa.  A Kenyan friend suggested that henna (all natural!) would perk up my brown locks.  I grew fond of the musty-smelling mud and the orangey-auburn tint it left in my hair and brought several packets of henna powder home with me.

Then a former student's mother became my hairdresser and she'd occasionally highlight, or "lowlight," my hair when I had the patience for the almost-two-hour appointments. 

Since having kids, though, I've practically given up on getting my hair cut.  I confess that after needing to cancel a salon appointment before the holidays, I went ahead and trimmed my own hair (don't look too closely...).  The upside is the money I am saving and also the time.  No to mention the possibly horrific outcomes.  The downside is new day, old 'do.  Nothing doing. 

A couple years ago I started dyeing my own hair to mask the emergence of those wiry tell-tales.  The truth about grey hair and wrinkles (all those creams and serums notwithstanding) is that they don't stop coming.  I'll never be less grey or wrinkly.  But I can hide the greys.  At about $6.99 for "Root Touch-Up," I'm not breaking the bank, and I have found a hue that doesn't inspire too much commentary.  I'll admit that drugstore hair dye does seem to make my scalp "crust" or "scab" (a wee bit) and my ears burn (a tad). 

Honestly, I should embrace my grey.  It's just that it's not...huggable yet.  My every-other greys mouse up my browns, making my hair look tired.  And my hair has no excuse to be tired, seeing as how it never gets a workout at the beauty shop, and I only wash it every other day (or two) and blow it dry maybe once a week. 

I want the grey hair of the women I admire, women with all-white or silvery tresses.  Women who suddenly look great in jewel tones and robin's-egg blue.  Women who dress and wear their naturally gorgeous hair confidently.

On the cruise, we played a game called "Things," and one of the categories was "things you would ask a fortune teller."  I wrote, "Should I go grey naturally?" and eventually a family member guessed the question was mine.  My mother, my personal clairvoyant, shook her head.  "Nope.  You're too young." 

I tend to agree.  I'm turning forty in a few weeks, but I plan on remaining virtually 32 for a while longer.  I can always reassess in a few years, as my virtual age creeps closer to 40 and my actual age becomes less and less relevant to me, along with my looks.

In the meantime, I think I'll make an appointment and keep it.  I think I'll treat myself to a cut and color. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

January, Joy

Our cousin from (snowy) Colorado is visiting and we spent a glorious day at the beach today with him. 

Truly, does it get better than this:  watching kiddoes play together, outside, on a beautiful day? 

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Part of the Main

Big Sis came home on Monday talking about heroes, just in time for the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday next week.  Her class is researching heroes for group reports, and her trio of second graders chose Florence Nightingale.  She mentioned other heroes they're learning about, including Marian Anderson, the Wright Brothers, Cesar Chavez, and Rosa Parks.  Tonight, with Obama's speech at the Arizona memorial audible in the background, Big Sis expounded on Ms. Parks, exclaiming, eyes wide, about how "rude" the people were who commanded her to get up out of her seat on the bus.  We talked about the segregated drinking fountains and restrooms of Jim Crow.  She shook her head.  "Those are the dumbest ideas I ever heard of."

We were reminded this week that dumb ideas aren't dead sixty years later, though fewer of them are written into law in our country.

Our high school's production of the play The Laramie Project enters its second weekend this Friday.  The play depicts the reactions of the townspeople of Laramie, Wyoming following the 1998 beating and subsequent death of gay college student Matthew Shepard.  Since its debut ten years ago, the play has sparked dialogue where it is produced, and at times, controversy.  It's an ambitious endeavor for high school theater.  Ours is the only high school in a relatively small, conservative community with a population about the same size as Laramie's.  There are mature themes and language in the play, and our actors explained the script and their experiences reading and rehearsing it at an information forum for parents and community members prior to the play's opening. Its messages of healing and hope have inspired the players--who represent the high school, alternative school, and middle school--as well audiences who attended showings last weekend.  Our student body viewed the first act during assemblies on Monday and sat rapt.  The Laramie Project is a timely and appropriate centerpiece for ongoing dialogue on our campus about bullying, harassment, and discrimination. 

The shootings of a Congresswoman and a score of others in Arizona on Saturday morning provided a grim reminder that hate and extremism in America continue to claim victims.  The accounts of heroism and hope which quickly emerged from the tragedy wove a thread of immediate relevance connecting our production to events in Arizona.

And then the Westboro Baptist Church formally linked us as targets of their hateful, irrational, and deeply offensive demonstrations.  They are calling on followers to picket our Saturday evening performance of The Laramie Project, following their protest at the funeral of nine-year-old Arizona shooting victim Christina Green on Friday afternoon.  Westboro Church founder Fred Phelps picketed Matthew Shepard's funeral, and he is portrayed in the play; he has a history of picketing its performances.  Despite rationale provided by Westboro Baptist Church on their website, the picketing of an innocent little girl's memorial remains incomprehensible.

We learn that hatred begets tragedy and that tragedy often begets hope and healing, even art and enlightenment.  When hatred turns and nips at the heels of tragedy, seeking to undermine hope and healing, we are confounded.

The news that Westboro Church members would protest our play triggered swift and strong reactions from a variety of our students, all interested in standing down hatred.  The threat of detractors has galvanized students to organize peaceful counter protests.   We are watching groups of students and individuals uniting to support one another and their rights and to represent values of respect, acceptance, and love.  The community is rallying in kind; we have received messages of support from parents, former students, community leaders, the Anti-Defamation League. 

Presenting a profound contrast with the "church" followers planning to condemn us, members of our own city's Council of Churches sent a letter of support to our school district.  They are inviting the community to stand with them against "unmitigated hatred" and members of their congregations to attend Saturday's performance "as a sign of solidarity with the students involved" in the play. 

Local media outlets are reporting on the potential protest and counter demonstrations, interviewing and quoting our students: "They want one of two things from us--a reaction, and for us to get mad and in their faces. Or for us to do nothing and make them feel like they won, and we're not going to give them either."

Whether or not Westboro representatives materialize on Saturday, our students remain at the center of a powerful learning opportunity.   Beyond the critical examination they may be giving their own beliefs, thoughts, and biases, they are exploring the First Amendment and researching city ordinances.  They will balance expressing offense and outrage with tempering their passions.  They are walking a path cleared by the likes of Rosa Parks.  

Concerned for our students' safety, our principal sent a message to parents this week: "While we believe that an act of solidarity would be a powerful exercise, we are asking for your support in reinforcing the difference between peaceful demonstrations and engaging and interacting with others as they exercise their rights...we  balance protecting our students' rights with demonstrating our respect for the rights of citizens of our country."

Appropriately, President Obama urged us in his speech at the Arizona memorial tonight: a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized--at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do–it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we're talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.
Our production of The Laramie Project--the attention it has garnered, dialogue it has inspired, and our community's embrace and support of our students' courage--represents a crucible of discussion and events occurring across our nation.  At the core of the play, and of the shootings of innocent citizens by an angry young man in Arizona, are questions about how we treat one another, about how we prevent violence borne of ignorance and hatred.  Our students, our community, and our nation are called by President Obama to "use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together."

How appropriate that the weekend before we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., our students stand poised to demonstrate that "darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Yes, 2011

I'm going to start off by noting that there appears to be a certain cynicism with the changing of the year. 2010, like so many years before it, gets no love in the retrospective reviews. Even Jon Stewart told it not to let the door hit it in the rear.

What does it mean to look back at a year and say, hey, that wasn't so bad? Does it mean you're insensitive to the tragedies faced by others?

I wonder about the value in characterizing a year anyway. The beginning and end, after all, are arbitrary moments in time. Maybe a year is too much to average. Perhaps we should work month by month...or day by day. Was today a good day? Geez, even a day has time to start out great, go haywire somewhere in the middle, and then redeem itself. 

We have a nightly ritual at the dinner table of sharing, in turn, the best part of our day.  Often, for my husband and myself, dinner with our kids and sharing the best parts of our day is the best part of our day.  Maybe at the end of the day what matters is being able to recognize that this moment, right now, is wonderful.  Who cares what came before it. 

Determined to seize more pleasurable moments, I am going into 2011 avowing to say "yes" more often.  I had some practice in 2010, what with taking off my clothes in front of strangers, agreeing to knock on strangers' doors, and entering a contest or two.  Don't get excited; though that little list makes it sound like I'm ready to audition for Big Brother, my intent is to focus my affirmations on my friends and family. 

I want to work on my knee-jerk NOs.  Truth is, I like me some control.  (In my defense, I think I come by it honestly: I'm the eldest sibling of five; I'm a vice principal).  I'm often the mom that shakes her head no to spontaneous sleepovers (the aftermath is ugly).  I'm the mom admonishing her daughters to get down off that, to stop running around, to lower voices.  I generally say no to requests for "just one more" or "five more minutes." 

And I think sometimes I'm a little unreasonable. 

My daughter's Christmas gift to me is a reminder that times I've said yes (to coaching soccer, to chaperoning  field trips, to building fairy houses) haven't gone unnoticed. 

So I will try to say yes to more messy projects, however maddening.   I'll consider requests for one more book or clementine, even when it is almost bedtime, even when teeth are already brushed.  I'll look at what's really at stake when the girls are loud and rambunctious.  I'm going to examine more closely my motives behind "no."  Sometimes, I am convinced, it's just as easy and more enjoyable to say yes. 

I'll continue to roadblock the excesses that wear down what seems to matter most:  buying more stuff, watching more TV, treats, treats, and more treats. 

But to my husband, I say yes.  You're my model, agreeable mate. 

Where the rest of the world is concerned, I want to say yes when I really mean it.   I stopped myself--actually deleted the email before sending--from volunteering to coach soccer this spring.  Although I had a blast last season, I am not yet excited for the next one.  Saying yes less out of obligation means saying yes more often to friends.  Yes, I am available.  No, I am not too busy.

I'm saying yes to running and writing this year, too.  So if my kids, my body, and some as-yet-unidentified publications all say yes, too, I'm thinking 2011 could be a banner year. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

New Year's Tribute: WWKD

Last new year I wrote a tribute to my sister-in-law after I learned New Year's gifts from artists to their patrons were meant to honor the role benefactors played in making artists' work possible.

I quote myself from last year in asserting that anyone could credit someone with making his/her current life's work possible, if not easier. In my case, there are many people I could thank for allowing me to raise a family and pursue the career that has felt just about right at each turn and trajectory.

This year, I am honoring the principal to my vice-ness, K.  We are in the midst of our fifth year together as high school administrators, and I owe him the sharp turn I took down this path, as well as how relatively un-bumpy the road has been. 

When you work closely with someone who is unfailingly honest and who has high ethical standards, it shapes how you work and view the world and relationships.  While I consider myself an ethical person, I won't ever know what I would be like if I learned to be a school administrator under anyone else.  I just know that I am very fortunate to have his model. 

In school leadership, and perhaps in other leadership roles as well, it's easy to succumb to the path of least resistance, paved by passive aggression, white lies, and deferred maintenance.  Poor school leaders enable poor school teachers, and inconsistent enforcement of policies and standards breeds lack of trust among students, staff, and parents.  It takes guts, and some heartache, to do the right thing.  I've learned this along the way through challenging circumstances, but the ultimate responsibility--the hardest conversations, calls, and decisions--fall to the principal. 

I've joked that I often ask myself (particularly when I can't simply walk through the doors adjoining our offices and directly consult him) WWKD?  But in fact, I am perfectly sincere.  At the back of my first-year vice principal notebook I kept a page of lessons I learned from my principal, partner, and "work husband."

Among them:

1.    You tell the truth because the truth is bigger than you are.  The alternative, lying or failing to confront the issue, is seductive because it's less painful for you, and seems easier on the other person.  But the job is not about you nor the other person; it's about 1100 students and their best interests.  Don't save yourself; do right by them. 

2.  Don't use a convenient excuse in exchange for the truth.  Sometimes we are "saved" from having to deal with a situation because it changes or circumstances arise to smokescreen the real issue.  People deserve the straight scoop, even if it has become irrelevant.

3.  Letting frustrations fester is unhealthy for the entire community.  As someone uncomfortable with confrontation, directly addressing people who offend me or going back to people with feedback after the fact is not a natural impulse.  But I have watched relationships on our campus grow in a culture of honesty--in which I can tell you I feel disrespected by your response or behavior and at the same time communicate to you the importance of our relationship to me.  Done properly, confronting true feelings defuses rather than breeds conflict. 

4.  Consistency.  "We hang our hats on consistency," my principal says, and there is probably no approach more important.  Students, parents, and staff need to know there are no "back-room deals" nor special favors.  We've built a compendium of past practices and precedents, and consult them when there are judgments to make.  Foolish consistency, however, prevents an organization from evolving and progressing.  At times, we've changed our minds, reconsidered, and slowed down.  Ultimately, you listen to your people, and you listen to your heart.

5.  Trust, Value, and Respect.  These are the values underpinning relationships on our campus--the triad my principal invokes often.  There is trust among colleagues to make good decisions in the best interests of our students and school community; the work of staff members is valued; respect is implicit.  Our staff members are unusually close to our student body, and the trust and respect we have in and for students (and vice versa) affords them rare opportunities and makes our school a safer place. 

6.  Be True to Your School.  Blind loyalty is no good.  But when you have built an organization upon a foundation of honesty, consistency, trust, value, and respect, then you have a community in which members go to bat for one another, advocate for one another, and refuse to throw one another under the bus.  Our leader models this by putting our high school's needs first, always.  It's a tremendous responsibility.  When bad things happen, though, we know how to take care of one another

Finally, I am fortunate to work with someone who views me as his friend, as his family, and as his administrative partner, despite the difference in our titles.  We are both raising small children, and there's no question of where both our priorities should lie.  He and I have shared the responsibilities of supervising games, dances, and performances in a way that has made the demands of a stressful job manageable, in a way that has allowed for some balance--for us to coach our children's Little League and soccer teams, and to drop our kiddoes off at school some mornings. 

He understands that I cry when I am tired or frustrated; his sense of humor and love of a good prank have lightened dark days; he has encouraged me to invest in and grow my personal and professional selves

I have great awe and admiration for the demands--on heart and soul--of being a high school principal; I don't know that I will ever be ready or willing to shoulder them myself.  But I do know that I have a philosophical foundation and tools to take with me wherever I go.  Thank you, K.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Styrofoam Peanuts to My Soul

I once created a "found" poem of lines written by my high school students in their letters of introduction to me at the beginning of the school year. I discovered the poem today as I perused files on my hard drive.

It's a glimpse into the young people I learned with almost ten years ago. Each line is by a different author.

Struggling with his death shaped me into an entirely different person.
When I get older my goal is to become a lawyer so I can knock some sense into people discriminating…
There is only one other place that comes close to the place I call home, and that is camp.
My fear is being in front of a big audience, but sooner or later that fear starts to burn off.
I have found a new love for waterfowl.
I probably turned out so open-minded and know so much more about what is actually out there due to what I experienced with my brother.
Sometimes I can have a major attitude problem and just want to be left alone.
Hobbies would be playing air guitar and acoustic guitar.
Ever since I can remember I have had the habit of opening the fridge without needing anything from it.
I don’t want to be around pot smokers or people that drink.
We moved down here on the boat we live on.
I have had a paper route before and it was one of those things that taught me about responsibility.
I don’t have much insecurity, but I absolutely hate it when people talk about me.
I also wish people could fly; that would be cool.
Now I volunteer at special needs camps and the Special Olympics.
I am a walk through a silent graveyard.
I pretty much hold my tongue for no one and my language would put a sailor to shame.
I like to paintball, surf, body board, body surf, jet ski, and swim.
I grew up with a family of many different races, so I don’t accept crude jokes or name calling.
My biggest fear is the consequences of trouble. I’m not exactly scared of doing the trouble; I’m scared of what it might end up becoming in the long run.
I like to draw and do so frequently… Doodling is just something my hand does on its own.
I pulled off my first political maneuver; we were both elected, and my interest in politics was solidified.
I have a birthmark on my stomach and my sister says it looks like a heart.
I am terrible at finding things that I have lost, even if it is right under my nose.
I believe in honest work, I am a good friend, and I am a perfectionist!
I don’t have a million friends, but the ones that I have are trustworthy and kind.
Whenever I see a bee or a fly I freak out.
I have built so many weird creations in my backyard it could have a history of its own.
I love to skateboard because I find it difficult to learn new tricks.
My general nature is doubtful…when there are thousands of pieces of evidence saying yes I still think no and I can’t help it.
I didn’t realize birds were so much fun.
When I go to sleep I need walls of pillows around me, my room to be freezing cold, and a movie on my TV.
I’m scared of heights, just because I always think of what will happen if I fall.
I’m also a big video gamer (it’s kind of nerdy).
I procrastinate sometimes and I am trying to overcome lying for my benefit.
The thing that I fear most is dying.
I have only one fear in my life, disregarding kidney stones.
I have broken my arm, popped my elbow out of place, torn my hip flexor, had a bone bruise in my knee, and many bumps and bruises.
I’m not embarrassed to speak my mind, or to raise my hand when no one else will.
I am very lucky to have my parents together and happy.
A couple of things that interest me are piracy and 18th century European fashion.
My favorite colors are blue and red.
It’s strange to me how just by hearing a sound one can feel sadness or happiness.
I realize it’s a very exciting thing to bring a new life into this world but part of me is considering adoption.
I also believe that many of the world’s religions that are seemingly in conflict actually exist side by side and fit together in a grand puzzle.
I am hoping to come close to or break the school record this year.
I have a great love for my friends; they are the Styrofoam peanuts to the poorly packaged cardboard box of my soul.
The single largest reason I am so ready to go to college is to get away from the hate and constant pressure that is put on me.
I spread my message to the chauvinists that women have rights and you best respect them…
I’ve taken up sailing and once my dad gets home I’ll have my rock-climbing partner back…
I learned that immigrating into a different country was not as easy as it seemed.
I don’t have a very loud voice, and I really don’t like raising my voice to be heard.
Confused, perplexed, ready, willing, eager, enthusiastic, prepared. Through all my parents’ biases I have learned to have almost none.
I have more respect for officers of any kind because it is hard to enforce rules, especially to your peers.
My father, who was experimenting with Zen Buddhism, wanted me to have a truly meaningful name.
I kind of think of myself as a walking contradiction.
I am still completely addicted to chess.
I fall asleep with music on, cuddled up with my cat.
I really enjoy gardening, fishing, studying, raising, catching, watching all life, especially bugs.
I am weird, but I am who I am.
Most people in school that lack responsibilities don’t think about how much they get from others.
This girl wants to know.
First, be goofy, funny, loud, and have fun.
I am easily intimidated.
I want to make an impact.
Nothing stays the same and that’s okay.
I’m not the type of girl that beats around the bush.
My best friends are drug free and so am I.
I am a writing fiend.
I love spending time with my parents.
I have ADD but have learned to control it.
A miracle is not water turned to wine; a miracle is when a kid says no to drugs.
I would say that I’m navy blue.
She does not allow animal-tested products in her house.
I’m also in a band with my friends.
I hope to be a movie star.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cruise Chronicles

We spent the last week virtually internet- and cell-phone free on a cruise to Mexico with 22 extended family members, special thanks to Mammom and Bampa. 

As I type, the room is rocking...

Monday, December 27

Last night I could not sleep as I anxiously conjured visions of children falling overboard.  My mind played out the entire grim scenario, vividly, repeatedly:  the plunging, the flailing, the ship speeding away, the hopelessness and helplessness...

Feeling only slightly more rational this morning, I checked our kids into Kids' Camp (no balconies or railings in sight), lost my party, and lounged alone by the pool reading The Sun.  I caught only snatches of dialogue from the family sitting ahead of me but my ears perked up when a woman mentioned that "statistically, on an eight-day cruise of a few thousand people, someone on board dies." 


Tuesday, December 28

I figured out why cruising is not my ideal vacation.  It's not the crowds or claustrophobia--there are plenty of perks to make up for those relative cons.  It's the lack of living things, like plants.  I've come to equate vacation with escape to beautiful natural surroundings or exotic locales.  From the cruise ship, one experiences nature and foreign countries sort of like through museum glass.

Wednesday, December 29

I almost exclusively run outside and rarely work out in a gym.  Today I exercised on an elliptical machine and on a treadmill while on the cruise ship.  Then I fell down the stairs and almost took out a woman doing weights. 

Thursday, December 30

Old Mazatlan reminds me of Guatemala.  I love it.

We brought a game called "Things" which entertained us in the pre-dinner hour. Everyone writes answers to a category ("things adults wish they could still do"), answers are read ("breastfeed," "pee in my pants," "throw a tantrum," "believe in everything"), and then guesses are made about which responses are whose. The game is great fun (don't get bogged down in the scoring).

Friday, December 31

Cabo San Lucas and fish tacos. 

Last time we cruised I won $100 playing blackjack and bought my husband a massage. That must have been beginner's luck; this cruise, I focused on maintaining my "allowance" for the week. I made it to New Year's Eve. And then, thankfully, I knew when to walk away (particularly after watching a fellow player lose $1000 in fifteen minutes).

Big Sis and her cousin rang in the New Year dancing with their Mammom and Bampa.  Toasting my siblings, kissing my husband...almost all my family members in one place:  a great way to start the new year.

Saturday, January 1

In keeping with my resolution to eat better, I started the day with an egg white omelet with veggies.  Then I ate more fish tacos.  Then we went to the Steak House for dinner.

At Guest Services this afternoon I stood in line behind a man and his teenage son; the tension between them was palpable.  As Dad approached the desk he announced, "Let me introduce you to my son, who decided to drink too much champagne last night, and got sick all over our cabin.  He'd like to pay for the cleaning."

Sunday, January 2

A windy, wind-down day. 

Little Sis entered herself and a friend in the Kids' Camp Talent Show. They sang the ABC Song.

If I thought any part of my personality was "cruise director," Stu's ebullient and superfluous use of the word "splendid" over the loudspeaker and the course of the week set me straight. 

Today, he declared, was "crackin'." 

Monday, January 3

Last year, when our family booked a short cruise to Ensenada over Thanksgiving week, I forgot to wonder if one of students might be on the same ship, until we watched passengers boarding behind us from my parents' cabin balcony:  perfect timing to catch a former student heading toward the gangway.  This year, I was slated to share my vacation with a current 11th grader, but our ship's engine burned up and the cruise was cancelled.  Our families rebooked on a new ship--the same one!  But we disembarked the ship this morning, and he's boarding this afternoon.