Within my 5 year-old’s book collection from which we read each night is a book called Superhero Dad. You can imagine the storyline. The young protagonist in the picture book claims his father is a superhero and proceeds to list the reasons. The dad is fun, knows what his kid likes and engages him in those activities, builds things, fixes things, and even scares away the monsters. In the classic expression of fatherly love, the father claims that he is not the superhero, but in fact, it is his son who is a superhero.
As the new school year begins, I’m reminded of the heroes that reside among us...our teachers.
Unless you’ve been a teacher, it’s hard to truly appreciate how complicated and demanding the profession can be. At a recent conference I attended, a well known neurologist and researcher remarked that teaching requires a heavier “cognitive load” than just about any profession that exists, as much or more than a surgeon. This might come as a surprise to many, but not to those of us who are privileged enough to work alongside teachers every day.
In any hero’s journey, it’s important to consider what the hero is up against. So let’s take a gander at what our teachers are up against. For the classroom, teachers spend countless hours preparing instructional experiences that have the best chance of meeting the differing needs and interests of 20-35 children (over 100 children for secondary teachers), all of whom have different levels of foundational knowledge about each topic that is taught. And those children? Not a one has a fully developed brain or sense of self; many of them come with anxiety, trauma, and challenges that are outside of their control. The languages they speak at home are often different than the one in which they are expected to learn, and their homes vary in size and comfort; some don’t even have a place to call home. Teachers in many districts are expected to purchase their own materials for the classroom taken from already low salaries that in most states have not kept pace with the increase in salary in nearly every other profession that requires a college education. In the San Francisco Bay Area where a fixer upper in a decent neighborhood can cost $2 million, teachers often live over an hour’s drive from their school, simply to be able to afford to live on a teacher’s salary.
During awake hours, teachers often spend more time with our children than we parents do. Not only are teachers engaged in teaching our students how to read, calculate, understand history, and deploy the scientific method, they are also teaching our children how to be good people. Teachers navigate a daily balancing act as they try to make sense out of a sometimes dark, confusing, hypocritical and intolerant world while managing the emotions of our young people. For example, they must teach our children how damaged our environment has become as a result of choices we adults have made for many generations and choices we often continue to make, highlighting the real possibility that the world is doomed if we don’t do something dramatic very soon, all while not freaking the children out or placing blame on anyone they know or love. In the same breath that they provide a safe and nurturing environment, they must prepare students for the very real possibility of violence hitting their community or school. Teachers do more than teach every day. They provide counsel, therapy, conflict resolution services, executive functioning coaching, nursing and emergency services, health and wellness advice, furniture repair, tech wizardry, and parenting support. They do all this and more knowing that everyone is watching nearly every decision they make, some doing so in preparation to pounce whenever they perceive a teacher to have made a mistake.
Anyone in this line of work would need some tools to help meet these challenges head on. As all heroes have one or more “super”power to help them triumph, teachers have many at their disposal. Teachers have an uncanny ability to see potential in our children that we often struggle to see ourselves. They are “kid whisperers” speaking possibility into the minds and hearts of our young ones. Teachers can teach children how to read the written word--the most important gift anyone can be given. Teachers give supernatural hugs; they also have outsized hearts for caring and superpowered hearing for listening patiently and understanding. They can somehow read hundreds of narrative essays and find the uniqueness in each. Teachers possess magnificent feedback-skills, providing insight that challenges our children to stretch beyond what’s comfortable. Deep within our teachers exists emotional x-ray vision that allows them to know when our children are hurting, or lonely, or bored. Quick with a snack when our little ones are hungry, encouragement when they are sad, and the just-right-book when a lesson needs to be learned, our teachers seem to always have the right tool when they need it. And with a bullhorn or whistle one teacher can manage scores of little ones on a playground, a feat few of us mortals could hope to accomplish.
Like most heroes, teachers give the credit to others. As a group, teachers are some of the most selfless people on the planet. Were they motivated by fame, money, or prestige, they most certainly would not have chosen a career in teaching. While most people, parents in particular, have a deep and abiding respect for teachers, you wouldn’t necessarily know that by the way the profession is sometimes maligned by the news media or politicians. When they do receive praise and accolades, they regularly deflect, opting instead to shine the light on the children they serve. Their support of our children extends beyond the classroom walls, too. It is common to see teachers in the stands at their students’ sporting events or in the audience at their plays. Some of the biggest fans in our kids’ lives are the people they call teacher.
Teachers are very much like the dad in the children’s book I read to my son, as the father closes his hero’s journey deflecting his own heroicness and breathing a message of encouragement in his son.
“Superhero Dad,” I say, “you are the best by miles.”
My dad says, “I’m no superhero,” then he stops and smiles.
But I know a superhero who is brave and kind and fun.”
Who is it?
“Why, it’s you! You are my superhero son.”
-Tim Knapman, Superhero Dad
Teachers do that everyday. They whisper into the hearts and minds of our kids that they are, in fact, the superheroes of their own tales. They help our kids discover their own superpowers and then send them out into the world to use those powers to do good and be good.
Each year, my school district’s education foundation hosts an auction that raises money to support our schools. In support of that effort, I am asked to “donate” the role of “Superintendent for a Day” for students. I’m not sure why being a Superintendent for a day is attractive, and yet, the children who have joined me have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and learned a ton about leadership.
This year I had the pleasure of hosting two of our students--one a third grader and the other a sixth grader. I loved seeing the world through their eyes for a day and having them see the world through mine. The experience reminds me of the power of empathy to understand another’s point of view. One of my favorite initiatives in education is the Shadow a Student Challenge sponsored by the School Retool organization. The Challenge encourages educators and community leaders to walk in the shoes of a student for a day by shadowing a student in their local schools. The experience is powerful.
In the spirit of celebrating the “walking in the shoes” of someone, I thought I’d share some of the experience of the two young students who walked in my shoes and through whose eyes I saw my district.
The sixth grader who joined me, Arhaan, had the opportunity to meet with our city’s mayor, Ray Mueller, to discuss how our city could better meet the needs of youth in our community. Here’s what Arhaan wrote about his experience:
As Superintendent of the Day, I had the opportunity to visit most of the schools in our district. One main event that happened today is that I interviewed the Menlo Park mayor. We talked about topics that affect students like: crossing guards to ensure student safety and downtown shop owners welcoming youth and being extra nice to them. We also discussed how the middle school experience as a student is a lot different than being behind the scenes like a superintendent or mayor. One thing Mayor Mueller talked about was how he tried to pass an initiative called Menlo Park Loves Kids. When he heard my thoughts on improvements the city could pursue, he was inspired to try and pass his initiative again. He said that as part of his job, he talks with people who feel frustrated or sad about something and want to see something to improve in their community. He said that sometimes if people have a need, that they may even walk up to his front door and knock in order to get his attention.
When Mayor Mueller and I were talking about crossing guards, we both agreed that there should be one on El Camino [a main thoroughfare in our community]. This is because this is a major road for kids on one side of town to get to the middle school on the other side. If there were to be a crossing guard then those kids could have an easier and safer way of getting to school. When I was shadowing Superintendent Burmeister, I learned that there are many things that are different between our schools, aside from their location.
How cool that our mayor took time out of his day to talk to our Superintendent for the Day, and that our student was able to share insightful feedback and learn more about the community partnerships that make cities work?
My third grade protege, Jacob, requested that he be able to reflect on his experience and ask some questions by interviewing me in a “vlog” (video blog) format. He even came prepared with questions that he asked his mom to help him with before spending the day with me. Take a look at this fun and insightful interaction.
There are so many perks of working in schools and getting to impact the lives of our young people. One of them is the regular opportunity to see the world through their eyes. The more I do it, the better I am at my job! Maybe a summer challenge for you could be, “How can you find a way to spend some time walking in someone else’s shoes?” You might be surprised by how much you gain from the experience.
The end of the school year is quickly approaching. That feeling of excitement as summer is just around the corner is palpable.
As a 20+ year educator, I have often found parents excitedly jump into summer break with its opportunities for more family time, deep dives into hobbies and interests, and lack of homework. It’s at the end of the summer when I chuckle at the parent faces that now read, “Thank goodness school is starting again; please take my child.”
On the whole, summer is awesome for parents and kids alike. Let’s consider a few helpful tips to make the transition into summer as enjoyable and valuable as possible.
Routine Adds Value
My first tip is don’t kiss routine goodbye. Summer is a great time to have a different routine, but a lack of routine altogether can have short and long term impacts for kids and families. Rest is important. Downtime is essential. Even long stretches of unstructured time can be life-giving for our children. However, all of those things can happen in the context of a routine. Children's brains seek routine. They need it. They appreciate being able to anticipate what happens next. And they will respond with better behavior and a more positive attitude when a routine is created and followed. It doesn’t have to be militant; it can feel very low key.
What are important areas around which families might want to agree on summer routines, even if they are different from the school year?
The effects of not having a routine can range from family conflict and mood swings, to reinforcement of unhealthy habits, and even depression in some kids. It can also be exceedingly difficult for students to transition back into school once summer is over, and they can experience more pronounced academic slide. I don’t share this to scare anyone, but simply to say that a balanced approach (like most things in life) supports our children’s developing minds.
My second tip for the summer transition is to keep the learning happening. Learn by doing. Learn by exploring. Learn by getting kids out of their comfort zones. Day trips to museums, parks, hiking trails, farms, new communities, and historical locations are all fun experiences for families and reinforce the message that learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a HUGE advocate for summer camp, including sleep away camp, as my February 2018 blog, Gimme S’more, illustrates.
Promote summer reading, too. Visit the library twice per month to check out new titles and explore new subjects. While you’re there check out the video section; lots of interesting documentaries provide fodder for discussion and experimentation. You’ll also find that many libraries allow you to check out games or engineering kits and even have wonderful classes for kids.
Both parents working? Don’t fret. There’s an army of completely able high school kids in your local community who are comfortable with younger children, would love some ‘running around’ money, and need something productive to do. Hire them to mentor your younger children and lead some of these great learning excursions. No need to hang out at the local Starbucks to find an interested high schooler: post a want ad on Nextdoor.
Your own kids in high school? Think about a summer job. Not everyone will hire high school kids, but some excellent places will. Call your local YMCA or community center to see if they have camp counselor positions available for the summer. Better yet...have your high school student call them! In my community, Menlo Park, our city sponsors an outstanding summer camp for kids and hires local high school youth to serve as counselors; they even have a service program for middle school students.
My last tip as we transition into summer is to set aside time to set goals and a vision for the next school year. Summer is a perfect opportunity to encourage your child to think about the upcoming school year. Some thoughtful activities to promote reflection and goal setting include: journaling, dream boards, and dinner table discussions. Posting these goals around the house reminds and reinforces, especially as summer starts coming to a close.
When I was a middle school principal, I would often send students off for summer with a series of challenges such as the following:
The number and order don’t matter; it’s the spirit of an expansive mindset that will determine whether the summer is time well spent.
Sleeping in? Great. But what’s the limit?
Netflix and chill on the coach? Yes ma’am. Who’s going on a run with me after?
Take a trip to Tahoe? Count me in. And can we get locked up at the Tahoe Old Jail Museum?
So get those vacations in, those long days at the pool. Go to bed late and sleep in. AND...don’t miss the opportunity to ensure your summer adds value for the whole family.
In January at an event honoring civil rights icon Martin Luther King, newly elected congresswoman and media sensation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made an alarming statement, “The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change...This is the war — this is our World War II.”
Say what you will about AOC, her politics, or her stardom, due to her social media and policy influence, AOC’s comment continues to reverberate. It stands as a harsh reminder that we are up against something big--climate change and the toll the human race has exacted on the spinning ball we call home. “The end,” as AOC puts it, may not be in 12 years, but some really tough decisions are upon us. Scientists agree, if we hope to turn the tide of destruction, we have to act quickly and boldly.
I don’t know about you, but the sheer size of what we are up against weighs heavily on my heart. I can’t seem to be able to wrap my head around what I, my family, or my community can do to make any impact. When challenges just seem too big and my impact just too small, I always remember the starfish story. Do you know it?
It goes something like this…
A young man was walking along the beach. Off in the distance he sees a figure bending down, standing up, and throwing something into the ocean. Over and over, the figure repeats. Bends down. Picks something up. Throws something toward the water.
As the young man gets closer, he realizes that the figure is an older man bending down to pick up starfish off of the shore that have washed up onto the sand at high tide and are stranded in what will soon be the hot sun, certain death awaiting.
The young man noticed that the entire seashore was lined with thousands of starfish. He approached the elderly gentleman and said, “Excuse me, sir. I can’t help but notice that you are picking up these starfish one by one and throwing them into the ocean. I imagine you’re doing so to save them from being dried up in the sun.”
“Yes, son. That is true,” replied the old man.
As the young man looked down the shore seeing all the starfish remaining, he remarked. “But, sir, there are thousands of starfish along this shore as far as the eye can see. How can you possibly make a difference?”
The old man looked at the inquisitive young man, slowly bent down, picked up a starfish and motioning to the starfish in his hand, he said, “It makes a difference to this one.”
He promptly threw the starfish in the ocean and continued his effort.
I have loved this story since the moment I first heard it as a high school student. I have used this story in my own teaching and harkened back to it in my own life.
As I think about the immensity and intensity of the environmental challenges facing us, I’m reminded of the starfish story.
I know there is so much I can’t do. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything.
As we approach Earth Day 2019, will you join me in considering how you might individually do your part?
Maybe it’s discontinuing the use of ziplock bags when packing your kids’ lunches and instead using alternatives to single use packaging.
Maybe it’s regularly carrying a refillable water bottle and refusing the single use bottles prolific in modern life.
Maybe it’s refusing the straw at your favorite restaurant.
Maybe it’s biking with the kids to school or carpooling with neighbors instead of driving.
Maybe it’s going solar at your home or simply turning down the thermostat.
Maybe it’s purchasing a more eco-friendly car.
There are also some great resources and events for those of us local to the Bay Area...check these out.
Apps and Games
Hike in Woodside
Mountain View Earth Day
Save the Bay
Doing our individual part provides a great example for our children, too. Consider ways in which you can engage your entire family, especially your children in taking smalls steps that make a big difference. Together, we may just be able to save a lot of starfish.
You can’t turn on the news or log on to the internet without seeing the headlines. "College admissions scandal: how will their kids be affected?" "The wide implications of the college admissions scandal." I don’t even need to provide hyperlinks. You know the stories.
As a parent myself, I understand the angst we share about how our children’s futures will turn out, not to mention their present. I recognize the basal desire to want what is best for our children and our desire to sacrifice much, research often, and try just about anything to set our children up for success now and for the future. It’s part of being a parent.
This blog is not about a college entrance scandal. While juicy and close to home for those of us who live in the Bay Area, the bribes and the fallout are really a reflection of something bigger that my heart feels the need to address, especially for those of us who need to hear it more often. And that is this:
You. Are. Enough.
I count myself among the too many bloggers who may or may not be espousing any number of parenting theories, advice, and implorations that may or may not be helpful. Add to the prolific parent blogosphere the inordinate number of books, articles, and “expert” interviews, and parents are right to be confused, if not overwhelmed by all the disparate advice.
In my years as an educator, and sometimes parent-educator, I often feel the tug to share the messages that people need to hear in the moments they need to hear them. The one message that resounds in my heart these days is this, “You are enough.”
Every kid is different. Every family is different. Every context is different. We’re all just doing our best. Parenting is the hardest job for which no one is ever totally prepared and for which there is no perfectly right answer. Parenting is the process of figuring it out along the way. It’s about allowing our children to teach us how to parent them--each one of them, individually. Raising children is cognitively demanding, emotionally draining, and endlessly unpredictable.
So many well intentioned blogs and experts lead us to believe that if there is something wrong with our kid--they make a bad choice, they get sick, they struggle to read--that it must be our fault. The dreaded, “if only” we parents had fill-in-the-blank, we’d have avoided this altogether. Keeping it PG, I’ll just say this...poppycock! The only expert about your child, in this moment, is YOU.
As long as you are expressing your love regularly; ensuring a safe, secure, and healthy environment; and allowing for age-appropriate, gradual independence for your child--you are enough. No doubt, strategies and mindsets exist that can make parenting easier, help our kids avoid danger, and access valuable lessons and opportunities. However, your child is not going to miss his or her chance at success because you didn’t breastfeed her long enough, gave him vegetables that weren’t organic, never taught her how to downhill ski, or failed to enroll him in chess class. And believe it or not, your child will find his or her way even if she or he doesn't attend an Ivy League university.
Our obsession, and I include myself in this criticism, with being super-parent is really about our need to do more. To leave no stone unturned. To offer every advantage. In other words, it stems from our insecurity that we aren’t doing enough, or worse yet, that we aren’t enough. And most disheartening is that it sends the message to our kids that they aren’t enough.
Your. Kid. Is. Enough.
Parenting a five and a nine year old in Silicon Valley, I deeply understand and thoroughly appreciate how hard it is. At times, I succumb to the same parenting insecurity that many of us do. I react to that insecurity in the ways that many of us react.
It makes me wonder, with all my “responsiveness” to the needs of my children, what messages are my kids picking up about how I see them?
Do they think their value lies in pleasing me? Pleasing others?
Do they feel that they have to be perfect all the time? Smart all the time? Right all the time?
Do they fear making a mistake?
Do they assume they can’t do it on their own because I won’t let them?
If they want to quit soccer because they don’t like it, do they think that’s actually an option?
In schools that don’t even give grades until 6th grade, do they know what grades are and what grades I expect? How?
At five and nine, are they already wondering what college they’ll get into and if that college will be good enough?
The only right answer to these questions is a better question… “How do I communicate to my children that they are enough?” In fact, how do I communicate to them that they are more than enough, just the way they are?
They’re going to make mistakes, that’s part of learning. I’m going to make mistakes parenting them, that’s part of life.
My kids were born enough. Your kids were born enough.
But if you still need a list of things to do, here you go: Catch up with your friends. Read a book that doesn't have pictures and is not a parenting manual. Indulge a hobby. Spend more time just living in the moment. Enjoying the moments. Soak in the reality that our kids don’t have to do anything or be anyone other than what they are inclined to do and who they are inclined to be.
And neither do we.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you have likely seen or at least heard about Netflix’s new series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Maybe you’ve even tried KonMari-ing at least one thing in your life. I’ll admit that my family has. Our dresser and closet have never been so organized...and yes, it feels great. KonMari is a method of organizing your home that focuses on minimalism and finding joy in possessions--or getting rid of them. Why am I blogging about home organizing in a blog about education and parenting?
It’s no mystery why Ms. Kondo’s ritualistic approach to decluttering our lives is so powerful - whether we know it or not nearly all of us, our children included, suffer from overstimulation. Marie Kondo, as delightful as she is, hasn’t discovered anything new about the human experience. Her approach to organizing the home hits upon our deep desire for simplicity, meaning, and calm. When we take a step back from the hustle and bustle of our lives and consider the impact of all the demands, expectations, and interactions, it is truly overwhelming.
What lessons might we glean from the Kondo-craze as we create cultures in our homes and classrooms?
My reflections might encourage you to let go of emotions or possessions that are holding you or the children in your life back from experiencing true joy, fulfillment, and learning. My reflections aren’t judgements; they are rhetorical questions that will hopefully lead to giving yourself permission to let go of what isn’t bringing you, your family, or your students joy.
How many toys does your child have? Sometimes do you just buy them a little cheap thing because it’s the fastest way to get them to pull it together until your Target run is done? What do you do with all those birthday party favors? Have you saved every picture your child has ever drawn since they could hold a pencil?
I’m willing to bet, like our family, you have crates full of toys that don’t get played with and books that don’t get read. Why not get rid of those? One of the greatest lessons we can teach our children is the idea of “enough.” One of the most important presents we can give them is the gift of “empowerment” to winnow their possessions and prioritize what brings them joy and remains a valuable asset. For many children, that’s hard. As soon as you put that tricycle they haven’t ridden for years out on the street with a “free” sign on it, they’ve collapsed on the driveway in tears screaming, “NO...not my favorite tricycle!” Nevermind that they are ten years old and nearly five feet tall. Not all important lessons are easy. In fact, some of the most important lessons are the hardest. As soon as you are able, consider involving your children in the culling process. Consider asking them what old toy they want to donate to another child when they ask you to buy them the newest toy craze. (And while you are considering donating well kept toys for young learners, call a local preschool; they may be able to take those off your hands. In our community, our district preschool is doubling in size next year, great place to drop off your trains, blocks, costumes, legos, magnatiles, etc.).
Beyond “things,” children today also have an abundance of activities and commitments. My children sure do, and they are 4 and 8 years old. I think we all benefit from considering how many activities from which our children can benefit without unnecessarily overwhelming them with too much. Believe me, I’m not suggesting that we not keep kids active. In fact, I think it is essential. However, with our oldest, we learned just how important it was for him to have at least two afternoons per week free from scheduled activity and responsibility. He needs downtime to ride his bike, rest, read a comic book, play a quick video game...just be a kid. We also learned how important it was for us to enjoy that downtime WITH him as a family. We try hard to reserve Sundays for the whole family to share downtime together.
The amount of choice we provide our children is also something to consider. Even our adult brains can be overwhelmed by too much choice; this is more true for the underdeveloped brains of children. If you want your child to be more creative, with an increased attention span and happy to play for longer periods of time, perhaps the easiest way to encourage those qualities is to simply offer fewer options. Even with no toys or multiple parent facilitated options, it’s important to remember that children don’t even need “real toys” to play engagingly. Are you one of those parents that spent countless hours and too much money on holiday or birthday gifts for your five year old, only to have them most enjoy the big box in which one of the big gifts came? Regular household items can be the source of hours of enjoyment; most importantly, those items require children to access their imagination for play--something we should prioritize.
One resource with which we desperately need to reacquaint ourselves and our children is the outdoors. Parents and educators frequently lament that kids today just don’t go outside and play like they used to do. Part of the reason is because we overschedule and overmanage their play. To the extent that we can manage their safety, let’s try to get our kids outside with friends and neighbors. Make use of the parks available in your community. Take bike rides as a family. Go on a hike. Catch tadpoles in the creek. Let’s find ways to cut down on the meaningless distractions we give them, and let their natural creativity in the environment blossom.
Adults are easily distracted by too many toys, too. In the heart of Silicon Valley, where my district is situated, the grown up toys come in the form of the latest electric car, smartphone, vacation house, robot, app...things. They are undeniably fun and I am as guilty as the next guy for pursuing them. However, if I’m being honest, the pursuit and collection of all the “stuff” can derail time from more meaningful pursuits like experiences with friends, time with our family, enjoying a hobby or the outdoors. We are constantly on the lookout for the next best thing. But are we enjoying it? More stuff does not make us any happier.
The same is true for a calendar full of commitments. You may not be a collector of things, but you may, like many, collect appointments, responsibilities, and expectations. My wife frequently reminds me that I’m “always on;” she fears that I’m only happy when I have something scheduled to do. Personality faults aside, she’s right. While I may not fill my life with ‘things,’ I do fill my life with things to do. This clutter of responsibility drains me and those around me--including and especially my kids. I own it. This is all the more reason for me to take stock of the way in which I spend my time and prioritize downtime for myself and with my family.
It’s unrealistic to expect that we are able to abandon material things and busy lives. Working, parenting, maintaining relationships...just living...all require a great deal of our time and attention. Rather, we can live with a bit more intentionality around ‘things’ and time. We can model for our children by making more selective and thoughtful purchases. We can schedule regular time to disconnect. We can try to do one thing each day or each week that gets us closer...not to perfection...but joy.
Perhaps one of the most unlikely - and most impactful - places to spend some time decluttering and focusing is in the classroom. We all have a vision of what a great classroom looks like. Effective and welcoming learning environments come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and themes. However, like the home with fewer toys, a classroom showcasing just a few well chosen items can also spark more creativity and focus.
I can hear teachers cringing as they read this! Yes, there are millions of wonderful educational toys, posters, books, manipulatives to help convey a lesson. Yes, those egg cartons and berry baskets will make excellent crafts or supply holders. But remember, kids (and adults) can only focus on so much at a time. It’s worth a reflection over next summer to consider reducing what is displayed in the classroom and any changes we observe in students’ experience of their learning. The same reflection is necessary around the number of tasks we expect of students at each grade level, or the level of detail, papers, and tasks our young ones, all with underdeveloped prefrontal cortices, are expected to hold in one lesson, day, or week. To be clear, there are no “right” answers or single ways of doing anything. However, continuous improvement requires us to reflect on how what we do (and don’t do) impacts the student experience. Merely asking question is a great place to start. I can just imagine Marie Kondo encouraging us to wonder, “Does my classroom spark joy?” or “Does my lesson spark interest and engagement?”
For the record, I had Marie Kondo’s tidying up book long before it was cool. I had heard about it on NPR and thought the idea of getting rid of the crap in my life might be just what I needed. And the book sat there, among all the other books I haven’t read, gathering dust. Thank goodness for Netflix, right? This surprise heroine is causing millions of us to ask if everything with which we surround ourselves sparks joy. As we consider the mindset impacts on our parenting and educating I would add the question, “Is this adding value?” If the answer is no, maybe it is time to let it go.
If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times, “it takes a village to raise a child.” The ubiquitous proverb is often quoted not just because it’s so true, but also because we need to consistently be reminded. There’s no more important responsibility of each community than the raising of its children.
This week, I had the pleasure of publicly interviewing my friend, Frank DeAngelis, in a fireside chat format as part of our district-sponsored Community Speaker Series. Frank is the retired principal of Columbine High School who served as principal before, during, and after the deadly massacre that killed 12 students and one teacher on April 20, 1999 and seared Columbine’s place in the national historic consciousness.
As Frank reflected on his experience over the last twenty years since the shooting (can you believe it’s been twenty years?), several important messages resounded for the listener. The most important message for parents, I believe, was his emphatic call to ‘stay engaged in your child’s life, even and especially when they are adolescents.’
Frank remarked how one of the assailant’s parents, when asked by police to see her son’s room after the shooting, said, “Oh, you can’t go in there. Nobody’s been in there.” He further detailed how the boys had spent nearly a year recording videos of their plan and hate-filled mindsets in the basement of one of the boys’ homes. Had one of the parents searched their son’s room, walked in on a video session, or glanced at the computer screen over the months preceding April 20, 1999, maybe 13 innocent lives would have been spared and only folks in suburban Denver would even know of a school named Columbine.
I share this story not to place blame on parents for school shootings, not even to address gun violence. I share this story because it is a powerful illustration of an extreme cost of parental and, to some degree, community disengagement.
His message reminded me of advice I often give parents. While your growing child may be actively pushing you away, resist the urge to let them. They still need you. And while they don’t know it, they still want you. I am not advocating that we hold on in unhealthy ways, micromanaging the decisions and experiences of our maturing child. I am reminding us to stay engaged.
Provide freedom...with clear expectations.
Let go...but check in.
Celebrate success...and apply consequences.
The reality is that even the most trustworthy, responsible kids have underdeveloped prefrontal cortices. They still need our engagement and correction.
And this engagement shouldn’t and doesn’t stop with an individual child’s parents. In his book, Stopping at Every Lemonade Stand, James Vollbracht advocates families, neighborhoods, larger communities, the business world, and elders step up and step in to assist what he sees as an unstable and disconnected culture in order that it can become a healthier, supportive one. What would it look like if we all took responsibility for the “collective"? It might be when we see a child who is not our own riding his bike unsafely, walking alongside him and saying, “Hey bud, your mom would be so sad if you got hurt riding like that, please ride more carefully.” Or, when we see a young girl drop her candy wrapper on the ground, picking it up and saying, “I’m going to throw this away for you and hope you’ll do the same in the future.” What if elementary libraries were full of senior citizens reading with kids after school or our middle schools had a waiting list of folks who wanted to coach the 6th grade flag football team? What if, as Vollbracht asserts, we each made a point of stopping at every lemonade stand we cross?
The Search Institute has developed a widely respected Developmental Asset Framework that identifies 40 assets, 30 of which are necessary for youth to thrive. Of the 40 assets, eight of them are directly impacted by adults taking responsibility to care for more than just their own child. Those assets are:
If you see my kid and he needs your help, admonition, or advice, I invite you to step in. And I’ll do the same for yours.
It’s the holiday season. We’re all ears for great gift ideas for our kid’s friends or the nephew we only see once-a-year at the holidays. In considering the message I wanted to share with SupsOn readers this month, I wondered what great gift recommendation I have received this year that I can share with you.
A parent in my district recently passed on to me a website that she and her children have loved. The website has brightened my morning ride with my son each day and actually added value to his growing development. Allow me to pass on this terrific suggestion to you so that it might brighten your morning breakfast or ride to school and benefit your child’s development, too.
The parent asked, “Have you heard of Kidnuz?” I had not. And not one to be “left out” of the latest and greatest, I asked more. She shared how she and her kids sit around the kitchen island each morning eating breakfast and listening to short five-minute news podcasts specifically produced for kids. The parent reflected that it generated some really great conversation and provided topical lessons and information about the world in thoughtful language that kids could relate to and understand.
Wait a minute. News? These days? I wondered if today’s news was age appropriate enough for some of our elementary aged students.
Sure enough, my parent concierge assured me that the service effectively filters for topics and presents them in a manner suitable for children as young as first or second grade and as old as middle school.
She forwarded me the website and I’m so grateful she did. Every day since the recommendation, my son (8 years old; 3rd grade) and I don’t miss a ride to school without listening to the Kidnuz podcast. So what’s to love?
It’s easy. You simply register your cell phone at the KiDNuZ website. Each morning at 7:00 a.m. you will receive a text with the link. You can listen anywhere your device gets internet. We like to listen in the car with the phone’s bluetooth set up to the car’s radio.
It’s well designed. The creators know kids and they know news that will engage them. Yesterday’s topics include: “Lesson on Losing, Power of the Pen, DC "Chicken", Mars Selfie and Mystery Stripes.” The broadcasters are pleasant and interesting. Important and high-interest topics for kids to know and understand are shared. The podcast usually includes four to five news points followed by the “Kidnuz Quiz.” The broadcast concludes with a stimulating piece of trivia called “One for the Road.”
It’s free. The website service is free. Occasionally, there will be a short one sentence advertisement in the broadcast, but that is rare. In the few months we’ve been listening I have noticed maybe three advertisements of no more than a passing mention.
My kid loves it. If I fail to set up the broadcast within the first two minutes of getting in the car, I’m quickly scolded. My son listens intently to the stories, a skill I all-too-rarely see exhibited at home. While I have to ask him several times to pick up his socks or brush his teeth, on our morning ride, he’s so motivated to listen closely because he intrinsically wants to perform well on the Kidnuz Quiz. He even asks for help from me when he’s stumped. Listening? Asking for help? Not my kid. But for five minutes in the morning, listening and asking for help are cool!
There’s hidden value. It turns out that being a School Superintendent affords me some insight into how this small five minute podcast could actually be aiding student learning. In California, as in all states, we have a state assessment. Ours is the CAASPP. Each year, our students in grades 3 - 8 are assessed in English Language Arts and Math. It’s no surprise that there is considerable interest in students collectively performing as well as possible on these tests. Whether we like it or not, communities judge schools based on performance. Would you be surprised if I told you that in the ELA portion of the CAASPP test the lowest area of performance in many districts is consistently the strand known as “Listening?” It’s true.
In my own district, a high achieving PK-8 district in Silicon Valley, the “Listening claim” has 15% points fewer students in the “above standard” performance band than the next lowest. There are three other “claims” in the ELA portion of the assessment. They are Reading, Writing, and Research and Inquiry. A range of 55% - 59% of our students perform in the “above standard” performance band for these three areas. The Listening claim, however? Forty percent (40%) are “above standard.”
There could be all kinds of reasons for this. And, this blog isn’t about what we can do to raise student test scores.
What listening to and discussing Kidnuz with my son has reminded me is that listening is a skill we can practice. Listening is a skill we can hone. Listening also just happens to be an area with the most growth potential on an objective measurement. If we can find tools that make building listening skills fun and engaging...why not?
And don’t get me started on the immediate necessity to build media literacy skills in our kids. That’s a whole other blog.
Wishing you and yours a wonderful (but maybe not newsworthy) December break.
Parenting is a hard enough job. Do we really need all the sensational headlines warning us that our children are destined for unemployment, obesity, and a lifetime living in our basement?
In all seriousness, in the age of social media, where research and opinions on just about anything related to parenting flood our consciousness, it’s no wonder that some parents are anxious about lasting damage they might be doing to their children with seemingly innocent and innocuous decisions. Determining what really should concern us - and what doesn’t deserve a second thought - is practically a full time job.
A few weeks ago, the district I have the pleasure of leading in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Menlo Park City School District, had a cursory mention in a New York Times piece that attempts to draw some conclusions about the impact of screen time on youth, based mostly on the input of one psychologist from the East Bay promoting his book about the dangers of screen time, and a few disperate and incomplete examples of schools’ and communities’ relationship to technology.
Adding to what I would describe as the superficiality of the article and the lack of research (for example, no one from my district or Hillview Middle School was contacted for background information or an interview, while quotes from a Waldorf representative are included), my district--MPCSD--was set up as a counter example to a “rich” private school that has “eschewed” most screens. While it is true that our flagship Hillview Middle School is both public and a 1:1 device school, it is not the “low income, public school” that the author frames it as to make her point that low income, public school students across the country are being taken advantage of by technology companies out to make students addicted to their products. Quite the contrary. Hillview is, in fact, one of the most well-resourced and thoughtful educational institutions of its kind, one that attracts far more “Silicon Valley executives” (the article’s words, not mine) than the Waldorf school to which the author compares it.
This type of “Google search” journalism for the purposes of making a dramatic point fails to appropriately address the actual concern--screen time’s impact on our youth--and sensationalizes the challenges and responses to an honest problem that parents today face. In this blog, I will attempt to offer some clarity, some perspective, and some hope.
Technology is ubiquitous. It is part of how we “do life.” It can be argued that in the United States today it is nearly impossible to function efficiently and effectively without interacting with technology. In most schools, public and private, technology is a part of students’ learning experience because to deny children access to technology or technical training would be to withhold essential skills for their future success.
In our middle school, we chose to provide each student with their own device because we believed that it could do three things. First, it can make organizational and learning tasks more efficient for the student and teacher and more accessible for all learners. Second, it could provide teachers with the opportunity to reimagine learning experiences. And third, and maybe most importantly, it allowed us to partner with parents in educating their children on the safe and effective use of technology. If parents are going to have to navigate raising their children in the world of technology, who better to partner with than the trusted teachers in their community?
In my opinion, we must stop conflating “scary screen time” (my words, this time) with meaningful and efficient uses of technology in purposeful settings. Simply put, not all screen time is the same. In our district, we take great effort to ensure that technology is not a “shiny toy” meant to impress, but which adds little value. Rather, it is a tool to be used to enhance learning, not overtake it. Teachers in our elementary schools, where by design we do not have 1:1 programs, teach all students using Common Sense Digital Citizenship curriculum. We train all of our middle school students in our “Digital Driver’s Licence” program before students are released to responsibility with their new device. Our skilled district librarians regularly instruct students on how to evaluate digital resources and differentiate between reliable information and opinion, propaganda, or outright lies. Our devices are all managed by the school district, linked to our protected district wireless network, and have strict filters. In recent years, our staff have instituted a daily device-free break and lunch. A visitor to our classrooms would note that students often only use the devices a small portion of their instruction time, and when they do use them, students show a fluency and adeptness with the devices to such a degree that the device almost disappears into the background of effective teaching and engaged learning. And if all else fails? Parents in our schools have a choice to limit or completely disconnect from technology for their child’s learning.
Don’t get me wrong, there are challenges. Those challenges evolve as our experience increases and the technology changes. We meet those challenges head-on with honesty and transparency, trying hard not to be myopic or reactionary in our response. However, now eight years into our initial efforts with 1:1 technology, I can honestly say that our student experience is richer, our instruction is better, and more students’ needs are met because the educators in our schools have been empowered to use technology as a tool for learning.
No educational reform, program, or tool is a panacea. The same resource can be detrimental or helpful, depending on how it is used. Technology is not inherently bad. I have witnessed some of the best teaching occur with nothing more than a chair and time, and I have also observed incredible discovery when technology is involved.
Today’s reality is this: if 90% of what we learned in school 30 years ago in upper elementary and beyond can now be Googled (not scientific, but you get my point), then teaching and learning must adapt to a new reality. This new reality is one in which the teacher is far more influential than simply a provider of low-level (on Bloom’s Taxonomy) knowledge; rather, the teacher is a learning clinician, thoughtfully posing powerful questions, skillfully designing learning experiences that require students to seek knowledge and then apply it, and adeptly providing meaningful and actionable feedback for students to improve their understanding and skill. When well used, technology is not something to fear in the classroom; it is a tool that allows teachers to teach in a more profound manner and students to own more of their learning. I encourage us to embrace the strategic use of technology in our schools, especially as students get older.
I don’t mean to minimize the cases in which technology is being used poorly by schools, particularly in schools that serve students in high poverty. In those cases, we must recognize it and do everything in our power to change it. However, to paint all technology-using schools with a wide brush misses the point altogether.
But if it’s not in schools where we should be most concerned about screens, where is it?
Most of the nefarious technology examples highlighted in the Times article are not found in educational devices; they are found in the small supercomputer that lives in the pockets and backpacks of many, if not most, of our children, some as young as eight. Yes, I’m talking about the smartphone. If we as parents and educators want to really address what is very likely (although research is still very nascent) the cause of the lion’s share of negative impacts of screen time, we need to look no further than the smartphone most of our children feel they deserve. Last year around this time, I wrote a blog in support of the parents who are struggling to determine when is an okay time to get their child a smartphone. I don’t judge. Every child is different. Every family has different expectations. However, if as a parent you are concerned about your child and screen time, I would suggest you thoughtfully consider the age at which you provide your child a smartphone and the rules and expectations you set around the device should you give them one.
A close second to the smartphone for causes of concern are video games. While there are benefits to video games and I am no luddite when it comes to technology, video games have many of the same concerns associated as does the smartphone. For more on this topic, you may read the blog I wrote last year about the content and effects of videogames on children.
It’s hard to be a parent these days. There is so much competing for our child’s attention and devotion. Screen time is today’s parenting “boogeyman” and, like it or not, we have to remain strong, informed, and determined when managing our children’s expectations with technology. It is possible though. Your child may throw a tantrum or two in the process, but for most children, clear boundaries, expectations that are regularly adhered to, and close monitoring of use is a recipe for success.
There is great research being conducted on a myriad of topics related to technology and our kids. As more of the good research is published and as more “tech natives” are themselves leading some of this research, I am confident there will be a large body of evidence that will tell us precisely what to avoid and what to embrace. In the meantime, I hope we won’t allow ourselves to be too reactionary or too protectionist or too judgmental or too laissez faire.
Knowing our own children as we do, combined with a nice balance of skepticism, mixed with practicality, imbued with confidence in our gut, is the best recipe for parenting I can think of. It’s a recipe that can serve us well as we navigate screen time. And, if we can also trust our teachers to find that “just-right” use of technology in the classroom and celebrate that our schools are partnering with us in educating our kids about safe and good uses of technology, maybe - just maybe - we’ll all get through this crazy modern time in which we find ourselves, relatively unscathed. And our kids will (hopefully) end up employed, healthy, and independent!
If you lived in the US last month and turned on a television, computer, radio, or smart phone, it was hard to avoid the gut wrenching political drama that unfolded around the nomination of our most recent addition to the Supreme Court.
Watching the history-altering confirmation hearings as I did left me emotionally drained and, to be frank, angry. Setting aside the argument around whether or not the justice should have been confirmed, or how brutal the process was, one thing that strikes me (and the only topic that is really appropriate for a blog of this type) is that our efforts to understand and educate our youth on the issue of consent are far from adequate.
If we are to take any important, non-political, message away from the national debate, in my mind it is the profound need to teach our kids about consent earlier and more often.
Some may find it inappropriate or premature for a superintendent of a district that only serves preschool through eighth grade students to address the issue of teaching consent. I couldn’t disagree more. While education about consent looks different at younger ages, it is just as important as discussing it with our high school and college aged children; in fact, one could argue, teaching about consent in high school may be too late. Until young men and women know how to give and receive consent for their actions, the culture that leads to unwanted sexual and non-sexual aggression will not change.
So what do we do?
Considering that the age group most likely to be assaulted begins at the age of 12, consent education must start early. There are compelling developmental reasons for teaching consent at very young ages, even in preschool. At the age of three, there are few if any gender differences in how children receive information about their bodies and their right to control who touches them. And preschoolers are equally comfortable saying “no” to an unwanted touch. Yet by the age of ten, children in general are more concerned about hurting their peers’ feelings than expressing their own. While not always true, girls are more likely to put others’ perceived desires ahead of their own, and boys are less understanding of why someone else might not enjoy something that they themselves enjoy. Waiting until these attitudes have developed makes teaching agency over one’s body and the practice of giving and expecting consent more difficult. Some schools and teachers are even engaging in lessons on consent; maybe you read this recent story of a California teacher designing consent lessons for her young students.
It’s Not Just About Touch
Especially for young children, consent isn’t exclusively about physical touch. Understanding consent is really about respecting boundaries and knowing that you don’t always get what you want. When we tell our kids they can’t have a second cookie or watch another show, we are giving them a boundary and an opportunity to respond appropriately to not getting their way. How our kids learn to deal with these minor disappointments informs how they will handle bigger negotiations later in life. You’ve heard it a thousand times, but kids who seldom hear the word “no” will struggle in the “real world” where “no” is a common and acceptable response. The same goes for kids who don’t experience the impact of failure; they won’t be equipped to experience failure in higher stakes situations as they mature. I don’t advocate a long list of rules, or fabricating disappointments just for the sake of teaching a lesson, but be mindful that kids who get away with everything when they’re young, expect the same when they’re older.
Broaching Consent as a Parent
Parents who model ways for their children to give and receive appropriate affection are well on their way to raising children who respect the boundaries of others, and know how to advocate for their own desires. We’ve all experienced the two or three year old who just has to be on top of us all the time - and it’s completely okay to tell that child, even our own, that we can sit close but don’t want a hug or cuddle right now. They are learning that they can’t have everything they want all the time, and also the words and non-verbal cues to use to communicate when they don’t want something.
Probably one of the biggest opportunities for us to teach and practice consent lies in how we require or ask our kids to respond to those we know well. In my own family, I have a child who is not naturally physically affectionate. I struggled with this because I am affectionate by nature and want our family and friends to feel loved by and connected to our children. For a couple of years I struggled when, for example, our son’s grandparents would visit and upon leaving would desire a hug from their grandson. Like many of us do in this situation, I would try every technique short of physically forcing a hug. Try as I might, nothing worked. It just made it harder. I felt bad. I felt bad for his grandparents. I felt bad for him.
I soon realized that I was the problem. I unintentionally reinforced that my son’s consent didn’t matter. I was sending a message that he didn’t have a choice in who and when he hugged. I was clearly saying that other people’s feelings were more important than his. That wasn’t okay with me. My efforts quickly changed from trying to control him to helping his grandparents understand who is he and how he’s wired; turns out, they knew. The problem was mine, pure and simple.
Whether it is hugging, kissing, cuddling, or (and this is a big one) tickling, it is my belief that we must elevate the voices of our children. These three steps can be the most powerful lesson in consent you can offer your child.
Of course, the best way of teaching these lessons is to model them ourselves. Next time we see our nephew crying, try this, “Awe, buddy, that must be so hard. May I give you a hug?” Simply asking a child if he or she would like to give or have a hug is a huge step in showing them how to have control over their body.
Consent is a Life-Long Lesson
As any parent of a high school student can tell you, issues of consent are squarely in the minds of our teenagers and young adults. Beyond what we can do as parents of young children, the lines of communication need to remain open in high school, college, and beyond. Our sons and daughters should have safe, non-judgemental places to talk about consent. There are great resources out there. Need help in bringing the topic up with your teenager or young adult, start with this outstanding video about a cup of tea. While not for young audiences, it’s a terrific illustration of consent and a great conversation starter for families with older children.
It’s About Being a Decent Person
Fundamentally, understanding and practicing consent is really just part of being a compassionate, empathetic person. All the consent education in the world won’t matter if our kids don’t put it to use, so it’s also a good idea to make sure our kids have exposure to situations that encourage them to grow up to be good people. Showing care towards others, even pets and dolls, is a way the youngest of children start developing compassion and empathy. Reading books with a variety of characters, having our kids help with chores, and making sure it’s not just girls we ask to help care for younger kids - boys need to be expected and trained to help with sibling care, too - are all ways to give children opportunities to show compassion and understanding. Kids who volunteer and work as counselors for younger kids are much better equipped in their adult lives to respect and show kindness toward others.
We are in this together. Believe me, I’m right in this parenting journey with you. I get it wrong most of the time. We all want our kids to grow up in a safer, more respectful, more equitable society...often in spite of the mistakes we parents make. While it was hard to watch the confirmation testimony and I’m still struggling with the conversations and thoughts it brought up, we can use the experience as a catalyst for helping our kids, even our very youngest, learn important lessons to help them make better choices in a complicated world.
More for those who are interested…
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.