Thursday, April 9, 2020

Little Lessons for Remote Learning

I have gotten so much good information through our school’s commitment to stay connected.  Today, I opened up our weekly newsletter, Welcome to the Week (or WTTW to those in the know), and saw this lovely message to our teachers from our Assistant Head of Lower School, Mrs. Quintero. It read: 

Teachers, may this be the banner we fly:
Grace before Grades.
Relationships before Rigor.
Patience before Programs.
Love before Lessons.

As everyone is at home now, sheltering-in-place, we are all teachers, aren’t we? 

Mrs. Q’s words really reached me. Just this morning, via phone, I talked my 89 year old mother quarantined in her retirement home, how to stream church from her computer. We had all sorts of challenges, including buffering, volume, and log in fails. I could hear her frustration and frantic mood as her first attempts were unsuccessful. She was so ready to throw in the towel, and she was so disappointed because the barrier between Palm Sunday and her ability to worship was vast and real. I probably didn’t exhibit much grace but I was patient, and I was determined she would gain access to something hopeful instead of the endless loop of CNN updates she had no problem being fed. Once I heard the sermon in the background, I gave my two kids sitting at our breakfast bar a huge fist pump. We hung up and all were able to ask forgiveness for our debts and forgive our debtors. (Full disclosure, my breakfast bar resembled something closer to a greasy spoon diner, with papers, YouTube videos, and Tik Tok dance breaks competing for attention than any type of House of Worship.)

A Pandemic teaches us two things; it teaches us about the bad things out there and about the ways in which we respond. So, the little lesson that I picked up at Charlotte Latin this week, is that grace, relationships, patience and love, are just as important as finding one designated place to do your work or staying up to date on tasks. I’d also add it makes sense to put value on the baby step successes.  While I did manage to get Mom to stream church today, I didn’t quite have the wherewithal to teach her how to make the little video box expand to the full screen.  She had to pass the peace in a three inch box which makes me feel like I didn’t accomplish all that I could. But, it looks like this shelter-in-place is going to last a while, so there is always next week, and after church she Facetimed (by mistake, but a happy one at that) and she was laughing and waving to all my folks at our honky-tonk breakfast bar.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Gift of the Second Choice

College Admissions.

These two words have become two of the most emotionally-charged words, and with the recent scandal filled headlines, these two words might have actually become code for two other words: bad news. For every student headed to college in the next few years, I think a new dawn may be on the horizon. 

College tuition, and more importantly, the most talked about new algorithm associated to tuition known as the tuition debt to potential earnings ratio casts true doubt on what certain degrees are worth. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, US District Judge Indira Talwani states, “[The college admission process] is a system so distorted by money and privilege in the first place”  (2019, Nov. 29, How to Fix College Admissions, Melissa Korn).

It is no secret that selective schools have more interest than space, and they each have a formula that seems almost impossible to achieve. I once heard a college counselor compare acceptance to the most reputable schools in the country to winning the lottery. For me the image was comic; these incredibly-planned, scripted, and pristine transcripts, scores, experiences, and essays being reduced to the haphazard, randomness of 10 dollar scratcher purchased at a gas station counter.

So no wonder the process makes everybody crazy--parents, students, teachers, and essay specialists alike. But, I wonder if students reclaimed the process and treated those ‘reach’ schools as lottery winners instead of potential matches, maybe some joy could be rediscovered.

I believe in America’s commitment to higher education. After all, I work for a college preparatory school and am blown away, every single day, by the way the students around me engage in true and curious learning. I also believe that not all colleges are created equal and every student needs to really decide what they are willing to tackle. 

There are reams of books and articles that call out American colleges and universities for a skewed accounting of things like tuition discounts, merit scholarships, College Board scores for sale, and double standards for athletes and legacy applicants. And while Financial Aid is generous in schools with large endowments, most college admits pay full tuition.

We have lost our way by playing into the hype and forgetting the applicant.  Many of our college students could thrive at most colleges but none of them deserve to go anywhere. Nor do they need to be lured into applying to 30 schools because of the ridiculous amount of money colleges are spending on direct mail. Every applicant should begin and end with this question: who is he or she? Then, tell the story, don’t fabricate it. 

A crazy industry has sprung out of the hysteria. And even though there are books to buy, online tutorials to subscribe, travel mission and study programs to enroll, and AP scores to earn, only a few lucky ones are going to snag a spot in the Ivy class. Note the word “lucky.” So many fantastically qualified kids will not get in, and to quote Tony Jarvis, the late Headmaster of Boston’s Roxbury Latin School, “Those that get their first choice sometimes find the reality quite a come down. On the other hand, I have seen many a boy turned down at his first choice college, who then digs deep, discovers deeper reasons for having a healthy self-respect, and ends up loving and doing well at the college he does attend” (With Love and Prayers: A Headmaster Speaks to the Next Generation).

I think those long-shot schools will always be long shots. I love a good scratcher, and I love when kids get a lucky break…as long as students are also empowered to look at schools that can develop their own beginning story into a full-blown epic.

The Gift of Getting Lost (In Play)

As an independent school admissions counselor, I get to work with and meet so many incredible people. For the most part, there isn’t much mystery to what I do.  But because Latin’s primary year of entrance is Kindergarten, the number one question I am asked:  How in the world can you assess a five year old?

My answer surprises most people and it goes like this: there is so much scientific, research-based information about young children that I could spend days answering the how and why behind the decision. And while people throw around buzz words like “readiness” and “phonemic awareness,” one rarely talks about what great preschools already know and preserve. The best preschools in America–and Charlotte is chocked full of great ones–know that children are not little adults, and that they learn through a very sophisticated set of carefully crafted lessons in an environment that encourages movement, wandering, reflection, and downtime. Erika Christakis’s book, The Importance of Being Little, explains the best preschools have responsive, thoughtful teachers that understand child development. In great detail, she talks about children having super powers and incredible amounts of energy–and both need to be tended to for optimal success. Research has shown that children with expansive vocabulary are more successful in school (and life), but  Christakis explains it isn’t the actually pedantic acquisition of words or exposure to flash cards but rather the manipulation and use of talking things through, play acting, and questioning that actually develop cognitive skills.  

We all remember the never ending litany of “why?” if we had a preschooler in the house. Apparently no worksheet or math fact can replicate the learning that annoying  and repetitive “why” question unlocks.

Every early childhood master teacher I know understands that valuable learning happens through play. And while teachers can create directed play activities to engage children and support whole group instruction, there is plenty of research to suggest that free play and getting “lost in play” are critical to the development of social and emotional growth. This may be where parents become skeptical; after all, aren’t they sending children to preschool to be prepared for Kindergarten, elementary school, and beyond? Perhaps this is where the gap occurs. Adults want children to become successful adults. Preschool and beginning school teachers know this can only happen if we honor the child and more importantly, as Christakis explains, protect the habitat, “the loss of young children’s habitat–a habitat that explores both the ability and opportunity to connect and explore-is a real threat to our society’s future.”

I also have learned this in my job. This play-based learning stuff is legit and requires very thoughtful, skilled teachers that know and respect each child’s place and station in beginning school. Just today one of the greats said, “I watch for the cues. When one of my busy, bright students starts to stir during our whole group instruction, I know it is time to switch it up.” Depending on the day, time, weather, and lesson, she adjusts. That is where the secret sauce of teaching and learning intersect in preschool. 

I am not really encouraging parents to lose their children. Rather, I hope to empower parents that giving children adult-like tasks and schedules in the spirit of enrichment may backfire while peeling some of that away to make for wandering, playful time with questions and no obvious outcomes is actually great preparation for preschool, Kindergarten, elementary school, and beyond.

The Gift of No

When I asked Mr. Tayloe and Mrs. Quintero to suggest a tip or gift to empower parents, Mr. Tayloe quickly said, “The Gift of No. Let children learn how to cope and how to be.” 

Mrs. Q added, “It will give them meaning and purpose.”

For parents in the trenches of raising young children life is filled with wide-open energy and, often, endless opportunities to enrich and engage. Mr. Tayloe and Mrs. Quintero know this all too well as young children have never been busier.

By empowering parents to say no—specifically to things a child can do for him or herself or to activities and behaviors that overwhelm and fatigue young children, these lifelong early childhood educators illuminate how saying no can be the ultimate gift.

When a parent does not race to the rescue of an upended water bottle spill or a missed assignment, children learn these are mistakes that they can actually fix. While that learning may come with a short term yucky pit in her stomach, the momentary discomfort can be all she needs to prevent the same goof later. When parents say no to late bedtimes, additional school activities or marathon playdates, we are also saying yes to the real and valuable gift of rest and downtime. And how many times have we heard grandparents, or random older people with past experience, mutter (or for that matter, lecture) in response to our overstimulated, cranky little person, “That child is simply worn out.”

When I think of my own children’s epic meltdowns, I can almost always tie them to moments when I was trying to cheat the edges of time. For me, it was  just one more stop at the grocery store, just one more practice or lesson to squeeze in, or just one more minute to speak to Mrs. Lewis. On so many occasions, I was determined to cross things off my list whether I had time to do so or not, suspending my kids in a whirling vortex of rushing. Children, by the nature of the way they are wired, don’t move fast. A young child’s pace is painfully slow at times and maybe this is because they are designed to be more present, more in the moment, more observant than we are. Left to his own pace, he may discover that a cool pillowcase feels good on a flushed face, how eggshells can land in the cake batter and take forever to get out, or how much fun it is to hide his brother’s action figures in the bookshelf. When I created a rigid framework of hour to hour obligations for my family, we always came up short. Rushing is an epidemic adults have created. What I didn’t realize then, that I know now, is that those days when our transitions were slow, the mistakes didn’t escalate into crisis.  Don’t get me wrong, my kids still made mistakes on the slow days, but it didn’t wig me out. Mr. Tayloe would also say, “Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Mr. Tayloe and Mrs. Q were right. When I said yes to slowing down and no to swooping in, my kids figured things out. Some of my favorite moments of parenting were those unscripted ones when my children said things to me like, “Mom, there is only so much one boy can do.” or, “There is a bug on every windshield; life is like that.” or, “If you just make a daily schedule of  who you sit with on the bus, everybody is happy.” and my all-time enigmatic favorite, “If I died laughing, would it be a happy life?”

The only thing I know for certain: they didn’t reach those conclusions when the red Gatorade spilled on the white tutu fifteen minutes before showtime.

The Gift of Failure

The Gift of Failure seems like a terrible gift. Who wants to be on the receiving end of the proverbial “buzzer beater” in any kind of sporting match? Who wants to bomb an unexpected quiz or get knocked out of the Ga Ga pit? Or even worse, who wants to work hard on something and come up short—whether it is making a team, earning a solo, or writing a paper?

At first, I was a little surprised when I learned our parents at Charlotte Latin had selected Jessica Lahey’s book, The Gift of Failure, as the parent education read of the year. I would have been less surprised if our teachers had made the selection and not because we teachers and coaches want to see children fail. We just know, from experience, students have the incredible ability to rebound from most all setbacks. As a hockey coach, I see players struggle with key concepts and become frustrated by lack of playing time. Also, I have seen when a player seeks the truth and feels support, she can unlock the mystery of the game and reach her desired goals. I know that sports simulate the ups and downs of life, and I know that the child allowed to navigate the experience, soars. 

But let’s be real. I don’t have to deal with the despair when she goes home. I am not the one she will turn to when she breaks down or wants to throw in the towel. For me, on almost every minute of those disappointing practices or games, the player is going to be poised, balanced, and put on a good show of bravery. For the parent, it might be an epic tsunami of gale force emotions the minute my player walks in the door. Let me reframe that. I would be shocked if it were not an epic tsunami of gale force emotions. And to elevate the unpredictable, it is often the case that, the day before, the weather was all sunshine and blue skies. To heighten emotion yet again, my player may not wait until she gets home to unload; she might send an alarming text right as she buckles up to make the 15 minute drive home to you, her safe port in the storm. We can all agree to one simple fact: those 15 minutes will be the longest 15 minutes a parent lives.

I get it. Parenting is beyond hard, so why would we want to add failure to the mix? 

But after a little more thought, it made sense why our parents picked this book. A shift seems to have happened in our awareness about life beyond high school. While college admissions still command significant attention, more parents are discussing what happens once their students get to college. Will they have the tools to navigate life away from home?  Can they juggle the combined pressures of school work, self-care, and social life? More importantly, will they find their people and the resources needed to get help?

I have witnessed that when parents put as much faith in teachers, coaches, advisors, and administrators, as they do love for their children, amazing things happen. Having faith in a child’s ability to ride the bench, play for a tough coach, learn from mistakes, and trust the partnering adults in their life is the true gift. Parents giving themselves permission to let children learn who they are and “value struggle,” as Jessica Lahey writes, may have the secret to raising successful adults living healthy lives.