3/30/12

A Day at the Aquarium

It was fall.  The days were getting shorter minute by minute and our family was in need of light.  The difficulties faced by one rolled into a ball of nerves for us all, baby, boys, mom, dad. . .'All for one, one for all' is the old saying.  Sadly, though, dad had to stay behind for work.  I wish we kidnapped him!  He needed this as much as the rest of us.  But what could I say to convince him? "Let's take a three and a half hour trip with a carfull of monkeys and hope for the best." or  "I have a feeling it will be just what we need," because that is all I was going on really.

So, I fed the kids, dressed in my not so spiffy, but comfortable torn jeans, sweatshirt and too large vest. . .was feeling pretty low, bedraggled would be a better fit, but threw in a little hope with the bag lunches and the kids and headed out on our adventure.  Three and a half hour trips are usually saved for weekend or weeklong trips to the lake or ocean and not usually a daytrip.  No car video equipment, DS, or MP3 player for the kids, just some magnetic drawing boards and the road.


We headed south on my hunch that we needed something big to help us out of this pit of worry and stress we had been trapped in the the past few weeks.  (months? years?)  Summer seemed eons ago, the beaches our freedom and solace, would be cold and barren, too melancholy to be helpful.  So I chose life below the surface, the aquarium.  My children, aquatic creatures, water babies in another life and this life needed home in a place far from it.

A quiet and cold weekday brought few visitors to the aquarium.  Almost alone, we moved with the fish through dimlit rooms encased in blue and quiet tranquility.  We crawled through tunnels to new spaces, places, and worlds and climbed the rocks and braved the cold on our way to visit the penguins and watch the beluga whales welcome us and share their tricks.



Back inside, warm again, encased in vessel of creatures large, small, and wonderous, we looked, we touched, we whispered in peace and felt the mystical nature of life carry our troubles away, though currents, through time, away.

My children and I happy, youthful, curious again returned home with relaxed shoulders, and good memories to carry us through.  Still, I didn't realize how well it worked, till upon our return, I looked my husband in the eye and saw all the mess of it still there, and I knew he should have come too, and been washed of it all in the mysteries of the sea.

3/29/12

Learning How to Learn

My mom told me once when I was flopping from one college trajectory to another that “It doesn’t matter so much what you major in, you are there to learn how to learn.” At the time It was helpful, but for years I wondered why after twelve years of public school do I need to go to college to learn how to learn?

After being an A student my whole life, breezing through school, and wondering when they were going to stop the review lessons, I turned out to be sadly ill prepared for the college math and science classes I dove into. Problem number one was, how do I choose a major when I don’t know what I want to do. Problem number two was, I had no idea how to help myself. It was a completely new experience to “learn” something I didn’t already know. I coasted through twelve years of public education having rarely if ever raised my hand to ask a question, and now I was in a class where the professor couldn’t even see my hand, and I had no idea what to ask anyway. This straight A student flunked out in a year, scary. . . then I changed paths and kept on chugging.


Now, years later with my own kids , I am amazed by how quickly they learn new things and how creative their little minds are. At the same time I am disappointed at how little the apparent purpose of elementary school has changed (at least from my vantage point as parent in this particular school system). I wonder why more teachers here don’t know how to see that every child has a strength or gift. Wouldn’t it be great if every teacher felt it is important to let the children (and parents if necessary) know “Right now you shine at__________.” And to do it in a way that says, “This is not all you can do, it is just a start, there is so much more ahead for you! Keep looking. Keep trying.”

I was mortified when my oldest began school. By kindergarten my curious, always happy, creative, literacy ready, sweet and supersmart self starting learner age five hated school. Loved spinach, broccoli and carrots, but hated school. Unlike my shy, quiet, keep to myself and do what I am told style of coping with not learning much of anything, (fairly common to girls by the way) my kiddo was active and noisy. If he was bored or unengaged the teachers knew it. I think that is because he not only loves to learn, he craves it. Idle time is not his friend (um. . .anyone been in an elementary classroom lately? Hurry up and wait.) He devours ideas and information like a wolf devours rabbits and chickens, and like the wolf, he needs to move. One perceptive teacher noticed when given an open ended math problem, he created his own more difficult problem to solve, to keep himself occupied.  The previous teacher saw this as off task, (I wonder if her own lack of mathematical understanding prevented her from seeing what he was doing?) He also needs stability and predictability. He has difficulty following verbal instructions with a number of steps,

Because first he has to stop his own thoughts, like stopping a locomotive engine headed down hill with a long train of cars pushing from behind, to realize there is something he should be listening to, then hear what is actually said and realize, “Oh I am supposed to be doing something.” Tune in catch the last few instructions, look around, see everyone else is getting started on something, but What? And then, “oh no, everyone else knows what to do, why don’t I? I must be really stupid. . .” Then a little panic sets in like when you are waiting in a large crowd of students and realize you missed your bus home in all the chaos of the squished up lines of children and now you are stuck here in this place! The whole fight or flight crash of emotions on his nervous system, at which point he is sent to the principal’s office and told he is defiant and asked why he is choosing to misbehave. No one notices that there was anything wrong, any reason for him to be upset, “He just exploded.” Is what they say.


Same kid can read directions to just about anything and know just what to do. In his then 8 year old wisdom one day, he told me, “The biggest problem with teachers is they don’t tell you exactly what they want.”

The way I see it though, his learning style isn’t that unlike many other children’s in many ways. Though most kids aren’t so lucky as to have all these issues at once I will bet each and every one of you knows someone with one or two at least. I also bet that more than one of you have creative children (they’re born that way you know) and children who possess the coveted skills and attributes of a perfect student: curiosity, inner drive and motivation to learn, goal oriented persistence, and self confidence. The question is how long can they hold onto those things once they get to school? And can we create schools and homes that understand how to nurture those attributes?

Now I know some friends who suggested to me “perhaps this school just isn’t a good fit” Not all schools work for all kids. I understood and took no offense. . ..till the secretary of the school told me I ought to homeschool –that I did take offense to. Ya see here’s the thing, my child started out just the way all of yours did, with all this drive to learn, and then poof, because some people don’t understand how to teach him or even understand that they don’t know how to teach him, (scary.) we have to find a new school, public school because no way can you afford to send him to a private school (which I never used to understand the need for by the way.) We have to find him a new school, and explain to him “Well son, good news it’s not the color of the skin they don’t like, it’s what’s inside you.” (um. . .no, never actually said that, but man what do we say, really? What would you say?)


I am worried. I am very worried, but not about the kids like my son, with parents like me who are advocating for them. Though they are all going through a kind of hell, I know their parents will support them no matter what. I am worried about the kids like my son who have no advocate, the kids like my second son who seem much less resilient, and the kids like me who are sliding through quietly not learning a thing unprepared for the 21st century and all it’s glories and guffaws.

3/26/12

Poem finished 15 or so years later. . .

I have another post brewing, but this old poem caught my attention and I had to finish it.  For several years I let it sit, now with fresh eyes, I dug into it and completed the image.  Is this how creativity works for you?  I think this is why writing with a busy family works for me, it prevents me from hitting send too soon, before it is finished (sometimes-other times I rush it out-and then realize it was too soon)

Popcorn

The new stuff is too neat and
tidy in that paper bag.
The joy of it, drowned
behind the glass door
and whirring motor,
beneath newfangled grease
like plastic on the tongue.

The old fashioned is more satisfying
I love the rat-a-tat-ing of kernels
into the pan,
the soft sizzle that slowly fades behind
plink. . .plink. . .
pinkety, plink plink,
Till the pops become drops
plopping on a tin roof
rapid and indistinct
then,
slow again,
having emptied of corn scented steam
that burns the tip of my nose
as the kernels flutter
into the bowl
sprinkled with butter and salt
into my mouth.

A.2012

3/24/12

Balance in Life, in Art, in School. . .

From my American Heritage Dictionary, one of the many definitions of balance is "a harmonious or satisfying arrangement or proportion of parts or elements as in a design."

More conciously each day I learn about the importance of balance in my life, family, body, art and school.  A few years ago, I was really dedicated to my yoga practice and I felt a balance in other areas of my life as a result.  Yet, life of course has a way of tipping the scales.  Family needs increased and my regular yoga practice was see-sawed up there into the sky and is waiting for me while clouds and time pass by.  Now, after over a year focused on finding solutions for one child's struggles I am trying to regain balanc in my family and my life.  This blog is a part of that It is a way for me to take something that set me and my life off balance and turn it inward and outward to create new harmony.

Similarly, I think of the day I set out with a tiny watercolor set and a mini art book I had constructed intending to capture some images at a horse farm down the road.  As I painted, a drop of dark paint splotted on the picture in progress on the cover of this book already constructed.  I could have tossed it aside, as ruined but instead I imagined the splott looked rather like a horse's eye.  I painted the horse's head around it, cropped in the foreground of the picture.  I have it still and bring it out sometimes to remind my kids what can be done with mistakes, or accidents, or unexpected events when painting, creating, or living.  I find I can still find balance, harmony, but I must be ready to adjust my weight when necessary.  Creating and living are very much the same really, aren't they?

Raising our children is a big part of my creating and living and balancing right now.  And when I think about how my son's school experience set our family off balance it occurs to me that perhaps our small town school lacks balance as well.  I see teaching as a creative, evolving practice made up of many working parts (that include people).  That is a difficult balancing challenge for school leaders, that requires a lot of listening to what the parts are telling you, flexiblity because rigidity doesn't move easily, and creativity since unexpected situations are likely to occur.  I know school can feel like a harmonious experience if all the people and parts are aligned.  If you have some going one way and some the other,and  maybe a gear is the wrong size, not lined up, or the teeth don't fit, the machine will be off balance, the school will be off balance, just like our family was off balance.

Where there is not harmony, and the machine is malfunctioning, there is often noise.  Sometimes the noise is very quiet, but it is still there getting in the ear, promting a look around to see what's the cause.  I would love to be the perverbial "fly on the wall" to see what the noise is and where it is coming from.  I could hear it before any of my son's difficulties began. There is so much that I can't see or hear from my perspective as a parent and so much I wish the school could see and hear from parents and children.  There is just too much noise in this machine right now, it is out of balance. 

As in yoga, finding balance in schools, life, art and family is not likely a quick fix, but will involve a continuing practice of listening and responding.  It will require finding or being open to creative solutions.

3/21/12

Gifted-Beyond the Stereotype

“He is gifted.” Doesn’t that sound pretentious? I have almost as hard a time with this label as I do the ‘scary names’ from a previous post (Our Magical Creatures). People, parents, teachers and all develop notions based on the stereotype ‘names’ like this conjure. We hear the word gifted and we think we know what it is all about. Just like the term ADHD is so commonly heard today, yet I truly think very few people really know all the areas of learning and life that this disorder or giftedness can disrupt. They see a very active child and so begins their commentary “That one must have ADHD”. On one online group for parents of gifted children, I recall a discussion about finding a new name (other than gifted) for our kiddos that doesn’t inspire snide remarks and false assumptions.


I understand why the parents were having this discussion. My husband has recounted to me a day from his childhood when he and his Dad crossed paths with a Mother having a terrible time with her unruly child. She looked to my husband’s Dad and stated apologetically, “He’s gifted” As if that explained everything. From what I am told eyes rolled. According to my husband, his conservative father’s general sentiment was, “Yeah, he’s gifted alright, at working over his permissive parent.” My husband and I have revisited this scenario more than once.

Because we now live it, we are conscious of other people’s views of giftedness, and don’t generally go around announcing it to people, especially while dealing with difficult behaviors. To some the only explanation for a major meltdown out of a child with a higher than average vocabularly is that the parents are doing something wrong. When someone asks about what has been going on with our kiddo, I really have to gauge what information I tell to which people. And the fact that our guy also has some learning and social challenges at the same time, well that is too much for some to comprehend, or more than they need or want to know.

I recall a particular child in my first class, my very first year teaching. He was a physically awkward, sweet, sensitive, and precotious, and he talked my ear half off and argued the other half. His favorite stories, read to him by his mother, were The Chronicles of Narnia. I can still hear his Mom at our conference telling me he was gifted and proclaiming his lack of coordination was inherited from her. She didn’t see the need to encourage outdoor play, because she knew it was not his strenghth. At the time, I thought, ‘Yeesh, this lady needs to get her kiddo off the couch!’ (old assumption number one again)

I am sad to think how little I was able, or ready, or willing to listen to that precocious guy, or his Mom. My first class was an experience like trying to get my sea legs in a hurricane. One girl frequently broke into hysterical sobbing fits, another one or two were likely ADHD, and a little boy who was diagnosed with PTSD and would shut down if the room became too noisy or chaotic. Yeah, to be honest, college didn’t really prepare me for all of that.

Now, I don’t agree completely with that Mom’s fatalistic approach to her son’s skills (I still think it would have benefited her son to get outside more) However I can seriously respect her point of view now. Rather than fatalism, perhaps I was a witness to her acceptance of her son. And sure thing, that boy knew his Mommy loved him just the way he was, There is something big and great to be said for that.  I wish I was that clear with my son when our journey began.

When you think about giftedness, what is the picture in your head? In your mind is he the one who did really great in school acing all the tests? The math whiz who scewed the bell curve? Do you see a child prodigy; musician, dancer, athlete? Are you saying to yourself right now “All children have gifts.”? ie. That kid can run like the dickens, that girl there sings like an angel, and this one can charm the socks off a gorilla. . . Maybe you think there are no gifted kids, only pushy parents. I think you are all right in some way. That is why stereotypes stick around right? If there weren’t some truth in them they wouldn’t be so easy to believe.

But stereotypes don’t help teach our children. It is fact that more than half the children who are gifted develop asynchronously. That means they have areas and skills that develop at a very high level, while another or others lag at a significantly lower level. Gifted children come in all shapes and sizes and economic backgrounds. Some read and speak fluently at or above age level, but struggle with writing, and organizing their life. A gifted musician may write sheet music at the age of 5, but struggle to find friends and read social cues. Maybe the star athlete struggled to learn to read or still struggles. The possible combinations are endless. I am betting the kid who lived across the street from me growing up, a mumbler who was great in math and science is probably a nuclear physicist or something now. The problem is that their difficulties are invisible to the eye. Often they are not seen as gifted or as having a learning disorder, because one masks the other, they look like an average child.

To teach our children according to their needs and abilities we need schools and teachers trained and capable of finding the strengths and weaknesses of every student in order to teach each child to their potential. Teachers willing and able to look beyond stereotypes. Labels can help us group similar children together and organize our thinking about them, but looking at them as individuals with individual needs is the key to their success in school and life.

3/20/12

Acceptance brings solutions

I have begun writing this post several times already, but the phone rang (3 times), my daughter had trouble settling to sleep, my son was up late last night and again early this am with a stuffy nose.  He was needing some TLC, so I set my writing aside, along with my frustration.  My thoughts were not coming together anyway.  I had changed directions three times.  It was if I was trying to build a post out of car parts.  Not gonna happen.

So where my writing was unsuccessful, my struggle to set aside personal frustration was fruitful.  I set it aside, but I have lots of practice.  When my oldest was experiencing lots of stress at school it would manifest itself in many ways.  For one, he had great difficulty getting to sleep at night.  This fella was already a night owl, so on a bad night he may be up till 10, 11, 12. ..  ugh!  He shares a room with his little brother, who would scream "He's in my bed!!  Make him get out!!"  or perhaps they were both feeling lively one night. . .double ugh!!  When this first began to get bad, I would "freak out" (my husband's words) "Go to sleep!! Knock it off!!  What the heck is going on up there??!!" 

I was utterly infuriated, the baby would be up in an hour (or a minute with all this noise) and I am an early to bed early to rise type, looking for a little down time before hitting the rack after a long day of household mayhem.  It took me some time, what now feels like too much time, to realize my frustration was getting us nowhere except knee deep in misery, all of us.  Once I accepted that my son was a night owl, and some nights would be long for him, our evenings became much more peaceful.  I channeled my energy toward finding ways to help him relax and settle down, instead of into blowing up.  He already had regular bathtime, bedtime and storytime each night.  So I continued massage, a practice I had started with him when he was an infant.  I tried quiet music, story cd's, lavendar scented lotion, nightlight on, nightlight off, paper for drawing, books to look at.  Most importantly though, I kept my cool.  I talked calmly and quietly, to try and sooth him to sleep like I did when he was new and tiny.  He began to sleep more easily, more often.

So with the three year old last night I rubbed her back and sang the "Railroad song" again.  For  my middle pumpkin I set aside my notebook again and walk him downstairs to the recliner, make him some tea, and tuck a soft cozy fleece around his legs and lay down on the couch nearby.  For this guy some medicines make him gag, some just don't work at all.  He argues and whines about everything when he is tired and more when he is sick.  This was one of those nights.  I just had to wait it out till he fell asleep.

These experiences raising my own children make me think of the way we educators look at other people's children at school.  We all know when they are your own you will go to any lengths to help them, usually by first understanding them.  When I recall my own classroom rotation of children, (before I had any of my own) I know there was a handful who just drove me crazy over the years.  Honestly.  And I know that if this new me were shot back through time to those days as my teacher self I would find some way to figure out what those babies (yes I call 6's and 7's babies- because in the scheme of life they are babies for sure) were communicating or trying to communicate to me through their aggravating behaviors.  Because the one thing I have learned since my own babies were born is that if the picture on the front of the box doesn't match the puzzle inside, it only matters if you are only looking at the box.

Each child is a puzzle made up of lots of pieces such as skills, challenges, likes, dislikes, and their own family norms.  When our expectations don't match the child we have two choices, solve the puzzle out of pieces we are given or sit banging our head against the box with the wrong picture.  Um, I don't know about you, but banging my head doesn't sound all that fun or useful.  Of course, taking what you are given to work with may be hard too.  It may require you to change, maybe get that picture on the box out of sight and replace it with an open mind and heart.  I find that letting go of unreasonable expectations helps me to release the frustration and embrace the child for everything he is and can do.   If I stop looking at the picture, or my dream or expectation, I can start finding the solutions the child is asking for.

3/17/12

Poem by my Twenty Something Self

Just for fun- This is a poem I wrote when I was twenty something :)



STRANGER

Sometimes,
When you meet someone
Their eyes seem to exude
a glimmer of mystery.
And it's hard to know
If you're looking
into the eyes illuminated by angelic lustre
Or if the Devil's fire flickers from within.
Maybe-
The tiny reflections of yourself
Astonish you.

Amy  (April 1998)

Writing,Teaching, and Parenting Poetry

My friend Sara writes with such poetry in her voice. She wrote a post recently "Glory of Spring" (at A Place to Write ) and I began to think about poetry, finding a voice, and the way we teach our children about poetry.


Back in second grade I was grilled by my teacher for producing an actual original poem from my heart, while another girl received endless stars on the board (second grade accolades) for her infinite list of Green things (back when green was just a color) Green is a frog, Green is a leaf, Green is the mold on my brother’s socks.- OK you got me I made that part up about the socks, I may still be a tad bitter, but you get the idea.

I remember listening to the teacher read Shel Silverstien poems, but I don’t remember any other poetry from back then- over 30 years ago, yeesh! For some reason I don’t recall any poetry in middle or high school. I take that back, I did have to read Shakespeare, but that to me is just not the same. Perhaps it was offered as a class I didn’t elect to take, or I just wasn't ready to absorb it yet. So, in college I took a poetry class, not for writing, but the kind where you find out all you’ve been missing out on. There I found I love and enjoy the poetry of Mary Oliver, William Stafford, and Robert Francis (a scarcely known peer of Robert Frost, who also lived and wrote poetry in Amherst, MA) 

Just a few years later, while studying Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Integrating the Arts in Ed. I took a poetry course. The course was to encourage our own personal exploration of the art of writing poetry, reading poetry, and teaching our kids not only about but also through poetry. It was the first time I had written any poetry since second grade! I was totally game though, my twenty something self was ready to find her voice again.
In my classroom I tried to provide opportunities to enjoy poetry throughout the year, (not just during “Poetry Month”. And I tried to provide some opportunities for writing that were more authentic than, “Go to your desk and write a poem now.” We read poems, listened to music, and took looking and listening walks. We noticed the world around us, even wrote some poems as a class. The most important thing to know about teaching poetry to kids, I realized back then, is You Don’t Have to Teach Them. They get it. It is in their blood till someone comes along and scares, or shames it out of them.

Every poet in my class had a turn to read something they wrote or have it read by someone of their choice. Those 6 and 7 year olds took this really seriously! We even had a special poetry lamp to set the mood. The children in my first grade were poets, each and every one.

Home with my kids, I have learned teaching as a stealth act. Simply noticing aloud about the orange blaze the sun cast on the forest behind our home at day’s end, or the tiniest pinecones-um hemlock cones actually-that scatter in the hideout alongside our yard, I try to teach them about poetry. So it doesn’t surprise me at all when my kids teachers tell me how they are “So good at poetry” in a way that says they don’t think I know it. I just nod and I think to myself “yeah, isn’t it great.” And when we took out paints and brushes, set up outdoors and got to work creating, it didn’t surprise me at all when below a brilliant blue sky, shining with golden, yellow, and orange sunlight. My son (7) wrote: The golden sun, oh the golden sun, bright and wonderful.

3/16/12

To Clean or Not to Clean

I found myself in the ridiculous ritual of cleaning before a playdate. . . yeah, that’s right, cleaning for the seven year old boy who rode the bus home from school with my middle guy today. Honestly, I did find myself pondering, what is my real reason for doing this, because it certainly is not to impress the seven year old. (though loose lips do sink ships and seven year old lips are pretty loose) A recent post by a fellow blogging Mom at My Kind of Happy addresses the way we Moms tend to clean before having other Moms over, and how that then gives the visitor the impression that we must keep this pretense of clean house, good wife, good mom. I liked the message, because I don’t believe anyone should feel the need to change her appearance or appearance of her home to earn someone else’s approval. At the same time, I laughed at this personally, because, well, anyone who really knows me, knows I don’t really fall into that category of trying to earn people's approval. It just isn’t my thing. What you see is what you get. So, how to explain cleaning up before playdate with the seven year old??


You see, the fact is, I like my house clean (whoa don’t go anywhere, that doesn’t mean it is clean all the time). But I do, I like it to be clean and moreso I like it fairly clutter free, which means basically I become overwhelmed by the clutter and stuff that is three kids, now two of which who love to cut paper items into tiny pieces and leave scrap piles all over the house, the size you can’t just vacume either. I look longingly at the old photos with a new baby on a playmat in the middle of a clean room, shining floors, clean furniture, clean rug, no toys, no paper scraps, no . . .whoops, ahem, lost in a dream there for a minute.

Anyway, what I have come to realize is I need major motivation to clean or do household chores around here, and my own personal joy in a clean house just doesn’t cut it most days. Sooo. . .my husband knows this. Some times he will say, “Who can we invite to dinner this weekend?” He knows once I have a real deadline I will stop procrastinating and get it done. (He also knows I clean when I am angry, so has been known to razz me up just to get me moving. Grumble.)

You can see why teaching was a good career for me. Teachers are on a schedule, a deadline, you can’t just hang out and look at books all day, you must move on to math, or lunch, or phys. ed or something. And I could handle that. Imposed structure and deadlines agree with me.

One summer I actually bought a planner so I would be sure and have a certain number of actual activities planned, even if it was just “Go to Lake”, or “Take kids for a Hike”. I had found previous summers of lollygagging along and chillin’ with the kids was somewhat disasterous for the family harmony.

So back to “Why was I cleaning for the seven year old boy?” Well, it is also Friday, that is another motivator. Messy house when the weekend hits = crabby mama. And crabby mama= crabby boys, crabby girl, crabby husband. That is a big motivator too. The fact of the matter is I need that motivation in order to get things done. So if you come to my house and it is reasonably clean and uncluttered do not feel pressured to do the same. Just know that your pending arrival inspired me to kick it into gear. Think of yourself as a motivational visitor and know I thank you! I thank you for those few hours, or minutes of floors not covered from wall to wall in toys and paper scraps, the laundry that is now hiding in the basement near the washer so it may actually be washed soon, the freshly emptied dishwasher (so I could shove all the dishes in that were on the counter till 10 minutes before you arrived) I thank you. Also, know I respect you and your cleaning or uncleaning style, whatever works for you. I will not judge you on the cleanliness of your house. I visit you for you!

Best, A

3/15/12

Parent, Child, Teacher and Time

Parents and teachers have one thing in common for sure.  The struggle, the tug of war, the battle for time with our children is more and more an issue as pressure to perform well in school oozes out beyond the hours of "school time" in the form of homework and into family time and time for extracurricular activities.

Tick, tock, tick, tock time to wash, time to eat, time to read, time to write, time to sing, time to wiggle. . . When I was a teacher, I was very concious of time throughout the day.  Preparation was key.  Hop in the closet for a minute for a book I forgot to pull out ahead of time?  Disasterous!  So be prepared, keep things moving, and make the most of every minute.  That's what I did, or tried to do, every day.  And as for homework, I kept it to once a week, and gave it because that was the trend at the school I worked, though most of us felt if the child just read a book or was read to, that is all we really wanted them to do.

Once I became a stay at home mom, time seemed so luxurious.  I had one little baby and all the time in the world.  A rough night for baby and me?  Well, no big deal, we'll just lay low.  When baby sleeps I will rest too.  I felt no pressure that I would have to be a highly functioning human the next day.  We might take a stroll if my  energy was up or sit in the big swing that hung in our livingroom back then. 

By the time I had three children, two in school, I no longer had all the time in the world with my kiddos, even if we stayed home together.  Now not only did I send two children off to school for 6 hours, I was being told what I needed to do with them when they get home.  Homework every night in third grade.  Really??  Now I am sounding like someone's grandparent,  "Back in my day we never had regular homework till at least middle school, what're those teachers doin' over there?"  But really I know, if we think our kids are under pressure, the teachers are moreso. 

Now I never thought I would be a high pressure, sign my children up for everything, type of parent.  Honestly, I don't think I am that parent, but I do see the benefit of letting our children experience more than school has to offer.  More music, more physical activity, more art, more freedom of expression, more family time, more play, just more.  Because I have come to realize, through my children that there is more to life than school, there has to be, because for some (of course and thank goodness, not all) of our children school is a walk through hell and Dang I forgot my sandals! 

I began to resent the very institution I dedicated years of service and self education to. 
My children belong to someone else for the day and damned if the rascals could even tell me how they spent their day.  And, I knew what questions to ask. . .sort of. 
ME:  "What did you do at morning meeting today?"  CHILD: "It's called circle time Mom." 
ME:  "What did you do at Circle Time?"  CHILD:  "I don't remember." and on and on till finally, my husband had the Brilliant idea to ask the kids "What did you have for lunch?"  Then, "Who did you sit next to?"  and wheedle his way into the school day that way.  A bit of progress.

My biggest beef though, became homework.  "Hooooome wooooork" -insert whine- as it is known in my house.  *Ugh*  Now let me see, is the homework meant to give the kids practice or show us what they know?  Is it meant to test, or practice our childrens' organizational skills or ours the parents?  I often have felt the homework is put in place to make us Practice Parenting.  And I have found some of the assignments meant to produce "family time and interaction" to be on the verge of insulting and a rather poor imitation.

When it wasn't to seemingly instill family time into our time away from school, the work was often in the form of "practice".  I am a teacher, I do know some kids have to practice everything, I do.   "Repetez, repetez!"  my old French teacher used to say to us every day. But I also know many kids have to practice something,  rarely does every kid have to practice everything.   However, a book about differentiating instruction for children, by Susan Winebrenner set forth a wild notion in my mind.  If a child already knows the information, what is the point of practicing it??  none.  You know it .  I know it.  The kids know it.  (Perhaps that is why it is called "hooooome wooooork" at my house? )

So, this week, in a new school, my oldest son brought home a different kind of homework.  This time around, the kids are to do research and put their information together in a class scrapbook page about one of the 50 States.  Wow!  The kids had two weeks and a checklist, and from this end I helped my kiddo manage his time, in a way that worked much more readily for our family and extracurricular activities.  I much prefered the freedom of this new homework.  I could tell they were getting a lot of scaffolding and ideas from school too, especially on week two.  My kiddo would come home with ideas of how to arrange his project and reminders of things not to forget.  He was motivated and even told me to "butt out".  Yeah baby!  That's what this Momma wants to hear when it's time for HoooomeWooork.
 I think it is important to say to our kids.  "School is important, your family supports you and supports and respects the school and your education."  In the same vein I feel that schools need to be supportive and respectful of family time, and extracurricular activities and the sure fact that there is and should be more to life than school.  A fine balance for sure.

3/13/12

Poem by my 7 year old self

Here is the poem I mentioned in my post "Why blog about Parenting and Pedagogy?"  The one the teachers were sure I didn't write.  ????  That fact still mystifies me, I was in second grade, why would I want to copy some grownups poem, my own were just fine?

ME

Me I am me
I am only Me
I am not a he
I am a she
When I look in the mirror
I don't see a he
When I look in the mirror
I see a she
And the she that I see
In the Mirror
Is Me.

3/12/12

Parenting, Stress, Mourning the Dream

Stress.  It is one of those words people hear and say often, but when you are really feeling it, you may not know what hit you!

Many causes can increase it; the economy, home budget woes, war, raising children. . .  I never knew that sending my child to school could feel like war.  There was a time a bit over a year ago that I was nervous, angry, confused, forgetful, overeating, overreactive mess.  Surprise!  Stress!  And for a while I actually thought, "What is wrong with me?",  "Is it me or are the teachers looking at me with leery eyes?"  I am sure I appeared like a wild eyed maniac to them then.  I am absolutely sure.

What concerns me is noone seemed to wonder why.  Noone asked, or checked in.  Perhaps they thought my son was making me as crazy at home as he did them at school, (not usually the case)  Or perhaps they thought "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree".  I started to wonder that too.  Did I make it as a highly functioning, career building, job holding adult and just not know I suffer from some mental illness or syndrome? 

If you have read earlier posts you may know my son has struggled in the school setting.  He has the misfortune of having a combination of gifts and challenges that were mistaken by the school as  "bad attitude", "manipulation" and "unacceptable behaviors".  As a result of those assumptions one teacher saw fit to give me a daily report of my son's shortcomings in front of siblings, classmates, teachers and parents alike.  The principal felt justified in following my son out the door to scream at him (then 7) in front of the same rotating audience of our community.  Even the school psychologist fell into this ridiculous example of adult lacking self control, but that time I just grabbed my son by the arm and walked away as she squawked open mouth, eyes gaping.  The next meeting we were met with, "We feel you parents are not being supportive of the school" Bwwaaaaahaaaahaaaa!!  What??!

But perhaps they had never read the book.  A book was recommended to me shortly after these incidents took place.  A book that titled Help Your Child or Teen Get Back on Track by Kenneth Talan.   The therapist could see I was stressed, I am sure.  At that point, I could not even walk my kids into school or answer my phone without shaking, literally, shaking.  I couldn't sleep at night, so instead I read obsessively, searching for strategies and information that would be the key to making all this go away, setting my world right side up again.  When I read this book, I found a chapter with advice for parents.  And did you know, because I sure didn't, that finding out your child has a special need can throw a parent into set of stages that mirror mourning?  Wow!  I was mourning.  Denial, fear, anger, depression, acceptance, blame, all mixed up and popping up all over the place.  Mourning.

Tie this in with something I read on a support list recently.  I am not sure the origin.  Picture a pot of water, and a frog.  You have hot water, the frog jumps in and jumps out because, duhhh, it's Hot!  But put the frog in cold water and turn up the heat.  He just sits, and sits, and sits, till bye bye froggie.  Poor frog doesn't notice the water is too hot till it's too late.

I am pretty sure that no one at my son's former school read this book.   Or thought of parents of children as frogs in a pot of water.  If they had, wouldn't they have treated us all with more compassion?  I have to wonder how many school teachers, school psychologists, school nurses, and principals know that they are turning the heat up on us poor unsuspecting parents (frogs).  I wonder if they would realize that when you turn the heat up on one parent or child, you turn up the heat on the whole family, especially if the lead frog is not wonder frog (jumps out at the nick of time in spite of statistics) or damsel frog (rescued by a therapist with a book)  I wonder if they would realize that it is crass to sit back and smugly say to themselves, "I help so many kids it is my life's work.  I am good. That woman is just a nut job."

Why blog about Parenting and Pedagogy

Why am I blogging about this parent, teacher, child stuff when I have a mountain of laundry waiting to be folded in the livingroom, and last nights dishes in the sink?  Don't I have enough to do already with making lunches, grocery shopping, and carpooling on my list?  Why would I want to give myself another thing to do?  After all it has taken me almost a week to find the time to put together this post.

I could say it goes back to my college aged self who had finally decided after lots of indecision to become a teacher.  Though I didn't have lots of experience working with kids, I knew I loved children and thought I could make a difference.  I could say it all goes back to when I was a child in second grade, humiliated by the teacher who thought I had stolen my wonderful little poem (I liked it) and brought me in front of the third grade teacher to be grilled, "Did you take this from your mother's magazine?" (my mom didn't even keep magazines in the house.)  Or maybe the first grade classroom, barren green walls, desks in rows, and the only kids who got to listen to stories on tape were made to feel like that was a point of shame rather than a privelege.  Perhaps it was that great social studies teacher in middle school who brought history alive as more than just a list of dates which I could never remember for longer than it took to take the test.  Tests I aced, so maybe those other teachers thought they were doing a great job?

Maybe when it comes down to it though, I still want to make a difference.  I do.  But that is not all, really.  Over these last few years as a stay at home mom I have been continuing my education on my own, without college transcripts, proffessors' feedback, or any other proof that I have been thinking about anything other than dirty diapers, clean socks, and other toils of the trade we call Motherhood.  This blog, now, is my transcript, my documentation and validation of my own growth, learning, understanding, and insights.  This writing helps me think, process, and communicate and it feels like something I need to do right now. 
Thanks for reading.
Amy

3/9/12

Understanding Our Children

I dove right into this blog because there were a few things I just had to write in order to move forward. I want to give a sense of personal experience throughout this blog. That said, it occurred to me this week that I want to be sure parents and teachers of all kinds of children feel welcome here, no matter where you fall on the continuum of child raising or educating. Whether your child falls into the norm or out, some of the time or most of the time, whether your child is diabolical, quirky, thoughtful, spacy, scattered, brilliant, shy, grumbly, maddening, inventive or any where in between, I hope something here on this blog informs you, inspires you, or resonates within you.



One of my goals for this blog is to move us away from labels toward understanding that every child and person alive has his or her own personal profile of strengths and challenges. Every. Single. One. Sure, a few profiles qualify for special education which has it’s own benefits and pitfalls, but it is never a parents goal for their child to receive special education services. In my experience, my goal was for teachers to know and understand my child’s learning profile and teach him accordingly.

 
You need to know if you have a child who feels hard to parent or teach it may be because something we are asking them to do requires a skill that they don’t have. They might need you to teach them a skill that you never realized had to be taught to some children, a skill that other children just seem to absorb from the world around them.


I chose the phrase “feels hard to parent or teach” because sometimes that is the first or only clue that you need to help them learn a skill that most people take for granted. And I chose the phrase “feels hard to parent or teach” because our feelings as parents and educators guide us and are important to how we choose to work with children. I chose the phrase “feels hard to parent or teach” because it is hard to parent or teach them and we feel it. That feeling is valid. That feeling does not make you less capable. That feeling does not make you bad at your job and it does not make your child a bad child. That feeling is there to tell you, “Look for the facts. Look for more information.” That feeling is there to prompt you to ask yourself, “What is really going on here?”



I plan for the pages on this blog to supply you with tools and resources for your fact finding mission. Aside from annotated bibliographies of books and websites, later today I am posting a page titled “Lagging Skills”. This list is taken from Ross Greene’s book Lost at School, and is included here with a link to Dr. Ross Greene’s website (with his permission) and further information about his method (Collaborative Problem Solving) for fact finding. You should know the motto expressed in Dr. Greene’s book is “Kids do well if they can.” And I wholeheartedly believe that is true.

 
Happy hunting! A.
 PS. I also hope to start building the “Kids Fun” page soon, because it is important to  laugh, smile, giggle and have fun with our children. Doing so tells our kids “You are ok no matter what your strengths or challenges.”






3/7/12

Our Magical Creatures

When I started teaching, someone, I think it was my stepmom, shared a poem or letter? she found.  I believe it was written as if from parent to teacher about a little girl on the first day of school.  And though my memory is foggy on everything else, I remember the message as 'please notice that my child is nervous and excited to be at school, that she wore 'special shoes' and lost a tooth last night, and she longs to be noticed for who she is and welcomed to this new adventure called school.'

I felt most successful as a teacher when I made time, first thing, to check in with each and every child, each and every day.  I would say, "Tell me something you've done lately." or "Tell me something I don't know about you."  or I would just let them bubble over with whatever they were fizzling to tell me.  I really felt I knew my kids and therefore taught them better for it.  Conferences were easier because the parents and I could laugh and share their children.

Isn't that what we all hope for when we send our children off to school?  We want our children to be noticed and loved for who they are, and who we parents created.  Creation via a child is a powerful (or at least time consuming :) form of self expression.  Probably the most painful as well, because our children are us, and our children are not us, all at once.

When I feel my child has been rejected or is not being seen for his true and beautiful self, to say it hurts doesn't even scratch the surface.  I've had to grow a thick skin as the mom of a child with an invisible disability.  People in general have a hard time believing what they can't see.  So, to explain what they don't really understand, they make up stories like the Greeks, and Romans and many other cultures between now and then. 

One popular tale is "I see that child misbehaving.  That parent is doing a lousy job.  She needs to discipline that kid the way my parents did it."  The story is based in fear of the unknown (a child that can't succeed with the usual parenting techniques) and is meant to create a feeling of safety (this couldn't happen to me) for those telling the story.  They also distance themselves by giving our kids scary names or titles; Attention Deficit Disorder, Asperger Syndrome, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Child Onset Bi Polar Disorder, or Tourret's Syndrome. . .  and They see our children as monsters through their fear. 

The lucky one's, those not blinded by fear, see our children as the magical creatures that they are.   You see our children are really Magical creatures with special powers to ignite ideas into being, to illuminate the darkness with their smile, poetry, music or art.  You hear our child's voice as a song on the sea breeze gentle and steady and meant to be.

As a Mom and teacher, I feel the need to extinguish the power of the bad stories and names and the fear.  Ang to do this, I accept the sage advice of the likes of Byron Katie and Martha Beck.  I love what is, and accept the truth.  So when the storytellers say "He is oppositional, defiant, or seeking attention.", I say "Yes. He is!"  He is defiantly opposing being placed in a box built by a stranger for some other child.  He demands for people to pay attention to who he truly is.  He is loving and loved, creative and evolving, strong and fragile, and. . .human.
I selected this post to be featured on my blog’s page at Education Blogs.

3/5/12

When Child and School Collide

We knew, absolutely knew, that our oldsest son was going to LOVE school and school was going to LOVE him.  He was So ready, he loved to be with other kids, he loved learning new things, he was the kind of kid who you could truly "see" the wheels turning in his brain as he studied something new, or made connections in the world around him and beyond.  I thought to myself, "This is the kind of kid you want in the classroom, he is so hungry and motivated to learn." 

Then began school.  As far as his learning in preK, we heard nothing strikingly bad, or good from the teacher, or from him really.  What we did hear; "He seems to lack empathy for his classmates at times.", or "He gets himself ready, but he has difficulty waiting for the other kids."  and preK was just the start.  Later came the phrases, "lacks self regulation", "has difficulty attending to circle time", "motor running", then "biological", and "organic".  Our parent brains screamed inward, "What???? Should we be worried?  Well, we have seen a little of that.  Is there something wrong with him? What did we do wrong? What did I do wrong?  What did you do wrong?"  Despite our concerns, though, my fatal mistake was believing that if something serious was wrong, the school would recommend a child study. . . wouldn't they? It certainly wasn't up to me or my husband who did not see these difficulties at home, through our parent tinted glasses.  As far as my memory held of 7 or so years prior (those delightful years before NCLB), if my teacher self felt a child was having a difficult time, I spoke with the principal, and we held a child study meeting with parents and staff.  Wasn't that how it worked now?  Was this school different?  Silly me. 


Though we may have seemed to the school, to be making light of our son's difficulties, "lacks empathy" shot panic to our hearts from the start and wreaked havoc on our parental confidence, and stress levels.  After all parenting belief number one was, "If we are good parents, our kids will be good kids."  It took some of those late night, staring at the ceiling, tears soaking the pillow arguments about methods for discipline and "Is he just a bad seed?"  I had never believed in that way of looking at children, but I also had no explanation for the snapshot handed to us by the school.

I threw belief number one (good parents=good children) out the window by second grade, when the principal opened a meeting with, "We feel that you (parents) are not being supportive."  I amazingly kept it together (ie. I didn't reach across the table and scratch his eyes out) and said, "If being supportive means punishing him at home for what goes on at school, you are absolutely correct!  We tried it your way in K and that did nothing but make matters so much worse!  He was a mess, he couldn't sleep, he began to have toileting accidents."  I also went to pages 12-13 in Ross Greene's book Lost at School, which none of the staff had read or heard of, and ran down the list of assumptions pointing out most of which we or our son had been accused of that are proved incorrect if you accept Greene's primary mantra "Kids will do well if they CAN", rather than common misconception "if they Want To". 

By this time I had also read Dr. Mel Levine's A Mind at a Time, and I knew there were critical skills my son was lacking, despite his apparent strenghths, that were preventing his success in school.  (He has a lot of difficulty regulating his attention, and emotions.  He isn't always able to understand other people's emotions without being explicitly told what they are feeling).   I was angry that the staff at his school seemed oblivious to this concept, and seemed instead to be stuck (especially the principal) on expecting the behaviors to change via punishment.  I was appalled at the thought of other children (poor babies) being punished for lacking skills, and the parents (poor parents) who for whatever reasons believe the schools version of the story. "He is lazy."  "He is manipulative."  "You are bad parents", "He wants attention.", "He has a mental illness." 

As the saga wore on, we were getting answers that didn't answer anything and I was basically trying to solve this puzzle myself.  One teacher tried to be helpful at first, but in my stress I unwittingly went overboard trying to seek her input.  I know as a teacher, I would have been frazzled by this parent I had become walking in unexpectedly talking my ear off about different ideas and theories, after all there were 16 or so other kids in the class to think about, and So much work to do.  Another teacher didn't see fit to put into place strategies we found that worked, because she was "concerned about fairness to the other kids" and her version of positive discipline was to call the "time out" spot by some friendly name.  

And so I began my own independent study on "How do I help my son succeed in school?  What is this biological something?"  Basically I was a mess, my child who I had hoped would love school, not only didn't love school, he would run away when the bus arrived.  I could not reconcile the ridiculously inept handling of my son's issues by people who had chosen the vocation of teaching, my vocation! "What is wrong with these people?"  I began sending packets of information to teachers, principal, superintendent.  Some included information on teaching Gifted learners, because though some of my son's skills were very poor, his IQ was very high.  All those packets to all those people went unacknowledged. I thought to myself, "Great, they think I am crazy and if they ignore me I will leave them alone." 

   At the worst point, I was called frequently to come and pick my son up from school.   I felt as if I couldn't leave town to grocery shop I had this invisible tether and the school could yank on it whenever they saw fit.  Stress had begun to wreak havoc on me and the entire family (I can see that now).  Try raising a family of "happy children" while being squeezed in an impatient, distracted, angry fog. It doesn't work.  Because. . "If Mama's not happy, ain't nobody happy."  So, We spent about a year seeing a therapist who got to know my son and basically reassured me that my son was really ok.  It was a nice sort of oasis, really, and an important one.  Because what I really needed and what my child really needed at this point was for someone to say "he is ok", "you are ok" no matter what else might be going on.

 
Rewind back to when I taught first grade.  Back then while teaching, I really tried to be sympathetic to the needs of the kids.  I thought I was good at relating to those children who didn't fit the mold.  And on some level I did understand them more than some teachers I had met.  I often heard what the kids were communicating without words.  At some point a year or so into my son's story I realized how much I didn't know about how these kids learn, and I felt some regret.  But really, I could only act according to the information available to me at the time.  Some of the most important ideas about learning are fairly new (ie.last 10 years or so) 

I recall a discussion with my boss, principal, who was questioning the use of Time Out, which had become the latest and greatest classroom tool, and I remember thinking, "yes.  Time Out works."  I didn't really understand why she was asking me if I felt it worked back then, but now I know.  I understand.  I have learned.  Time out only really works for the kids who don't really "need" it.  For children who don't have the skills to succeed, Time Out will not teach them the skills, and therefore will not truly help them succeed.  I am not sure if she had that thought in her mind then, but she was so smart, I am guessing that is the case.

My biggest realization though really was how judgemental my view of parents often was when I was a teacher, and how little I really knew back then.  Now I know without uncertainty, Some kids have difficulties learning things that others take for granted and it isn't because their parent didn't do their job!  It dawned on me that so many parents are being judged harshly and their children are not getting the help they need to learn the skills that others take for granted.  I had read somewhere that every parent wants to do what is best for their child but they don't all know how to do what is best.  I have always remembered it, but now I understand it.     

From Teacher to Mom

            From teacher to stay at home mom, boom, just like that.  I had the luck of being RIF’d by the district I worked in.  As just one in a long list of layoff’s due to budget constraints, I took this as a sign (this is how I try to flow with life’s little trials).  Some might be angry, frustrated or frightened, but to me being layed off had a silver lining.  I would be a mom with a 6 month old baby the next September, who would not have to wonder “How will I be ready to leave the little guy? And with who?”  So I settled into motherhood, like a butterfly in a warm trade wind, wisked away into the world of  feeding & diapering, smiling & singing, and  the scooching & babbling bliss of our new family.
            Those were the days, really!  Those of you with multiple kids know the first has his benefits.  He’s the only and the one, with two parents with two hands each ready to dote on him.  Tag team efficiency and boundless team spirit ruled the day along with my new mom enthusiasm. I particularly love the baby stage actually.  I never felt nervous or frightened about what to do, it just made sense, the big three:  Love, Sleep, Food, were all we needed to know. 
            After nursing my oldest son to a year old, I became pregnant with number two, and I was no longer being whisked along on this journey.  I still adored the baby stage but managing sleep schedules and nursing and diapering with an active 18 month old required actual effort and planning that often overwhelmed this tired mama I had become.  Afterall, an 18 month old is still at a rather impulsive stage, so taking showers and such require some creative planning and fast washing.  Not to mention, the 18 month old rarely napped.  Sleeping during the day seems to be a trait none of my children inherited, but as they have all been great nighttime sleepers, I forgive them. 
            By this time my oldest was walking and talking up a storm, despite the fact that he never really crawled.  He is famous in our family for his one legged scooch; one knee forward, one leg back  inch worming around the house. Endlessly inquisitive, by 26 months he asked his first “why” question while drinking his juice, “Ooh it’s cold.  Daddy, why it’s cold?”  At 33 months he was potty trained and dressing himself, he asked children he met their names and shared with his little brother, who he clearly loved.  And that baby had a smile and shine in his eye that still lights a room, and he is seven now.
Tired or not we were active.  The kids made snowmen indoors at the kitchen counter one day when the cold was too much for the littlest fella.  They built forts in the living room and outdoors, painted pictures at the easel, and squished endless globs of playdough.  Duplo block mouse houses were erected, magnets thunked around the house, and shovels unearthed miles of earth in those days.
            But of course there were challenges too.  Two little boys under the age of  three, yeah there were challenges.  Grocery shopping was an inexplicably impossible task, as the oldest quickly learned to unbuckle his cozy coupe seatbelt and then his brother’s as well.  Ugh!!  It seemed like the grocery store and all it’s visual chaos just was too much for these guys or was it just one?(so hard to tell sometimes when they get going together)  The oldest would laugh (was it nervous? Or mischievous?) as I tried to keep him in the cart long enough to pay for the groceries and get out of Dodge.  On a good day though we would make it all the way to the checkout before all hell would break loose.  It must have been someone who truly detested their mother who designed those special car carts with the child way down in front and aisles so narrow, so your preschooler gets to stare at (if you are lucky) all the candy down there, where you can’t reach him to save your life, while all you want to do is get the doggone groceries out of the cart so you can pay and get the heck out of there!  Needless to say I began dragging myself out after supper to grocery shop.
            Don’t be mistaken, overall, I really enjoyed being home with my two little guys.  We played hide and seek and ran laps on our indoor track every evening after exploring new ideas, stories, activities, or places each day.   But, In hindsight, which of course is , those trips to the grocery store were the first sign that the shoe really was about to drop.  But then, really, who could be listening amidst that kind of family raising chaos?  And after all, they were two active boys under age 3. . . 4. . .5. . .6. . . 7. . .ummm.  when are they going to grow out of this again?