Personal ponderings from a natural night-owl!

Archive for the ‘Motherhood’ Category

Brave New World

Some role changes in life are dramatic, expected, and planned for. Many people work an entire year on a wedding – and hopefully even longer getting to know themselves and/or their partner – before actually claiming the title of “spouse.” People get 9 months – or longer, if adoption is involved – before becoming parents. Those are the Big Changes. But most times in my life, I move from one stage to another without even realizing it’s happened except in retrospect.

We finally got the opportunity to see the new Disney/Pixar movie “Brave” today. Being a big Disney fan, I’d been reading online critiques enough to make me curious but not enough to spoil the plot. “Finally, a strong female lead character” read one review “but a disappointing, one-sided stereotypical mother role and a missed opportunity to more deeply explore the oft contentious mother-daughter bond” said another.  Despite the fact that I don’t watch TV, I’d seen the promotional posters and even read an entire article in Wired magazine about how Princess Merida’s (MARE-da) wild red locks were animated. I’d seen various friends’ 140 character reactions, which were, without exception, positive. So I had a few expectations going in: I expected to be entertained, I expected to like the movie, I expected to cry (when do I *not* cry at a Disney movie?), I expected to dislike the mother character, and I expected to identify with and root for the red-headed princess. What I did NOT expect was to look into a giant, movie-screened size mirror and see the villain wearing my face.

[Warning: I will try not to give too much of the plot away here, but if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want ANY spoilers, please come back to this post later.]

The movie started innocently enough – on Princess Merida’s birthday. She was a young child, obviously rambunctious, and was hiding from her mother, Queen Elinor, who just as obviously knew right where she was but made a game of searching. When Elinor caught Merida in a bear hug, Elinor pretended to eat her daughter up like a tasty dessert and the giggles of the animated child on the screen were mirrored by giggles in the seats next to me and brought back happy memories of my own wee one’s babyhood not-so-long past, yet seemingly so far away. She was FUN, this queen and mother, and playfully enjoying her daughter.

Dad was doltish but loving, handing the young child a kid-sized bow and teaching her how to shoot arrows. Elinor looked worried for her daughter’s safety, but my oldest and I shared a wink and a nod since I am a certified archery instructor and my fresh new TEENAGER of less than two weeks (um….when did THAT happen!?) asked for and got her own archery set this past Christmas.

But onscreen as in life, things quickly changed. Merida grew up and the queen started teaching her things – important things – like manners and poise and history. Queen Elinor proved herself to be a classy, poised, educated, and firm woman. She took her duty as a mom and teacher seriously and *gulp* I really liked her. She had rules, as all good parents do. And she was consistent with them, as all good parents must be.  And Merida…well…with typical teen-aged swagger, she was sure she knew better.

I kept waiting for the unreasonable Elinor to appear, the one I wouldn’t like, the one who was stereotypical and flat and one-sided, but all I saw…was me. And it wasn’t in my imagination either. My youngest leaned over at one point and whispered, “She’s just like you, mom!”

But this is Disney. And I’m supposed to identify with the PRINCESS. This is NOT how the story is supposed to go!

The story progressed and there was mother-daughter conflict. There was yelling and anger, actions that couldn’t be undone and words that couldn’t be unsaid – all unsettlingly true to life. Then there was a big change in the plot, which in case you are reading and still haven’t seen the movie, I will NOT reveal. But the smart, poised queen ended up…out of her element, shall we say.

I’d better stop here to confess that the more I identified with Queen Elinor, the more I expected to map the princess to my oldest, who has long, wild, unruly (but non-red) hair and a fervent love of both horses and archery. It was clear this was to be a growing up story, and of COURSE this princess would remind me of my own new teenager, right? Except all of a sudden, as the queen was learning new life skills from her daughter, I realized that this wasn’t a movie about me and my oldest, but me and my very non-traditional, goes-against-the-grain youngest. And I realized that as much as we clash, she has things to teach me.

Later in the movie, more becomes clear. It’s clear that the lessons Elinor was teaching to Merida were valuable to Merida after all, not a waste as Merida thought. And it’s equally clear that Merida HAD learned those lessons, well, even as it looked like they weren’t sticking. Elinor was proud of her daughter and loved her, despite the frustrations – and it was a mutual feeling. And in the end, as ALWAYS happens, the child changed the parent as much as the parent changed the child. At least, thank GOD and Walt Disney, it was a happy ending.

Last school year I focused on preparing myself to be a better parent to a budding teenager. I am so thankful that, for now, our relationship is solid and she is going in the right direction for her (also a direction with which I can live).  But this upcoming school year will, I think, be one of focus on how I can be a better parent to the child who is simultaneously most like and most unlike me. It won’t be easy, but I have confidence that there is a happy ending in our future. Because, as the movie reminds us at the very end, our destiny is something we CAN change, if we are BRAVE.

Owning It

“I could never, EVER home-school.”

“I don’t home-school; I school at home.”

“I’m not the teacher, I’m the learning coach.”

I am embarrassed to admit that all of those statements have come out of my mouth in the past 12 months. They are also untrue.

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One of the aspects of online public school that reinforced by folks associated with it is the need to NOT refer to it as “home-schooling.” Because you see, the state of Ohio will pay for online public school, but NOT for home-schooling. I was totally cool with that because *I* could never home-school. I was not “that kind” of parent. I am NOT a teacher and among my entire family of formally trained educators, I am certainly no expert on education.

Early on in our online public school experiment, Zac Chase (a teacher formerly employed at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy) insisted that I was, in fact, my child’s teacher. He suggested – almost insisted – that I own that particular role. I resisted – vehemently at times, arm outstretched and hand up – but no more.

*  *  *  *  *  *

I AM a teacher! (There – I said it! Whew!) The state might not recognize me as one professionally, but that doesn’t negate my role. More importantly, it doesn’t even mean I am inexperienced or bad at what I do. In the same way, being certified by the state to teach doesn’t mean someone is experienced or good at that profession.

What is a teacher? We all know the stereotype: a matronly woman with a bun and a prim skirt, glasses perched on her nose, lecturing with little emotion to bored students. Sadly, we’ve probably all experienced some version of that hell less-than-optimal learning situation. But by-God if the state says that woman is certified, then she must be a teacher, right?

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Think of the best teacher you’ve ever had.

I hope you’ve had many. I know I have. Among them Mr. Leigh and Mr. Shumaker jump to mind (probably because they’ve both passed away in the last year). What made them true teachers in every sense, these men who were state certified in their respective areas of expertise?

First, they had a true passion for their subjects. Mr. Leigh truly LOVED math! Most sane high school kids do NOT love math, but we all took notice and were even fascinated by his obsession with it. Mr. Leigh could get worked up about the importance of a decimal point or the beauty of an algebraic equation to such a degree that we students would laugh at him. Mr. Shumaker, on the other hand, LOVED English. He was so passionate that he would jump up on top of a desk to make a point – literally. No matter your feelings on English, you did not – could not – fall asleep in Harvey’s class.

These exemplary teachers also cared about their students as people. They cared so much that they refused to accept failure. They pushed us, as individuals, further than we could even imagine being pushed – and they knew we could do it even when we doubted it ourselves. They respected us as the young adults we weren’t but yearned to be, looked with skeptical eye – oh, that arched eyebrow – on our immature excuses for not working to our potential, and gave us the grades we earned instead of the grades we wanted.

This leads to the third characteristics the best teachers shared: we were afraid of them and sometimes, yes, we even hated them. Oh yes, we did. I hated both those teachers with a passion when I had them. They made me struggle. They made me cry in frustration over homework, papers. They made me wish I were anywhere but in their classes at times. When I emerged bruised, battered, and better I didn’t realize the extent of their gifts to me. That revelation would take years to manifest.

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My daughter’s composition “teacher” at the online public school we are trying this year went half of this school year without ever seeing one example of her writing. “How,” my husband asked, “can she possibly assess Emily’s ability without ever ONCE seeing how she actually writes?” When we raised the question at the parent-teacher conference, we were invited to submit writing samples via email each week. Emily was excited – someone new to give her feedback on her work! But the comments took at least a week to come back and they were paltry. “Good job.” “Nice work.” In the whole batch there was only one single constructive comment. One.

Meanwhile, I would insist on writing, revising, re-writing, and re-revising. *My* teacher comments were more along the lines of “can you use stronger verb choices to paint a more descriptive picture here?” and “Can you employ more words of emotion to connect your audience to what you were FEELING in this personal narrative?” Emily enjoyed the compliments from her OHVA teacher, but even she quickly saw that they weren’t going to improve her writing like my constructive criticisms were.

I love the challenge of writing, even though I don’t do it professionally. I have a passion for grammar, word choice, and sometimes (thanks to Mr. Shumaker) the avoidance of passive verbs. My daughter writes better than most 7th graders, but that doesn’t mean she has no progress to make in her writing. I care enough to push her to excel and some days, she HATES it! I don’t know if she’ll look back on me as a good teacher, but I do hope that someday she’ll be grateful that I don’t let her slack. I have too much respect for her abilities to let that happen.

*  *  *  *  *  *

This past Monday, I was working hard to get some good-weather-dependent work done outside and in our sunroom. When Emily had a question about genetics, I inwardly groaned. That had NOT been my best subject in high school biology. Instead of really digging into the material, I told her – for the first time all year – to just go call her teacher. (OHVA is a public online school, so she actually has four state certified teachers who do online synchronous classes and are available for questions). Later that afternoon, we got an email saying that genetics was an 8th grade topic, so Emily should come to the science tutoring session the following evening where there would be an 8th grade teacher who could help her. What? If it’s in the 7th grade science course, which we are required by law to complete at 90%, shouldn’t the 7th grade science teacher be able to help? And aren’t 7th grade science teachers certified by the state to teach either 7th or 8th grade science?

I was still too lazy to reacquaint myself with Mr. Mandel and his peas, so we BOTH attended the session, which ended up being a synchronous one-on-one. The 8th grade science teacher admitted pretty quickly that she was not familiar with the specific lesson we were doing. (Um…ok.) In reading through some text on the screen which we could all see, she read the word “dominant” as “dormant.” I raised an eyebrow, but figured it was an honest mistake…until she did it again. I may be rusty on my biology, but even *I* know that dormant has to do with seeds and dominant with genetic traits.

In the end, Emily’s question was really one of mathematics and experimentation procedure more than genetics. Participating in the help session did nothing for Emily, but did force *me* to sit down and work out just where Emily’s problem was and how I could help her understand the material. Isn’t that one of the roles of a teacher? Just who WAS the teacher in this scenario – and in the composition scenario above?

*  *  *  *  *  *

It seems appropriate that this year, Mothers’ Day comes at the end of Teacher Appreciation week. Save for the obligatory public hat-tip today, I’m not likely to get any recognition outside my family for either role. Nonetheless, each role was carefully and deliberately chosen. I own them both and hope I can live up to the bar set in both cases by those who came before me.

Turn of the Wheel

My children are spending 40 days away from home and from me, traveling out west with my parents via motor-home to see Yellowstone National Park; Devil’s Tower (that odd natural structure featured in the closing sequence of the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”); the city of Cody, Wyoming; and the Teton mountain range. My mom’s been wanting to take them out west for years, just as she took us out west on a mega, 3 month, summer-spanning, road-trip-of-a-lifetime when we were kids, and this summer, the timing was just right. So we dropped them off at my parents’ motor-home on July 6th and will not see them again until August 15th.

Those of you keeping score might remember that it was but two short summers ago that John was gone in Africa for 45 days – days I thought I would handle like a champ but which instead gave me a weird, unpleasant, and hopefully never-repeated glimpse into spouse-less life, followed a few months later by a bout of full-blown depression. Needless to say, although I wanted the girls to have this travel experience, I was not so sure how I would handle it.

Tomorrow marks the half-way point of the girls’ trip out west, so it is with relief and amazement that I can report that – I don’t miss them! I know that sounds horrible so let me explain before social services comes knocking on my door. Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE both my girls and treasure these fleeting years of their childhood. I’ve talked to them every few days over the phone, I will be super glad to see them in person when they get home, and I wouldn’t trade motherhood for anything in the world. But parenting is a job where you rarely get a day’s vacation, let alone more than a month’s worth. I am well aware that this is a huge treat that many never experience – and I’m enjoying it!

The first few days without them were just…weird. Three days in, I was still talking to ghosts.

“Look – here’s the border to Maine!”

“Does anyone need to stop at this rest area to pee?”

“Do NOT run down that path – you’ll fall and get hurt!”

“No, you may NOT fill your pockets with rocks.”

(Apparently, it takes a while for the mental mompatter to subside.)

As sentimental as I am, I have never been one to mourn days gone by. I never pined for my grade school years though I had fun at my 20th high school reunion. I enjoyed college but I doubt I’d have the patience to run the educational gauntlet again. Being single was NEVER all it was cracked up to be – especially when you marry your best friend.  I loved having babies, and I enjoyed every stage of their early childhood, but I was always ready to move on to new challenges. That “baby lust” others talk about? Never felt it. I was and am GLAD to be done with diapers and bulky strollers.

But this extended time without kids is like a complete throwback to our early married days, like we’ve stepped into some malfunctioning time machine that threw us into the past with one foot still in the present.  Our 11 day road-trip trip to Canada without kids was soooo incredibly relaxing. We saw whatever was wanted to see, ate what and where-ever we wanted to without worrying about what was on the kid menu or how late someone would be kept up. We sat on a beach and watched the waves roll up until we felt like leaving. We snacked on the bed and watched TV just because we could!

Twice we were around kids that were not our own. We ignored tantrums, played games, and indulged in silliness without a thought of the consequences. We watched other people being parents and thought, “yep…that’s how it goes. How NICE that we don’t have to do that right now!” It was glorious – a glimpse, perhaps, into potential future grandparent-hood.

Now we are home and here are a few things I never even realized I missed about that former life when we were a childless couple:

1. Eating in the family room on the couch without worrying about spills.

2. Staying up late and sleeping in late to compensate.

3. The quiet.

4. Going out together without worrying about a babysitter.

5. Making a trip to the grocery store that lasted us a week & didn’t involve a list.

6. The quiet.

7. Buying small quantities of food instead of the “family pack” sizes.

8. Doing a week and a half’s worth of laundry in a single day.

9. The quiet.

10. The house only gets messy if I mess it up.

Life seems to have a way of turning back upon itself though. John goes back to work tomorrow and soon the girls will return home.  School will start with its routines, commitments, and busy schedules, and these carefree throwback days will be a distant memory. But this period seems like a tantalizing taste of our “empty nest” future, of what retirement might be like. I think we’re gonna like it!

I’ve Got No Strings

If we don't change something now - this is what we'll have...We have made a life-changing decision about our children’s education for next school year.  We know many people will have questions about our choices. I am writing to try to more fully explain our situation and reasoning to those who care.

The past two years have been a major disappointment for us educationally for Emily, our oldest.  We went from an top notch elementary situation into a nightmare in 5th grade, with teachers who completely dismissed our involvement and contribution as parents to the educational process.  They would neither work with us as educational partners nor fulfill the basic requirements of their own administration to communicate with us. When we tried to address the situation, we received no support from school administrators and worse, saw Emily singled out and retaliated against by the very teachers who said they cared about her. It was absolutely shocking for all of us.

We saw Em go from loving school – even when she had to work at it – to hating school. And even though things improved in 6th grade (really – they could not have been worse), we have still been disappointed with the overall school environment created by the administration and by the unrealistic expectations put on teachers. Sadly, this is the school and environment that our youngest would be entering next year.

Intermediate school teachers in our district are inadequately supported in every way. Em’s teachers this year asked for donations of supplies because so many students do not have what they need from home to be successful in school – and because those teachers are already supplementing materials the school provides at their own personal cost. Class sizes are large and unwieldy. After two quarters assuming Em wasn’t turning in her work, 3 assignments marked as “missing” and not turned in were  “found” by the teacher only after I got in touch and explained that I’d seen the finished work myself and specifically confronted Emily about having turned it in. This happened three different times in a single quarter. Our public schools are over-run with students whose families do not and have not put an emphasis on education, so discipline moves to the forefront. It took 6 adults to chaperone a class of 30 students on a recent field trip to a local art museum.

Add to this situation the worsening educational fiscal conditions and a virtual war on educators by current Ohio governor Kasich. Just last week, our school district announced another 2 million dollars in budget cuts which will remove 9 certified staff from the school our Em WOULD be attending next year if she stayed in the district – this blow to a school that already had a community reputation of being one of the two worst in the district in terms of learning environment, achievement, and student control.  I also had a disturbing conversation with the gifted teacher Em would have next year.  After   clearly identifying myself as the parent of an incoming gifted 7th grader with questions about the curriculum, the teacher proceeded to tell me that all the kids love her class because it’s so easy and she loves it because she doesn’t have to work very hard to teach gifted kids. I was physically sick to my stomach after the conversation.

As a classroom educator for many years, John spent a good deal of his career exploring and implementing best practices in education, even when those best practices, supported by empirical research, went against the traditions of 150 years of public school education in this country.  Now as an administrator with vast exposure through his personal learning network to best practices from around the world, John has seen first-hand how empowering and effective techniques like cross-cultural and multi-age collaboration, truly individualized instruction, and experiential real-world application can be in a child’s education. He has seen and taught to teachers all over the world how technology can facilitate education – and yet our own children experience none of this.

As parents who care passionately about our kids’ learning and who believe that one of our most important parental responsibilities is overseeing their education, we can no longer sit by and watch the vast educational opportunities and best practices available in this place and in this time pass by our own children. This is why we are removing both our children from our local school district next year.  Megan, our youngest, will be attending a neighboring district’s public magnet school – Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts and Emily will be attending a “school without walls” – the Ohio Connections Academy.

Those of you who know us personally know that these decisions have not come without much thought, consideration, evaluation, and detailed research. Yet you still might shake your head and wonder what on earth we are doing – and you might even believe we are jeopardizing our children’s futures. Don’t kids who switch school districts statistically show a decline in performance and in scores?  How can we be sure that our Meg’s interest in the arts isn’t just a phase?  Won’t such an emphasis on the arts cause her to be less well-rounded?  And online school – isn’t that just the same as home-schooling?  Didn’t our experience with Suzuki violin demonstrate that I am not a good fit as a teacher for my own kids?  Don’t we think Emily, who is quiet and introverted, needs to learn how to socialize with her peers and with other adults?  Let me address these questions which I am sure you are asking.

Megan has been passionate about the arts since she was 2.5 years old and has an innate theatricality apparent to everyone who meets her.  It started when at age 2.5, she talked for 6 months (20% of her life then!) about learning to play the violin when NO ONEwe knew played violin. She loved learning to play the violin, loves learning piano now, has excelled in the vigorous vocal arts program she is in this year, and loves movement and dance. The first time we stepped foot in Miller South, we all KNEW it was an environment in which she would thrive. Myriad research has proven a positive link between participation in the arts and increased achievement in other academic subjects – and Miller South’s standardized test score blow away our home district’s school scores. Miller South is dedicated to educating the whole child in all fundamental subject areas.  It offers courses in foreign language as well as advanced placement for math, science, history, and language arts which would not be available in our home district.  As a public school, it is required to adhere to the same curriculum standards and meet the same testing requirements as every other public school in the state.

But with all these positives, it’s NOT an ideal school.  Class sizes are large – larger than our home district – with the potential for conflict resulting from the very diverse socio-economic make-up of the students (a proANDa con of this school). Math is taught in a very traditional way, not in the investigative method our home district uses. And we’ve heard that the homework load is large. We are not expecting to love every aspect of this school. And frankly, that would not be realistic.

As for Emily, she has shown a strong desire to pursue studies in her own way on various topics, but undeniably needs close guidance from a professional educator – which I am not – to keep her on track. She gets intensely interested in one subject, learns all she can, then moves on to something else. She will benefit from being able to pursue these interests across disciplines.  She has always excelled in reading, writing, and language arts and has recently started showing signs of interest in other languages.  With Ohio Connections Academy, she will be able to take course-work appropriate to her level, even if that means taking an 8th grade class in 7th grade.  Several foreign languages will be an option for her, too.  At the same time, she requires more time to process and understand mathematical concepts.  With one-on-one access to her teacher every single day, she will not get lost in the crowd and will have access to the type of help that right now only Dad can provide at night when he gets home.

Emily will NOT be home-schooled any more than she already is.  As a learning coach, my role is to mark her attendance, tracking the hours that she works to ensure that we meet the minimum state requirements for study, communicate with her teachers about her progress, and ensure that her homework is completed and submitted. With the exception of hours tracking, these are all activities I do perform.  I am NOT expected to know the material or act as Emily’s teacher in any way, since she is taught and supported by state-certified teaching staff at this PUBLIC school just as she would be at any public school. The curriculum materials are written to the student and the student is expected to log-in each day, spend an average of 5 to 7 hours a day on school work, and complete the activities assigned. The LMS (learning management system) is very clear on what has to be done each day, when things are due, and what is overdue – and I will have full access to that system as well to monitor grades, assignments, and assessments.  Only 30% of Emily’s time will be spent at the computer. The rest of the time, she will be reading to learn, working on projects or experiments, completing portfolio assignments, or taking field trips in person with her teachers and classmates.

Frankly, the social aspects of this choice are the most concerning to us. Despite assurances that OCA sponsors numerous state and local field trips, we believe regular – not sporadic – social interaction is imperative. Emily will remain involved with the same Girl Scout troop she has been a member of since kindergarten.  She will continue to do both community service and social activities with her church youth group as well as take her private art lessons and attend lapidary club meetings and field trips (for kids who love rocks) which she’s gotten involved with this spring.  We plan to enroll her in some other group art activities so that she has daily exposure both to different forms of art AND to other children her age with her interests.  She has also expressed interest in a recreational sport like gymnastics – and in taking horseback riding lessons (we’ll see about that one!).

There is no denying that our children are very different from each other and have vastly different needs.  Emily might have been lost in the shadow of extroverts at Miller South had she been admitted and Megan might wither in a less socially stimulating environment likeOhioConnectionsAcademy. On the flip side, Emily has blossomed with private art instruction – and we hope the same will happen with private educational instruction.  Megan yearns to learn in an environment that accommodates her artistic expression – and we hope that Miller South is such an environment.  But instead of looking at this as a life-changing, permanent decision, we have all agreed to treat it as a one year experiment.  If we find that either situation is NOT meeting our children’s educational and social needs, we are prepared to keep searching for the best fit for both of them.

Are we taking a risk by pursuing these alternative schooling options? Admittedly, we are. But we would also be taking a risk staying in our home district: a risk that the disappointing status quo would not change or would worsen, a risk that we would regret squandering our children’s potential and squash their love of learning out of our own selfish fear of change.  And THOSE are risks we simply cannot continue to take.

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