Monday, December 28, 2009

The Auntie Clause

I have been accused for years of being a Scrooge around the topic of Christmas, but I feel that I have merely been misunderstood all of these years. I have earned this reputation over the many years of requesting family members to not buy quite so many presents for our children. Long ago I requested that there be no gift exchange for adults, or at least remove us from that when others objected as they did.

I read a book this year called "One Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas" by Bill McKibben and the book really resonated with me. The author argues that when Christmas (the commercial version involving trees and toys, not the religious version) was created (by merchants) it was a time when families lived and worked together and there were few diversions like TV or video games to interrupt that family time. What was less readily available was material wealth, so the gift of an orange in the winter was truly a special treat. A handmade doll, would likely have been a child's only toy and was therefore treasured and loved to pieces. Now, however, most people have far more possessions but a lot less time together, but we still treat others to things , which we have in abundance, rather than time, which we need.

Like Bill McKibben, I am not against the celebration of Christmas, even as a practicing Buddhist. I just don't like the material focus of it. I want it to be more meaningful, special, and spiritual. Even if you are not a Christian, there are plenty of opportunities for a more spiritual tone for the entire month. This month, for homeschool, we learned about and celebrated Bodhi Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, the Winter Solstice, and Kwanzaa. The history and meaning behind each of the rituals and celebrations was more important than the commercial aspect of them. I want my children to understand that happiness comes from within, not from things and Christmas as we know it now, undermines that lesson terribly.

I don't like how the season feels like more of a transaction than a celebration. We are reminded to give gifts of money in this season to people who serve us in various ways throughout the year, like nannies or teachers and the like. To me, when we are required to give now, it reinforces the commercial nature of the season and becomes an expected transaction that spoils the spirit of giving. It also stresses out many families, making December spending something to worry about later. Why not generously tip your waitress in September or every time you go out eat? What if we supported our children's teachers throughout the year, helping and participating all year? What if nannies and housekeepers knew just how much we appreciated them at any point in the year? I prefer to be generous with praise and gifts when it is not expected of me. It feels more meaningful and sincere that way.

Last night at dinner John asked the kids to name every present they got this Christmas. I added, jokingly, that if they couldn't name it, they couldn't keep it. When including the gifts from family, santa, and the contents of the stocking, each kid got more than 20 presents and they needed help to remember them all. Clearly as a whole, this family spent far more than $100 for the holiday. At one point John jokingly called me "The Anti-Clause" but my children, who didn't understand that, cheered and said that "Auntie Clause" was a great thing to be. I liked that and would prefer to think of myself as the loving Auntie who brings cheer and joy with as many interactions as possible all year long. The kind of Auntie who you are certain loves you, who wants to spend special time with you, and who you would turn to when you had a problem or a reason to celebrate. Auntie Clause isn't like Scrooge, she is all about love and joy.

Right now, my kids are playing in a fort built with boxes that held the multitude of presents they received. Although they liked the things that were given to them, they have had far more sustained, cooperative, laughter-filled playtime with those boxes than any of the presents that arrived in them. There is a lesson in that.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Repost: Wanted General Employee

This is a repost from a blog entry I wrote earlier in the year. Happy Holidays all!

WorkWorld is 200-year old unchanging industrial company dedicated to producing standardized widgets and superior scores on high-stakes reviews, regardless of market demand. The company is proud to offer a rigorous, rigid environment that promotes well-rounded employees who are responsible for work in all departments, which are structured as unconnected silos. Due to heavy turnover, WorkWorld is constantly looking for General Employees.

Requirements include:

• Willingness to perform seemingly meaningless tasks without question
• Propensity to work with isolated, fact-based data that is driven by the review process
• Superior rote memorization
• Commitment to performing only those duties outlined in the standardized review, and not more
• Willingness to labor alone (collaboration is cheating) and to show your work (use of calculators is cheating).
• Maniacal focus on the clock. You must be at work from exactly 7:25 AM to exactly 3:30 PM with a 15 minute lunch break
• A low attention threshold with the ability to switch focus to a different department every 50 minutes when a bell is rung.
• Willingness to take work home nightly, including weekends and vacations (two to four hours daily)
• Exceptional bladder control – bathroom passes are limited

Responsibilities Include:
• 50-minute workloads in the following departments: Accounting, Sales, Marketing, Manufacturing, Distribution, Customer Service and Software/Hardware Design (note: the Customer Service and Software/Hardware Design Departments are inoperative, though attendance and production in these departments is mandatory nonetheless)
• You will be assigned to a different micro-manager in each department and expected to conform to his or her leadership style
• No talking
• Raise your hand if you have something to say

Equal Employment Opportunity
WorkWorld is committed to employing a diverse, multicultural body of employees in an atmosphere that values compliance, respect for authority, the conventional, and quiet. All employment decisions are made without regard to emotional intelligence, competency, critical thinking, creativity, innovation, or even interest in the job.

To apply, fill out this scantron sheet with a number two pencil, filling all of the bubbles in completely.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Our Kenyan Visitor Heads Back Home - Being Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

Marta left for the airport early this morning. We all truly enjoyed her two-week visit here. Not only did we learn a lot about Kenya and an African's perspective, we learned a lot about ourselves in the process.

Marta was here with Critical Mass Leadership Education, who partners with the U.S. State Department Youth Leadership Program. There were 20 students here between the ages of 15-18 with four school administrators from Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Nigeria. The students were identified as future leaders in their country and the program helped them develop the skills, connections, and inspiration to initiate big projects in their home countries that have a profound impact on their communities.

Last night we attended a ceremony and presentation from the students and the teachers who attended, as well as the leaders who run the program. It was so moving to our family to be a part of the program and the presentation. There were many young African women who found their voice in the program and spoke publicly, with confidence for the first time to a standing ovation. There were some plucky, confident, earnest boys who proclaimed themselves to be their country's future presidents. I was so impressed with the level of maturity, caring, and commitment of the students. The teachers who attended more as chaperones learned as much as their students did and were so deeply committed to transforming this opportunity into responsibility for their community once they returned.

I understand that every guest and host family had a very positive experience and exchange. There was so much gratitude for the hosts who housed, fed and drove the visitors and made them as comfortable as possible. But, the hosts benefitted almost as much from our participation. There was a lot of laughter and sharing and learning for everyone and the younger people definitely broke the ice and made that learning and sharing easier. For example, the first morning I picked up our regular crew of participants in my neighborhood (we families shared the driving responsibilities) they were wide-eyed, polite, and quiet. On the first morning my passengers, who included Marta, our Christian, Kenyan, female teacher; Sengasu, a Muslim, Tanzanian, male teacher; and Ayla, a South African female student silently looked out onto a frozen, foreign, city landscape full of the discomfort of the unknown on the way to their classes. My normally shy four year old son, Jude, dressed in jeans with the underwear on the outside (Superman style), a blanket duct-taped around his neck for a cape, and shoes (always) on the wrong feet, uncharacteristically busted out singing loudly, "Don'tcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me". Everyone laughed and fell in love with him and all became friends right then. Jude struck up quite a friendship with Sengasu and at the ceremony on the last day, he presented him with a picture he drew.

At the presentation, one of the speeches that struck me the most was one that said that being comfortable with being uncomfortable is the key to growing and learning. Everyone who came here endured the scariness of the unknown, and the hardships of the unfamiliar, like the cold, the food, the customs....) sharing intimacy with people they did not know (yet). Even the host families had to contend with the first awkward moments of polite quiet and the challenges of having a stranger living in their homes. But as the speaker so eloquently pointed out, it is through enduring those difficult times that the best of us comes out and emerges far better than before. Knowing the payoff, it helps to be comfortable with the uncomfortable in nearly any situation in life. It was a great living lesson for us all.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Video Games vs. Nature

My husband bought Ronan a video game, despite my objections to the contrary. This is one of the hardest things about parenting - not being in complete agreement all the time on how to raise your offspring. I am sure that it is a phenomenon in our house. John felt this game not only would be fun, but educational too. It is called Spore and it is all about evolution. The player gets to choose how to evolve (get eyes, go from water to land, be a carnivore or an herbivore, etc.). Of course, Ronan loves to play the game and if we let him, he would sit at the computer for days on end without food or drink to play it. This sets up a constant negotiation in our house. We have decided that he can play the game in the evenings if he has earned it (meaning that he has done his school work with no whining, he has done his chores, he has been kind, etc.)and for a couple of hours on the weekends.

We've observed a few things about Ronan and this game. It is certainly a motivating factor and he will often remind himself that he wants to play Spore and will make choices that allow him to play it, but not as much as one would think. He only got to play it one night last week, based on those choices. When he does play it, he delights in the creativity he employs to create these multi-eyed, multi-limbed critters, and if you are passing by he will offer to show you how he has evolved. He is motivated to do a little bit of reading and writing in playing the game as well.

The most surprising observation we have made is that Ronan does not seem happy after he has played it. Although the game is not violent (except for the carnivore aspect) it does inspire him to new heights of cruelty to his brother, sassiness, and a general despondancy for several hours afterwards. We shared this observation with him and he couldn't explain it, but did not deny it.

Yesterday he managed to crack the code I put on the computer to lock it, and began playing it before anyone else was awake. He played for about two hours until I brought an end to the day's evolutionary effort. As usual, after the game he moped around the house, complaining that there was nothing to eat and nothing to do (except hurt his brother). We decided to go for a walk, which was met with howls of protest. We walked to a pond in our neighborhood that has been iced over, thanks to a very cold week here. The boys played an impromptu, make-shift game of hockey for an hour and wanted to come back with more gear, which we did. The moment Ronan's feet hit the ice, a smile came to his face that never left and a fun, loving attitude broke through the surly one. He was a happy kid again, joyfully playing in nature the way millions of kids before him have played, oblivious to the cold.

We will take them to ponds and ice rinks to play, though we hesitate to do the organized sports thing. When it is too organized it seems to spoil it for Ronan. Playing tennis or baseball or hockey with Dad is fun, but doing it on a regular basis with a team seems to take the joy out of it, and ends all willingness in that activity for awhile. The magic seems to be this formula: play + outside + Dad. The formula for me is more like: creativity + mom. Either way, the formula for happiness requires no electricity, and I think we will be pulling the plug!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hosting a Kenyan Woman

On Friday we welcomed the newest (temporary) member of our house - Marta Guyo. She is here accompanying five of her students who were chosen based on applications and interviews for a three-week leadership conference. Marta is a mother of five and a history and government teacher. Each of the students, and the others that were chosen from different areas are staying with different host families throughout Denver. Their first week was a retreat in the mountains, then they will spend two weeks going to classes and staying with host families like us in Denver, and then the last part of the trip they meet in Washington DC to tour and attend more classes.

Marta is shy yet affectionate. She spent a lot of time alone in her room the first few days. I recall needing the time and space to process everything when I did my overseas study in Spain, so I wasn't too concerned. Where she lives, in a remote village in Kenya very near the Ethiopian border there are very few cars or even roads and she said that people are always outside walking around. She says she doesn't see many people here - only cars. I wonder about her impression on many things here. For example, what does she make of a woman who goes to a heated yoga class and then occasionally treats herself to a Starbucks latte afterwards. I am not sure "yuppie" is in her lexicon, though she does speak English pretty well. Where she is from, exercise and sweat come naturally, without the aid of cute yoga clothes or thermostats. And there may be no Starbucks there but the coffee beans are native. I think she misses sweating - she has never seen snow before and spends a lot of time in her coat even indoors.

I asked her how American and Kenyan style of parenting is different (or at least our version of it). She said that she heard our four year old son shriek "Idiot!" at his Dad when he did not get his way during a trip to the mall. This word gets him a consequence each time. He has eight of them racked up this week so it doesn't seem to be working! She said that in Kenya a kid would never say that to his parent out of fear, but she thought that it was good for a child to be able to express himself because a Kenyan kid would feel that way too, but just be forced to keep it underground, which is not good. She didn't seem to be sugar-coating this for us and I was glad that it didn't merit a Kenyan Super Nanny intervention, though I am sure we could learn plenty from her.

Last night we took her to an Ethiopian restaurant that we love. Up until this point I had only seen her eating bread and tea. When she walked in, her shyness fell away and she immediately walked to the kitchen to warmly greet the owner in her own language - a dialect that was closely related to the owner's. She ate heartily, for once, and we were there for several hours talking about cultures, experiences, and life. I was glad to see her so comfortable and happy. We were invited back for a special Ethiopian breakfast and coffee ceremony in Marta's honor.

I look forward to our family learning more from Marta - about Kenya, the world, and ourselves through this experience.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Urban Organicz - Kids Growing Vegetables in Abandoned Lots in Detroit

A friend recently loaned me the movie “The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”.  It was a documentary telling of how the embargo nearly crippled Cuba, but also on how Cuba became stronger as a result of it.  Out of necessity, Cuba transformed nearly every facet of its society.  It changed the way communities were laid out and fed for power.  The bicycle and mass transportation dominated the streets.  The average Cuban lost 20 pounds through biking and walking and eating a lot less and a lot healthier.  Where they had formerly been one of the highest users of chemical fertilizers and oil-based pesticides on industrial farms, they were now farming every piece of arable land organically.  This was true in Urban settings (Permaculture) in addition to Cooperatives and smaller farms that people could have free of charge from the government as long as they were growing food on it.  Their country is now being studied by many countries around the world as the rest of humanity prepares for the inevitable peak oil stage.  For Cuba, peak oil came artificially early through harsh embargoes, but it turned out to be a gift in many ways.

Just as Cuba turned adversity into opportunity, Detroit is facing similar circumstances.  Detroit has been in decline for decades and it is only getting worse as Michigan’s economy, highly dependent on the auto industry, faces significant challenges.  Detroit’s landscape is littered with abandoned buildings and lots, but this adversity has many groups poised to make some incredibly positive changes for the city.

Urban Organicz is a not-for-profit, large scale, urban farming program founded Ashley Powell, Mandisa McCowin,Brandon Chambers, DeCinces Martin, and Teeshlee Hawkins.  Their mission is to revitalize and stabilize Detroit’s economy by using vacant lots to grow vegetables, fruit, and grains for lunches in Detroit Public Schools and for sale at local restaurants and farmer’s markets.  Doing so will attain the goals of providing jobs, agricultural education, healthy food for schools and communities, and motivation for young people to be environmental leaders in the urban community.  The organization has adopted 10 lots in northwest Detroit and they expect that by the summer of 2010, over 6,000 students from Detroit Public Schools participating and managing the urban farm plots in their neighborhoods.  

They are opening up these opportunities to those interested in working and/or living with them. In return for living in the Urban Organicz House as a Co-Op member, a small percentage of  time will be used to manage gardens surrounding the property; recruit and manage volunteers; fundraise; and most important of all use their creativity/entrepreneurial skills to contribute to the community. For more information on Urban Organicz, visit:

The Greening of Detroit’s mission is to improve the quality of life in the city through reforestation and educational projects. They provide students and educators with the tool to increase their environmental science skills and stewardship.  Their many programs include TreeKeepers Kids, where kids experience nature first-hand, participate in after school clubs and service learning projects designed to revitalize their community.  For more information about them, visit:

I love how these and many other groups in Detroit are seizing on the opportunity to turn Detroit around by making it a healthier, sustainable, inviting community while encouraging young people to lead the way.  I hope that, like Cuba, Detroit will make adversity its reason to transform itself and in doing so, prepare the students of Detroit schools to advise and educate the rest of us on how to do it in our own communities! How great it would be to see Detroit filled with greens and vegetables, and young students taking back Detroit one green, sustainable lot at a time!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Judgments or Treasures?

I was at the grocery store this morning with my kids and Jude crawled into the bottom section of the cart, laying flat as if he were Superman. A man passed us and said to me, "he is about to get hurt". I smiled at him and said that I had just said the very same thing to Jude. He walked away, shaking his head at me in judgment. I assume the message was that I was too permissive or not protective enough. We moved on to the checkout line. Ronan said aloud that he wished he could have one of those balloons that were floating at each register. As the woman stopped checking us out and prepared to cut two balloons down, I interrupted her, thanking her for her generosity, but said that the kids behavior in the store did not win them a balloon (I left out the part about the fact that balloons always lead to tears at my house). Of course Ronan protested, but the woman momentarily gave me a look that seemed to say something like: "lighten up lady, don't be so strict." Hmmm. Too strict or too passive? Maybe both in different scenarios. While I don't expect people I meet in the grocery store to applaud me down every aisle for my parental consistency, for following through on my word, for allowing my kids to learn (some of) their own lessons when it won't kill them, for the decisions that I make based on my values and intentions...I wish that we, as a society were not so quick to judge others.

Judgements about parenting starts during pregnancy (or even before if you wait too long or start too early!). There are so many decisions to make and they many of them come with a certain degree of anxiety or guilt. Because there is so much anxiety and guilt, these decisions are typically made with plenty of consideration...and the opinions of others. Natural childbirth or epidural? Breast feeding or formula? Circumcision or not? Go back to work or stay at home? These decisions are just during infancy. There are thousands of decisions that follow those, and an endless supply of people to let you know how you are doing.

I can stress out about how the world views my parenting (and in my more difficult moments I confess that I do), or I can smile, thank the person for what I know is a good intention and see if I can learn anything from it as I walk away. Frankly I judge myself harshly enough (and so do my children) that I don't find I often need unsolicited outside consulting on most parenting decisions. I am not afraid to ask or read to educate myself when I feel I need help - in fact I am almost always in the middle of a book about some aspect of parenting or teaching.

A new friend recently gave me this beautiful idea for a project on finding the good in people. It is a Treasure Hunt involving people and the basic premise of the game is to talk to people you don't know, tell them that you are on a Treasure Hunt looking for the good in people and that you are looking for a compassionate person, a brave person, a thankful person, etc and ask them if they are one of them or know of someone who is. Then you listen while they share the good about themselves. I love how this looks for the good in people, how it emphasizes the importance of character in a non-judgmental way, and gets my family talking and listening to others. They guy who told me about this did it with homeless people and since we feed homeless people several times a month, it seems like a reasonable place to start, but it doesn't have to be the only place to find people with some good in them.

It is said that you get what you put out in this world. Perhaps looking for the good in me will allow me (and perhaps others) to see the good in me. Surely it will more good than be judgmental and that is reason enough to do it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Have You Filled a Bucket Today?

For a beautiful character-strengthening message inside a great story, try this book for the 4-8 year old crowd: "Have You Filled a Bucket Today?" The premise of the book is that we all have an invisible bucket and when we do kind things for others (helping others, saying something nice, including people, giving a hug) we fill their buckets and we fill ours at the same time. When we are unkind to people (calling them names, being a bully, hitting) we dip into their bucket and our own. The fuller your bucket is, the happier you are, so the idea is to keep your bucket full through kind deeds as much as possible.

The book has one seven awards and is a best seller. Many school districts in Michigan, where the author, Carol McCloud lives, have adopted not only the book, but Bucket Filling programs in their schools, allowing students to nominate and recognize kindness in others to promote those qualities in their student body.

The book really resonates with children. It gives many colorful examples of how to fill and dip into a bucket that kids can relate to. The visual of the bucket helps them to understand how this works and to sort out their own feelings. It is a great way of promoting not only kindness but compassion as well. This is one of my kids' favorite books and each time they do a good deed they comment on how many buckets that deed filled. For example, for our theme of giving this month we have fed the homeless several times and each time we do it, they comment on how we not only fed people today but filled their buckets and ours too. They love that!

I got to know the publisher of this book, Nelson Publishing and Marketing when I was trying to publish my own children's story. Although I decided not to publish it for various reasons, I became impressed with Marian Nelson's vision. Unlike most publishers, she will publish books by first time authors, but she will only publish books that somehow further such attributes as peace, tolerance, and understanding. Her mission is to create a greater understanding of humanity through the written word. I've read many of her books and that is exactly what her books do. I really respect that.

As I got to know Marian better she asked if I would be interested in selling her books in Colorado. I readily agreed even though I know it is not going to make me a wealthy woman, it is in alignment with promoting the greater good in people. If you are interested in seeing the other book titles that they offer, or in possibly publishing a book of your own, go to If you want to buy the books you can do so through their website, or if you are local I am happy to get you a copy of "Have You Filled a Bucket Today?"

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Differences Between Waldorf and Montessori - Classroom Structure

In a recent article I highlighted a few of the differences between two alternative education modalities: Waldorf and Montessori, focusing on classroom materials and fantasy versus reality. In this article I will explore the differences between the two in terms of the classroom structure and teaching.

In Montessori, transitions are structured in three year cycles. Students typically stay with a teacher for three years (less time for babies and toddlers) and there is a three year age span grouped together. This cohort works well in many ways. As the children get older, they take pride in showing the younger kids around the classroom and getting them acquainted with the rules and customs. The oldest children get plenty of experience in leadership and nurturing. The younger children seem to really like getting help and instruction from their peers.

Being in the classroom with the same teacher for three years is beneficial in that the teacher gets ample time to really get to know the children and to see them grow. Because there are three different age groups in the classroom and because of the nature of most Montessori classrooms with the students' ability to choose their own work, it enables all students to learn at their own pace. Montessori classrooms are set up with "work stations" full of manipulative materials that the students are allowed to choose to use. When it is done in pure Montessori fashion (which is not always the case) it is very student-directed rather than teacher-directed. The teacher acts as a facilitator and supervisor. This is anything but chaotic though. There is a hum to the classroom but the students are engaged in their work. In addition to academics, there is an emphasis on harmony, social graces, personal responsibility, independence, productivity and quiet. Montessori teaches "the whole child" and art and music are components of their day, usually done as "specials" taught by different teachers in different classrooms.

Parents with high energy children may initially find this untraditional classroom to be a good fit because students are not forced to sit in a desk all day, but it takes a high degree of personal responsibility and independence to thrive in this kind of classroom and many parents with these energetic children did not think the unstructured Montessori classroom worked well for them.

In Waldorf classrooms, the children are all generally the same age starting in first grade and they are with the same teacher for eight years in most cases. The students shift classrooms each year but all stay together. There are many advantages to this structure as well. The Waldorf teacher has the time to form a strong community. The teachers, parents, and students become a family after so long together. It promotes continuity and even more of a deep understanding of each child's growth and abilities. There is often the fear that if there is a poor fit between a teacher and a student, eight years is a long time, but this is relatively rare. Waldorf teachers tend to be very committed (it's a way of life for them, not just a job) and are also highly educated. They generally have plenty of support in their community as well to help students in any way they can. Because they teach more than just academics (the are also artists, musicians, singers, actors, story-tellers, knitters, etc.) there is plenty of ways to reach a child in ways beyond academics.

The Waldorf classroom resembles a conventional classroom in that learning is teacher-directed, not student-directed, there are desks (or tables) rather than work stations, and the day is very structured. Just like in conventional settings there are benefits and drawbacks to this arrangement. However, because the children get daily nature walks, art, music, and knitting, among other things (usually done by the main teacher in the same classroom - they are very talented, renaissance people!) there is opportunity for creating and movement that help with classroom management. In the pre-school setting, the classrooms look much more chaotic and are louder than any Montessori I have ever seen, but fantasy and play are being encouraged more than productivity and quiet as in the Montessori classrooms.

Our family was very fortunate to have gotten to know both of these modes of education and we appreciated many aspects to both of them. It is interesting to me that they are both alternative education and both have the goal of teaching to the whole child, yet they go about doing that in very different ways. The outcome is typically good for children in both environments.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What to Do About All of that Homework!

My guest blogger today is someone who is making positive changes by kindly questioning authority, educating people and getting involved. Kerry Dickinson writes a blog called East Bay Homework Blog and she was part of a task force that successfully rewrote an outdated homework policy in her school district. Last week Kerry wrote:

Homework is a hot button topic. Anyone who has ever been a student, is currently a student or who is the parent of a student has an opinion about homework. Today when I Google “homework ” I find 40,100,000 results. Many of these homework sites offer tips to help children with their homework and accept the status quo – that homework has been a part of the American public school tradition since the early 1900s and will remain a big part of our education system for many years to come.

I hope not.

But I didn’t always feel this way. I’m trained as a middle and high school teacher of English, history, and reading. During my teacher training, I accepted and believed in the validity of homework. After all, I went through school, did some homework, became a teacher and turned out fine, so homework must have helped me achieve those goals, right?

But I didn’t have a lot of homework as a child, and I didn’t mind doing the homework I did have. It wasn’t until I had my own children that I really began to question the value of homework. But, sadly, that didn’t happen until they were in the 6th and 8th grades. Why did it take me so long to really examine their homework and question its importance?

It took me so long because I believed everything I was told about homework. “It reinforces learning. It teaches discipline and responsibility. It prepares students for class…”

But what happens when it doesn’t do those things? What happens when I did everything I was told to do by the school – set up a regular homework routine, gave my children a healthy snack before they start their homework, provide a quiet, well-lit place for them to do their homework – yet they still struggled with it?

What happens when we explored more avenues of homework help for one of our boys in particular (multiple tutors, special education resources, psychological testing, medication) and he still struggled with homework?

At some point, I finally stopped blaming my child for his homework limitations and started blaming everything else around him. I blamed the school, I blamed the teachers, I blamed the administration, I blamed the system, I blamed myself, I blamed my parenting, I blamed it on his ADHD. But when the blaming didn’t change the fact that he still struggled with homework, and still had hours and hours of it, I finally changed my attitude about it.

All this homework turmoil was a blessing in disguise.

One day I finally started really looking at the homework he was being asked to do. I read “The Homework Myth” by Alfie Kohn and I had a revelation about homework. I agreed with almost everything Kohn wrote in that book, and felt a huge sense of relief that I wasn’t the only educated person out there who disagreed with the idea of homework and hated what it did to our family evenings, weekends and holidays. “Most kids hate homework. They dread it, groan about it, put off doing it as long as possible. It may be the single most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity.” (17)

I found Sara Bennett’s website and that became an excellent daily resource for me and helped me see that there were many more educated people all over the US who disagreed with the idea of homework. I also read her book, “The Case Against Homework,” and got many good ideas from it. I read countless Internet articles and more books on homework. I talked to and emailed people about homework. I learned about Challenge Success, Denise Pope’s program at Stanford. I started learning about many other pro-child programs that shared my views of homework.

I enlisted the help of a friend, Julie, who shared my feelings about education and homework. We got a small group of parents together to talk about homework. We found that as soon as we starting discussing homework as a group, the talk quickly morphed into discussions of parenting, education, standardized testing, ADHD, teacher-training, college admissions, curriculum development, student stress, AP classes, childhood obesity, mental health issues, competitive sports, tutors, over-scheduled lives, finding balance, etc. We concluded that there were many problems surrounding homework and no simple solutions, yet we wanted to do something about it.

We took an informal email survey about homework from other parents in our district and got 100 responses that we collected in a spreadsheet. We brought that along with many articles and books on homework to a meeting we had with our school district’s curriculum instruction director. A week after that, the district (which serves over 27,000 students) formed a homework task force to rewrite the outdated policy. I was fortunate enough to be on the taskforce as a parent representative. The taskforce had 19 total participants – a combination of parents, teachers and administrators.

We rewrote the policy in under a year. It was a difficult process where 19 opinionated individuals had to agree on something cohesive to be presented to the Board of Education. I personally enlisted Sara Bennett's help during this process. While I think the new policy is better policy than the original one, I think it still has a long way to go to being a really great, “outside of the box,” forward-thinking homework policy. To read the policy, go to:

For example, I would have liked to include an “opt-out” provision where parents could sign a statement saying they are opting out of having their child do homework with no negative consequences to the child. I would have liked to see a statement included about the fact that any homework assigned would not be graded. I would have liked to see shorter time limit guidelines on homework. I would have liked to see that homework would be the exception and not the rule. I would have liked it to be more similar to Toronto’s homework policy. You can read that here:

Even if I didn’t get exactly what I wanted in the homework policy, being on that taskforce was a good experience for me and has led to other projects I’m working on now. See the film “Race to Nowhere.” The experience also helped me formulate more conclusions about homework. One of those is that homework is not the cause of, but rather a symptom of many problems in education.

Teachers often give homework because they say they don’t have enough time to complete everything during class time. If we changed the mindset from believing that we need to teach a set amount of information in a limited time, to focusing on individual needs and learning goals of each student, we would approach education differently.

Without pressures from above to fulfill state mandates and without pressures from administration to teach to a test, teachers would ideally be free to collectively and creatively decide how students learn best. This is no simple task, however, and it involves a shift in thinking about the principles of education that will then naturally lead to a change in practices of education.

The good news is that there are great teachers and schools doing this, successfully every day. Even a big, public school can learn from these smaller schools and teachers that have discovered how kids learn best. Learning is an organic process, not a linear one. We can’t fill up a kid’s head with knowledge, have him do his homework, take some tests, graduate and call it success.

We have to figure out what turns kids on to learning and how they learn before we can help them learn. In our new technological age of constant information, we have to shift from memorizing and regurgitating facts in school to making sense of all these readily-available facts by analyzing, synthesizing, creating, innovating and problem-solving. We have to move from teacher as expert, to teacher as facilitator. We need more student choice and voice. We also have to redefine success in this culture.

The truth is, I don’t actually mind if my kids have homework, AS LONG AS IT TURNS THEM ON TO LEARNING, and as long as it isn't just a spewing out of facts, and as long as it doesn’t consume their whole evening, weekend or holiday. But what I've observed over the last ten years is that their homework usually does TURN THEM OFF to the subject and it's usually a teacher-created exercise focusing on how well they follow directions rather than on how they synthesize and use information. I've only seen a few really inspired assignments through the years.

Sadly, what usually happens is this type of scenario: After doing a time-consuming English project last June, my older son said, “I’m so glad that’s done because now I don’t have to read another book until next year when school starts.” That was a perfect example of a homework assignment that killed the joy of learning (and reading!).

I hear comments like this from my kids much more often than I hear comments about how excited they are about what they are learning in school. The things that excite them in school are their friends, the extra-curriculars, and the precious few days without homework.

As I sit here typing, my son (who is doing his homework) just said "I hate school. But school wouldn't be that bad if we didn't have homework. Why do we have homework on the weekends?"

I rest my case.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An Education Emergency

Late night television recently aired a tape of a child who calls 911 for help while doing his math homework. Here is an excerpt of it:

Operator: 911 emergencies.
Boy: Yeah I need some help.
Operator: What’s the matter?
Boy: With my math.
Operator: What kind of math do you have that you need help with?
Boy: I have take aways. 16 take away 8 is what?
Operator: You tell me. How much do you think it is?
Boy: I don’t know, 1?
Operator: No. How old are you?
Boy: I’m only 4.
Operator: 4!
Boy: Yeah.
Operator: What’s another problem, that was a tough one.
Boy: Um, oh here’s one. 5 take away 5.
Operator: 5 take away 5 and how much do you think that is?
Boy: 5.
Woman: Johnny what do you think you’re doing?!
Boy: The policeman is helping me with my math.
Woman: What did I tell you about going on the phone?
Boy: You said if I need help to call somebody.
Woman: I didn’t mean the police!

While this is funny, it is also pretty alarming to me. Even the Operator and the boy seem to realize that being "only 4" is really young for independently doing subtraction problems! You can see from his answers that this child is clearly not understanding such an abstract concept, yet he was expected to work on his own to do it.

In my neighborhood the first of the year's parent-teacher conferences are starting, and I have seen several requests for Kindergarten reading tutors through the neighborhood list serve. What is wrong with this picture? It is no coincidence that there are many Kindergartners who are having trouble reading - they are not typically developmentally ready for it! Back when a Kindergartner's day was determined by educators, it was about playing, socialization, art, singing, napping, and the introduction of letters, numbers, shapes and colors. Now Kindergartner's fate is set by politicians with no training necessary in child development, the "fun stuff" has been discarded so that there is more time to rush them to literacy and quadratic equations. There is something truly scary to me about a 4 or 5 year old getting that much pressure to be so serious. It doesn't seem all that different than putting them on a factory job at a young age. We, in this country, find that scenario appalling but too many seem to have no trouble robbing children of their brief time to be playful, joyful, and young.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that all parents who get tutors for their children are bad people. On the contrary! I think the problem lies with what we have allowed our schools to become. The ubiquity of Kindergarten literacy expectations, standardized testing, excessive homework battles,calls for longer and more days in school, etc. have caused parents (who want the best for their children) to conform to the pressure. We have been there. My older son had a tutor in first grade so that he could attempt to keep up with the rest of his class, where ability varied dramatically. We eventually stopped the madness. No more homework, no more tutoring, no more expectations above his abilities. Once we did that, Ronan regained his childhood, his confidence, his curiosity - himself. I truly regret that year, but we certainly all learned a lot (just not what was intended).

A friend recently shared a quote by Robert Kiyosaki. He said, "Our school system is based on the fear of failure not the love of learning, if that changes, when that changes, then we will have a more peaceful world cause we will develop more peaceful people." I completely agree, and when this does change, our children will have their childhood back and we will no longer be in a state of educational emergency. And, who knows, with the world at peace, maybe 911 operators would have no more calls about domestic violence, crime, or math problems, and could focus on health and accident-related calls!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Recommended Reads - Mrs. Biddlebox and Mrs. Murphy

I love children's books that not only entertain but teach in a clever, memorable way. In early childhood, story telling is one of the most effective ways to teach many things, like values, math, history, social studies among others. There are two books on my kids' bookshelf that fit this category and have become family favorites.

"On a knotty little hill, in a dreary little funk, Mrs. Biddlebox rolled over on the wrong side of her bunk". And so begins a story about a woman in a grouchy mood having a bad day from the very start. She decides to turn the whole rotten morning into a cake, taking the lawn, the sun, the sky and baking it into submission. As she goes about the business of making this unique, from-scratch cake, the reader can see she is taking starting to feel some satisfaction in whipping her day into something better. By the end of the day her cake is done and she sits down to eat, at first taking a dainty slice, but eventually eating the whole thing. Her belly is full, she has changed her attitude, and the first contented smile appears on her face she heads to bed. The illustrations by Marla Frazee are as imaginative and fun as the story itself, bringing alive her fierce determination to actively welcome something better. My kids love the funny illustrations and the fantasy of taking a bad day and making into something really good. I like the book's message of empowerment and responsibility to meet the day with a positive attitude, no matter what happens. "Mrs. Biddlebox" is all the more poignant in that the author, Linda Smith was inspired to write the book as she battled cancer. Intended for four to eight year olds, the book is a real pleasure to read for us as well.

"Mrs. Murphy's Marvelous Mansion", by Emma Perry Roberts is written for the same age group and is about the peculiarly dressed Mrs. Murphy and her quirky little house. She lives on a cul-de-sac surrounded by large, vanilla houses remarkable only in their uniformity. The neighbors try to ignore the eccentric Mrs. Murphy and her odd house, until the Very Finest Neighborhood Contest brings out their neighborhood pride and intolerance. The neighbors let her know that she doesn't belong on their street. Mrs Murphy is surprised but invites them all over to her house for lunch so that they can see for themselves that her house is lovely too. Merely out of curiosity the neighbors accept her invitation. When they enter her tiny-seeming house, they are surprised at how spacious it seems and how beautiful it is. After the guests are shown around and each has commented appreciatively on some wonderful aspect of her house, they eat lunch together and there are smiles all around the table. As the neighbors are leaving one comments, "On the outside, her house is so much different than I expected." Another neighbor agrees that when they looked only at the outside, they couldn't appreciate the inside. Mrs. Murphy closes her door, thinking to herself that "it is a fine day indeed when we learn that beauty on the inside matters more than beauty on the outside." The old message of not judging a book by its cover is brought home in a powerful way that kids can really relate to. The illustrations by Robert Rogalski are as eccentric as Mrs. Murphy, with bold, rich colors and strangely beautiful rooms that give a sense of vast spaciousness and whimsy. The book's message of appreciating and looking for the goodness that is found on the inside makes for a lively discussion and a fun read.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Schooled on Giftedness - An Apology, An Interview, An Alliance

A recent article I wrote on the subject of giftedness caused a rather heated discussion.  The end result of it (understanding and ideas) was very positive, but I wish to apologize all the same to many readers whom I might have offended.  While it did give a great springboard for discussion and learning, my attempt at humor at the beginning of the article obfuscated the message and I felt terrible that I had offended some without intention.  That humbling moment was not in vain, though.  I got to to talk to the fabulous Suki Wessling (after we both put down our dukes) and really enjoyed hearing her perspective.  Suki is a writer and homeschooler and knows a lot about the subject of giftedness.  We decided to do a written conversation on this so that others might understand this topic more.

Suki, you and I agreed that the term giftedness is a woefully inadequate descriptor.  I have never disputed that there are very advanced (gifted) children, but took aim at the lack of clarity and it revealed my general dislike for labels. You call it a different term.  Can you explain what it is and why it is better?

Parents and educators of "gifted" kids often bat around possible terms to replace gifted, which is such a loaded word because it implies a value judgment. As parents of gifted kids can tell you, parenting a gifted child can be very, very difficult, and their prospects for success are not any better, and sometimes worse, than other kids'. The term I prefer is borrowed from someone else: neuro-nontypical. A neuro-typical person is one who fits pretty easily into that nebulous region we call "typical" or "average" as far as their neurology goes (how they learn, behave, feel). A neuro-nontypical person is just different. Really, that term would include autistic people and Down's syndrome kids, and it's definitely not a value judgment. It's just an acknowledgement that when you're talking about educating a human being, a neurologically unusual child, whether learning disabled or "highly enabled," need a different approach.

Aside from the inadequacy of the term "gifted" why do you think there is such alienation and misunderstanding surrounding it?

A few reasons. One is that we live in a society that pretends to understand the value of intellect, but all indicators say that it doesn't value intellect in the least. Just look at our popular entertainment, our most revered public figures, and the relative salaries of intellectuals vs. non-intellectuals if you want proof.

Another reason is that parents are really feeling under the gun to help their children "succeed." We are bombarded with information that makes us anxious: Your child needs to know all his colors and numbers to get into the best preschool; your child needs to start reading in kindergarten to achieve testing goals; your child needs to be top in her class to get into the college you like. So when a parent says the word "gifted," imagine how loaded that is. "My child has a gift; your child is gonna have to work his butt off!" This is not true of most parents of neuro-nontypical kids, yet the word itself implies it.

When I went to the website called "Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted" ( I found a brochure on how to identify a gifted child.  I think that part of the problem in identifying giftedness is that is not very clear.  It includes characteristics like being very curious and observant, strong vocabulary and reasoning, pattern recognition, problem solving, and strong memory.  I realize that there is a matter of degree here, but it is understandable why so many people think there child is gifted.  What is gifted and what is it not?

It depends on the situation. Our public schools use certain measures for gifted programs, so some people would use those definitions. Psychologists who work with gifted children may use others. I think it's important to think of it similar to autism: parents of autistic kids often use the phrase "on the spectrum," meaning that a child is autistic, but is in his own unique place on the spectrum of the disorder. "Gifted" just means "good at something" in its most colloquial use. As a term for diagnosis, it's something you can certainly test: does the child learn in a different, faster way than typical children? Does she have any of the corresponding sensitivities and personality traits? Does he have special schooling needs because of the way he learns?

One reader used "smarter" as a synonym for gifted.  Does that mean smarter in every category?  If we just focused on the pure academics, does that mean a child is smarter in algebra, geometry, zoology, chemistry, writing, reading, geography, etc. or is it in a certain area?

This gets back to that "value judgment" aspect of the word. Frankly, a highly gifted person can be darn stupid in many ways. I remember a friend when I was at Stanford saying, "Why is it all these really smart women we know are so stupid about love?" What she was pointing out is that being good at test-taking, being articulate, good at analysis and dissection -- all those things that got us into Stanford -- have no relationship to good interpersonal skills, good hand-eye coordination, a good sense of humor, or any of the other many traits that we value in human beings.

Gifted people are usually not better at all academic subjects, and the more gifted (i.e. the more removed from the average set of learners out there) a person is, the less likely they seem to have average skills in a wide variety of areas. We all knew the math professor who forgot to wash his clothing, or the really smart 8th-grader who would get hit by balls on the head in P.E. because she was lost in thought, or the kid who hadn't learned to read but had diagrammed the entire New York City subway system inside his English textbook. These are examples of people whose brains were really good at some things, but were not able to function in situations that other people take for granted.

Most gifted people have wide areas of strength, though, so it is probably safe to say that a kid gifted in math would do well at everything that takes mathematical skills (including music, which is often tied to mathematical skills).

What about the Theory of Multiple Intelligences?  Beyond academic ability, what about musical, social, athletic, and other skills many of us are blessed with?

Some public school GATE programs take that into account, and include some non-academic areas of giftedness in their programs. The reality is, however, that academic giftedness is that one that causes problems for kids in school. All the other ones you mention are an asset to a student. Yes, a highly social, musical, or athletic child might not be doing great in academics because their passion is taking up so much time, but we don't really see that as so much of a problem. Does anyone know what Barry Bonds' high school grades were?

I think that the theory of multiple intelligences is a great way to integrate all children into a social group, and teach that we should value all children. However, I have seen at least one teacher use it to try to "put the smart kids in their place," which was very destructive. Multiple intelligences should not be used in a school setting to equalize, because we aren't all the same. It is our difference that makes us strong! We are the most highly varied species on the planet, and that is one of our greatest assets. We need to value all the skills that people have. Frankly, even the class clown who disrupts a test with farty sounds is an asset to a classroom, and teachers need to understand that and figure out how to work with it.

We talked a bit about IQ tests.  I don't feel they are a good measurement of a person's needs and abilities and have read a lot of Sir Ken Robinson's views on this subject.  He insists that IQ tests and scores are outdated, flawed, and changing.  Indeed the 100+ year history of the test has had it share of critics, including Alfred Binet, who pioneered the first intelligence scale.  Many critics point out that it is impossible to measure intelligence when we have not even defined it properly.  What are your thoughts on this?

My parents chose not to have their kids' IQ tested, and my husband I have chosen the same route. The number really doesn't matter to us, because we have found ways to create a positive learning environment for our kids: one of them is thriving in a public homeschool program; the other is thriving at a very socially positive and supportive private school.

The value that parents have found in the IQ test, as far as I have heard, is just that it sometimes can point out important things about how a child learns. Sometimes when trying to educate a child who seems ineducable, finding out that he has a top-of-the-charts IQ can help you understand how to reach him. Another value is that a child who has been pegged learning disabled in a school can be tested and be found to be profoundly gifted, which sometimes looks very similar to learning disabled, oddly enough. The number in that case is ammunition the parents can use to get their child the services she needs.

I don't see any value in IQ testing as a matter of course. It just seems weird to pin a number on people and then write them off. Rent the movie Gattaca!

Another point about IQ as it relates to determining giftedness is that the cut-off seems fairly arbitrary.  Who is to say that someone with an IQ of, say 129 is not gifted, but someone with one of 130 is?  It seems to me that the number does not change the fact that you still must meet the individual needs of each student.

Totally arbitrary. You suggested in your post that all kids need IEPs -- I agree with you. That is the beauty of homeschooling and smaller school programs: each child can be given what she needs and what inspires her. Once you get to large public schools, however, that cut-off is sometimes the difference between being stuck in a class that is going to drill the information for The Test yet again for the umpteenth time, and a class that's going to dissect frogs! That's when you get parents tearing their hair out trying to help their child "succeed." And that's when you get parents feeling like they're in battle with each other to get services for their kids. It's similar to the parents of kids in special education who feel they have to justify that their child has an aide when the classroom doesn't have enough money for crayons. If all students' needs were funded, I believe the cut-off would just be an arbitrary place for the school to start to say, "does this child have special needs that we haven't noticed?" Otherwise, yes, it is totally arbitrary and divisive.

In my original post I suggested that rather than focusing on our differences (high or low IQ, learning disabled or gifted) I thought it would be better to focus on meeting every kid right where he is (this was meant to be the main point).  I like the approach of each kid getting an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), which are typically given to struggling students.  Why not give each kid one?  Sure, it would not fit with the conventional model found in most schools and it does not do much for standardization, but the fact that we are talking about the challenges of giftedness doesn't speak much for the reality or goal of standardization.  In a Democratic School, students are given far more independence in their learning so that it meets their interests and needs, adding a level of maturity, responsibility, and customization to their education.  (See my post about a school in Denver that does this:
).  What about offering more schools like this?

I'm all for it! I have spent my kids' school years trying to keep them in programs that suit them. Here in Santa Cruz County (California), we are blessed with a huge population of families who care about education, and thus a higher than average number of special programs, charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling options. As my children age, I start to see their former preschool classmates trickling into these special programs as parents realize their children's needs aren't being met.

My utopic vision of a public education system is this: Each county (or whatever geographic area makes sense in each location) would be one district. The schools would be small and fluid: Some kids would go to the same school every day. Some kids would only go to school certain days and learn independently other days. Some kids would go to different programs at different schools depending on their needs. Some kids would never go to school. All kids would be able to take part in the programs that they enjoy. Testing would happen just a couple of times, perhaps 3rd and 6th grade, just to make sure that nothing is being missed as far as the basic tools of modern life are concerned.

Unlike many homeschoolers, I do believe that there is a real reason for public education, and I do strongly believe that education needs to be compulsory. How you put together an education for a child, however, would be much more fluid than it is now, more focused on what "success" means for each student rather than what "success" means for administrators of a school district.

What are the alternatives for students who are not challenged enough in schools?

That depends on the location. Private schools can often offer more, but that is not necessarily the case. Parents should pay very close attention to the peer group at a private school to make sure it's the right fit for their child, since private schools tend to have a student population that is more narrowly focused and often their educational approach is very specific, such as Montessori.

Some public school GATE programs are run with the child in mind, and really do offer a more appropriate education within the public school system. Some, however, are just geared to pile on more busy work, faster, which doesn't serve most children, gifted or not.

Public charter schools and special programs can sometimes be a great fit for a student who needs more challenging work. It's important to note that "challenging" does NOT mean more busy work! Most kids whose brains function at a higher level tend not to be satisfied with yet another worksheet of math problems that they can do. Instead, they will excel if they are offered experiential programs that incorporate and expand their skills. Find out about local charter schools through your school district office or at

Homeschooling is a very good option for gifted kids who are extremely unusual learners or who have emotional/social difficulties. Homeschooling can happen within all sorts of different programs or outside of programs. In California, any family can set up their own private school and homeschool that way. If families want to be attached to a school, most districts have homeschool programs (either charter schools or special programs). We also have multi-locale charters that families can sign up with if there's no homeschool program near them. (Some of these take kids from a wide geographic area.) To learn more about homeschooling in California, visit the Homeschool Association of California -

Describe the emotional issues of neuro-advanced students.

You mentioned -- I highly recommend that parents of gifted kids go there to get help. Neurologically different kids are usually not just different academically. Common issues that can show up in neuro-nontypical kids include high sensitivities, difficulties with social skills, asynchronous development, behaviors that resemble oppositional disorder, ADHD or bipolar, and more. Often these problems cannot be addressed sufficiently unless the whole child -- including his advanced intellect -- is considered as a package. A significant number of gifted kids are probably given unnecessary drug therapy when a change in learning environment or help with life skills might suffice.

Tracy, thank you so much for responding the way you did to criticism from parents of gifted kids. We need to learn from each other so that we can figure out how to make education better for all kids. I know that the tight budgets and balkanized educational theories make us all defensive, and I appreciate how you are doing your part to break down the barriers. -- Suki Wessling

To read more from Suki, check out her blog at

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Waldorf and Montessori - Fantasy Versus Reality

Many parents are familiar with the Waldorf and Montessori education models but not always clear on the differences between them. My children have been in both types of schools, so we had the pleasure of learning about both models in theory and in practice. I appreciate and respect many things about both modalities and I do understand that there can be a great deal of variation in many Waldorf and Montessori classrooms around the world.

Typically Montessori encourages a firm grounding in reality for a child and their materials help to cement that understanding. At the Montessori school my children attended, children were not to play with the manipulative materials in a way that is not in keeping with their purpose. For example, the math beads were to be used for counting in a certain sequential way when a child is ready to use them for math purposes. The classrooms emphasize order, with tidy workstations and plenty to do as a child chooses. While I do love the way Montessori encourages a child to learn through the use of manipulative materials instead instead of more abstract methods, I also appreciate the way Waldorf encourages fantasy play.

In a Waldorf classroom, play is considered a fundamental part of learning and fantasy is viewed as essential to creating happy and imaginative students. Waldorf teachers capitalize on the power of a story to teach children. The classrooms are beautiful and inviting. They are dreamy and colorful with found items from nature and plenty of gorgeous, natural fabrics draped to create a sense of space. In addition to creating the setting of the room, fabrics are also used to play make believe. Waldorf advocates for plenty of imaginative play and the teachers encourage it by providing natural toys made of wood or cotton that are minimally finished to encourage a strong sense of imagination. I love how the stories about Andy Add and Sammy Subtract help to bring alive an abstract idea.

In the Waldorf school we were a part of, there were plenty of stories on fairies. Children were told stories of fairies that mirrored their lives and helped them to make sense of their world and the world they cannot see. My children have built many a fairy house, using found objects in nature or a cardboard box. I love how it brings out the nurturing side of them (building a comfortable shelter for them) and their creativity. My children have written to their fairies and received answers and an occasional small gift from them. It is sort of like Christmas each time it happens, but it is not about the material item they get (a fortune cookie, a few coins, a figurine, some stickers) but the delight at the special connection and attention that they love.

In an eclectic education, the best of both can be used. I try to make use of manipulative materials and a story to make sense of an abstract concept. We do frequent nature walks, taking pictures of items that we will later use to learn. For example, we went on a photographic scavenger hunt this week, taking pictures of things that are brown, things that are dry, things that are soft, etc. to use for a sorting exercise later for my four year old. I am grateful that we can draw from the wisdom of both modalities to make our homeschooling experience all the richer.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"All kids are gifted; some just open their packages earlier than others"

That great quote by Michael Carr brings to mind a story. One of my children got his first tooth quite early, compared to his peers. We knew he was dentally gifted. We made sure he tested into the top dentists, we surrounded him with other dentally precocious children, and we gave him a special diet that would encourage his gift to grow further and faster. I also got a bumper sticker for my car to advertise his advanced toothiness.

All right, that's not true, but it is what I think of on the topic of giftedness. Any time someone talks about their child being gifted, I want to ask them "in what area is your child an early learner?" Giftedness is such an inadequate and highly charged word. It seems to imply that a certain group of children are blessed with an all-encompassing, ever-advanced intelligence while the rest of the population is hopelessly average or worse.

Some kids learn to read quite quickly but have no aptitude for math. Others are great at understanding patterns, but are verbally behind their peers. I know many little boys who have an early propensity for dinosaurs - they know the names and habits of every dinosaur known to man, yet they are socially or physically awkward. The term giftedness does not adequately describe a child's singular area of proficiency, but instead tends to confer a blanket of superiority around the child, leaving others in the cold.

Does early achievement really mean permanent giftedness? Well, what if you do have a child who is an early reader? By, say, 6th Grade, does that child actually read any better than the child who learned to read a year or two later? At age 10, can you tell which child learned to talk or walk earlier than the others? Just like those that are dentally gifted, a head start in a particular area of growth and development does not necessarily make for an enduring advantage. By the same token, a delayed start does not equate to mental inferiority. Albert Einstein is a great example of that. Not only would he not have been in the Highly Gifted and Talented Program as a young student, he would likely have had an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to help him up to average.

And what about the theory of multiple intelligences? Does giftedness take into account a particularly athletic girl if she horrible at algebra? Does giftedness include the musically talented boy who is an awful speller and grammatically delayed? Is a child with advanced social skills less gifted than a child who can read a Harry Potter book at age seven?

It is natural for parents to notice and take pride in each of the developmental milestones our children achieve. We are supposed to marvel at them and cheer them on, but we should stop short at pressuring them too hard or setting them on a pedestal above others. I overheard a woman talking to the head of our pre-school as she complained how hard the Highly Gifted and Talented test was. She had had her son take the test three times and he failed to qualify each time. I have to believe that is damaging to the child in some way. Why is it so important to her to have the title of giftedness for her child?

It is the job of every parent and educator to recognize the strengths that lie in every child and to facilitate further development in those areas. How would it be if we honored all learning differences in every subject, whether they were advanced or delayed, kinesthetic or auditory, etc.? All children should have an IEP custom-made according to their strengths and learning styles! What if we treated all children as gifted and we optimized the education of each child according to his specific gifts? Our schools and communities would be stronger if we were to recognize and grow the gifts that each child possesses to everyone's benefit.

Just like on their birthdays, I look forward to seeing what gifts my children got and how they will use them!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

In Praise of BaLaNcE

Ronan got his first bike with training wheels on his third birthday, though he didn't want anything to do with it for a few months. Eventually he rode around on it until he had a minor biking accident that hurt and scared him and he stopped riding it again for awhile. Over the course of almost four more years we tried a few times to take the training wheels off so that he could ride a big boy bike but each time he requested that the training wheels be put back on. He wasn't ready. One day, we took off the training wheels, the crank and the pedals and made our own balance/push bike. He tried this out for a couple of weeks, getting the hang of balancing his body to keep the bike upright. On the last day of school when he was almost seven, I took him to a consignment bike store to pick out a bike that was appropriate for his size in anticipation that this would be the summer he would be ready to ride a big boy bike. He picked out one he liked and took it for a test drive and I let go. He took off, riding off down the sidewalk as if he had been riding without training wheels for months! We were both so thrilled!

Although he had a year of pedaling practice with a big wheel, we decided to start Jude off with a balance bike, which he got for his fourth birthday. Just like Ronan, he wouldn't touch it for a few weeks. Then he started riding it cautiously, and within a week he was not only balancing, but even doing tricks on a moving bike. Within a month he asked to try a big boy bike with pedals and without training wheels. On his very first try he rode off down the driveway like a seasoned rider. Again, parent and child were thrilled!

Given the popularity of balance bikes, we are not the only ones who have found that they are great for learning to ride a bike. I think that the balance bikes are a great metaphor for education. Just like on a bike, each kid learns at his own natural pace and what makes him ready is not the external work, but something from within.

A child will learn to read not so much by constant effort and badgering by another person, but by being ready and willing on a timeline that is natural and unique to each person. True, it does take effort, and practice, and plenty of opportunity to learn both bike riding and reading, but neither can be rushed. Both will happen when there is a sense of balance, confidence, and willingness - the internal pieces that must be in place for the independence on bikes or books to occur.

In education, a child that is pressured to read through nearly constant practice and tutoring has no balance. Academic balance comes from not only exposure to literacy, but to other important aspects of humanity, like nature, art, science, math, socializing, history, play, etc. Through the exploration of all of the interesting aspects that make us human we achieve a vital sense of balance that enables us to grow in each area. Not only is a maniacal focus on ever earlier literacy unnecessary and developmentally inappropriate, it also robs us of the opportunity to understand and explore other subjects. At a young age, breadth is what allows us to understand our world. This foundation gives us balance and the ability to grow. It allows us to achieve not only literacy but a strong foundation of knowledge in any other subject.

Balance and biking and literacy will all come if we act as facilitators for them to naturally unfold at their own rate with enthusiasm, encouragement, respect, understanding, and patience. Then, look out! They will take off with joy and confidence to fuel them forward!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Slowing Down

One of the greatest gifts and the hardest thing to adjust to homeschooling is the pace of life. People in my office used to hear me coming by the sound of my hasty footsteps approaching them. I used to drive over the speed limit even if I was going to be early. I love to get things done and I have often stacked a lot on my plate just to savor the goofy happiness of crossing it off my to-do list. Homeschooling has a way of slowing you down and redefining efficiency. It has a way of forcing you into being in the now and being present.

I am always planning things. I've planned pregnancies, fundraising events, social engagements, and now lesson plans. I even plan great vacations and then don't always enjoy them to the fullest because the planning stage is over and I don't know what to do with just relaxing. But I've noticed that homeschooling requires a lot of attention and executing on the plans, with little time for more planning. I have learned pretty quickly that I need to keep the momentum going with the schoolwork, or I lose my kids to chaos and play. I have to give them my complete attention for everything to go smoothly. On days where I succumb to looking up one more book on the library website, or looking through an anthology for just the right story, it does not pay!

I have also come to understand that getting things done is not going to feel like it used to. I used to get through a whole day's worth of work-related tasks, not to mention picking up children in two different schools, cooking dinner, cleaning up (well, sometimes), and getting everyone ready for bed. Now, an errand or two can eat up the entire day and leave me feeling panicked that not enough learning took place. Even on days when we do not leave the house, I have the notion we will get through reading, writing, math, time-telling, calendar work, geography, Spanish, sociology, art, music and cooking with plenty of time for play and lunch. I have yet to have a day where we worked all of that in! However, I have come to the pragmatic realization that, like nutrition, it is what you do over the course of the week that counts. Getting everything done every day is not practical or possible, so I am learning to relax about it and shoot for the larger goal over the course of a week or the month.

Jude, who learned how to ride a bike with no training wheels and no assistance recently, asked if we could ride bikes to the zoo instead of drive as I had planned. It's only about three and a half miles from our house, so I agreed. I knew it would be a slower ride than I am used to, but this was the kind of ride that was actually difficult for me to stay upright due to lack of momentum. A person with 12" bike rims has to pedal a lot more to move than a person on an adult's bike, but we made it to the zoo without any complaints. On our bike ride we noticed tree houses, birdhouses, dogs, gardens, leaves, and puddles. (Here's a tip: although drafting works well for Lance Armstrong, it is not a great idea to draft a four year old!) I would not have noticed any of these had I been driving or riding at my own speedy pace, in a hurry for no reason. Not only did we appreciate all of the sights and sounds along the way, it was so gratifying to see the obvious pride on Jude's face, having completed his first impressive bike ride and keeping up with the rest of us. That was definitely worth being present for!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Project Zero - An Interview with Larry Scripp

Larry Scripp, Ed.D is a musician, educator, research, program developer, and administrator. He is the Chair of the Music Education department (and its Music-In-Education program) at New England Conservatory. As Founding Director of Center for Music-In-Education, he designs and implements Music Plus Music Integration programs in public schools through a coalition of schools of music and education, arts organizations, and school reform organizations through the arts. I first was introduced to Larry when I had researched Project Zero, which he was kind enough to explain to me.

Larry, first please tell us, what is Project Zero?

Project Zero is an educational research group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Its mission is to understand the relationship of human development in the arts, and to find ways to enhance learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts, as well as humanistic and scientific disciplines, at the individual and institutional levels. I believe that the name Project Zero was used because Nelson Goodman, its founder, felt that there was zero literature to start with in the field of normal human development and in the arts, and he set out to create such a literature along with his graduate students at that time, David Perkins and Howard Gardner

I understand there are many different research projects under the Project Zero umbrella. What areas of research were you involved in during your 10 years of work with this group?

I was involved in the Music and Early Symbolization Project, Arts PROPEL arts assessment in Pittsburgh Public Schools, Lincoln Center Institute Study, and a Music Technology and Composition Project. In the early days it was all about research guided by Piagetian frameworks, but in the 80s it began to focus on applied research, working directly with schools. Arts PROPEL is an acronym for essential components of artistic knowing - Perception, Reflection and Production - and it was the framework for organizating assessment practices in creative writing, visual and musical arts. The project was involved with setting standards of teaching, documenting frameworks from developmental stages, and creating devices and instruments in schools. This project developed new standards for the documentation, organization and assessment of student learning in the arts in public schools. We created prototypes for what are now considered common practice portfolio assessment methods. We didn’t just go into schools to test our own ideas, but worked with the teachers and talked about assessments in the arts and how to do it. This was a collaboration with Pittsburgh Public School District to develop authentic assessments that could be implemented in both general music classrooms and ensemble rehearsal studios.

Broadly speaking, what conclusions have you reached in your research about the arts in education?

I have reached the conclusion that although art forms are very different, each contributes an essential medium of learning and provides a model for learning in other disciplines; that multiple intelligence theory (penned by Howard Gardner), though valuable in its day, has now evolved to acknowledge the complexity of factors involved in artistic intelligences and their possible integration across domains. I have come to realize that the younger generation of music educators now acknowledge that authentic arts learning depends on the integration of other forms of intelligences.

In the Music-in-Education National Consortium – a group that I founded to explore learning both in and through music - we now believe in the creative tension between ‘differentiation and synthesis,” that is, the paradoxical notion that learning in the arts depends on knowledge of other domains of knowing, and that the productive integration of artistic knowing with other subject areas requires deep knowledge in each separate domain. Cognitive skills, intelligence in schools and in life develop in the constantly changing stages of dis-equilibrium between differentiation and synthesis of knowing in and across other disciplines. For example, there are certain parts of the brain where auditory abilities and linguistic abilities share neural networks, yet function within “separate” cognitive domains. Schools are still behind in recognizing this, but they are starting to come to that realization when music and music-integrated instruction takes root in both musical and academic studies.

How has this work helped communities and schools improve and enrich education?

By advocating arts learning in separate domains as a necessity for human development that enhances general education and whole school improvement. It has helped advocate for the arts and connect arts to cognitive skills. Those that learn music realize that there is a certain inextricable sense of cognitive interrelatedness and that the complexity of this interrelatedness grows as you learn and master music learning processes. With this interrelatedness and complexity comes a increasingly powerful musical imagination, critical thought and analytic perspectives that result in a greater sense of intentionality in the creative process. Cognitive-rich creativity is learned in the domain in the context of each art form; it is not a thing to itself. What we are now learning now is that integrated learning processes foster an understanding of parallel problem-finding and problem-solving skills that appear to result in a deeper and broader range of cognition embedded in this synthesis of interdisciplinary work.

Part of Project Zero’s mission is to foster critical and creative thinking through the arts. How does Project Zero and/or education through the arts accomplish this goal?

Mainly to demonstrate assessment of arts learning in relation to cognitive skills, and see that creativity is intrinsic to authentic, comprehensive arts learning. If we look at creative aspects of the arts and the cognitive skills involved in critical and creative thinking, we see something intrinsic to arts learning at every juncture of its developmental progression. Paying attention to the discipline of the art form is really important. Learning takes place both through and within the arts. It is important to learn the arts for its own sake but also to pay attention to the impact of arts learning across domains. Those who study music are more apt to understand proportion and balance differently than in other art forms. The arts can teach a different way of looking at things and a deeper understanding shared between disciplines. It is a particularly engaging way of learning. Arts learning and teaching is not a uniform phenomenon in formal education. How it is taught and supported makes a big difference. We need to get away from anachronistic views of talent (choosing only the very best and grooming them) to a policy that allows access and equal opportunity for arts learning to occur in unexpected ways across a wide set of problems and disciplines.

As Piaget says, to invent is to understand, and creativity informed by critical thinking is the hallmark of music cognitive development. I take that to heart in all my work in education. Creativity is not an ideal moment or special occasion; rather it is a staple of all kinds of problem solving situations. Ken Robinson talks about creativity as applied imagination, which is creativity to solve problems through imaginative thinking. We need to keep these concepts in play and we need to find ways to assess the potency of these skills in all learners.. With good arts-rich educational policy our schools will contribute a much healthier source of creativity to our society.

How do you foster collaborative relationships with schools, universities, museums and other institutions to improve education?

With Project Zero it was at first through assessment in individual art forms. I left Project Zero in order to pursue research in music learning in school networks. I started the Conservatory Lab Charter School as a major experiment in music and music integrated learning in 1998. Although this small school failed to achieve the promise of its charter on its own, the research findings that began with this project have since resulted in twelve years of federal funding for the creation of the Music-in-Education National Consortium and its Learning Laboratory School Network. If have tried to apply the Project Zero concepts of meaningful, authentic research, assessment, documentation, and assessments in my work to advance education today.

In your estimation what does an ideal learning setting look like in a K-12th grade setting?

It is an arts-rich, project and portfolio based, and a longitudinally assessed program within a school learning community. It is a setting where active, research-based professional learning and leadership modeled on music and music integration program development are valued. This productivity is constructive for both teachers and students. Engagement is a two way street with peer learning, group learning, visual learning, and the full diversity of process that includes music and arts integrated practices.. There should be plenty of expressivity, media, and materials as well as objects worthy of study. Education should be project and portfolio based. Students’ work should be about generating new knowledge based on a deep understanding of fundamental concepts that can be learned in the context of interdisciplinary cognition. The recitation of isolated facts is not necessarily indicative of a good learning environment; facts take on new significance when a curriculum of worthy objects of study is investigated on a deeply personal, yet rich informed basis. Even arts learning works best when it fosters an ethos of a school as a learning organization that constantly focuses on the optimal balance of creativity and imagination, inquiry and reflection, and performance and understanding.

I see that you are currently involved with the Music-in-Education National Consortium that furthers your work of integrating music in public schools. Can you tell me about this organization and your efforts there?

I have a personal focus on music as a medium and model for learning in other arts, academics, and social-emotional development. MIENC was created to use arts partnerships to bring programs and research into schools and the MIENC Learning Laboratory School Network, guided by 10 principles of school improvement, was created to investigate music based program development and its impact on schools. The organization publishes journals to make practices and research visible, and actionable in school networks (see and develops longitudinal assessments of music literacy learning in schools among other programs.

For more information on Project Zero, go to
For more information on Music-In-Education National Consortium, go to

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Revolution in School Cafeterias

Revolution Foods is making its mark in school cafeterias across the country. School lunches have had a well-earned, legendary reputation for barely being edible and barely resembling actual food. Revolution Foods is changing the way our schools do hot lunches, by making them tasty, nutritious, and easy.

How did Revolution Foods begin?

Revolution Foods began with a founding team who believed that all students should have access to healthy, fresh food and nutrition education on a daily basis. Co-founders Kristin Richmond and Kirsten Tobey met at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and shared a vision of creating a social venture that would make their idea a daily reality for schools nationwide. It didn’t hurt that they both loved great food as well!

Having a background in education themselves, Kristen and Kirsten knew that in order for this venture to be successful they needed to reach out those that matter most: the school communities that they would serve, interviewing teachers, students, families and school leaders from over 40 Bay Area schools. They built a key partnership with Whole Foods who believed in their mission of getting as much fresh, healthy food as they could to as many students as possible. Prior to launching they also had the incredible fortune to meet their first hire, Executive Chef and partner extraordinaire, Amy Klein.

Driven by passion and supported by their families, friends and greater Bay Area community, Kristin and Kirsten launched Revolution Foods in the Summer of 2006.

How are your lunches better than the standard hot lunches found in schools across the country?

Revolution Foods prides itself on its high food quality standards, and this is one piece of what makes our meals and our lunch program unique. We also have a comprehensive nutrition education program. In terms of food standards, our partnership with Whole Foods helps us gain access to the highest quality ingredients available, that we can then use to create meals that are student favorites. Here’s a little bit about our lunches:
• Every lunch is served with fresh fruit and vegetables
• Our meats, baked goods and produce meet Whole Foods Market’s stringent quality standards
• Our milk is rBST- and hormone-free and our meats are hormone- and antibiotic-free
• Our food is prepared fresh daily; we do not serve fried or overly processed food
• Our meals do not contain high-fructose corn syrup or trans fat
• We use organic and locally produced ingredients whenever possible

We highly value the input from our students, school partners, administrators, and parents. Each school site has a dedicated School Account Manager who visits regularly, eats lunch with students, and gathers their feedback about the lunches. The relationships that School Account Managers build with students and schools are a unique component of our lunch program.

How many schools do you serve?

Revolution Foods serves over 120 schools and programs in the California, and has recently launched in Denver and Washington D.C., totaling over 160 schools throughout the United States.

What kinds of foods do you offer?

We offer a wide range of menu options. A few sample Revolution Foods menus include:
• All Natural Grilled Chicken with Homemade Teriyaki Sauce and Sesame Stir-Fried Bok Choy, Red Peppers and Carrots served atop a Fresh Noodle Nest, served with a Clementine orange
• All Natural Honey Glazed Chicken served with Roasted New Potatoes and Collard Greens served with a local peach.

Other popular items include Handmade Chicken Tamales, All Natural Spaghetti and Meatballs, Chicken Caesar Salad, and All Natural Hamburger with Organic Cheese on a Whole Wheat Bun. All meals are served with fresh fruit and vegetables and a carton of all natural, hormone free, rBST free low fat milk. Many of our most popular items came from student suggestions.

I see you have a program for packed lunches too. What do you offer those students?

In addition to our home style, fresh meal platform for schools, we have a delicious retail line of 100% organic snack foods sold in Whole Foods Market, Toys r Us, Babies r Us, HEB,, and more. A percentage of the revenues of this line are used to fund our healthy meal program in low income schools.

How do you balance nutrition with good taste?

We have always started with high quality, fresh, all natural ingredients and used feedback from our school communities to craft our menus. This student focused menu design coupled with the fact that we adhere to stringent food standards and our meals meet the USDA recommended portion sizes and nutritional guidelines for the age groups we serve helps us accomplish our mission of balancing nutrition with good taste.

How do you educate parents, students and school staff on nutrition?

Another integral part of our lunch program is nutrition education. We believe it is important to inform students, families, and schools on how to make healthy choices both inside and outside of the lunchroom. We provide students, schools and parents with written materials as well as lessons and activities at school sites that focus on nutrition and healthy eating.

Because you cook the foods made daily in your own kitchen, how can this save a school district or organization in the long run? Do they save on kitchen costs?

This healthy meal program is ideal for schools that do not have the facilities or infrastructure to prepare fresh, home style meals. We custom design a plan for schools and districts that makes sense for them based on their vision for a health and wellness platform and the resources they currently have in house.

Do you serve the elderly community and other organizations beyond schools?

Although we primarily serve schools, we also serve summer camps, after school programs, recreational centers and non-profit organizations. We are able to touch even more organizations through our catering services.

How can a school get Revolution Foods in their lunch rooms?

We are always eager to include more schools in this School Lunch Revolution. You can get in contact with us by emailing . You can also check us out on the web at