Reflecting Presidentially

7 Jul

Empathy, and the capacity to be silent and introspective,  strike me as such  difficult, but desirable, qualities! I  wonder, often,  how  we, as a nation, and a world,  might value, develop, and use them more than we do and, especially,  how our presidential candidates, and members of the House and Senate, might learn to value and use them.   It keeps me awake at night.

It’s a  pity we can’t just run down to the nearest Fred Meyer when we feel our supply is running low, and pick up at least a month’s supply.  Seems like it would be so nice to have a little extra on hand, especially during an election year, but, you know, after that would be good too–and before that. From early childhood on, actually.

Just think how wonderful parents would feel if their two-year-olds could see and feel eye to eye with them . “Are you feeling bad today, Mom?” the two-year-old could ask. “You look sad. Did DAD do something that upset you?  Did I?  I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“Gosh, Dad. It must be hard, arguing with Mom , just when you thought everything was going so well. Golly. I’m sorry you have so much pressure on you. Everything seems to come at once, doesn’t it–and at the worst of times.”

Mature at two. It would make parents’ job of child-raising so much easier. They wouldn’t have to yell and hit and frown and carry on day after day as if having children had all been a terrible mistake. They wouldn’t have to make their kids feel that they should never have been born. They could somehow  work day and night and pay their bills and go on vacations when they wish and  indulge themselves and feel good about their lives and get rid of drug abuse, and gun abuse, and make the world safe  and end automobile accidents, and  congested freeways and poverty and  disease, and. . . .

Think of what a difference it would make, when the Presidential election comes around. Voters all across the country– Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Socialists, leftover Attila the Huns, Tea-Partyists,  Christians, Jews, Muslims, Agnostics, Atheists– regardless of the color on their outside , regardless of their sexual orientation or any other orientation–regardless of their tax bracket and every other bracket–could , well, take several deep breaths and , you know,  access their left and right brains simultaneously for a sustained period of time. A year would be good. Four years. A lifetime. Even a month would  be fantastic.

We could all , presto–develop the fine art of dialogue just in the nick of time–come up with a few ground rules (transform public education, while we’re at it, and national television,  even NPR, and Twitter, and). It’s asking quite a bit of us, uh, adults, isn’t it!

Ground rules: One person at a time. Thank you. Reduce the volume. Adjust the tone.  Breathe from the abdomen with your eyes shut–a hundred times.  Stand an arm’s length away from each other. Imagine that the other has just finished a thirty-mile swim through shark-infested waters and survived. Imagine something humane, anyway. Imagine along with  John Lennon for a second or two.   Recall some of the worst times in your own life. Feel some of your regrets. Recall a blessing or two or a hundred that you have received, that you could not have achieved by yourself. Look  through all your memories for  some act of kindness you yourself performed in the past, linger over it for at least a minute.

Then ask yourself which of your many ages seemed most wise, and thoughtful, and courageous.

And, before you speak, go there.


Conversation Between Uncle Sam and The Young Man

6 Nov

I heard and saw it all.  I saw  Uncle Sam, dressed in a business suit, pointing that long finger in the poor kid’s face, glaring at him through slit-shaped eyes: YOUNG MAN, YOU have been sent to the office because YOU HAVE NOT BEEN TURNING IN YOUR PACKETS! DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY FOR YOURSELF??!!!”

Young Man:   Uh-h-h-.


Young Man: Well, . . . .


Young Man: Not.


Young Man:  Nothing, Sir, except . . . .

Uncle Sam: YES–EXCEPT WHAT???!

Young Man: Well, Sir. They’re really BORING.


Young Man: Yes, sir.


Young Man: Well, all the difference in the WORLD, Sir.


Young Man (With his head down, mumbling: Yes , Sir.


Young Man: I can’t, Sir. I cannot get over it.


Young Man: With all due respect, Sir, I am not LIKE most people. I DO know that.


Young Man: No Sir.


Young Man: Well, Sir, I have always been taught to think of myself as a unique individual, with my own unique interests and talents and ways of learning–and reasons for learning.


Young Man: No Sir. Actually, I think maybe they came from VENUS.

Reflecting on Reflecting: Mars and Venus and All That

7 Sep

I know this is an impossible task–a ridiculously impossible task–even to attempt to wade into this topic, but I have my toe in the water. And, as E. E. Cummings so famously said, in his poem that begins “may my heart always be open”: “may my mind stroll about hungry / and fearless and thirsty and supple / and even if it’s sunday may I be wrong.”

May today be a day of reflection for me, then, and for at least some of those who read this post.

Out with it then. I can’t stand the Mars and Venus notion, and I think way too many people accept it way too easily. I think we should fight it, and think about it. And start conversations about it. And when we go to sleep at night, write down a few thoughts and memories and concerns about it. And when we wake up in the morning, read over what we wrote the night before and add a few more, and, in this way, quietly, in our way, keep our pathway to reflection open. The Art of Reflection. Reminds me of Erich Fromm’s little book about another art, and the discipline, concentration and patience any art requires. Would that we could all be artists–of some kind.

My focus today may seem strange. Maybe you can bear with me. I hope so.

When I think of the so-called battle between the sexes, I think of conditioning. I think of how we were all probably conditioned to assume that as women we are “supposed to be this way,” or that we ARE this way, and that, as men, we are supposed to be THAT way, or ARE that way. It is a rare person, I think, who says to him- or herself: “Hey! Wait a minute!”

Maybe those who do stop to think about it all have some powerful experience in their lives that had such urgency about it , such pain, such anxiety, associated with it, that they HAD to think about it–because it seemed as if their lives, or at least their soul’s survival, depended on using the mind they had to try their best to understand themselves and their situation.

For me, the situation was something that happened when I was only about two and a half.

Probably people don’t remember being that young–unless something traumatic happened at that time. That, as you will see, was the case for me. I realized, then, at such a young age, that there was no one on my side–except me. I could not have explained it to anyone. I did not know it in words. I knew it somewhere inside me that was deeper than words, and more pervasive. I knew it with my entire being. I am certain that anyone who came through a painful time in early childhood–or even later– is likely to remember it in this holistic kind of way, and I am sure, also, that they attach great importance to it, and that it was, for them, the beginning of a consciousness that shaped their selves and their lives.

Two and a half is not very old. When I see photographs of myself, or of other children that age, boys or girls, I tell myself, “That’s the age I was. Wow!” No matter how many times I have come to this realization, it is always startling. My heart goes out to myself, that little person I was. It goes out to anyone small who had to “grow up fast.”

On the surface, it doesn’t sound like much, I guess. I had a large round purplish birthmark on the inside of my left elbow that consisted of a ganglion of extremely painful raw nerve-endings. I felt like sobbing every time my clothing touched it, anytime something rubbed against it.

My father used to tell me “Come here.” I knew what that meant. It meant that he wanted to pinch my birthmark. I did NOT understand at that age that he didn’t own me, and that I could choose not to obey. He was a violent man, even then, and I assumed I had to obey him. My mother ignored these moments, and never once came to my defense. When he pinched the birthmark, it hurt terribly. I did not cry, or shout. I simply said, with tears welling up in my eyes, “Don’t do that, Daddy. It hurts.” And he said, every time, “Nonsense. I’m only tweaking it.”

By the time I was three, the birthmark was gone. I remember very well how it went away. My mother and father and I walked down a long corridor in a strangely quiet building with a lot of rooms on both sides. I walked in the middle. They took me into one of the rooms, and said “Stay here,” and both of them turned and went out, and shut the door, and walked away. I was terrified. I thought they had decided that they didn’t want me anymore, and had taken me back to where they had gotten me.

A lady came, dressed in white clothing, and told me to lie down on the hard bed there. I did that. Then she pulled something black and rubbery down from a metal place above me, and tried to cover my face with it. I thought she was trying to kill me by taking my breathing away, and so I fought the black rubbery thing with all my two-and-a-half-year-old strength, and shouted, “No, no, no!” The lady pushed it harder and harder over my face. Tears ran down my face, and I fought until I lost consciousness.

No one, male or female, relative or stranger, showed any sign whatsoever that they understood how a two-and-a-half-year-old felt. No one talked gently to me. No one explained anything to me. No one put an arm around my shoulder. No one spoke the way a kind and loving person of either sex would speak.

I am single, and have no children, but if that were my child, I would have intervened the first time the child’s father pinched the birthmark–for that matter, the first time the father hit the child for any reason. I would have said “There will be no hitting in this house, and there will be no pinching of birthmarks. Period.” If either of these behaviors continued, I would have taken the child and left–for good. I would have held the child tenderly, and explained to her that her father did not know how to love children. I would have told her that if he ever hit her again, or hurt her in any way, she should tell me right away. Then I would have had a talk with the child’s father, and then a talk with the minister of my church, if I had one, and then with the doctor, about how to deal with the birthmark.

When it came time to go to the hospital, I would have put my arm around the child, and I would have touched the birthmark gently, and would have said I knew how much it always hurt, and how careful she always had to be not to scratch or bump it, and I would have explained that I had found a doctor who knew how to take the birthmark away. I would at least have explained what the hospital would look like, and why it was so clean and so quiet, or, better yet, have done a practice trip down the same hallway, and introduced her to the nurses. In any case, I would have said that I would try to stay in the room with her, but if they did not let me, I would be right outside the door the whole time. I would have told her about the anesthetic, and about how it was there to help her relax, and I would have done a practice “play doctor” version of that process at home, and maybe asked her to be the nurse and let me be the patient. In other words, I would have walked her, mentally, through the whole procedure, and would have done everything I could to help her feel safe and loved.

It does not take a genius to think of thoughtful and caring ways to speak with and be with children. It only takes tenderness, and imagination, and a little empathy–and maybe a little remembering of how it felt to be the tiny child we ourselves used to be.

Tenderness and kindness and empathy and “soft” qualities like them, are not reserved for women. Men are just as capable of them as women are.

Of course I know that there are millions of women who lack those qualities, and of course I know that there are reasons for that–sometimes very complicated and even terrifying reasons, reasons maybe no one can yet explain. And the same is true for millions of men. But this does not mean that men are born without the capacity to be tender and that women are born with it. It is not that simple.

I have asked myself many times, all through my life, “Why, in a so-called educated and sophisticated nation like ours, where virtually every child spends at least twelve years in school, usually a public school, are boys and girls and mothers and fathers so rarely taught to understand their own feelings, and the feelings of others?” Why is child-raising left almost totally to chance? For that matter, why do we assume that when couples marry they know what love is and how it works and doesn’t work? Why do so many people still assume that love is something we “fall into” and “fall out of”?

I think it is a truly unwise, insensitive, unaware, unthoughtful, adolescent, and unloving society that does not address these issues.

And, so, I have also asked myself WHY it has not addressed them, and why it is not addressing them now.

It seems to me that many of us, perhaps all of us, have unthinkingly contributed to the conditioning that each generation of children undergoes.

I understand that it is difficult to see how we are shaping children. This is partly why I have voluntarily put myself in positions all my life to exert some kind of counter-influence on children. I remember, for example, when my father taught me and my sister to swim. I was about five, and my sister was about three and a half. He brusquely took each of us, me first, out over our heads in the waters of Puget Sound, held us flat on the surface of the water, and shouted at us “Kick! Paddle! Kick! Paddle! I will not let go! Do as I tell you!” And then he let go, and, of course, we sank, and swallowed more than our share of salt water. Over and over we did that. I later volunteered to teach swimming all summer for the YMCA, and asked specifically for children who were afraid of the water, so I know that there are wonderful, delightful alternatives to my father’s approach, and even at the age of five, I was able to imagine better alternatives. I put my arm around my sister’s shoulder, once we were back on shore. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We will learn swimming in school. We will never have to learn from him again.”

I think conditioning and re-conditioning can work like this–one situation at a time, but so much of it is going on at once; it makes this one-thing-at-a-time approach difficult.

I think, though, that, at the beginning, we do, almost, have to make a list of attitudes and assumptions and behaviors virtually all of us have been taught: Girls are supposed to be tender; boys are supposed to be tough. Girls can cry; boys are sissies if they cry. Girls are supposed to be pretty, beautiful, sexy, forever focused on their hair, make-up, clothing; boys are supposed to be cute, handsome, strong, good providers, able to do heavy lifting. Parents can hit children, but children are not supposed to hit each other. Parents and other adults can interrupt any conversation they please, but children cannot. Children , and even teenagers, are not to question their elders. Boys can play war games. Violence on television is exciting drama and helps prepare children for adult realities. Our religion is the truth, and other religions are misguided or even evil. Atheists and agnostics have something wrong with them. Sports figures are heroes. Teachers lecture because they are the ones who know things. Students are to sit passively and listen day after day and year after year, because teachers know things and children don’t, and because listening passively like that is a sign of respect. All elders should be respected. Students with high grades are smarter than students without them. People with talent in the arts are born with it. If you don’t demonstrate talent at an early age, it means you don’t have talent. And on and on. Such lists could go on forever.

Why in the world do we perpetuate these things? Maybe it’s partly just because it takes thought to reflect on them, and way too many of us do not reflect. We conform without reflecting. Sometimes I think reflection alone could change the world, but I don’t think our society encourages reflection.

Just imagine a whole nation of elementary school children reflecting on these things, and openly discussing them in their school classrooms, sharing whatever views they happen to have, and then maybe having assemblies about them, and writing articles in adult newspapers about them, and talking on television about them. In my view, school would suddenly become very interesting to all those bored and passive students who would so much rather be texting their friends on their cell phones than listening to lectures and memorizing for tests

And then, well, imagine changing the No Child Left Behind Law so that all teachers everywhere would be required to teach all children everywhere to question blind obedience to authority, and question conditioning, and spend class time designing ways to deal with the issues they considered most worth thinking about and learning about. And imagine parents asking, “So what did you learn in school today?” And imagine their kids telling them! What lively dinner-table conversation THAT would make!

And then imagine those same people growing up and offering to run for a seat in Congress, and imagine the House and the Senate full of people who think for themselves about real issues, and who are determined to make the country and the world better, make a humane and decent and non-violent place for the next generation of kids, and not a world where every country trains the younger generation to be out there killing and maiming people who don’t happen to think the way they do.

Well, maybe we could start with a National Day of Reflection–one day a year when every department in the government and every business and every school listens to what colleagues have reflected on most during the year, and then votes to address some of those concerns before the next National Day of Reflection. And suppose these concerns were discussed on the evening news, and in the periodicals available in the chain grocery stores. And suppose awards were given out–such as the Reflection of the Year Award.

I do believe that consciousness always comes at a cost. Maybe sharing what we understand about that cost can help encourage others to do the same, and maybe that would help us lead more examined lives than we do. I would like to think so.

No Politician Left Behind

30 Jun

Not realizing what would happen as a result, I recently sent the Democratic National Committee (DNC)  a check for one dollar, figuring that if a million people did the same, they would, well, purchase some office paper and some bumper stickers and some campaign signs, and maybe drive a few campaign buses out into the hinterland to listen to what ordinary people around the country wish the government would be concerning itself with. I had NO idea that the DNC thinks of little else than raising more dollars for its candidates and DOES little else but  attack the character and intelligence  of candidates from  the other party.  (Alas, I suppose, now, that the other party is churning out similar messages about candidates on MY side of the politically divided highway.) I did not realize that politics is about little except mediocrity and power. I see that more clearly now. 

Today I finally located the tiny “unsubscribe” line and removed my name from the DNC e-mail list. As I am extremely near-sighted, I had to stand up and put my nose almost directly on the monitor to do that, but, thankfully, I managed to send the DNC packing. 

What a relief! My In-Box now has only one or two actual friends named in it, and not every Democrat who’s running for office in every state in the Union, and every friend and fund-raiser of the candidate as well. If I see another campaign message, even  from the White House or from the Vice President , or  any other political person, addressing me as “Dear Nancy,” or as anything else,  I will also unsubscribe from them.   I have learned the value of my dollar, and would rather spend it on my favorite brand of natural, no-fat, Greek-style yogurt, which comes in Strawberry, Cherry, Raspberry, Lemon, Vanilla, and Blueberry, all of which are delicious,  high in protein, and reasonably low in calories.   

Now, as to the intellectual health of the nation–a much more difficult issue.

I have long thought that there is something deeply and broadly wrong with all our “systems,” but especially with our “political system” and our “educational system.”

First of all, education is not a “system,”  is not a one-size-fits-all factory, is not measurable, cannot be listed on a  transcript or in a grade point average, cannot be summarized,  bought, sold, categorized, handed out, handed down, passed on, given to us, forced upon us, is not a commodity. “Education” is certainly  not a synonym for “schooling.” Probably it is not a noun at all, but  if it is, it is, at the very least, something we GIVE ourselves throughout our lifetime, something we “lead forth” as Erich Fromm says, FROM ourselves, something we reach out for, work at, devote ourselves to, struggle for , challenge ourselves with, develop in ourselves, use our minds and hearts for, commit ourselves to–something we value highly, and , yet, never quite feel we have achieved. In other words, the attitude that develops along with our education is humility–a sense that, even a lifetime, even a fully-functioning mind, can only show us how much wiser we still need to be, how much more there will always be to learn, know, realize, become, understand, and do. 

I think our political system is a reflection of our educational system. Currently, I see no sign of wisdom in it, and surely no sign of humility, and it is hard to imagine that it can improve in my lifetime, but maybe it can, or could.

It seems to me that we, as a country, and as a world, are stuck in a place that does not look at all good.  We talk about “education” all the time, but, really, we do not WANT it for ourselves. We say we want it for our children, and other people’s children, and so we talk about how terrible it is that some children are “left behind,” that some are “behind” before they even start school. We assume, therefore, that they should just  start school earlier, and  “catch up.”  But we do not really think about this. We do not ask ourselves what they are “catching up with,” and WHY.  We do not ask ourselves what an education is FOR. We do not reflect on what is lacking in us, as INDIVIDUAL adults, not to mention as a society of adults. And we allow CAREER POLITICIANS  to make these decisions FOR us. We do not ASK  how they are qualified to make them. We do not allow ourselves to see how lacking they are in wisdom, insight, open-mindedness, reflectiveness. I don’t know why, unless we, too, are lacking in those qualities.

I was a college English professor for over thirty years. I teach art now, and poetry, sometimes, to people of  all ages who  assume they lack talent, or who would just like to explore something fresh and new–and meaningful, and free.  So many students, both teenagers and adults, have arrived in my classes lacking in confidence, afraid they are “dumb,” afraid that they will “look dumb,” afraid they will reveal their lack of talent or insight or knowledge, and feel ashamed and embarrassed. I have focused on encouragement all my life. I KNOW  they have plenty of talent, and plenty to express with it. It moves and delights me to be in such a position–helping people appreciate and enjoy their minds. I certainly never tire of it. Neither do I ever tire of exploring my own. I think that’s a large part of what life is ABOUT. I thrive on exploring, on dialogue, on reflection, on being awake and engaged TODAY.

And, so, I often imagine how wonderful it would be if all teachers , administrators, and politicians felt as I do about such things.

Of course I know they don’t. Of course it is hard for me to imagine that they might sign up for MY course, but  I DO imagine it, and I imagine it with delight–and a certain amount of mischief. Some others might like to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” That would be nice too, but I’d like, first, to take over the House and the Senate in the other Washington and teach every one of them to DRAW, using what Betty Edwards refers to as “the right side of their brain.” I’d like to teach them what Edwards refers to as “pure contour drawing,” which means looking carefully at something and drawing the edges of that something without looking at their paper. It pleases me to imagine them doing this. I’m quite sure most of them have never even considered drawing in this way.  You have to draw slowly. You have to really LOOK, really SEE, the way the edges of things go–about this far this way, down about here, over to about there. Of course you don’t know where you are if you happen to lift your pencil off the paper, so you might draw this here when it is really there–but when you finish, and look at what you have produced, you can SEE and REMEMBER what you were trying to do. Once they experience that, I can also teach them modified contour drawing–that is, I can allow them to look back and forth now and then, to see where they are, compared with where they hoped to be. This is a skill that I think all politicians, and all people in teaching and administering should have. It’s a beginning. When you practice this skill, it seems, at first, that you will never achieve it. This alone increases your humility. That is a valuable learning, humility.  A humble person is very likely to be a person open to his or her own learning.

So, then, I’d like to come back another day, and teach the House and Senate some principles of Freshman Composition–not traditional Freshman Comp, which, perhaps, was the course they “had” if they went to college–the course about thesis sentence, unity, organization,  development,  grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Oh, I’d play with that a bit too, but mostly I’d teach them about having a VOICE, and about where voice comes from, and about why it’s missing when it’s missing, and about what it means if it is there. I’d teach them that without voice nothing very meaningful is even possible–because it is their UNIQUENESS that matters, the fact that there is no  other person in the world exactly like them, and there never has been and never will be, and when they die, they will be gone, and their uniqueness will be gone. And so now is the time to appreciate their own uniqueness, and to discover it, and to share it. Now is the time to realize that it is not their conclusions that are most important; it is the process they go through to reach their conclusions, the details they have observed with their own eyes, the meaningful sounds they have heard with their own ears, the feelings they have been aware of, the moments they have understood themselves and others, the moments they knew they did not understand. That is what I would teach them: This is their value. This is what is alive in them. And, yes, realizing this, is very likely to be another path to humility, but it’s a path every other conscious person  is capable of traveling, and therefore, it can lead to what we even now refer to as “common ground.” With voice comes details. With details comes uniqueness. With uniqueness comes sharing. With sharing comes exploring new possibilities. With exploring new possibilities comes something very beautiful, called insight. With insight comes growth. With growth comes a better understanding of the common  good.

Well, and then, if I could be invited back a third time, I would teach the House and Senate to debate in a more enlightened way. I would tell them about my own experience with debate, at Grays Harbor College, many decades ago. I would tell them about my debate coach, Alfred Hillier, whose wife told us, in February of my freshman year, that her husband was dying of cancer, but that he wanted to finish the year with us–meaning he wanted to continue to coach us every day, and he wanted to attend every debate tournament with us, including the national tournament in Stockton, California. I would tell them  how we, tearfully, asked what we could DO for him, and how she said, “Just do what you HAVE been doing. Just keep on putting everything you have into understanding the issues, into researching, into learning the best arguments on every side of the question, into treating the other teams with dignity and respect, into engaging in real dialogue with each other, with the opposition, with him, and with yourselves. Because, just as he is important to you, you are important to HIM. You and your high standards are what give his life meaning.”

I would tell them how we did that, how day after day, week after week, each of us would enter an empty classroom, empty except for Mr. Hillier, who sat in the middle of  the room, with no notes, no magazines, no books, no index card file, no nothing but his beautiful and gracious and honest and compassionate and insightful mind, and debated each of us, first on one side of the national topic, and then on the other. I would tell them how he did attend every tournament, how he WAS at the national tournament, how he sat on the stage the last day of the semester, a fragile but oh so beautiful  person, and called each one of us up to tell the student body what we had accomplished that year. I would tell them how he died the next day,  his work fnished, and how, at his memorial service, someone else read aloud the eulogy which he himself had written: Do not weep for me,” It began. “I have had the life I wanted. I just preferred that it would go on longer.”

This would be the education that I would want to help our Congress persons, all our politicians, really, to have. These are the qualities I would like to see in them.

I know that they are nowhere near that now, but maybe they have the potential to  move beyond where they are. I would like to think so.        


Us and Them

11 Jun

I used to wonder why there weren’t more parents in the school during the day–not just bringing a forgotten lunch, or jacket, or assignment, but  sitting in on classes, helping with classes, teaching elective classes of their own, teaming up with other parents to teach and learn skills and information that interest them. I used to wonder why there wasn’t a real LEARNING COMMUNITY in schools.  I still wonder, of course, but it seems strange, almost laughable, to be seventy-one and wondering about such seemingly obvious things–and getting it WRONG all these years.

I always thought parents were absent from school because they were “too busy,” or because they didn’t WANT to be there.


Wow! I have been thinking about this all day.

Of course, I have heard it said before: “Leave teaching to the teachers.” “To the professionals,” I remember hearing, once–as if the teachers and administrators are the only “professionals” in the community, the only ones who know what information needs to be “covered,”  what techniques and approaches, what “best practices,”  need to be used–or even considered.

My oh my. I have been a college professor since I was about twenty-three years old. I completed my Ph. D. program in 1979.  For many years, I was a member of an international organization whose business it was to “explore teaching alternatives,” and, eventually, to “explore teaching and learning.”  EXPLORE.  Isn’t that a wonderful word? It doesn’t mean ASSUME.  It doesn’t mean DICTATE, or IMPOSE.  It means “Look around. Look near. Look far. Work together. Work apart. Try to find out, try to see if, read up on, wonder, imagine, experiment. It means THE OPPOSITE of” Assume you have all the answers,” or “all the necessary or important answers.,”  It means DON’T ASSUME THINGS–at least not for very long.

So–I certainly do NOT assume that teachers and administrators are the only professionals in town, or the best professionals, or even professionals at all. I assume I should go off somewhere and reflect a little, perhaps for the umpteenth time, on what a professional might even BE, and if the word might be on its way to being judged archaic, or at least outdated, or oversimplified.

Of course if I must have a root canal, I want to be sure that the person doing this job has the necessary training, experience, and credentials to carry out this process wisely and properly. But when it comes to reading, writing, science, math, social studies–LIFE–who’s to say that Joe or Sylvia is more qualified than I am to READ in these areas, and to teach others to read in them, or perform in them? The lines between your qualifications and mine begin to get a little cloudy. Are yours better than mine? Significantly better? Does it MATTER?  How does one  wisely and fairly make such judgments?  Is there such a thing as “wisely enough” and “fairly ENOUGH?  And who would best know that? Or even “know that well enough”?

So you see, the waters become murky, and murkier. We don’t have the breadth and depth and pure reasoning ability to determine such things–for sure, right now.  All the more reason to explore and reflect and discuss and experiment and debate and question and consider and reconsider. After all, the lives of children are at stake. The lives of all of us are at stake, eventually.

Ever since I first heard of  the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and other, similar, inventories–somewhere around nineteen-eighty or so, I have wondered WHY there are so many SJ’s in the world, that is, Sensing/ /judging  types, and why so many of them go into public school teaching. Why do they value closure so much that they assume everyone else needs it as much as they do? Why do they accept entire systems and ways of doing things , seemingly without question and without even analysis–especially without their OWN analysis? Why do they not trust their own capacity to reflect and analyze more than they DO trust it, or , at least, SEEM to trust it?  Alas, I wonder and re-read, and discuss, at almost every opportunity, but I doubt that I am any closer to an answer.

Nevertheless, I would very much like to see more parents in the schools–parents, grandparents, all sorts of people, all sorts of ages, all sorts of life experience and expertise, all sorts of lifestyles, values, income levels, schooling experiences and degrees, etc.  I’d like to see a lot of non-parents there. I’d like to hear them–talking away, and really really  listening, and thinking about the way their own view stacks up against the views around them.    

I’d like to see schools become community learning centers–including excellent libraries– for people of all ages! Enough of  what we do now-dividing everyone  into learning groups based on ability levels, experience, age, family income, neighborhood, etc.  I’d like to see all kinds of learning going on–not just rote learning for state tests, but  many many kinds and qualities of learning–that are valued by the younger and older alike.–that are listened to by them, and thought about, and valued.

I think schools will evolve. I HOPE they will. I hope they will become meaningful and important enough to everyone–so that, eventually, everyone will become highly conscious, able, empathic, reflective, good at learning and articulating and sharing and just plain being and growing. Then, perhaps, there won’t BE an “us” and a “them.” Maybe there will just be US.    

Helping Parents Help Kids Learn

27 May

How I wish I could  reach every child and teenager who fails a grade, or fails a state test, or fails anything he or she regards as important–not just reach them, but meet them, learn everything they want to tell me about themselves, be with them for a year, at least, preferably more than that–as many years as it takes to help that student build skills and confidence, find meaning in academic work, and enjoy learning.  And how I wish I could meet their parents–and help them, and encourage them.

I don’t know how to reach so far just yet, but I surely do love trying!  

When I first started my website, I corresponded with parents and kids in both the United States and Europe–people I had never heard of before, people who had never heard of me. It was wonderful–and it made a difference, not just in attitudes, but in learning, and in school grades–even though I never saw or spoke to them in person, even though I never set foot in their home or in their school, even though I never so much as glanced at their textbooks.

I put a message on Twitter today, asking parents of children and teenagers who failed the state NCLB (No Child Left Behind) tests to write to me. A little crazy, I know, but, so often,  parents feel so bad when their kids fail something they regard as important that they do the exact opposite of what would help: they feel bad in solitude and silence.  I would like to encourage those parents to speak! Speak to SOMEONE you might trust, someone who might care, someone who might know how to open up a sense of possibility for you, and for your child.  Take a step in the direction of hope,  a step beyond lamenting.

Sometimes I feel exasperated and cynical when I hear how schools and districts and state education departments respond to the news that their children are failing. I read an article recently in which one parent asked  if schools HAVE to do what the Federal Government says with regard to firing the principal and getting rid of half the faculty. “No,” came the answer, “but we get Federal dollars that way.”

How terrible.

I read another account about how teachers feel when they’re continually being asked to toss out their old program and try a new one–often even before they have become really comfortable with the old one.

I read another comment about how confusing it is for kids to have the approach to a school subject changed over and over. How are they supposed to master anything, when the texts and methods are forever changing?

Which brings me to my first concern: We need to be there for the KIDS’ sake. And these words need to MEAN something–to the kids, especially. In my experience, kids know who’s “there” for them, and who isn’t, so  I’d like to ask them: “What adult is there for you? And how can you tell?”   And then I’d like to listen, even write down their answers. And then I’d like to reflect for a while.

Do they say:  “My mom always listens when I talk”?  And “My dad puts his arm around my shoulder, and kind of rubs my shoulder, and then he says “I’m sorry, Son. I  know you did your best”?   Do they praise teachers?   Do they relate that their teacher says, “I know you feel bad about failing that test. Let’s see what we can do to get a better score next time–or understand that kind of problem next time”? Or does some other caring adult say:  “Boy! It’s so FRUSTRATING to fail that darn math test, especially after you worked so hard on math this year”?

Kids recognize kind tones of voice, kind gestures, empathy, understanding words.

Compare such tones, gestures, and words with these: “How many times have I told you that you have to buckle down and WORK? School isn’t play time, you know!  If you would just sit still and pay attention when I am talking, you would learn something! If you would just do your homework every night, you would be passing. All right, no intramural sports for YOU! No going  on the camping trip for  YOU!  No  computer games for YOU!  Or, “Why can’t you be like your brother–always doing well, and making us proud?”  Or, “Don’t come to me with your troubles. I work hard for a living. School is your business, not mine. Deal with it.” Or, just “Suck it up. Get over it. There are worse things in life.”    

Or with these: “I was never any good at math in school  either.” Or “It probably runs in the family. Your father  never did very well on tests.”  Or “We don’t know English well enough to help you.” Or “We weren’t taught math that way when we were your age.”  Or “I always hated English. Still do. Only read when I have to.”  

So–the first concern, for me, is that all the adults involved BE there for the kids in ways that the kids recognize and trust. If they cannot do that,  for whatever reason, I would like them to be honest about it, and just say that: “I would like to be there for you, son, but I don’t really know how. I never did well on tests either. But let’s sit down and talk about what might be helpful for you, and then let’s try to do that.”

The second thing: Understanding how a particular child feels about school–both the academic side and the social side–even about the physical place, about homework, about receiving help, about competing with siblings and friends, with the opposite sex–about any of the countless things that affect his or her attitudes about school and behavior in school.

The third is Understanding how the child or teenager prefers to learn academic subjects or any subject or skill. For some, it might be obvious. Some concentrate in silence, some in noise. Some like to be quizzed. Some don’t. Some get lost on page one. Some would rather just sit down and read the book themselves.   Some like  to discover their own method; some want to be told every step. Some like to review. Some find review a waste of time. Some can tell you “where they get lost.” Some go blank and can’t give you any clues at all. Some learn best by teaching a skill to someone else. Some learn better from peers than from adult teachers. Some need to visualize things. Some need to hear things. Some need to try out things–practice, experiment, explore, follow someone’s lead, break things down, start at the beginning, start at the end and work backwards. Some would find it exciting to use their skills in “the real world.” Some would prefer a hypothetical approach.

Perhaps all of these possibilities are regarded as common sense by most people, but, in my experience, they are not common knowledge. I have never heard teachers explore such things at the beginning of a class or a semester. Nor have I ever heard  family members explore and share their similarities and differences in these areas–before there is a crisis, or even after there is one.

I would like to see these things tried.

But here’s one I value above all these others: It is wonderful to know parents and other adults who are still LEARNERS. It is wonderful to think about how they learn, to watch them learn, to celebrate how they learn, to enjoy how they learn. This, however, is even more rare!  I call these parents PROCESS PARENTS. It thrills me to see parents and other adults who are still willing to be beginners,  who are open to learning this year, today, at this age,in this subject area, in areas I never  even imagined, in large, difficult ways, in small, even playful ways. Advanced skills are lovely to observe, to hear about second-hand, to marvel at, to enjoy. But  it thrills me when adults say, “I always wanted to learn how to play the cello, a Celtic harp, a hammered dulcimer, African drums. I always wanted to learn to cook, to bake bread, to make bagels, to make peanut butter fudge, to grow pumpkins,  string beans, kiwis, to make a bird house, to fly a kite, to jog, to sing, to write a song, to quilt, to work with clay, to build something with wood or stone, to pour concrete, to play tennis, to swim, to climb Mt. St. Helen’s, hike across the Grand Canyon, drive around the United States,  run for charity, run for an office, do watercolor,  sew, go back to school, get a degree, backpack, see where my ancestors came from, actually walk where they walked.

It is wonderful to see them get beyond wishful thinking! It is wonderful to meet learners of any age–thrilling. They live acts of faith today, they “go out not knowing.” They explore. They discover. Their spirits are awake and alive, and full of persistence and courage. How wonderful–not just for the one who is learning, but for the rest of us who witness it, and feel, again,  that sense of possibility.     


Thinking About How Kids Get Left Behind, and About How They “Catch Up”

24 May

There was an article from the Tacoma News Tribune on the internet not long ago about the announcement that Washington State was the first state to lose its No Child Left Behind waiver –which meant that the state has to fund tutoring and teacher training without the help of the Federal Government. It also seems to mean that the whole state is now considered a “failing state” because this year was to be the year that ALL students pass the state tests in Math and Reading. That didn’t happen. The article didn’t discuss how close students came, or which schools had the most failing students–or why. It was mostly about the financial penalties. (A portion of the article did mention low-income students in Pierce County, however, but did not say anything about their test scores.)

I have no fondness for standardized tests. I think there is far too much “One size fits all” thinking in this country as it is. So–I would like to spend some time reflecting on the way we measure and label kids–and the harm I think it does–to the kids, and to those  of us who used to be kids.

  I have spent my adult life working with students at every level who struggle with reading and writing and who, therefore, dread those subjects. I don’t know if most people “like” primarily what they are “good at,” and “dislike” everything else, but that’s strange, to me. I enjoy some kinds of struggle–not because they “strengthen me,” necessarily, although they probably do, not because they challenge me, although they do, but just because I like to put forth effort. It’s a pleasure. I think maybe I would sometimes go so far as to say struggle is a form of play, for me. This doesn’t mean it’s trivial to me.  I enjoy trying to lift something that is a little too heavy for me. I like the feeling of being so tired from physical work that I can’t  finish even one sentence, and fall asleep with my pen leaking ink into the pillow–my half-finished sentence still there  in the morning, waiting for me.  I kind of like knowing some of my limits. I like exploring a new language, trying to say sounds that my native language doesn’t have. I like  baking a new kind of cake, or bread, or using some ingredient I have never used before, or leaving out a familiar ingredient.  I’m just curious what will happen. 

Perhaps I can call it play or adventure because there are no serious consequences for such play. I don’t think of myself as “dumb” if my cake doesn’t rise, or if native speakers of a new language don’t understand what I am trying to tell them. We laugh together.  They know that the same thing might happen to them if they tried to speak a new language. 

So–I’m left with a couple possible explanations for this. Maybe external evaluation kills the joy of struggle. Maybe grades and standardized tests  kill the love of learning.  It seems very possible, to me.

As a child and teenager, there was a lot of pressure on me, mostly from my father, to get not just good grades, but the top grade. He never cared how I did in school, compared with other girls! He wanted me to score higher on tests than the son of his old football buddy. It was no joking matter. It wasn’t MY ego that was involved; it was HIS. He was still fighting some old battle with his friend, still feeling, perhaps, one down. It was no laughing matter for me either–because he was never teasing and light-hearted about it. At the supper table, the quizzing would begin: So what did so and so’s kid get on the history test today?” I knew from the tone of his voice that he would be angry. I knew that ninety-nine out of a hundred was, to him, a failing grade–if his friend’s son got a perfect score. “Don’t let it happen again!” he would snap, and go into a lecture about how lazy and irresponsible I was for missing a point. It was the same with sports. It was never enough just to enjoy the game. I had to WIN. I had to be the best.  It ruined those activities, for me. It wasn’t until I moved away from home and told him that I would not accept his criticisms any longer that I began to enjoy learning and think of it as an adventure.

Students who fail all the time almost always  think of  THEMSELVES as failures. We shouldn’t do that to kids.  We should, at least, give them plenty to feel good about. One can know one’s limits and still feel great–if his or her person is not directly or indirectly the object of criticism.

When students struggle with reading and math–and other school subjects, there are plenty of reasons, but that doesn’t mean they must dread those subjects for the rest of their lives. Often, as most people now know, different people learn in different ways, and for different reasons. It’s helpful to know what some of those ways and reasons are, and aren’t. 

Hardly any of my college students loved Freshman Composition. In fact, most dreaded it, and put it off as long as possible. Consequently, most of my Freshman Comp students were Juniors and Seniors. I was amazed at this, at first. Also, in my first semester at my second college, seventy-five of my eighty students cheated–had their mothers or girl friends write their papers for them, copied them from old paper files in their dorms, or even turned in papers that had just been written by classmates. They were surprised, first, that I could tell. “It’s your VOICE I’m looking for,” I would say. “HUH? What? VOICE?” It was a foreign concept. They were afraid that if they “were themselves” they would sound “dumb.”

So–we played with “voice.” “Try sounding like the President of the University in this paper,” I’d suggest. Try sounding like the policeman who stopped you for speeding. Try sounding like a film star you like, or hate, or a singer, or. . . .Writing started to feel a little like wearing someone else’s clothes–on purpose.  It became fun. We proved that even twins didn’t have the same sound on paper.  That’s when things really started getting exciting.

Then we played with “dialogue.” “Make your paper a dialogue with me,” I’d say. What’s a dialogue? A real , felt conversation where you’re really listening and open to understanding where the other person is coming from.” “Well, in real life, I would never HAVE a conversation with a teacher. Teachers aren’t real people. They,’re. . . .” “Hey, I’m just as real as YOU are.” “Oh, I didn’t mean it personally.”  Dialogue, too, became fun. My students began to find themselves entertaining.

Soon, we were miles away from where they had been at the beginning. They felt real, they felt open, transparent. They could no longer predict what they would say. They no longer counted their sentences, or their words. They no longer used words to try to impress me. Writing was becoming something more like swimming–or tennis–or dancing. It was becoming a sort of working together to see what we could understand. It involved some sense of risk, and newness. It became more open-ended. They began to say things like “Read mine first!” Or “When do you think you will have those back?” Amazing!  

NO one is left behind when learning works this way. It’s mutually supportive. It’s playful, fun, moving, serious, surprising–one of a kind. And memorable. Something worth  savoring, and saving. It’s not so much about school anymore. It’s about being a fellow human, about being alive now, and not sometime after graduation.