Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Driving me distracted

The federal government is considering whether to force states to outlaw all cell phone use while driving.  While I understand that driving distracted is dangerous, I am not comfortable with this sort of legislation.  I am reasonably comfortable with texting, web-surfing, and typing being outlawed... all of these tasks require both hands and eyes.  But, mental distraction, as in hands-free cell phone use, is not something that legislation can control.

Sure I talk on my phone while driving, but I don't begin to consider that as dangerous or distracting as the other things that I have to do.  If they really want to make me safer on the road, it is time to implement the car-top kid carrier.  The kids really drive me nuts in the car.  They fight, they throw stuff, they moan, and they cry.  They pee in their seats, eat, ask me to look at stuff ("um, no, I'll look at the road instead"), and they drop things.

What else do I do while driving?  I sometimes eat. I almost always drink soda.  I reach for a tissue and blow my nose.  I keep my dog out of my lap, she weighs 70 pounds.  I reach for my sunglasses.

What don't I do behind the wheel?  I never text or read email or websurf.  I don't apply make-up or do my hair.  I don't apply nail polish.  Should we also address the legality of all of these things?  I see people applying make-up behind the wheel all the time.

How about instead of legislation to outlaw distractions, we make people more culpable for damage they inflict by being irresponsible? 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I have a student signed up for a course.  This course is a study abroad offering.  Thus, there is a lot of paperwork and planning required.  Most of this rests on me.  But, there is a substantial amount of planning and preparation that I have to require of the students.

This year, one of my students has, thus far, failed to complete a single piece of this preparation on their own.  His mother has been the main point person on every piece of paperwork, documentation, and meeting.  His mother has finished the papers, sent the emails, contacted me, and sent apologies. 

What will this child do when he gets his first job?  Will she serve as a go-between for his boss?  Will she wake him up so he can get to work on time? 

Kid.  You are in your 20s.  You are a college student.  You want to live "independently".  With that kind of power comes responsibility.

Kid.  It is time to buck up, grow up, and do the right thing.

Mom.  It is time to back off, let your kid face his own consequences, and force your kid to grow up.

I hope that I am never this mom and that my child is never this child.

Friday, December 9, 2011

New technology.

Z is working on a science project that covers innovations.  While discussing the advent of mobile phones, texting, the internet, and email - he suddenly froze.

"How did people communicate before mobile phones?"

"We waited until we got to our destination."

Wow.  Maybe someday I'll blow his mind and tell him about tv that you can't pause (and came only in black and white - with three channels and a roof antenna), phones that all have cords, and music spinning on a big black vinyl record.

Suddenly it makes more sense that I need reading glasses.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dear Abby thinks "Worst First"

A "working mom in Kansas" asked Dear Abby this morning how old her child needs to be before she can leave them alone at all.  Abby's response can be found here:

Essentially, her answer is never, because something could happen.

Here is my response...

Dear Abby,

On 8 December, you responded to a working mom that wanted to know at what age a child can be left in the house alone. You responded “I don’t think children should be left alone if there is any alternative…” because “Too many things can go wrong…” This is a classic example of what Lenore Skenazy ( refers to as “worst-first” thinking. Because of rare tragic things that could happen, we will handicap our children’s ability to gain from the many positives associated with this kind of independence. Further, we will handicap this parent’s finances and their ability to shop alone for brief periods of time.

Can you really not imagine any age where a child is capable of being left alone in their home? Not at 8? Or 11? Or 14? Or 17? How is it that these children will learn to be capable adults if they don’t get to practice gaining increments of independence under the (sometimes remote) supervision of their parents or guardians? Is this why, as a professor, I see college students today that are incapable of facing the regular bumps and glitches of daily life without calling on their parents to fix their problems for them?

Perhaps instead of “never”, we can look for indicators that a child is capable of short time periods home alone. In that each child develops differently, the right age for gaining responsibility and freedom will be different. Here is one article highlighting the signs of readiness: After experimenting with leaving them home during short errands, children can gain confidence and earn additional freedoms. Practice can help children gain confidence in solving their own problems on the road to becoming capable adults.

Instead of infantilizing our children due to remote risks, we need to empower them. If you will recall, just a few decades ago, we did that very thing. I was a latch-key kid at nine and babysitting at 11. In the 70’s, this was regular practice. Before you argue that the world was safer then, note that the crime statistics show that life is safer today than it has been since 1970 or earlier. In that time on my own, I learned how to feed myself when I was hungry, how to clean up after myself, how to take care of others, who to call when you need help, and I developed the confidence that I could take care of myself. That experience was invaluable.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Best and worst

In our recent tradition, our family reviews worsts and bests every day at the dinner table.  This way, we can all hear about the lows and highs and stay in touch with what our children love and hate about their lives.

Homeschooling my oldest child, Z, has been a long-term exercise in bests and worsts. 

Worsts first:
  • My patience is often not what it could be.  I hate what I become sometimes.
  • Homeschooling and working full-time is dodgy. 
  • How much he learns and completes is more of a reflection on me than on him sometimes.
  • We are always together.

Now, to balance us out, Bests:
  • Sometimes, he can get completely absorbed in something that fascinates him, and I don't have to make him put it aside.
  • He can always work just on the boundary of what he knows - all of his work is "high-gain".
  • He loves to learn and read, and homeschool doesn't squelch that.
  • We are always together.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

But, what about the controversy?

I am concerned about the education that my children are getting in public school.

For example, the children are taught unequivocally that the earth is round. 

There are a lot of people that believe, instead, that the earth is flat.  Isn't it unfair that their viewpoint is being treated with such disdain?  Why is it that we have this value judgment in place where we will teach one set of beliefs and not the other? It is culturocentric for us to presume to teach only one side of this controversial topic. 

Where are the discussions about the cultures that dissent on this issue?  Where are the alternative map views?

It is all about giving fair time to different perspectives.  Isn't it?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The most exciting day of school.

The most exciting school day... has no school in it.  Following, please find a list of some of the most exciting moments our kids have had learning.
  • Our eight-year-old taking on college kids in chess.
  • Our six-year-old playing with sea creatures under a microscope.
  • All three boys fishing on a boat, learning to identify fish, types of bait, how boats and waves move, how wind interacts with waves, tides, and how to work together toward a common goal.
  • Hiking in the forest and trying to catch bugs.
  • Doing long, hard, challenging workouts for months on end until you can earn the privilege of testing for the your next belt in your martial arts.
  • Disassembling furniture, and trying to put it back together again.
  • Finding a book in the library that makes them want to tuck in and read all afternoon.
  • Determining whether or not you want an item based on how many weeks allowance it would cost.
  • Negotiating deals and calculating costs in monopoly.
  • Building Lego robots, and programming them.
  • Talking about different ways of viewing the world and our culture.
  • Reading Richard Dawkins new book, and asking Professor Dawkins a question about it.
  • Holding a live hummingbird at the hummingbird festival.
  • Going to a Rennaissance Fair.
  • Practicing piano for weekly lessons - this week... "Hedwig's Theme"!
  • Learning about their uncle's sculpture.
  • Picking out a recipe and cooking dinner.
  • Going to an art gallery.
  • Playing with dry ice.
  • Building and lighting a fire.
What do these days have in common? 

Self motivation - they were learning because they were personally invested in learning something. 
Determination - they were teaching themselves to stick with something, even when it is hard. 
Pushing the bounds of their knowledge and know-how - they were stretching themselves in new and different ways. 
Responsibility - they were empowered to try something out, even at the risk of minor injury, to learn to take care of themselves and make good choices.

These are the features that we should be looking for in quality, high gain schoolwork.  Not more, just more interesting.  While all schoolwork can't do all of this, all school work should do some of this.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Interestingly, there is an ongoing movement among schools to reduce all kinds of experiential learning.  The movement doesn't really go by that name, it goes by - "anything could happen, we need to keep our children safe", "we can't do that in these litigious times", and "it costs too much".

Schools protect children from scary things like poison ivy and insects, and thus cancel most outdoor learning opportunities. Schools forbid teaching from having plants, animals (of all kinds) and soil in the classroom. Schools reinforce cultural fears of the natural world by forbidding any food that was not processed and wrapped in an industrial setting.   Let's send the little tykes off to school wrapped in bubble wrap and, for Pete's sake, don't let them run at recess - they could skin a knee!

Dissections are being replaced with virtual frogs... because, of course, all frogs are two-dimensional, color-coded, there is no individual variation in organs, and textures/structures are not relevant.   People are worried about frog rights (there are some relevant points here, but the experience cannot be satisfactorily simulated).  People think that kids with dissecting scissors are dangerous (how old does a kid need to be to handle a knife?  When did you get one?).

My son learned about how seeds grow into plants by... coloring then cutting out pictures of seeds, sprouts, plants, flowers, fruits, and harvest - then pasting them in order.  That, because, I guess planting a seed and watching is too hard?

There are lots of experiences that schools are skipping that go beyond using exploration.  And, these reductions take many guises.  But, ultimately, like you did - kids learn by getting dirty, getting into something, and sometimes breaking stuff, needing a band-aid, or getting poison ivy.  Our kids may be safer... but, they are bored and getting dumber.  Fun is not the opposite of learning.  Self-directed exploration is more useful than a month of worksheets.
In a few years, perhaps we can expect medical schools to abandon using cadavers in lieu of virtual people.   Forestry agents can look at leaves online.   Teachers can practice in virtual classrooms.  Nurses can practice on robotic patients.  Funny?  Guess which ones of these are already happening.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The end of a life together

For anyone that follows Melissa at Suburban Bliss, you have been following a very difficult story lately.  Melissa has been struggling with mental illness for quite some time, quite publicly.  She is clinically depressed, on and off medication, and dealing with her marriage, family, and a dysfunctional family history.  It's all there to read about.  What a tough hand to be dealt - bad enough to have the crazy family... but, the ongoing legacy (genetic, environmental, or whatever) of mental illness is obviously making it all more challenging.

Whether or not the public aspect of her struggles (her blog) has made it worse - no one can clearly demonstrate.  However, from this vast distance, over the internet... I really feel for her and her family.  Everyone is clearly in pain.   And, while her husband feels as though he is done with the good fight, and Melissa seems to struggle to figure out what normal is, and their children are in the middle of all of this.  We can all take a moment to send our best wishes to all of them that they can sort out their family life in the most positive way for all involved, maintain their health (mental and physical), and learn a new way to get along.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The correct way to do it.

I took a child to the doctor for wart removal some time ago.  The doctor pointed out that there are about a dozen approved treatments to treat warts.

"Which means, of course, that none of them are really good.  If there is a really good treatment, it becomes the treatment of choice".

Why aren't there dozens of books out there with the following titles?
  • A dozen different tools to drive a nail into wood.
  • Which way do you want to address your envelope?
  • Different solutions to 2+2.
  • Which way should you punctuate "I'm"?
  • How you should sit in a chair.
Right, because pretty much, if I have a nail, a hammer looks like a good tool for the job.

So, when we see hundreds, thousands, or even more titles in a "How to" section - that indicates that there is not just one solution that works for everyone.

Which sections of self-help guides are full of titles?
  • How to lose weight and stay in shape.
  • How to be an effective teacher.
  • How to be an effective learner.
  • How to be the most effective and loving parent.
  • How to have a happy and successful marriage.
There are some universal truths.  People like to be treated fairly and with respect.  People like to connect with other people.  People like to feel valued.  But, how to do that and achieve your goals will vary depending on the dynamics of the situation.

Suffice it to say, we should all recognize that there is no such thing as one size fits all education, parenting, or marriage.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Get a good workout - for your brain.

When we go to the gym to get some exercise, we accept that, to get any bang for our exercise buck, we need to feel like we are working hard.  You want to break a sweat, maybe feel a little sore later, struggle with the last repetitions in a set, and breathe hard.  To make your body stronger and more fit, we accept that we need to work.  Hence, we call this process - working out.

Likewise, if you ask too much of a gym workout - you either won't succeed (you can't lift the whole stack without working up to it).  Alternatively, you may finish it but be too sore to follow through and go back to the gym the next time.

It seems to me that learning is the same process.  So, it shouldn't surprise us that to make gains in learning and understanding new ideas (algebra, for example)... we should feel like we are struggling a little.  Wrapping our minds around something new doesn't come easily.  So, if you aren't feeling like you are struggling a bit - you probably aren't making gains.  Obviously, if you can march through your schoolwork without really paying attention to it - it is too easy and you won't make gains.  Similarly, if it is too hard - you won't be able to struggle to the answer - no gains again.   Thus, one real key to education seems to be finding the "sweet spot", just the right level of difficulty.

Another key to education, which can be very difficult to develop, is a willingness to struggle.  We intuitively want things to come easy and make us feel smart.  But, to really figure something out, some degree of struggle seems to be necessary. If we frustrate too easily, we will miss these new insights.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What does handicapped mean?

My father lives in a retirement community.  When asked how he is feeling, he generally answers that he feels good.  And, generally, he does.  He does, however, have his third new heart valve, shoulders that don't allow him to raise his arms, neuromas that cause pain and numbness below his knees, and a variety of other aches, pains, and challenges.  When asked about any of those items - he, like most of the more well-adjusted residents, would answer that "everyone has their issues".

Issues are not restricted to the old-folks home.

Whether it is a bum knee, hearing loss, digestion issues, eyesight degradation, memory loss, attentional deficits, social deficits, dysgraphia, dyslexia, or some other deficit - everyone has their issues. No one is perfect.

I read an inspirational post at this morning that shows a handicapped boy wheeling himself to camp.  The other parents are horrified that this poor child has to wheel himself with his friends down the road to camp.  The kid's friends had to get their bikes to keep up with his speed-demon wheeling.   Which kids are handicapped?  It is the ones that aren't allowed to walk on their own or the ones that are forced to?

Early on in my teaching career, I had a student that was "handicapped".  In that I teach field courses with some rigorous physical activities, early in the semester I pulled him aside.

"I see that you have issues with your arm.  You look very capable.  I just want to let you know that if you are ever asked to do something that is difficult or challenging - just give me a nod, and I will understand.  Do you have any specific limitations that I should know about?"

"Nope.  I'll be fine."

Boy, was he ever serious.  This one-handed boy toted canoes, paddled canoes, pulled nets, went through samples, shoveled, and did everything everyone else did - plus some.  What a great kid.  This kid hadn't accomplished a lot despite his disability - his disability gave him the fire to accomplish whatever he wanted to.  How did he do it?  I couldn't even tell you... I saw the kid tote a canoe and paddle it, and I am still not sure how one paddles one-handed.  He's an accomplished fisherman too!

High school football?  Sure - he played until his father didnt' allow him to - after his good arm was shattered in a particularly rough tackle.  I knew him after he'd recovered from his football injury.  This kid was a perfectly normal, if motivated, bright, and active young man.

No one ever told this kid what he couldn't do - so, he found a way to do whatever was thrown his way.

If we are defined by our actions rather than our words or our shortcomings... we need to take whichever issues life throws at us, however big or small, and succeed however it takes and however we define it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What we do when there are no screens to watch.

We have loads of fun:
We bounce:
We fish:
We learn:
We explore and find stuff:
We laugh:

Why do they seem to miss the screens so much - it is so much fun without them?

Mothering Philosophy

I was reading about a homeschooling writing curriculum and encountered the writer's mission statement about parenting. It occurs to me that I write, revise, consider, and reflect on my "Teaching Philosophy" at least annually. But, I have never put together a statement of my goals, objectives, methodology, and philosophy of parenting. It that important? I find revisiting my teaching philosophy helps me re-focus my efforts and teach in accordance with my stated goals.

Maybe I should, from time-to-time, revisit my parenting philosophy to re-center myself as a parent?

Here is my first second run... it will change... again .

My primary goal in parenting is to produce contributing members of society. To meet this goal, the children need to have a strong work ethic, be honest, be compassionate to others and their environment, demonstrate good decision-making and critical thinking skills, have rich intellectual lives, develop positive social skills, and maintain healthy lifestyles.

We meet these goals by both modeling good behavior and by giving them opportunities to develop the habits and skills to make wise choices and develop broad interests.  We are loving parents and try to show our love both outwardly and in our words and actions.  We provide a nurturing environment, but not at the cost of expecting the children to behave in a caring and compassionate manner toward others and toward their environment.  Respecting other people and the natural environment comes with experiencing both and learning to reflect on others' perceptions of the world around them.  Exposure to different habitats, organisms, environments, and cultures and reflections on these is part of our conscious experience.

Both of us work outside of the home and regularly share facets of how we strive for excellence in our work and in completing work around the home. We expect them to participate in home maintenance in age-appropriate ways and expect them to contribute, where possible, to our home environment. We communicate with one another respectfully and we share tasks and responsibilities. We are honest with one another and act as a team in our choices, expenses, and rewards. 

Both of us are educated and continue to demonstrate our love of learning both in our professional disciplines and in a broad range of other areas as exemplified by our reading choices, asking questions of others, visiting museums and other cultural events. The children are encouraged to participate at age-appropriate events and levels in all disciplines. We encourage reading, model reading of fiction, non-fiction, and news-media and include reading aloud with the children as a part of our daily lives. We also pursue intellectual growth and development in engineering (for example, our participation in Lego League), the arts, and the humanities.

We try to give them age-appropriate opportunities to make their own choices and carry responsibilities. These include encouragint them to own and handle tools, cook, to participate in water sports and outdoor activities independently, solo exploration, and time alone to pursue their interests. In this way, they can develop problem-solving abilities and learn when to seek help and how to do so.

We model healthy choices in our day-to-day lives. We eat conscious of the impact our choices have on our bodies and our environment. We are active in organized sports, fitness activities, and outdoor exploration. We maintain regular schedules for sleep. We maintain a household that both leaves room for ongoing exploration and examination of living things (pets and so on), as well as is relatively tidy and organized.


Just in reading this first try - I reflect on things that I do that do not reflect my philosophy as stated (e.g. I shout - sometimes a lot). As expected, deliberately examining my parenting philosophy suggests areas where I wish to improve how I exemplify what I wish to see in them.

Truthfully, though, I am in the classroom for 12 hours a week - all hours for which I am caffeinated and "on". My parenting time isn't always the "best of the best". It will be much harder to live this all of the time than it is to meet my goals in the classroom. My kids get both my best (most "on", most loving, most patient, most interested)... but, they also get my worst (most overtired, most overwrought, most hurried). I get their best and worst as well.

Early onset dementia...

So, I'm reading a work email on my iPhone and I realize that I'd better call someone to look into this problem. So, while carrying around this email and musing on its implications, I walk around my house looking for (you guessed it) - my iPhone.

Just me?

Um, maybe you should look in your hand?!

Friday, June 24, 2011

To thine own self be true.

While it is not clear that Polonius meant the same by this phrase as I do here, it is important stuff.

"To thine own self be true."

Polonius may well have meant by this to have your actions consistent with what he considered to be good character - represent yourself well by your actions.  Today, we extend this expression to include that one's actions should be consistent with one's ideals, beliefs, and thoughts - that we may know the person by their actions, deeds, and expressions.

This is so important to live.  People are happier, more comfortable in their own skins, self-assured, when they behave like the people they are.  This is the kind of message that we impart to children (our own, our children's friends, and in my case - also my students).

Our children should let their actions and words reflect themselves - and the best of themselves.  This can be a self-check to insure that they are keeping their thoughts, minds, and deeds healthy and compassionate.  If you wouldn't say it or do it in front of your grandmother - you shouldn't say it or do it.

We need, however, to be aware of what this expression means to a broad diversity of people.

I attended a meeting last week... there was a young man there who was worried. He was moving to a foreign country and he was worried about how he would be perceived.  What if he wanted to date someone local, would it be legal?  Could he just be himself there?  Would he need to worry about being arrested?  Should he lie about who he is?

As a married, middle-aged mom - I don't have tothink about this; I can give my husband a kiss in public, hold hands, and share an intimate moment on date night.  But, in our ultra-religious community, if I were gay - whether I could express myself safely would be a constant theme in my life.  To whom can I be honest without worrying about repercussions for myself, my children, my partner, my job...

We need, as compassionate people, to find a way to let people be true to their own selves.  As long as everyone involved in any relationship is consenting (and able to consent) - no one else need worry or even think about what dynamics are involved.

If you never have - attend a PFLAG meeting, it may open your eyes.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ugly and counterproductive.

At one of my favorite blogs today, there is a battle going on.  It is the same old story - mommy wars.

In this case, it has to do with premarital sex and who has the goods on the right way to prevent it, deal with it, or educate children.  This is the same old thing though... people trying to make themselves feel better by belittling others.  It is as though we never grew past the "mean girl" stage in middle school.

Did you breastfeed your kids? 
In public?
No, really, did you exclusively nurse for long enough?
Did your child lead weaning?
Did you cut them off when nursing wasn't appropriate anymore?
Do you feed them right?
You didn't give solids too soon, did you?
You don't give them junk food?  Or (gasp) soda?
Did you work out of the house?
Are you setting the example that moms should be separated from their children?
Are you able to be nurturing when you are away all day?
Did you stay home?
Are you sending the wrong message about the capabilities of women?
Do you hover too much?
Are you there enough?
Do your kids get dirty?
Don't you let them play outside?
Do you take them to a house of worship?
Is it the right one?
If not, how will they know right from wrong?
Did you homeschool?
How will they ever be socialized?
Do they go to public school?
How will they ever learn the right stuff?
Do they go to private school?
Isn't that elitist?

Is is just possible that there is more than one way to raise children and have it work out?

How about we just try to support one another?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Math phobia - it's contagious.

I have been reading a lot recently about how much much we lack in math.  "Math skills are lacking".  "Kids hate math".  "Math curricula flawed".  "U.S. behind in math and science training".  I attribute no small part of that to the teachers themselves.  I am not implicating the curricula (which definitely lack).  I am not blaming the children.  It isn't just that parents have trouble helping in new (new, new, newer) [name your mathematics teaching revolution here] math.  I think that we need to start with the teachers.

I didn't just decide to vilify other teachers overnight. This notion has grown over a decade of observing teachers. I've watched lots of teachers... daycare teachers, elementary education teachers, elementary education counselors, high school teachers, other college professors, and teachers of teachers (college education professors).  Over and over, I see the same behavior, hear the same concerns, and when students here these words over and over - they learn that this approach is acceptable, normal, and correct.

"I hate math".  "I can't do math".  "When I heard that there was math involved, I quit".  "Math is too hard for me".  This is what I keep hearing teachers say.  Sometimes, I have heard this in front of students.  Sometimes, it is just the attitude that they carry into the classroom.

If kids hear that math is scary, bad, difficult, and not worthy of  working hard to learn - what do you suppose that they learn?

At a recent teaching conference, for college professors, a math professor used a mathematical concept as the grist for examining a new teaching method.  They chose an easy topic, so that we could focus on how the method works.  The concept that we covered (just as grist for exploring a teaching method), was learning the characteristics of the following quadrilaterals: rhombus, parallelogram, square, rectangle, and trapezoid.    I was gobsmacked - the math fear evoked by learning (oooooh) SHAPES had some college professors ready to walk out.  Other college professors laughed in their seats that, "I don't do math", and they listened, but didn't participate.

If a generation of college professors finds it amusing, acceptable, and even funny that they can't describe four-sided shapes - no wonder our math teaching is going to hell in a handbasket.

Folks - I get it, you found math intimidating.  But, as teachers, you have a responsibility to approach learning as fun exercise.  You will never find me telling my students that I don't do english,  I don't do writing, I don't do art, music, or whatever.  I certainly recognize my weaknesses - but, like fine music - even if I can't make it - I should be able to appreciate it when I hear it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

There is no replacement for experience.

I just spent all weekend at a teaching conference. The entire weekend focused on meeting our educational goals and objectives as teachers. How can we best approach facilitate learning? What can we do to enhance our connection with students and their connection with the material?
The same keywords continue to surface: active learning, group collaboration, kinesthetic learning, repetition, seeing different perspectives of the same thing, interactive learning, and using multiple modalities.
This morning, while looking for other information on pedagogy, I encountered yet another website that proposes that online (simulated) dissection is better than the real deal (sponsored by, who else, PETA). They provide no evidence to support this contention. I would freely support these amazing virtual experiences as support for the real thing. But, the virtual experience does not replace the real thing. Two-dimensions cannot convey the same information as three. Online, you can't see texture. Online, you can't move things aside, examine connections, feel internal structures, or change your angle.  The online versions don't show individual variation. In a lab, students can wander around and see differences between individuals corresponding to sex, size, age, and just individual quirks.  All of the aspects that the virtual experience misses are informative to understanding morphology, function, development, and cementing the names of the structures in your memory.
Real dissections are multi-modal, active learning, collaborative, student-directed, kinesthetic, three-dimensional, active, and more real, applied, and relevant.
If something is worth doing - it is worth doing right.
That said, I have offered students with objections the opportunity to use virtual dissection as an alternative. I am ok with someone that has real objections not compromising their beliefs. I can say from my teaching experience, assessment, and student performance that this tool is not as effective by itself as the real deal. This has to be a choice students make.
Like all tools, we need to use dissection wisely and where we will get the most learning opportunies. When I teach about a forest - I go outside rather than watch a movie about one. From a teaching and learning perspective, this is the same thing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Losing ourselves in connectivity

I am on a kick now, reading books about nature. Specifically, I have been reading books about man's connection to nature.
We spend so much of our time talking about connections. Connections via phone, email, facebook, skype, and other electronic forms. Connecting to distant other beings that we can communicate with remotely - in our own time, responding at our leisure, and being friends at a distance. We talk about our connections to electricity, electronic media, newspapers, radio, television, and the internet.
We need to spend more time on connections. But not the ones I've already mentioned. We need to spend more time connecting with people we care about. These connections have to occur with the phone turned off, the email disconnected, and not whilst multi-tasking. The people we care for deserve to have some of our real time - without distraction. I spend much of my time carrying people here and there, fixing dinner while helping with homework, working while chatting, eating while perusing facebook, and folding clothes while nagging the kids to put their shoes away. The people we care for (spouses, children, friends, as well as co-workers, students, and acquaintances) deserve to have us really listen when they speak.
We also need to spend more time connecting to the natural world. As a field biologist, of course I consider this a crucial element of life. But, as I read more of the literature on how our exposure to the natural world informs our lifestyle, choices, mental and physical health, and relationships - it reinforces that it is worthwhile to drop everything and spend some time outside - in green space. That is, where the bugs, frogs, birds, grass, flowers, trees, and wild things are. Where the wind blows your hair and you need sunscreen. Connecting with nature grounds us, calms us, and reminds us of what is important and what we can let go. Connecting with nature enhances all of our well-being.
We can take this one step further. We need to go outside with the people we care about (leave the electronics behind). You want your sulky teen to speak with you? Take him or her fishing. It is quiet. You aren't stuck staring at each other grasping for words. The whole pace of your interaction slows down and conversation can flow to what needs to be said. Even more important, the calm and the occupation with fishing (and not confronting one another) can allow us to hear and what we need to and allow us to withhold a response if it won't help. If you've ever been a teenager, you might recall that sometimes parents need to hear about our children and reserve judgment.
If you are fishing, the conversation ebbs and flows around where the fish are active and fits easily around your activity. The self-consciousnes of bringing up embarassing or sensitive topics eases when you are fitting a conversation around the birds, fish, and flow of the water. Nervous around someone? You can't stay that way while you float around a pond or wander through a forest.
Sometimes, it isn't other people that we need to connect with. Feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or down? Take yourself outside. Take a fishing rod, a kayak, a sketchbook, a journal, your lunch, or nothing at all. Take a vigorous hike, an aggressive paddle, an intense fishing trip, a gentle walk, or plop yourself down somewhere. Take in your surroundings. Listen. Sniff the breeze. Shake your hair out. Take it easy on yourself by soaking up the world around you and reserving judgment for some other time.
Mental health, physical health, environmental health - it's out there. You just need to slow down a bit and it will come to you.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

No fun allowed, this is school.

Yesterday, I had the supreme pleasure of helping teach my son's second grade class at our college's field station. I got to teach about macroinvertebrates. This basically means mucking about in a stream, collecting bugs, and playing in mud. Ahem, while talking about stream flow, habitats, stream health (pollution, contaminants, and nutrient spiralling), and about types of macroinvertebrates and the ecological roles they play.

The kids were so excited and loved to be told to "get your hands in there, you're here to get muddy". My son's teacher, as always, scolded kids that got too excited to wait their turn, yelled at the kids that couldn't wait for an invitation and stepped (in their boots) into the stream), and looked generally aggravated. After a few moments, I gently reminded her that she could relax today - this is my classroom. And she did.

But, when the kids were all actively engaged in digging through the net and I stood back for a moment - she leaned over and said - "you know, they're all just having fun now". Apparently, she viewed that as a bad thing. She viewed having fun as being mutually exclusive from learning. She didn't see that by tying their activities back to the opening lesson - tying the message back to the mud-picking (that was giggle inducing)... they could learn and have fun.

And, that, my friends is one of the problems with education today. Learning is fun for kids until they learn it isn't. Kids are like little sponges that love to learn - until we make the process drudgery. Is it always fun? No. But, we can balance the rote exercises with active learning (and mud) to keep more kids engaged.

This, by the way, is the same teacher that blanched when I picked up a spider to share, and goggled as I taught a child how to pick up a crayfish - because I told the kid how to do it. I had the confidence that this seven-year-old could do it. Then, I told the kid that "you can't whine if you get pinched, though, you're picking it up, it's not like it's chasing you". The kid picked up the crayfish (properly), and smiled broadly enough to light up the day. That is a lesson the kid will remember.

The other fun thing - while one day soon, my son will realize that I am old (and by defintion, then) uncool. For one day, my son and his friends thought that I am the coolest mom around, with the coolest job. Even some of the other parents said so.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I like people, really I do.

But, I find too much time, with too many people, overwhelming. I need time alone to recharge. This is, of course, because I am an introvert. This doesn't mean that I dislike being social (I love being around friends). But, time spend with lots of people needs to be balanced with time to recharge.

Further, although I like the idea of going to a large party... in practice, I find that I feel lost in large social settings. I get overwhelmed and have a difficult time following conversation. My favorite party would be a gathering of four to eight people where we can talk and chat. This is why I love to invite a handful of folks over at a time to shoot pool. We are lousy pool players, but with the distraction of the pool game to follow and a not-overwhelming number of people - I can really have a terrific time.

Similarly, I found a perfect job for my predisposition. As a college professor, I spend 12 hours a week in a classroom, enjoying interacting with students (and, I really enjoy it). But, I enjoy it because I spend most of the rest of my time in my office. In my office, I am either alone or working with one or two people at a time - just right for me. At other times that I can choose, I can socialize with my colleagues over lunch or in the hall, and then return to my office to recharge.

I've always been this way - navigating public school as a child was horrific. If I hadn't been a bit of an outcast already, my inability to cope with the constant flow of people (from a crowded classroom, through crowded, chaotic halls to the next classroom) would have made me one. About 25% of people identify themselves as introverts. This really just means that they find time with people tiring and time alone revitalizing. Imagine, you extroverts out there, how you'd feel if a mandatory part of your upbringing required you to be by yourself in a room for six straight hours every day? Yeah, I thought so.

This is one of many ways that public education fails children. I would surmise (speculation only) that many (if not most) of the 25% of our population that identifies themselves as introverts find the straight six hours of public school exhausting. Like my oldest son, when he was in public school (and me, as a child) - many children get off the schoolbus at the end of the day completely wiped out. Z used to get off the bus to spend the next forty-five minutes in the bathroom. He didn't need the bathroom - he needed a quiet and private place to decompress.

This is one way that homeschooling can accomodate needs that the public school cannot. Z is happy and outgoing when he sees people now. As he no longer faces a barrage of people all day long; when he has time to socialize, he is eager to do so. He can choose to spend times with appropriately sized groups of people (generally small). He can spend time with the people that make him feel better about himself and avoid trying to navigate the complex and strange social world that we call public school. He is happier and does better with his friends in doses than he did when in a classroom all day, every day.

Some might say that lack of socialization is a problem for homeschooled kids. Bah. If the social experiences in school mimicked adult life - that would be a scary thing. In adult life, if you choose your profession well - mean girls, bullies, playground antics, and sophomoric put-downs are not part of being appropriately socialized. Part of the problem with those that believe this myth of homeschool is that teachers and psychologists, therapists and school administrators are almost exclusively extroverted and have a difficult time understanding the challenges that schools present to introverts. Further, they think that all introverts are shy - we are not. All introverts find socializing tiring - but we socialize in different ways: some by trying to control social situations, some by chatting incessantly, some by silence, some by sneering... we are all different. I only wish that I could return to my awkward kid self and reinforce that being introverted and enjoying your own company is perfectly ok. While being popular is commonly expressed as a suitable goal - would make you unhappy. Popularity is partly characterized by (hello, duh) being around other people most of the time, often in large groups.

I will take this one step further and suggest that, at the very least, while it is unrealistic to expect schools to provide private time to introverted kids - they could reinforce that it is ok, normal, and provide some better coping mechanisms for children that don't understand why school leaves them mentally exhausted. If you got here because you need this kind of reassurance - you're ok. There are jobs out there for you that can balance your (everyone's) need for social interaction with time to yourself. There are romantic partners that also can balance your need for companionship and understand your need to have time to yourself.

There are resources that understand you - here is just one, there are many more:

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Where are the paragraphs?

The last several posts were edited, complete with paragraphing. In all cases, the post showed up sans paragraphing (I added it back in, for those that have paragraphs). What gives?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Asking questions

Z has now been homeschooling for almost all of one academic year. So, what's my grade? I have been really good at exposing him at new material. Which, really means, that he has been good at it. He loves to learn and readily soaks up information. He is particularly enamored with science, math, and fantasy fiction. In science, he asks questions I can't answer. The cool thing is that I work in a building full of science professors, so if I can't answer it, someone else can (if there is an answer). In math, we had a rough start, but were able to end the formal academic year where we needed to be. We made a lot of concessions along the way in how he does the work. Lots of repetition - no. Lots of problems - no. Lots of new material - yes. Practical applications - yes. But, ultimately, he enjoys problem-solving. Reading - he would read a VCR manual if he were stuck in a room with one. He reads easily and very fast. His retention is good (kind of scary sometimes when he drops little factoids he picked up here or there). Music - We aren't great shakes here, but he takes piano lessons every week and practices some. So, he is learning about music. Where I need improvement - history, geography, and art. History - I feed him history books and take him to historical places. But, the books generally don't really light him up. He soaks up the places we visit. Geography - I bought a "really fun" geography curriculum - yeah, not so much. Art - I sporadically point him in the direction of art materials (and, I've spent a boatload on stuff). But, I am not real strong in ideas about directed art. We stunk it up this year in writing. Writing is his biggest challenge. Physically putting pencil to paper is hard for him. It is also hard for him to capture his ideas quickly enough before they get garbled. So, he is generally frustrated before he begins. We are working on his keyboard skills - as I finally felt comfortable writing when I could comfortably type. We are working on small chunks. We work on my helping him organize ideas, then he makes sentences of them. But, frankly, he is behind in his writing skills. His vocabularly, spelling, and use of words is fine. His ability to express himself on paper, though, is nearly nil. I suspect that some of this will come easier if I let him grow into himself a little. Or, maybe I am just letting him slip further? It is hard to say. Overall, though, I still want to homeschool next year (he does too). Maybe I'll start to figure him out by then. That is my hope.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Choosing kids for my class.

My kids participate in martial arts training. They work out very hard. They are always expected to do their best and try harder. Sometimes they spar and sometimes they get hurt. I think that this is good, but not because I like fighting. Life is full of bumps and bruises and if you can't learn to get up and dust yourself off, you are going to have a hard time. Mostly, these lessons are a lot of vigorous exercise with a bunch of life lessons interspersed.
  • When someone is having a bad day, they are told to regain their focus and let it go during the class - just like you have to in life when your dog just died and you still need to go to work.
  • When someone is discouraged because something comes easier to other people; they are told to look straight ahead. "You are only competing against your previous best".
  • They are reminded that rocking out the stuff that comes easy to you doesn't test their mettle nearly as much as trying their best at the stuff that comes hardest to them.
  • They find that, whatever it is that you are learning, it will come easier to some people than to others. If it is harder for you - you just have to put in the extra effort.
  • They find that sometimes the right move, done perfectly, doesn't have the intended consequence. You just have to figure it out from there.
  • There is no shortcut around putting in the time and effort.
After a frustrating day of teaching a bunch of distracted kids, the instructor said that his ideal would be to have try-outs and only accept the students that met his ideal of effort and intensity training and showed promise. And, if that ever happened, his school would not be the same place it is now. Ultimately, I think that he would regret it. If he were able to do that... his school would turn out perfectly conditioned and phenomenal fighters. There is no question that his team would be amazing. But, he wouldn't be changing lives anymore.

Here are the kids that need this Sensei the most:

  • The boy that doesn't believe that he can succeed.
  • The girl that doesn't know how to carry herself in social setttings.
  • The boy that doesn't participate in sports because he isn't confident in his abilities.
  • The girl that doesn't like her body.
  • The boy that doesn't know what to do when someone picks on him.
  • The girl that doesn't believe she can succeed in something if she doesn't get it the first time.
  • The boy that doesn't connect with his friends except through videogames.
  • All of the kids that are easily distracted, unsure of themselves, don't believe in their own power to make decisions, don't value their personal achievements, measure only their failures, and find it hard to value themselves.

I have seen children like these attend this class and slowly find their way to stand up taller. They cry less when they are sparring. They sometimes (even if it isn't always) dust themselves off and fight back when sparring. They find that with time they can do things they thought impossible. They learn that leverage is more important than brute strength (and, if that isn't a metaphor for life, I don't know what is). They find that hard work sometimes does pay off, and they might learn to value themselves.

As a teacher myself, it is really easy sometimes (especially on a frustrating day) to gravitate toward wanting to teach the "A" students. They are receptive, positive, and they get it. But, they would have learned it if a monkey taught them. They might like me and be responsive - but, they don't need me. The kids that need me are the ones whose lives I might change. They can be frustrating. They can be difficult. They can make you stay awake at night - wishing that you teach only the best-of-the-best. But, when you teach the students that need you most, sometimes one of them becomes something that they didn't believe they could. My son will probably never be a top-notch black belt. (But, who knows, anything is possible with enough grit, and he is learning to find that.) What he is learning is to believe in himself. If you truly believe in teaching, you aren't in it to make more people just like you; you are in it to make more people that find the worth in themselves. Whatever that worth is.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Really? I have a blog. How'd that happen?

What a pitiful fuck up. No, really. In my mind I regularly write clever and pithy things to post. But, that's purely theoretical. I suck at applied science (and applied blogging, apparently). I partly blame my homeschooling son. He spends a large portion of his workday (and mine) staring over my shoulder at every word I type and read. So, I actually feel compelled to work when I am at work. Sucks, doesn't it? And, on the topic of homeschooling... field trip today, yippee! So, instead of being ultra-productive... I am catching up on the old blogs and, oh yeah, I had one of those too! Oh, the other person to blame. Yeah, that's me. Here, I am. Just as pathetic as ever. But, saying hello nonetheless. Another field trip tomorrow, maybe more then?