Saturday, January 28, 2012

Being a stay at home mom is bad for your daughter!!!

(I’m so sick and tired of arguing about this.  I’m just going to quote the $300 Master’s program Educational Psychologytextbook designed to help teachers figure out why your kid isn’t achieving up to par and give you links for the pertinent reference material.  Go take it up with them.)

"Parental Employment

In today’s economy, both parents typically, are employed outside the household, making parental workplaces a common element of a student’s exosystem- that is, an indirect influence on development.  Thirty years ago, as more mothers were rejoining the workforce, researchers examined the effects on child and adolescent outcomes and did not find negative results.  Instead, a number of positive outcomes were found, particularly for girls (Hoffman, 1974):

·         Girls with working mothers tended to have higher achievement aspirations or greater desire to excel academically, as well as higher achievement in school, compared to girls with nonworking mothers.
·         Girls with working mothers tended to have higher intelligence schores (IQ scores) compared to girls with nonworking mothers.
·         Children of working mothers were not more likely to be involved in delinquent acts than were children of nonworking mothers.
·         Children of working mothers had ore household responsibilities than did children of nonworking mothers, a situation related to positive, rather than negative, outcomes, such as advanced social development.

More recent research on parental employment suggests that having both parents employed outside the home does not generally affect children in either a negative or a positive manner (Crouter & McHale, 2005).  For example, working mothers spend slightly less time with their children than do nonworking mothers; however, fathers whose wives are employed become more involved in child rearing than do fathers whose wives are not employed outside the home.  In short parental employment appears to have little impact on children and may even be related to positive academic achievement, aspirations, and intelligence among girls."

(The above material is quoted from my Foundations in Educational Psychology textbook.  I do not claim to have written the above material.  I reproduce them here strictly for educational purposes.) 

Links to the research:


Crouter & McHale

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mean Girls Suck Part 2 OR Parents, teachers and administrators have an obligation to DO SOMETHING about covert relational aggression.

                Page 39 of my was three hundred dollar, now on sale for a hundred and twenty dollars Educational Psychology textbook says that “relational aggression appears to play a more important role in peer status than does overt aggression,” and “Because popularity and aggression are related to academic engagement and later disruptive behaviors, teachers need to identify and eliminate aggressive behaviors.”

                This is the part where I tell about a disturbing instance that still causes me to fly into a rage.

                My first big Service Unit event as a Girl Scout Troop Leader was called the “Cans” film festival.  As a collective, Troops in the area host a kid-friendly movie at the local middle school, provide snacks and charge an entry fee of canned food items which are then donated to the local food pantry.  Kung-Fu Panda was the movie.  It was a great success.

                Barring one little incident.

                Our Troop was in charge of collecting and delivering the cans so during the movie the girls just visited and watched the film.  My co-leader and I wandered about keeping an eye on “proximity issues” and keeping the kids out of the hallways.  In my wanderings I happened on a little girl, about 11 or 12, bawling her eyes out behind one of those big yellow trash cans.  I asked her what was wrong and she replied, “Nothing, nothing.” But went on crying like her heart was being crushed into jam.

                Out of the corner of my eye I caught a coterie of girls peering from behind a corner, whispering to one another and I thought, “Ah-hah…  little bitches.”  At that point I gathered up Ms. Niagara Falls, handed her my six-month-old baby and said, “I need your help.” and bustled her over where we were boxing up the donated canned goods.  She sniffled for a bit but then got busy playing with little Morgan.  After she’d calmed down I asked her what had happened, why she was so upset and she still didn’t want to talk about it.  She then asked if she could call her dad to come pick her up so I gave her my cell phone.

                After she’d been picked-up, the pack of ravening hyenas who had most assuredly been responsible for the waterworks edged up to me and asked where so-and-so had gone.  “Did she go home already?  Jeeze.  She never stays to the end of things.”

                At that point I nearly committed several crimes but managed to restrain myself to the following:

                Listen up, girlies!  I know exactly what you did and I heard exactly what you said.  That kind of behavior is disgusting and you all deserve to be expelled!  You should be ashamed of yourselves!   Hurting people with words is just as bad if not WORSE than hitting them with your fists.  I hope you get the exact same treatment from your friends that you gave that girl.  I’ll bet you anything that you will, because people who treat one person like that will treat another person like that just as fast!

                Or something very close to that.

                Immediately another Troop Leader jumped in to tell me a bunch of nonsense about “girls that age” and how they have to “sort things out” themselves and that its “normal,” blah blah blah…  My response was, “So, you’d let a group of boys beat the crap out of another boy under your supervision?  That’s supposed to be normal, too!”

                Then I stormed off in a huff.

                Research on bullying, overt physical or covert relational, clearly shows that victims suffer emotionally, mentally, academically, socially and often end up hurting themselves or others because of their negative experiences.  How can we justify standing by and watching children get treated like dirt and made to feel worthless by their peers because we consider it “normal” or we think they’ll eventually “sort it out.”  Like a pack of social-jockeying hyenas, they will sort it out and the unfortunate underdogs will end up dead or gone. 

Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to spot the Mean Girl behavior but we absolutely must have a zero-tolerance policy toward it, just as we do with fighting among children.  The pricey textbook clearly states, “Given the link between relational aggression and negative outcomes, teachers should be on the lookout for instances of relational aggression and react as swiftly to these aggressive behaviors as they do to instances of overt aggression.” 

No ifs, ands or buts about it.

So.  If you are a parent, teacher, administrator or adult who works with children in some other capacity, what are you going to do the next time you hear something like this:

“Oh.  My.  God.  You totally wear the weirdest outfits to school.  Do you like wake up in the morning and take crazy pills or something?  Hahaha…  Just kidding!  Like, omigod!  Don’t be so sensitive!”

Mean Girls Suck Part 1 OR How covert relational aggression among adolescents can happen when we aren’t watching for it.

Page 38 of my three hundred dollar Educational Psychology textbook (which, I see, is now on sale for about $70.00 cheaper than what I paid for my used copy sonofa..!) says this:  “Relational aggression refers to behaviors specifically intended to damage another child’s friendships, social status, or feelings of inclusion in a peer group.  Such behaviors include gossiping, rumor spreading, and excluding someone as a way to control them.” 

We all know this as Mean Girl behavior (although research shows that boys, despite the stereotype, participate in it as well).  We all might NOT know that it is considered bullying and it is more damaging and more pervasive than overt physical aggression.

I think most of us can remember back to middle or high school and having to deal with that girl.  Some of us were, perhaps, lucky enough to belong to the inner coterie of the Queen Bee.  By compromising ourselves only just a little we were able to avoid the worst of her nastiness.  The rest of us, particularly myself, were dead in her crosshairs.

This is the part where I relate a particularly painful episode in my life and hope that I can remain honest while protecting the innocent and guilty alike:

My middle school class consisted of about 19 kids.  Most of us had been together since kindergarten.  We knew each other and our families fairly well.  There was this one girl…  Well behaved, well-dressed, academically and athletically successful.  Her parents were well-respected as were her older and younger siblings.

She was, all told, a raging, fetid nightmare.

And she hated my guts.

I was on the fringes of girl society.  The consummate  Beta.  I wasn’t pretty, trendy or cool.  I was just smart enough, funny enough and creative enough to be a threat to the Queen Bee and because I was also known for bazaar outbursts and emotional intemperance, my legitimate complaints about her meanness were overlooked as jealousy or dramatism and I suffered, suffered, suffered.

Early in my seventh grade year the girl on whom I was most emotionally dependent called my house and said that we had to “break-up” because Queen Bee thought I was a bad influence.  After half an hour of both of us bawling our heads off, me for obvious reasons, her because she is really a very kind and good person and knew she was doing something terrible, I ended up feeling horribly sorry for my friend (who eventually recanted and apologized during the tear drenched phone call) and declared war on Queen Bee.  

Much like the Allied Forces early in World War II when faced with Nazi aggression and expansion, I had previously responded to her hideousness with conciliation and effacement.  No longer!  From then on I resolved to hate, hate, hate Queen Bee and never give her a moment’s rest for being mean to me and for putting my dear friend in such an awful position.

My zero-tolerance, scorched earth campaign predictably led to an escalation of viciousness and sniping from both sides.  Her cold war tactics involved excluding me from “secrets,” snickering, jibing, the occasional nudge in P.E. and many of my belongings ending up mysteriously “misplaced.”  

My response was open, verbal aggression.  I did not sit quietly and let her answer the questions first.  I practiced the heck out of my clarinet and began to threaten her First Chair status.  I played my guts out on the volleyball court and beat her, once or twice, during skills test.  In other words, I no longer sat quietly in my Beta role…  I openly challenged her.  And had her running scared.

Queen Bee was a clever monster.  She normally kept her tactics covert and was considered to be “such a nice girl” among the adults at school who were completely oblivious to the grand campaign occurring under their noses.  But one day…  One bright and shining day when I very nearly landed myself in a mental hospital or, at the very least, suspended…  She slipped.

That momentous day I was, to a rapt audience of our boy population of juvenile delinquents, regaling the latest round of tales featuring my notorious, not-that-much-older-than-us Uncle.   My Uncle was my link to the criminal underworld of our school.  He partied with the older brothers and friends of my classmates.  He and his closest friends (one of them is now regularly featured on a very popular Discovery Channel show involving boats) were like gods to my less-than-likely-to-succeed classmates and the fact that they all hung out at my house was a source of envy and disgust among those who could barely pretend not to be interested as I related their every move, musical choice and conversation.

Queen Bee could no longer take seeing me the center of attention.  Even that attention.  In obvious agitation she blurted, “Well!  Your uncle needs counseling!”

I know now that when time seems to slow down or stop it’s actually the result of an enormous surge of adrenaline which allows your senses, reflexes, muscles and mind to operate in hyper-drive.  At  the time it seemed like magic that I was able to levitate across the room, over desks and collapsing bodies, on a trajectory which would have driven my clawed hands directly into her astonished, fear-filled face.

After that everything went sort of black.  The next thing I remember I was struggling in the grip of the second best social studies teacher and second best music teacher in the whole wide universe, Mr. Woodworth, who was shouting at the sobbing Queen Bee, “Go to the office!  I heard the whole thing!  You can’t go around saying things like that about people’s families!”

It was the best day ever.

Queen Bee is pretty much universally remembered as a “great kid” with lots of smarts, ability and potential.  When I make a remark about how vicious she was people respond sort of half-believingly and say something along the lines of, “Well, you were such an odd child.” 

It’s annoying. 

The lesson to be learned here is that even the kids who seem like the best kids…  Perhaps especially those kids… are not always the nicest people when the grown-ups have their backs turned.  Some 60% of kids in middle school have experienced or have witnessed bullying and it most often takes the form of covert “relational aggression.”  As parents and educators we need to keep our eyes, ears and hearts open for this sort of bullying and victimization.

I will, in Part 2, relate how ignoring these events can create unhealthy patterns of abuse and victimization which can stick with a child for a lifetime.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Parenting styles and your kid's teacher OR “How you are totally screwing up your kid and making my job a million times harder.”

My handy $300.00 Educational Psychology textbook had a couple of pages devoted to the description of “parenting style” and its impact of learning and behavior in the classroom.  As it “activated previous knowledge” for me (a fancy term for “Hey!  I’ve heard this before!) I got a little excited.

Mary Pipher’s RevivingOphelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls made #1 on the the New York Times Bestseller list in 1994.  It has been a standard among people who work with children and provides amazing insight into gender differences which “common sense” tells us must be “natural.”  Pipher’s opus walk us through case studies which she encountered in her many years of behavioral therapy then comments on the parenting styles which lead to, or enable girls to avoid, certain maladaptive behaviors among adolescent girls.

Both EdPsych Modules and Reviving Ophelia use a theoryput forth in 1966 by a behavioral psychologist named Diana Baumrind.  The theory measures parenting by “control” and “responsiveness.”

Control:  How many rules we have and how we apply discipline to enforce those rules.

Responsiveness:  How affectionate we are, how supportive and how involved we are in our children’s lives.

Parenting Style is placed on a corresponding grid which looks like this:

The four different parenting styles are defined as the following:

·         Authoritative:  According to both Pipher and Braumlin, this is the optimal parenting style for well-adjusted children.  It constitutes a high level of control, the setting and enforcing of rules and limits which protect children from negative outside influences while teaching them to manage themselves.  This style of parent is strict but not unreasonable.  The high level of responsiveness means parents will bend or adjust the rules depending on specific circumstances in the child’s life because they are very keyed in to what’s going on in the child’s life.
o   Application: 
§  Susie is not allowed to hang out on the playground after school with the other middle school kids.  She is expected to come straight home after school so that she can do chores and help her mother with her younger siblings.  She loves to dance, however, so her mother agrees to do her chores for her and lets her stay after school for the occasional school dance.  She is, however, expected to be out front and ready to be picked up exactly at the previously agreed upon time.
§  Roger cannot watch movies without previous permission.  His parents are very firm on not exposing him to gratuitous violence or negative depictions of women.  His class at school is screening the new Transformers movie and Roger will have to sit in the Principal’s office.  His mother has agreed to let him watch the film with his class but has a long talk with him afterward about certain unhealthy dynamics between the film’s hero and various female characters.
·         Authoritarian:  This high-control, low-responsiveness parenting style is typified by the “dictator” parent who makes and enforces rules regardless of mitigating circumstances.  While this parenting style can be harsh and stifling leading to some maladaptive behaviors especially in girls (eating disorders, cutting, suicide), under certain circumstances, such as in dangerous and/or high-crime areas or communities which suffer from high rates of alcoholism and drug abuse such parenting can counteract negative societal influences.
o   Application:
§  Susie is not allowed to interact with boys at all.  Her father has insisted that the local school separate her from her male classmates by at least one desk and is lobbying for segregated P.E. classes and recesses.  She must submit to inspection every morning to make sure that her clothing reaches to her neckline and wrists and that her skirts (which she is required to wear) fall a full four inches below her knees.
§  Roger must be home directly after school.  He is allowed to participate in sports but only if one of his parents is available to chaperone during practice and games.  He is not allowed to sleep over at friends’ houses or hang-out in the playground after school.
·         Permissive:  This low-control, high-responsiveness is fairly typical of today’s parents.  Rules are either non-existent or not enforced and the household generally revolves around the desires of the child. 
o   Application:
§  Susie has learned that she can get attention from boys in her class by wearing revealing clothing and engaging in sex acts with them.  She also manipulates the other girls in her class by spreading rumors about them among the boys.  This behavior has caused many of the other girls in the class to make her the target of some particularly nasty bullying.  Susie’s mother, concerned about how mean the girls in Susie’s class are, has written emails to the other parents accusing them of bad parenting.  She has also written to the school principal, asking that Susie’s teacher be removed for negligence.
§  Roger hates doing homework.  His father, remembering how much he hated homework as a kid, tends to sweep the issue under the rug.  His mother feels that home time is family time and does not approach the issue in order to avoid family conflict.  Roger is getting bad grades.  His parents feel that his teacher should make time during the day so that Roger can complete his homework at school.  They also suspect that the teacher is picking on Roger because of his learning disability which the school has never diagnosed but his parents strongly feel that he must have.
·         Uninvolved:  Low-control, low-responsiveness, this parenting style can basically be described as the absent parent.
o   Application:
§  Susie has been having trouble with her school work for some time now.  Her teachers have attempted to contact her parents in order to have her screened for a possible learning disability.  A routine health check by the school nurse has revealed that Susie is in need of corrective glasses which could explain her difficulty in algebra.  Her teacher, relieved and encouraged by this news, has moved her closer to the board but would like to see Susie taken to an ophthalmologist.  She has yet to hear back from Susie’s parents.
§  Roger has received detention three times since the beginning of the school year for bringing inappropriate reading material to class.  Because of the graphic nature of the material and the frequency of violations the principal is considering suspension but feels he should speak with Roger’s parents first.  Roger’s father, after a week and a half, finally returned the principal’s phone call but simply made some noncommittal noises, ending the phone call with “Well, boys will be boys.”

We all, as parents, fall somewhere on this scale.  It is helpful to know the ramifications of our rules or lack-thereof.

This is another one of those cases that can first seem very invasive and inappropriate for you kids’ teacher and school to be prying into.  What are they going to do next?  A home safety check?  (Well…  In extreme cases, the school is legally obligated to refer cases to the local Child Safety office so, yes.)  You can see where different parenting styles are going to directly effect the relationship your child has with school and their teacher.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Bronfenbrenner’s what?

 I am currently enrolled in a class called Educational Psychology- EDFN (Education Foundations) 603.

If you would like to see what a $300.00 textbook looks like, click here.  I was lucky enough to purchase mine used (covered in highlighting and other random scrawl) for $180.00 through the UAA University Bookstore.

Our text is organized in “Modules” which begin with a series of “case studies” (little stories) focusing on different age levels from Pre-K to High School.  Our first reading assignment has us learning about and exploring psychological terminology as it applies to education.  Yes, you understand correctly, your child’s teacher must have a working familiarity with your child’s psychological functioning in order to effectively teach.  Of course they would!  Why wouldn’t they?  They are professionals, are they not?

It describes the system of interactions between your child as a person and their environment, including your environment as it interacts indirectly with your child.

The graphic in my textbook shows a smiling kid backed by four little circles which read “childcare facility,” “peer group,” “school,” and “family.”  Another that I’ve seen skips the daycare and reads “religious institution.”  Those four little circles are considered “Microsystems” with lines called “Mesosystems” representing the interaction between spheres such as a parent’s (ie “family”) relationship to “school.”  Outside of the “Microsystems” are the “Exosystems” which include such things as the “Media,” “Community” and “Parental Employment.”  Outside of that are “Macrosystems which include “Culture,” “Economics,” and “Society.”  Alongside my graphic is a dotted line labeled “Chronosphere” which is means all of the above over a period of time.

My version of Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological model looks like this:

All of these factors, interacting together, effect who a person is, how they behave and how well they are going to be able to learn.  It is therefore important for educators to be aware of these factors and how they interact.

I was going to dissect my oldest daughter for your viewing pleasure but I’ve decided that the poor kid has to be my show pony often enough.  I would encourage everyone to think long and hard about each of the above boxes and consider what your own child’s “Permanent Record” has to say. 

Some of us may jump on the “Well, it’s none of their dang business!” bandwagon immediately.  It is a little daunting, the idea of educators prying into our home lives, our churches, what we do for a living.

But, let’s think about this.  Ms. So-and-so is trying to conduct a class and Little Jimmy is going through a rotten divorce.  His mother has taken off to the Bahamas with his babysitter and left him and his 8-month-old little brother home with his dad who is barely making ends meet on a two week on, two week off Slope schedule.  When dad’s at work Little Jimmy and his brother stay with his Grandma who is 80-years-old and too blind to drive.  Add to this that they are new in the school district and Little Jimmy is one of two Euro-American kids in a predominately Alaskan Native school.

Is Ms. So-and-so going to give Little Jimmy a “0” on a missed homework assignment that he forgot at his dad’s house and can’t get to because dad’s at work and Grandma doesn’t have a car?  Is Ms. So-and-so going to give Little Jimmy detention for falling asleep during Social Studies for the third time when she knows the baby is teething?  Is Ms. So-and-so going to kick Little Jimmy out of school for fighting (first offense) the local bully?

Probably not.  Ms. So-and-so wouldn’t really be a very good teacher if she did.

From a personal perspective, all of the above is way more than daunting!  I love introducing kids (older kids…  I get a little freaked out if they can’t wipe their own noses) to the big ideas of the world.  I like initiating conversations about politics, history, anthropology, to help them figure out what makes people and the world tick.  I don’t want to psychoanalyze the little darlings or do an intensive background check on their parents.  As far as I’m concerned, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas and when they’re in my class the rest of the world only exists in abstract.

If only that could be true.

Stay tuned next time for the four basic parenting styles and their impact of school performance...

Who are you to tell me...?

I have a couple of hostile aunts who think that I share my opinions too often.  The quote was something like, “Not everyone wants to know what you think.”

You can read my previous post about the cousin who dropped out of college before midterms if you’d like to figure out how that little family spat came about.

Since I’ve put my darling 8th grader back into “the general population” as she puts it in order to facilitate my participation in my Masters of Arts in Teaching program, I’ve decided to continue our little “homeschooling” adventure with commentary on the curriculum I encounter.

Have you ever felt scrutinized and judged during parent-teacher conferences?  Have you felt nervous, wondering if your life was being graded along with your child’s work?  Have you ever wondered what, exactly, qualifies a teacher to pass judgment on you and your life and give you advice on your kid? 

Me, too.

I LOVE all of Colleen’s teachers, I know I go WAY above and beyond the call of duty regarding her educational enrichment, but when it comes to Parent-Teacher Conference time I get all sorts of sweaty.  What does that failed spelling test say about my shortcomings as a parent?  How am I letting my daughter down?  Is that “C” in band because I told her to quit practicing while I was trying to watch that episode of Sherlock?

So…  Hopefully my exploration of this curriculum will give me some insight as to what it is teachers are looking for and some tricks they use to help kids become better students.  It’s supposed to make me into a good teacher, right?  It better, for the price I’m paying for it.

Seventh Grade College Prep?

Short answer:  Yes.

Most college readiness timelines start with Middle School.  They emphasize building good study habits, preparing for high school classes and exploring extra-curricular interests.  The gist is that Middle School is generally when kids start changing classrooms for each subject, becoming responsible for more work outside of school and really becoming challenged organizationally.  Seventh grade, sometimes sixth, is a crucial time for students and parents to set the tone for the rest of the student’s academic career.  If you are still cleaning out your child’s backpack at Christmas in their first year of Middle School… you already have a problem.

I’ve heard stories about parents complaining to teachers that their children have too much homework, that they have no “family time” and/or can’t make it to their hot yoga classes.  I have a cousin who dropped out of college just before midterms of her Freshman fall semester.  Just after the final date of partial refunding of her money.  She and her parents were out a chunk of change that measured in the five digits.  Not including the decimals. 

My cousin’s major complaint:  She had “like six hours of homework a day!” 

Newsflash:  A full-time college load is 12 credits.  That is, usually, four classes.  For every credit hour, the general rule is to expect one hour in class and three hours of work out of class.  PER WEEK!!!  If you figure that up, you end up with 12 hours class time and 36 hours of HOMEWORK.  PER WEEK!!!!

Homework is your (and your child’s) friend!!!

Teacher’s assign homework in our District on a formula of minutes per grade.  Kindergarteners have five minutes a night, first graders ten, second graders 15 and so-forth.  By the time a child reaches seventh grade they should be doing at least forty minutes of homework a night.  This isn’t intended to punish your child for not getting their work done in class.  This isn’t intended to cramp your social life or cut into your television time.  This is intended to build up those homework muscles so that your child develops healthy study skills which will carry them through high school and into college. 

Major tip:  Your child will complete their homework faster and easier if you give them a spot near you to do it and you TURN OFF THE TELEVISION .

Not college bound, you say?  Vocational schools expect students to study and complete projects outside of class time.  Sometimes to a greater degree than a traditional liberal arts college.

Be talking to your child about what they think they will be doing with themselves after high school.  Emphasize that they must choose to do something.  Let them know that they can change their minds and do something else whenever they like but that high school will, eventually, come to an end.  Be sure they understand what your feelings are about them living with you (I’m cool with my kids staying here forever…  my partner, not so much).  Give them opportunities to explore different career options.  Send away for college view books.  Take them on a tour of your local Vo-Tech school.  

Most importantly, give them a clean, quiet, supervised spot to do their homework so that they can develop the strength to succeed regardless of their life choices.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

On Being Gifted

                Time did strange things in school.  The seconds would creep across the clock, taking a breathless eternity between one tick and the next.  In their torturous journey whole universes existed.  Meanwhile, light bent and warped until all the eyes in the classroom were collapsing into me like some horrid, exasperated singularity.

                “Ummm…” I would squeak.  “What?”

                In Kindergarten my teacher, a veteran professional, was convinced that I must be autistic.  In the second grade I spent two terrifying weeks in a room with several cheerfully aggressive students who, looking back, must have had Down Syndrome or FAS and were three times my size.  I remember crying and gluing stars on a cut-out Christmas tree.  My third grade teacher felt I needed to be held back and told my mother that I was an incorrigible discipline problem.  I’ve been accused of plagiarism, cheating and referred to psychologists. I’ve been the target of frightening spats of temper from otherwise professional educators.  I’ve experienced bullying from my classmates and have been so miserable that I would weep at just the thought of school. 

Such can be the experience of the so-called “Gifted” kid in a regular classroom.  From kindergarten until the seventh grade when my “ability” was finally diagnosed, I was screened for various and sundry popular disabilities as I habitually frustrated my teachers, disrupted my classmates and confused the heck out of my family who knew me to be intelligent and did not understand why I was struggling socially and academically. 

My experience is not unusual among the “Gifted.”  Through a fluke of genetics some children can process information differently than others.  Sometimes faster, sometimes just differently.  To a young person who doesn’t have the information and perspective to understand why they are different, it doesn’t feel like a “gift” it feels like a curse. 

Imagine if someone took away your Big Wheel tricycle and expected you to operate a sports car without any training at five- or six-years-old.  Now imagine being punished and humiliated for wrecking the thing.  Being “Gifted” is a little like that.  A “Gifted” student has all sorts of powerful and specialized equipment and often no guidance on how to use it.  These kids become agitated, bored and depressed.  They, their teachers and their classmates become locked into a little dance of disruption.  They are the class clown, the geek, the explosive temper who gets sent to the principal’s office every day.

“Gifted” kids are often thought to be high achievers, the kids who enjoy and do well in school.  Because of that stereotype, “Gifted” programs are underfunded or not funded at all.  When a school district’s resources are stretched thin providing for kids who are not testing well, resources for the “Gifted” can seem unnecessary.  Parents, administrators and educators need to remember that accommodations are accommodations.  Taking away services to “Gifted” kids is like taking away another child’s wheelchair, only letting them use it during P.E. or as a reward.  That child may learn to drag themselves around the school building but it is doubtful that they will be learning up to their potential.

It was in the spare and soothing atmosphere of seventh grade science when I finally found my advocate.  We were discussing relativity (Einstein was a “Gifted” student who failed in a standard classroom, you know) and the possibility of time travel.  More accurately, the best teacher and coach in the whole world, Brian Epley, and I were discussing relativity and time travel while the rest of the class fidgeted.  He finally waved his hand and said, “Well, Billeen, that might be something you could look into during Quest.” 

“But,” I replied, hating to cut the conversation short, “I’m not in Quest.”

Shortly after, I was taken into a little room, was asked all sorts of interesting questions and was allowed to play with colored blocks for several hours.  From then on, for a couple of hours a day, every day, I was allowed to accompany a handful of other kids into the library (the library!) to work on fascinating bits of this and that which would have probably bored the general population into a coma.  My Quest teacher, Mrs. Ladd, worked with me to find something that could help me engage in school in a meaningful way.  After some trial and error, she plunked me down in front of a beige Apple Macintosh computer, cutting edge technology at the time, opened up a word processor and I began to write.

Time did strange things.  It flew by.  I can envision myself in middle school Quest Language Arts as a sort of wood chipper.  I can see Mrs. Ladd tossing in all sorts of information, the hated accelerated grammar primer, Great Expectations, the Future Problem Solving program, while I ground it up and threw it out on a wavering bluish computer screen in sometimes unrecognizable configurations (I resented the editing process).  Instead of experiencing frustration, being a disruption and being bored literally to tears, I had found a little niche in school which carried me all the way through high school where I flourished under the patient guidance of one Nina Faust, purveyor of wholesome and delicious cookies and hero to Quest students for an entire generation.

While I did not write the Great American Novel before the age of 25, I believe that the Quest program introduced me to a world of academia that I might have been permanently alienated from.  As the parent of a “Gifted” student, a volunteer and a substitute in the school district, it frustrates me to see students who clearly need an accelerated and/or differentiated curriculum left to languish in a standard classroom.  Even kids who may not be diagnosably “Gifted” benefit from the availability of programs that might, on occasion, spark their interest where “standards” do not.

Being “Gifted” is not a free ticket to ride on the success train.  “Gifted” students drop-out, get involved in drugs and alcohol, commit crimes and commit suicide.  Alan Ginsberg’s famous poem, Howl, opens with “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”    I think many of us can appreciate that sentiment.  The list of “best minds” from Homer who have met bad ends is not short.  It is a profound tragedy when apathy and disaffectedness leads “Gifted” students, just like any other student, into trouble.  Especially when many of these problems could be alleviated by administrator awareness, educator sensitivity and parent advocacy.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Penetrating the bureaucracy: Teaching our children to be successful by learning how to manage their own paperwork.

One of our responsibilities as parents is to prepare our children to be financially independent, contributing assets in the communities in which they choose to live.  The best way to do this is to give them the skills they will need to succeed in school and the tools to help them start thinking about what their lives will bring.

That task starts in infancy, of course.  We teach our little ones to be mindful of others, to pick up after themselves, to be helpful.  As they move through grade school and approach middle school, however, this job becomes more about managing their time between home and school and keeping their paperwork organized.

This seems like such a mundane and silly matter compared to the big questions like “What are you going to be when you grow up?” but think about it:  How is your kid going to be anything if she doesn’t know how to file for a replacement birth certificate?

When I came of age my parents reluctantly handed me a greasy envelope containing my creased birth certificate and social security card still attached to the stub.  My dad frowned and said, “Are you sure you want to take these?  They’re hard to replace.”  That was at the very dawn of the internet and to replace the documents would have required actual phone calls to Juneau, self-addressed stamped envelopes and weeks of waiting.   I had never before seen those documents and I carefully tucked them into a jewelry box to keep them safe.

It is not so difficult now to file for the necessary documentation if one has ready access to the internet but often the families who need the most help via social service programs, don’t have a computer, let alone internet access.  I have literally seen families where children go without needed medical care because their parents do not know that services exist or they do not know how to go about obtaining them.

Imagine a child with parents like those above, she could be the smartest child in the world, who works hard in school and gets straight “A’s.”  She really, really wants to go to college to be a doctor so she can help poor people.  She tells this to her high school guidance counselor who says, “Well, you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA, look online and pick out some good pre-med schools, find some scholarships…  You’ll probably need to get some letters of reference…  Come to me if you need help with your personal essay.  Bye, now.”

Where does this kid start?

My sister and I are first generation college graduates.  I’ll give my little sister public props by mentioning that she received her Bachelor’s in Social Work a full TWO YEARS before I got mine in History.  When I began the process of going to school full time and was faced with the above task, I called her for help.  “What the HECK am I doing?”  I asked her.  “I know,” she said.  “And it doesn’t get any easier.

I was 25-years-old!  How is a kid, fresh out of high school with parents who know as much as she supposed to handle this task?

Teach your children about their official documents.  Show them their birth certificates, social security cards and shot records.  Let them help you do taxes every year.  Let them file their own imaginary taxes on the 1040-EZ.

Help your kids set up their own savings account at your local credit union.  Even if their beginning deposit is only five dollars, wrapping their minds around the process will be invaluable.

Set up a filing system for yourself and for them and show them where their things are kept.  As a family, go to the local library and apply for library cards for everyone.  Learn, as a family, how to get on the internet at the library or other public access points even if you have access at home. 

Take your children to the DMV and let them get official state ID cards.  As a family, apply for your passports.  If you can’t afford a passport, consider a Nexus card which allows travel to Canada and Mexico and is significantly less expensive.

When a medical form or other document comes along which must be filled out, swipe an extra copy and help your child fill it out at home.

A passing familiarity with all of the above processes will give your kids a head start when it comes to their grown-up lives and grown-up responsibilities.  It seems that ignorance in these matters becomes generational and it’s a shame that a kid’s potential can be lost because they are overwhelmed by paperwork.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Abnormal Parenting: Addressing the persistent and pervasive criticisms that my parenting style inspires among the non-believers.

I’m often frustrated by criticisms friends and family have of my child-rearing.  I put a lot of thought into how I treat my kids, what sorts of media they are exposed to, what activities they participate in and the people that they spend time with.  I consider who they are, their personalities and their talents and weaknesses, and I think about the tools that they will need, not just to survive but to live well in the future.  When someone makes some glib remark undercutting the hours of research and deliberations I have done it definitely puts my panties in a wad.

My parenting philosophy is as follows:

As a mother, it is my job to physically, emotionally and intellectually prepare my children to be financially independent, socially responsible assets to their community.

Sounds good but the doing is a little more complex, right?  Especially when people throw out smart-a… alecky comments, telling me how I’m doing it wrong.

Criticism #1:  All a kid needs is to know that she is loved.

                The above comment is delivered meaningfully, often accompanied by an eye-roll and translates as:  “You’re putting too much pressure on your kid and she’s going to freak out when she’s a teenager, totally rebel and make you look like an OCD idiot.”

                Yes.  A child DOES need to know that she is loved.  But is it “loving” to have no expectations?  To not set boundaries?  To not ask your child to work, to learn, to broaden her horizons, to grow and live up her potential?

                Let’s follow this argument out to its logical conclusion:

                A child that knows that she is loved, and nothing else, will eventually turn 18, maybe graduate from the free education that our government provides, maybe not.  She will not have ever been asked to complete a task, to be accountable for her time or her actions, to follow through on obligations and responsibility. 

In other words, that very much loved child is now completely unemployable.  She cannot keep a job!  So who is going to pay for this very much loved child?  You!!!  Or maybe she’ll find a partner with the qualities she is lacking and they will pay for your child’s needs.  Or maybe she will live off the state and everyone will pay for your loved child.

It is certainly possible that a child who has been the victim of this sort of lassiez-faire parenting will muddle through her early adult years, learn the hard lessons on her own and eventually succeed.  But, and I’m speaking from personal experience, you are not doing her any favors by not working to the brink of killing yourself and her to teach her those things prior to her entering the world of adulthood. 

My mother tells me that I do everything a decade too late.  Perhaps because I was allowed an infancy that was a decade too long?  (Sorry, Mom.  You did the best you knew to do.  Stupid 60’s.)

Criticism #2:  She needs to spend more time with her peers.

                This one sends me totally over the edge.

                Why?  Why does my child need to spend more time with her peers?  Because she needs to involve herself in their wonderful, supportive and ever-so-responsible pastimes of social jockeying, bullying, premature sexuality and the goading of one another into eating disorders?  My child is a 13-year-old girl.  When a group of 13-year-old girls spend a bunch of unsupervised, unstructured time together all of the above is what will happen.  Better mention drugs and alcohol just for good measure.   

                For 13-year-old boys all of the above is true but do add arson and destruction of property.

                I’m going to just put this out there and many of my readers are going to be very upset at me.

                My hometown has a crop of kids, particularly girls between the ages of 12 and 16, who are just the best kids in the whole world.  They are smart.  They are successful in school and in their many extra-curricular activities.  They impress the heck out of the adults who work with them.  They have lots of unsupervised free time because, being such good kids, why shouldn’t they?  They are allowed to make their own good choices and learn from them.  We want them to have lots of self-confidence, right?

                These kids, mostly currently in the middle school, are self-confidently dropping acid, swilling booze behind the school, smoking pot, dropping their panties at the drop of a note and basically scaring the crap out of community members who witness these things while their parents are busy being upstanding citizens and making a living.  And because these are good kids from good families, people are terrified to say anything.  I’ve spoken to several people who have shared their concern over the behavior of friends’ kids.  The best solution I’ve heard put forth is an anonymous letter reporting on the witnessed behavior.  But who believes anything bad a stranger would say about your kid?

                No.  My daughter does not need to spend a lot of unsupervised free-time with kids her age.  Thank you very much.  It isn’t that kids are bad, it is that they are kids.  This philosophy also informs my reasons why my daughter is not allowed to have a cell-phone or a Facebook page until she is 14 or unsupervised access to the internet until she is 16.

Criticism #3:  You shouldn’t make your kid do stuff if she doesn’t want to.

                Really?  Like brush her teeth or wash her hands after wiping her ass?  Give me a break.

                The implication here is that I force my child to participate in extra-curricular activities because I enjoy doing them and that my poor kid is the victim of my…  social climbing?  Career building?  Political ambitions?  Yeah.  Okay.

                The truth is that my daughter’s activities have been very valuable for me educationally.  I am going into education as a career-field, after all.  But do tell me, how is my daughter’s participation in Girl Scouts, band, sports, art lessons and community service a bad thing?

                There was a time when she did not want to do any of the above mentioned activities.  Actually, her favorite activity was nothing.  She preferred to be left to her own devices to perhaps read, perhaps doodle, perhaps watch a movie (thank goodness we don’t have television), and perhaps stare at the ceiling “self-narrating.”  No.  I am not kidding.  My daughter was dangerously ensconced in a fantasy world that, according to her psychologist back when she was still in counseling to help her with the transition between her father’s custody and mine, was created as a coping mechanism and had grown to be far more comfortable, happy and “real” to her than her actual real life.  (She has since been certified “sane,” just for everyone’s information.  How many people can say that?)  Because of her preference for her Happy Na-Na Land, I have spent the last three years forcing my kid to do stuff that other children beg to participate in.

                The upshot has been that my daughter has become a good basketball player whose skills and hard work are remarked on by coaches of other teams.  She is becoming a fairly good artist, a good flautist, and she was given a community award for her service work, she has built a network of adults who consider her to be a talented asset to their organizations and she’s recently been accepted, after a rigorous application process, by the Girl Scout Destination program to visit Peru.

                My daughter is going into High School next year already prepped to engage in meaningful extracurricular activities which will not only build her social network (in a positive way) but pad her resume and college application.

                I think those first two years of cattle prodding has paid off.

Criticism #4:  Why can’t you just let her be a normal kid?

                Shut.  Up. 

Or, at the very least, define “normal.”

Normal in Japan or China for a middle class girl:  She’d be routed toward a college prep middle school which would emphasize her skills (if not like) in math and science.  She would spend the majority of her time engaged in academic pursuits with her “free” time taken up with activities that emphasize her talent and engagement with fine arts and she would be engaged in at least one athletic club.  She would leave the house prior to 6am and not return until after 8pm.  She probably would already have made a firm decision on a career.

Normal in Afghanistan for a middle class girl:  If she is lucky, she would be shipped to a boarding school in Europe to pursue an education probably focused on liberal arts or the medical profession.  If she was a really brave kid, she’d plan on coming back to her home community to risk her life and be a teacher or a doctor.  If not, she’d probably plan on staying in Europe.   I wouldn’t blame her.

Normal in Kenya:  She’d be married and working for her husband’s family.

                Normal in the U.S. thirty years ago:  She might be thinking about college.  In this community, she might be thinking of a career in nursing, teaching or as a flight attendant.  Somewhere far away.

                Normal in the U.S. fifty years ago:  She’d be thinking about getting married and having babies.

                Normal in the U.S. seventy years ago:  She’d be thinking about going to work in a city as a secretary or a receptionist then getting married and having babies.

                Do you get my point?

                Normal is what we decide it is.  I have decided that it is normal for my daughter to work her little booty off to prepare for her future so that she can live a productive and meaningful life and not depend on others to care for her needs or “make” her happy.

Criticism #5:  Not everyone has the time/resources to put in to doing all that stuff with their kids.

                This one I totally understand and agree with and feel very guilty about.  That is why I love doing community service with and for other people’s kids because, let’s face it, somebody has to work for a living!

                One thing that I have found to be a very valuable parenting tool/touchstone is a program here in Alaska called Alaska ICE (Initiative for Community Engagement).  It is a research based informational program based around “assets” that have been found among kids who are considered to be successful (ie they do not engage in risky behaviors).  I am a firm believer in this program and I especially love how it does not require extra money or a lot of extra time for families who cannot afford it.  The basic philosophy is that everyone contributes to happy, healthy kids and everyone can contribute to happy, healthy kids.

                If you do nothing else, please check out their list of Assets.  I have purchased both books, the one for kids and the one for little kids, and have found them full of interesting, creative suggestions to develop “assets” in the lives of my own children.  While the program is designed especially for Alaskans, I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be pertinent to any family.

                To conclude, parenting for me is a very cerebral exercise.  I spend A LOT of time thinking about the education of my children and I work very hard to engage them in meaningful ways.  Yes, I love them to bits and I often wish that we could all be a big, happy pile of affection, friends first so that we can always, you know, talk to each other.  However, my job, first and foremost, is to be their mother.  With all of the hard work, yelling, gray hair, frown-wrinkles and banging my head against this desk that that entails.