Friday, August 30, 2013

Behind the Garage

I grew up in a middle class neighborhood of single-family homes with detached garages. It was built as a development, but it didn't feel like one. While there are many homes in that town that are similar to the one I grew up in, it's a big town, the streets are mostly laid out in a grid, and it's got a town center. And while houses may have a similar layout, there's enough variation that you don't feel like you're walking through a development.

But everybody has the detached garage, and all the garages seemed to have the same bump-out. In the 1950's when cars got bigger, people had to extend their garages. I guess at that time everyone kept the car in the garage. By the 1970's and 80's, nobody kept a car in the garage. It was the custom in my neighborhood to park one car at the curb in front of your house, and the other at the end of the driveway. We had rather long driveways, so that left plenty of room for playing ball (or whatever) at the back of the driveway, near the garage. The garage was for storage, and where you hung your basketball hoop.

Because of those bump-outs, each garage had a short, roofed section sticking out the back. At some point, Brother figured out that they were easy to climb onto, and they became our hangouts. One was a secret clubhouse for spies. Another was where we hid our imaginary diaries at pretend camp. Two houses down, we had a big hole behind the garage where our action figures had mega-battles.

Behind our garage was an extra bonus. We had a grape vine. Nobody knew where it came from--probably somebody spit some seeds back there at some point in history. But every year we had grapes. They were purple on the outside, with a thick skin that was probably full of tannens or something. I don't know because we never ate the skins. Somebody decided that the skins were probably dirty, but the grapes would be okay to eat without washing if we didn't eat the peels. So we'd squeeze the thick skins until the sweet insides squirted into our mouths, seeds and all. For a while, I was convinced that a grape vine was going to grow in my stomach.

It seems like we rediscovered that vine every year. We'd be minding our own business, playing spies or camp or fish store, and we'd have to go behind the garage, and there they'd be, forgotten from last year. I can taste them even now, and I wonder if the kids living on my street today have discovered them yet. There was nothing better on a hot day than to discover a sweet snack that didn't require going back to the Land of Grownups.

Please give if you can

This is something I find unbelievable. The anti-abortion crazies in Kansas seem to think they can do whatever they want--murder people, ruin lives--and the law isn't doing anything to stop them.

I mean, come on. A TEN YEAR OLD GIRL SHOULD NOT BE CARRYING A PREGNANCY TO TERM! I live with an almost ten year old girl. A pregnancy would destroy her body. These people claim to care about children, but I guess they only care about the ones who don't get raped and impregnated.

I can't even comprehend a doctor who can think of a situation in which a ten year old can carry a pregnancy to term and it would be healthy. Even in Elizabethan times they let girls wait until they were thirteen or so before they got married.

I'm so upset by this I'm at a loss to create a good argument. If you can, please donate to this doctor (follow the link at the top of the post.) We've got to show her and other doctors that there are sane people out there who will support them.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Advice for Teachers

Why are teachers afraid to declare that they know more about education than the general public?

So often I hear about schools kowtowing to parents or politicians who want more homework or more testing or test prep at younger ages. But we know what is best for kids. We have data. We have case studies. We have the examples of other countries that have tried different models. In fact, in the US we have fifty different educational systems to study, not to mention private schools and charters.

So why don't teachers and administrators seem to have the ability to tell parents and politicians about these facts?

If someone says you should assign more homework, ask them why. What are their goals? What kind of homework? Explain why you do what you do, and ask them to provide reasons (evidence-based reasons would be best) for why you should change.

If someone says that testing is important, find out what evidence they have that the test is valid. Explain that testing takes up class time and ask how they will account for that time. Show them the assessments you currently use and explain why they work.

If someone says your kindergarteners should spend less time playing, explain that playing is the way children learn at that age. Show them the learning that takes place in your classroom, and ask for evidence that the worksheets (or whatever) they want you to use are more effective at teaching math than block play.

It is the job of teachers to teach the public about education. You are the experts. You really do know more about kids and education than most parents and politicians. Act like it.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


I just found out I have ADD. This is mind-blowing.

I always knew I was disorganized at home. At work, I organize for a living.

I always knew my social skills were a bit "off."

I always knew I fell down the stairs more often than other people. And bumped into things a lot. And had bruises I couldn't explain.

I always knew I procrastinated.

I always knew I worked really hard for teachers I liked, and not at all for teachers I didn't.

I always knew I had to be careful if I was reading a book on a bus, or I'd miss my stop. Or reading a book while I was walking home, or I might miss my house.

I knew that I avoided difficult tasks, sometimes coming up with dozens of things that had to be done first.

I knew that I had depression and anxiety.

I knew that TV could suck hours and hours of my life away.

I knew I had trouble keeping track of several things at the same time.

I knew I sometimes got lost when I was driving. Or walking. Sometimes things just weren't where I thought they were.

I knew I tried too hard to please people.

I knew that when I was really interested in something, I could do it forever.

I knew that I sometimes forgot to eat.

I knew that I got discouraged easily, especially when I was a kid.

What I didn't know was that all of these things had one explanation: ADD.

I have what's called "Inattentive Type," which means that I'm not hyperactive. Inattentive Type girls are sometimes even hypoactive. I was never disruptive in school. My biggest problem at home was "laziness." And my room was always a mess. But I didn't have a learning disability and I did fine in school, so it never occurred to anyone to have me evaluated for ADD. They wouldn't have, back then, anyway. The only kids who were diagnosed with ADHD when I was young were the kids (mostly boys) who were so hyperactive they couldn't function in school or at home. I can think of one that I knew. One. Now, almost ten percent of the population is diagnosed with ADHD.

My only problem with that diagnosis is the last D: disorder. I realize that ADD has caused me some problems over the years (see above) but I really just think it's how my brain works. It has benefits too. I'm a creative problem solver. I have great attention to detail. I relate really well to animals, probably because I'm able to focus on them in a way that other people can't, so I learn to understand their body language well. And I love to learn. I imagine that's because it stimulates me intellectually which helps to keep me focused. But it's served me really well at school and at work. The only reason it appears to be a disorder is that we ask people (especially kids) to do things they're not suited to. If kids still had the option to become apprentices, or start farming at age 12, or whatever, ADD wouldn't be such a problem for them.

Maybe we should just call it "ADH."

Friday, August 2, 2013

On childhood athletics

I hate the current state of kids' sports, where everybody gets to play and nobody ever loses. One of the benefits of playing sports as a kid is that you learn how to handle disappointment and failure in a relatively safe environment. Losing that Little League game might feel like it's the worst thing that's ever happened, but it isn't cancer or homelessness or even school.

On the other hand, coaches often err on the other side and humiliate kids. That's where I think this "no losing" movement got its start. Because it hurts--it really, really hurts--to see your kid humiliated. It is a horrible feeling when your child goes from loving a sport and putting hours of effort into practice to never wanting to try that sport again. Even if that feeling is temporary and normal and understandable, it's not something you want your child to experience. And that feeling--the feeling a parent gets when she looks at her child feeling that kind of humiliation--might just be the reason parents lose it and punch coaches. I'm not saying that kind of violence is excusable or justified, just that I know where it comes from.

So what should coaches do? They should think about the purpose of the team. What is the goal here? The goal is not always the same, but if you're working with kids, developing them physically and emotionally should be part of it. Yes, kids need to learn to live with disappointment and failure. They need to learn to work as a team even when one player makes a serious error, or when "working as a team" means that some people have to sit on the bench.

But there are emotions that go along with those things--disappointment, sadness, anger, embarrassment--and those emotions are normal and more or less universal. So as adults, we should expect those emotions and help kids through them. Part of that is coping with them when they surface. Another part of that is managing how, when and where we tell kids disappointing news.

A really good coach can give a kid the news that she isn't playing, or isn't first string, or didn't make the team, in a way that makes her want to work harder next time. Ideally, the child will be told when she's alone, or in a small group of other kids receiving the same news. If the coach has to announce who's playing in a team meeting, then the kids who are disappointed should be pulled aside afterward. The coach can then explain why they weren't picked, what is expected of them now (Are they still required to come to the game? Will they be possible substitutes for the kids who are playing?) and what they can do to improve so that in the future they will be picked. Is it just a matter of age? (Not a lot of Freshman make the varsity football team.) Is it skill level? Would extra practice help? A private coach? New equipment? Do you feel like the child isn't giving her all and she needs to change her attitude? Or is this a matter of talent and does this kid need to understand that she will probably never be picked for the team?

All of this should be done privately so that the child is not embarrassed in front of the rest of the team. And it should be done in such a way that the child feels valued as a person, and so that her effort is assessed and appreciated. Most importantly, our expectations should be age-appropriate. A Junior in high school can reasonably be expected to understand that not everyone can play every game, and that the coach wants the best players to play. This isn't "fair," perhaps, but it's life, and a seventeen year old should be able to deal with her feelings on her own and/or have a support system (friends, parents, teachers) she can go to to for help if she needs it. A kid in elementary school, however, should not be expected to just deal with it. She may never have faced this kind of failure before. She does not have a sense of time that allows her to understand that she will probably get picked next year--next year is like next millennium when you're ten--and she doesn't have the emotional sense to understand that her anger, frustration and disappointment will go away after a time. She needs help from adults to receive and process this information.

So don't water down sports. Don't eliminate all disappointments and make it so that nobody loses, ever. Everyone has to learn how to lose, how to fail, and how to deal with situations that just don't seem fair, but are out of our control. But do think about the news you're about to give, and how the kid you're talking to is going to receive that news. Do give parents every opportunity to help their kid through the situation. Do give kids the option to deal with disappointing or potentially embarrassing news privately. Maybe even give them a chance to save face. ("No, I couldn't make it to the game." "I don't like to compete. I just come to practices to keep in shape." "The coach decided to red shirt me to see how I develop next year.") Do help kids learn from losses.

After all, that's what these programs are supposed to be about, right?