Category Archives: Common Concerns

Now More Than Ever: The Importance of Finding Mentors for Our Children

watch

Photo Credit: Lauren Hammond, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Tuesday night I had such a vivid and disturbing dream, one that brought up emotions so intense, I was forced to ride the waves of them all day the next day. In the dream I was in a small boat, at night, with an overwhelming sense that I needed to escape. The particulars of the situation are fuzzy, as they so often are in dreams, but there were unidentified people that I urgently needed to get away from. First, though, I needed to find my two boys and get them on the boat with me – I couldn’t leave them behind. Finally, as the three of us were about to take off into the watery darkness, not knowing where we were or where we were going, only aware that we needed to get away, I woke up, heart pounding and mind racing.

Having gone to bed before the official results of the presidential election were announced, but guessing the outcome already, my subconscious had clearly chosen “flight” from its menu of threat responses. As I woke to the sound of rain, the feeling of adrenaline still coursing through my body, my conscious thoughts picked up where my dream left off. We are no longer safe, but where can we go? What can we do? Is it time to make a new life somewhere else? And then sadness set in, thinking of everything we would be leaving behind, all our friends, the boys’ activities, our home. I decided to get up and take the dog for an early walk even though it was raining – I needed to move, to think.

Walking through the streets, passing neighbors out walking their dogs or driving by as they headed to work, I started wondering how others were handling this shocking outcome. I knew there would be some calling out for us to “come together” now that this awful election was over, but that’s not an option I could choose – as much as our divisiveness is hurting so many in our country, I wasn’t sure how to “come together” in an authentic way yet. Likewise, I suspected that others would be encouraging us to “dust ourselves off” and regroup for the next election. As much as I wished I could be, I wasn’t there yet, either.

As I arrived back home, mind still whirling, one of my mentors called me. I expressed my distress to him, my fear of where our country and world are headed, my faltering faith in humanity, and my uncertainty about what to do next.

His advice: “Wind your watch.”

This person is an airline pilot, and he explained to me that when something goes wrong in the cockpit, the first thing he and other pilots are trained to do is pause, to take in everything that’s going on before making any decisions on how to respond. This is his own plan for responding to the current political situation, too – to wait, to watch, and then decide how to respond. So, while I may still decide that “flight” is the best option (or may eventually choose “fight” instead), with time it will likely become more clear which response will be most healthy and constructive. The point is, I don’t have to decide right now, and in fact shouldn’t decide right now.

Wise advice, right? And a perspective I couldn’t have arrived at on my own, especially given the emotional state I was in. My other take-away from the conversation was this: we all need mentors. When we talk about mentors it’s usually in the context of gaining some sort of professional experience, guidance, or connections, and rarely (at least in my experience) about the value of personal or emotional mentors, people who can act as sounding boards, help steady us when we’re lost and confused, and serve as role models. For our children, especially those of us with particularly sensitive and attuned children, mentors are perhaps even more important as our kids work to shape their identity and find their place in the world. As parents struggling to figure out the best way to raise children in our current cultural climate of anger and divisiveness, finding mentors who teach, explicitly and implicitly, the qualities we want our children to develop as they grow into adulthood, and ultimately into leadership roles, is of critical importance. For me, these qualities include tolerance and compassion, first and foremost, and also critical thinking, the differences between facts and feelings, how to listen well, and the importance of reading and educating oneself.

As it turns out, there may be some cause for hope about this younger generation we’re raising. Those who are just a few years older than my kids overwhelmingly voted for a diverse, inclusive vision of our future. So, they’re on the right path, and we can help our future leaders continue to blaze the way. I know that one of my first priorities is going to be connecting my children with constructive personal mentors, people who want to have a positive impact on the world and can help show my boys how to ride their own emotional waves when they inevitably arise and, as Michelle  Obama said, to “go high” even when others don’t. And after that? No idea – probably just more walking, winding and watching for now.

 

If you would like to read more about this topic, click on this graphic to check out related posts at GHF:

mentors

“Bees on the Roof”: A Book Review

“Most of our experience, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories.”

—Daniel Pink

bees-on-the-roofFrom time to time I’m asked to provide a review for a new book, and I almost always say “yes”! I love reading new material and helping to support other writers. Usually the books are written for parents, but recently I was asked to review this one, “Bees on the Roof”, aimed at students in the middle grades. Here’s what I thought of it…

Learning through stories is different than learning by memorizing facts or individual ideas. Stories provide a context for information and, if well-written, create an emotional connection as well, helping our brains understand and retain specific facts and ideas much more easily. This is what Robbie Shell has done with her new book “Bees on the Roof”—she has created a compelling story that also does a wonderful job of educating us about an important environmental issue:  our diminishing number of honeybees.

Written for an upper-level elementary school and middle school audience, the story centers on a group of four friends who attend a science-focused junior high school in New York City. The main character, a seventh-grade student named Sam, is new to the city, having recently moved there with his dad who has been hired as a pastry chef at one of the city’s nicest restaurants. When he learns that all students at his school are required to form teams and design a science fair project, it doesn’t take long for Sam and his friends to land on the topic of honeybees. As the story moves along and the main characters begin developing questions and conducting research, the reader learns right beside them about bee colonies and how they produce honey, along with the problem of Colony Collapse Disorder and its potentially-catastrophic consequences. Because of the way the information is presented, woven into the story of these four kids as they confront common family and social challenges over a series of months, it’s unlikely that younger readers will experience a sense of information overload and, in fact, will truly enjoy learning about the important role honeybees play in all of our lives.

Also addressed in this book are the themes of teamwork and bullying, which are relevant with readers of this age group. However, from my perspective as the mother of a seventh grader, I found some of the bullying scenes to be a bit rougher than they needed to be, including one incident where a boy suffered broken ribs and another where a girl was forced into a closet with an older boy – nothing terrible happened, but it was still an unsettling scene. I also found some of the dialogue amongst the main characters to be a bit stilted and a somewhat mature at times for kids of this age, but the story was interesting enough to pull me through these sections.

Overall, the storytelling elements of “Bees on the Roof” are strong, with solid character development of the kids, an engaging plot, and a good balance of scientific information and story-related action. The approach of teaching through story makes it likely that young readers will remember a lot of what they learn about bees and our environment after reading this book, and I look forward to reading future books from this author.

 

 

Coming of Age: Helping Teens Unlock Their Potential

Sam WeldingAmidst all of the joys and rewards of homeschooling older kids, there are some challenges, too, one of which has been at the forefront for my family lately. No, it’s not higher math and science that we’re struggling with, nor is it teenage angst and mood swings, either. For these we have found classes or tutors, read books, or sympathized with other parents. This particular challenge exists solely, and squarely, in that time-limited space where teens attempt to merge with the adult world.

This challenge is lack of opportunity.

For over a year now my fourteen-year-old son, Sam, has been wanting to spread his wings – he wants to build things, he wants to earn money, he wants to be useful. He wants these things so badly, he’s been like a tiger in a cage, pacing and anxious and, yes, even depressed sometimes. But where are opportunities like this available to a boy his age? He can’t legally work, and he doesn’t have the knowledge or skills he needs to design and build the things he envisions making (he outgrew Legos and got bored with models years ago). He wants to do real things, not kid things, and this is the problem — most adults expect kids his age to be in school all day and, even worse, assume these young adults are incapable of providing much value when they do have free time.

As my husband and I have been wrestling with this issue, I was beginning to think that somehow we were missing something. What are other teens doing? Are we the only ones with a child who wants real experiences?

So, it was with great relief, and more than a few enthusiastic shouts of “Yes!”, that I recently read Marie Goodwin’s post, “A Peculiar Problem of Homeschooling Teens”. She describes this situation (and some of its causes) perfectly, calling this the “mentor seeking” phase, when a young person “begins to find focus in their understanding of the world, is seeking a higher purpose to learning, and is no longer interested in play-based activities. They actively wish to find mentors outside the family for their particular learning aspirations.” Perfectly described. Mentoring, apprenticeships, and jobs – these are what developing adults, and not just the homeschooled ones, truly want and need.

Before compulsory schooling, it used to be that boys the ages of both of my sons (12 and 14) would apprentice with a master of a trade, learning the skills and gaining the knowledge they would need as an adult. Girls would also spend more time with the women in their family, learning the domestic skills they would need to manage families and houses of their own. While this model of gender separation is certainly outdated, the apprentice model is one we need to consider resurrecting. Learning while spending time with adults is a natural way to learn and grow – it’s how children have mostly been raised for thousands of years.

And yet…

For some reason we’ve decided that a system that locks our young adults away every day is the best model. Even among those of us who have rejected this form of education, many of us still assume that standard curriculum and kids’ activities should be enough until college or adulthood. What so many of us fail to understand is that our teens need more, that much of the angst and rebellion assumed to be natural and unavoidable part of adolescence is not just hormones – it’s the result of limited freedom, of underestimated potential, of separation from what’s meaningful and important in the world.

We can do better.

While I see some hopeful signs that more internships and apprenticeships are becoming available for teenagers (there are one or two small programs in my city), for my sons I’m realizing that my focus will need to shift from directly facilitating their learning to facilitating connections and opportunities. And I’m happy to report that we’ve had some successes. Both of my sons love music and have found a community, comprised of both adults and kids, at our local School of Rock. Their music teachers are really more like coaches, and they set high expectations for the boys (which they’re happy to rise to!) Also, there’s a fairly new maker space in our city that is almost exclusively for adults, but with some discussions and an interview, they agreed to make an exception for my fourteen-year-old. He’s been learning to cut and weld metal there, and will be taking a wood working class next week. Finally, we also found a programming tutor who’s just the right combination of instructor and mentor.

I know there are other families out there who are also struggling with this issue, even if they haven’t realized that this is the issue yet. If yours is one of them, I encourage you to seek out and develop options for your kids. And don’t be afraid to be creative. Just because a special program or position doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to create an opportunity. Sure, you can expect to be met with some confusion and resistance, and you’ll certainly need to do some explaining, but it will be truly worth it knowing that you’re not only supporting the growth and development of your child, but you’re also planting seeds of opportunity for others, too.

First Day of (Not) School

School 2

Six years ago — our final “first day of school” photo.

Today was our first day of not school, and it looked pretty much like most other days for us. Ben, my 10-year-old, slept until about 8:30, then got up and unloaded the dishwasher, had some breakfast, got dressed, and played on the computer for a little while. Sam, my teenager, slept later – we didn’t see him surface until after 10:00 and even then, he wasn’t what you might call “awake” – “zombie-like” would be more accurate. After some waking up time and breakfast, he decided to watch an online tutorial about lighting elements in a virtual world he’s creating for a computer game, while Ben had moved out to a comfy chair on the sunny deck with his book.

All of this is to say that I won’t be posting a “back to school” picture of my boys sporting fresh new school clothes and brightly-colored backpacks. I really wanted to – it’s an exciting time of year and we’ve been talking about everything we want to do in terms of projects, field trips, and learning goals; it feels like we’re at the beginning of something that should be marked with a photograph. I just don’t know which moment of our day to take a picture of.

This is one of the (few) downsides of homeschooling – we’re on the fringes of something that we’re kind of participating in, but since we’re doing it our own way, many of the markers and milestones are different (or even non-existent) for us. For those of us who unschool (a type of homeschooling that emphasizes self-directed, student-lead learning), we’re even more on the outside of the mainstream. As a result, we will never have report cards or test scores, teacher conferences or picture days, all of which were very much a part of my husband’s and my childhood, marking our progress and achievements throughout the year. Even though we didn’t recognize this at the time, these common experiences provided us with a sense of momentum and growth, and also connected and bonded us with our friends and family. My sons won’t have these experiences, and I do feel a little sad about that – but only a little.

The trade-off is well worth it. Sleep is practically a religion for us, and everyone in my family gets plenty of it (it’s rare that we ever set an alarm). I know to some people this will sound like we’re lazy, and I kindly invite those people to take a look at what science is telling us about the connection between sleep deprivation and rates of obesity, depression, stress hormones, and compromised learning ability. In my family we’re working smarter, not harder. The other benefit is that our mornings are gentle – no rushing, no frantic searching for misplaced homework or matching socks. We did that for several years, and I certainly know what it’s like and don’t miss it one bit.

So, my apologies to the kids’ grandparents once again — there will be no “back to school” or class photographs to look forward to this year either. I will, however, take and share many pictures of happy, relaxed, well-rested boys who are building ship models or playing with their band or decked-out in costume for their current play. We will send you links to their blogs and will mail select works of art and, quite possibly, postcards from any cool places we visit. Hopefully that will do; we’re definitely excited.

 

From the Outside Looking In

000_0308My feet felt like they were on fire.  The stands were surprisingly full, and I was glad I’d arrived early enough to grab a seat that was mostly in the shade.  My sandal-clad feet were in the sun, though, and I noticed that the skin on top was already turning red – I’d need to move soon, probably to a place where I’d have to stand.  I decided to relax for a few more minutes as I looked out over the inner field of the high school track, looking for Sam, my 7th grade son, who was about to run in the first meet of the season.

I scanned the various clusters of boys in his team’s black t-shirts, and looked for his coach’s signature bright-orange hat. Where was he?  Finally, I spotted a single figure sauntering along the perimeter, gazing off into the distance, hand tracing along the yellow tape separating the discus area from the rest of the field.  There he was.  My heart squeezed a little, taking my mind off my feet temporarily. I wasn’t surprised that he was off on the side by himself, alone in the crowd, but it panged me nonetheless.  My sweetly earnest, creative, introverted son – how I wished he were part of the group.

This wasn’t the first time I’d watched from the sidelines as Sam separated himself from the others on the field.  When he was four we signed him up for soccer, thinking it would be a good way for him to run off some of his little-boy energy and meet some kids his age.  That was during his dinosaur phase, the years when he had memorized the names of every dinosaur in every picture book we had (more than most libraries), and would spend hours a day setting up elaborate scenes for his brightly-colored, hard plastic T-rexes and Stegosauruses.  Soccer, it turned out, held little appeal for him – the ball and net were basically invisible. Instead, he ran up and down the field following the herd of other children who were chasing the ball, hunched over in a T-rex pose, elbows pressed in, ”claws” facing forward.

At the time my husband and I were both very frustrated – we wanted him to be part of the team and make friends with the other kids.  We encouraged him to practice for the games, and spent many afternoons kicking the ball with him in the back yard, and running and dribbling it around the park.  He always went along with us, and listened respectfully as we talked about his responsibility to the team, but it never “took” – at the first opportunity he was back to stomping and roaring.  These days we laughed about those times, wishing we’d lightened up about the silly soccer game, but now I was feeling those familiar feelings of frustration again.  I still wanted him to be part of the team, to make friends.

Finally, too hot to stay where I was, I walked up to the shaded area at the top of the stands where I could still see the track but, as I suspected, had to stand.  I shifted my attention to the other shade-seeking people packed into the viewing area with me and noticed how increasingly noisy it was – the many animated conversations, the clapping and cheering, happy voices calling out to each other.  And it was in that moment, as I stood there quietly in the middle of all that commotion, that I suddenly realized that I, like Sam, was also alone in the crowd.

Growing up as an introvert was hard for me, and I had hoped that neither of my boys would face this particular challenge. My younger son is more outgoing and social, like his dad, so navigating social situations comes easily for him. Sam, however, is like me and prefers to be alone most of the time, quietly reading or working on his own projects – this is how we recharge our batteries.  In an extroverted culture like ours we are often misunderstood, and often feel separate and different.  Watching Sam wander alone around the field that day, waiting for his track events to start, my heart ached.  I didn’t know how to help him.

As we drove home after the meet, Sam told me how much he liked running, even though he was “really, really nervous” before each of his events. “Running is one of my things,” he happily declared.  While pleased to hear this, I was still carrying the weight of the worry and anxiety that had begun earlier, still trying to figure out what I could do.  I decided to ask about whether he was getting to know any of the other boys on the team, whether there were any he liked particularly. “Mom, I’m there to run. I talk to the other guys sometimes, but mostly I’m focusing on running.”  His tone told me that he knew I was going somewhere with this.  I pushed ahead anyway, insisting how nice it would be to make a friend on the team, how he could try to talk to the boys before practice or on the bus on the way to the meets. “They’re usually playing games on their phones, or horsing around. Stop worrying, Mom, I’m fine.” In other words:  end of conversation.

So, I did what I do:  I sat and felt all of my heavy emotions and noticed all of the roiling thoughts about it over the next few days.  And as I sat, I began (slowly) to realize that Sam was teaching me something I needed to learn and, in truth, had needed to learn for quite a while:  to allow him to be who he is. Instead of imposing my “stuff” on him, all of my worries and terrible visions of the future, I needed to trust and allow.  In my desire for him to have a better life than mine, to avoid the particular suffering I have known, I was projecting my wishes onto him and inadvertently sending the message that something was wrong with him. My ego had gotten in the way (again).

Knowing this does not make letting go any easier, at least not yet.  However, in the moments when I can observe my sons or listen to them without attachment or the need to control, I experience a deep and genuine sense of peace, and know that I am on the right path. In the moments when I just can’t achieve this, it helps to remember the words from Kahlil Gibran’s poem, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”  This may be the hardest truth of parenting, but this is the job we signed up for – we need to be “the bow that is stable” so our children “may go swift and far.”  And that’s what Sam was both showing and telling me that day as he ran around the track – he wants to go swift and far.  All I need to worry about is getting there earlier – oh, and remembering to bring sun block.

 

On Children
 Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

 

The Big Education Shift — Are You Ready?

“The whole structure of education 
is shifting beneath our feet.”
— Sir Ken Robinson





In a 2007 TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson delivered this quote about the shifting structure of education, but I’m not sure that many people then (or now) appreciate the magnitude of this shift. He made this comment in the context of a point he was making about how college degrees are less valuable now than they used to be, and how they will be even less valuable in the future as the population grows and as more people gain access to education through rapidly-developing online portals. In short, his view is that given the “shifting structure of education”, we have not just the opportunity, but the imperative, to rethink how we are educating our children.

It doesn’t take much effort, especially for those of us with school-age children, to notice that the educational system in the United States is indeed experiencing some significant shaking, and I don’t believe anyone would say that the resulting changes over the past few decades have been positive. Effective improvements may come in time (I hope), but in the meantime, many of us are looking for better alternatives for our kids right now — we don’t have years or decades to wait.  So, a growing number of parents are making a similar choice — to educate our children at home. 

“Home schooling” was not a concept I ever heard about when I was growing up.  When I became aware of it in my early adulthood, it was something only extremely religious families did. Now, as the recently-released National Center for Education Statistics survey reports, almost two million kids are educated at home, and this doesn’t include the rapidly-growing number of K-12 students enrolled full-time in online schools (many of which are publicly funded). When you include all “off-line” and online home-educated students, the number is closer to five million and projected to reach at least seven million (8-10% of all K-12 students) by 2016.
 
This is not just a small shift — this is a tectonic shift.  So why are so many American families making this choice? It’s not primarily for religious reasons anymore.  According to the same NCES report mentioned above, 91 percent of home schooling parents report that they are doing so based on their concern about the environment of schools — a higher percentage than those who cite “religion” as their primary reason.  Other non-religious reasons parents driving parents to this decision were “a dissatisfaction with academic instruction” and “a desire to provide a nontraditional approach to child’s education.”
 
Secular home schooling is becoming main stream.  And this trend toward more flexible, personalized education doesn’t end when students graduate from high school.  According to research organization Ambient Insight, as of 2012 there were at least 15 million American higher education students taking at one or more of their courses online.  So where will this lead us?

The short answer is that nobody really knows, but certainly all aspects of education and career-preparation will be impacted.  Recently I’ve noticed that local organizations have moved quickly to accommodate the homeschooling community in my city of Portland — age-based and interest-based classes, activities, and co-ops have grown from a handful three years ago (when I first started home schooling my sons) to so many that I can’t keep track of them anymore.  And we’re not limited to activities within driving distance, either — secular core curriculum and enrichment options available online are too numerous to list.  

We don’t need a crystal ball to predict that students who grow up learning outside of a traditional classroom, who are accustomed to making more choices about how, when, and where they learn, who value experience and hands-on learning, will bring different expectations and skills to their college or professional training, and then to the workforce. This is a fantastic example of how true change happens — from the bottom up, individual by individual, and the possibilities are truly exciting to contemplate. Are you ready for the change?

 

The Most Important Thing You Can Do To Help Your Child Be Successful

I realized this week that I’ve fallen into a common (and all-to-familiar) parenting trap again – I’ve allowed urgent issues to crowd out the important ones.  Once again, homework, housework, and sports practices have crowded out time for meaningful conversations and the quiet time I need for reflecting and planning.  The good news is that I’m not alone (yes, I see you over there).  The even better news is that I’ve been here before, and I know how we can get out.

Our escape hinges on this:  we need to focus on just one thing.

I’m often overwhelmed when I think about big issues like climate change, poverty, and our warped healthcare system.  I’m too busy to get my hair cut, so how am I supposed to help the polar bears?  But even things that are closer to home and more immediately relevant, like thinking deeply about what I want my sons to know before they go out into the world, and what I can do to help them develop the knowledge and skills they’ll need, can feel too daunting to consider.  But here’s the key I don’t have to make an enormous list and do a lot of planning, because even one thing can be enough to make a world of difference. 

Fortunately, figuring out what our kids need to be successful has been the subject of much research lately.  And while there are many character traits and experiences that can help them grow into healthy, happy adults, the experts pretty much agree that there’s one thing in particular that will ensure their success in life:  persistence. 

Persistence is the ability to stay focused and committed to something, regardless of challenges and setbacks, and it’s an even stronger predictor of success than natural talent or intelligence.  Sometimes this trait is called “grit”, and it isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us in every moment.   But we can cultivate it through our beliefs and habits, and we can help our kids learn to do this, too.  Here’s how: 

  • Teach a “growth mindset”.   Teach your child that intelligence and abilities are not “fixed” – they can be cultivated with effort.   As reported in “Mindset, The New Psychology of Success”, Stanford researcher Carol Dweck has found that, “Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”
  • Encourage inquiry and curiosity.  Once kids adopt a growth mindset, self-motivation for learning and curiosity will naturally emerge.  Asking meaningful questions will help stimulate curiosity, according to Daniel Willingham in “Why Don’t Students Like School?”, and will support students in staying engaged and focused. 
  • Plan for failure.  Failure is certainly difficult, but learning to embrace it as a natural part of the learning and growing process, and seizing it as an opportunity to reflect and develop even more meaningful questions, will support our kids in persevering through it.  In fact, in his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg suggests that those of us who make an actual plan for failure consistently respond more effectively when it happens. 
  • Foster emotional awareness.  Frustration and other negative emotions can throw anyone off track.  According to Dan Siegel in “The Whole Brain Child”, the simple act of recognizing and naming these emotions when they flood our children’s pre-frontal cortex, the decision-making area of the brain, allows our kids to “make sense of the experience and feel more in control” so they can make better choices and continue to move forward.

So this is the one thing we can do, need to do, to help our kids be successful:  teach them how to persevere.  Even those of us who are severely limited by time and energy can weave the messages about the value of effort, inquiry, failure, and emotional awareness into every-day activities – no special planning, tools, or classes required!  However, if you do find that you have a few minutes and are interested in learning more about any of these areas, I highly recommend picking up any of the books mentioned above – each is worthy of your time.

And who knows? Just maybe, with a little luck, our persevering kids will actually solve the problems of climate change, poverty, and healthcare so I can stop worrying about polar bears and finally focus on cleaning out my kitchen pantry.


(Note:  This is a repost from April, 2013.  Given all of the recent public discussions about this topic, I thought it would be relevant for my newer readers to see.)

MindPooling: An Overview


What Is Mindpooling?  
MindPooling is an idea-generator and sharing platform for parents.  Every week subscribers receive updated information on interesting research, useful tools, and insightful resources about important topics related to the education and development of children.  

Why?
Because there’s so much great information out there.  We can all use some extra support in helping our kids reach their full potential, but finding the best ideas and tools requires time — lots of time!  And even when we do come across a great resource, figuring out how to apply it can be a challenge.

How Does It Work?

Each month “Teach Your Own” selects a topic related to parenting and education (for example, Meditation is the topic for May).  Each Tuesday of the month we send out an article sharing some of the most interesting and useful information available on the topic, with a list of tools, resources, and activities provided at the end.

And here’s where it gets really good! After you read the article or try one of the activities, you share your thoughts, experiences, questions, and/or recommendations for related ideas and resources.  Others will be sharing as well, so the learning opportunities are rich.

Where Do I Sign Up?
The Teach Your Own page on Facebook is our primary platform, so all you need to do is visit the page and “Like” it, and you will automatically receive the weekly editions of “MindPooling”.

Where Does the Term “MindPooling” Come From?

“Mindpooling” is a term my sons made up when they were working on a video game mission together and needed a way to describe their process for developing and sharing ideas.  They had never heard the term “brainstorming”, so this is what they came up with.  I like it because it conveys a calmer, more cooperative process than “storming”.  (And I’m using it with their permission, of course!)



The Most Important Thing You Can Do To Help Your Child Be Successful


I realized this week that I’ve fallen into a common (and all-to-familiar) parenting trap again – I’ve allowed urgent issues to crowd out the important ones.  Once again, homework, housework, and sports practices have crowded out time for meaningful conversations and the quiet time I need for reflecting and planning.  The good news is that I’m not alone (yes, I see you over there).  The even better news is that I’ve been here before, and I know how we can get out.

Our escape hinges on this:  we need to focus on just one thing.

I’m often overwhelmed when I think about big issues like climate change, poverty, and our warped healthcare system.  I’m too busy to get my hair cut, so how am I supposed to help the polar bears?  But even things that are closer to home and more immediately relevant, like thinking deeply about what I want my sons to know before they go out into the world, and what I can do to help them develop the knowledge and skills they’ll need, can feel too daunting to consider.  But here’s the key I don’t have to make an enormous list and do a lot of planning, because even one thing can be enough to make a world of difference. 

Fortunately, figuring out what our kids need to be successful has been the subject of much research lately.  And while there are many character traits and experiences that can help them grow into healthy, happy adults, the experts pretty much agree that there’s one thing in particular that will ensure their success in life:  persistence. 

Persistence is the ability to stay focused and committed to something, regardless of challenges and setbacks, and it’s an even stronger predictor of success than natural talent or intelligence.  Sometimes this trait is called “grit”, and it isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us in every moment.   But we can cultivate it through our beliefs and habits, and we can help our kids learn to do this, too.  Here’s how: 

  • Teach a “growth mindset”.   Teach your child that intelligence and abilities are not “fixed” – they can be cultivated with effort.   As reported in “Mindset, The New Psychology of Success”, Stanford researcher Carol Dweck has found that, “Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”
    • Encourage inquiry and curiosity.  Once kids adopt a growth mindset, self-motivation for learning and curiosity will naturally emerge.  Asking meaningful questions will help stimulate curiosity, according to Daniel Willingham in “Why Don’t Students Like School?”, and will support students in staying engaged and focused. 
    • Plan for failure.  Failure is certainly difficult, but learning to embrace it as a natural part of the learning and growing process, and seizing it as an opportunity to reflect and develop even more meaningful questions, will support our kids in persevering through it.  In fact, in his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg suggests that those of us who make an actual plan for failure consistently respond more effectively when it happens. 
    • Foster emotional awareness.  Frustration and other negative emotions can throw anyone off track.  According to Dan Siegel in “The Whole Brain Child”, the simple act of recognizing and naming these emotions when they flood our children’s pre-frontal cortex, the decision-making area of the brain, allows our kids to “make sense of the experience and feel more in control” so they can make better choices and continue to move forward.

      So this is the one thing we can do, need to do, to help our kids be successful:  teach them how to persevere.  Even those of us who are severely limited by time and energy can weave the messages about the value of effort, inquiry, failure, and emotional awareness into every-day activities – no special planning, tools, or classes required!  However, if you do find that you have a few minutes and are interested in learning more about any of these areas, I highly recommend picking up any of the books mentioned above – each is worthy of your time.

      And who knows? Just maybe, with a little luck, our persevering kids will actually solve the problems of climate change, poverty, and healthcare so I can stop worrying about polar bears and finally focus on cleaning out my kitchen pantry.





      It’s Groundhog Day in Education

      My heart sank last Friday morning as I read the article “More Teachers Are Grouping Students By Ability”, which reported that elementary teachers are increasingly grouping kids by ability level again, in spite of significant research that shows this is not an effective practice and is contrary to what their own union recommends. This news comes from the recently-released report by Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on American Education, which found that “the percentage of fourth-grade teachers who said they created ability-based reading groups skyrocketed from 28% to 71%. In math, between 1996 and 2011, the practice rose from 40% to 61%.”

      These teachers must believe that this practice provides some benefit to the students, otherwise they would not be doing this.  However, I wonder how many realize that ability grouping has long been controversial because students often end up being separated by race and class. In addition, I suspect they may not be aware of the research that presents two equally-significant psychological reasons they should avoid ability grouping regardless of the race/class composition in their classrooms: 

      1. It can negatively affect students’ beliefs in their abilities and therefore their motivation to learn, at every ability level, and 
      2. It can negatively affect teachers’ beliefs about students’ abilities to learn and grow.


      Student Beliefs
      Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, recently published an important book describing the connection between belief in our abilities and our actual success in school (and life).  “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”  describes clearly and compellingly how a “fixed mindset”, the belief that intelligence and talent are set and unchangeable, can decrease motivation in any student.  Given that many students operate with this mindset (and I would guess almost all of them do), it is clear that ability grouping can have a significant negative impact on their development.

      For example, as you might predict, placing a student in a low-ability group can lead the student to believe that they are of low intellectual ability, resulting in a lack of interest in exerting any effort. After all, what’s the use? What’s surprising, however, is that Dr. Dweck found that even if the same student is later moved to a higher-ability group, the original belief and motivation to learn don’t necessarily change — these students continue to view themselves as intellectually limited, but now they feel out of place and anxious as well.  Their mindset hasn’t changed, and continues to limit them.

      As for the higher-ability kids, they don’t fare any better.  The research shows that “smart” kids often give up on challenging tasks when they have a fixed mindset because they “…want to make sure they succeed. Smart people should always succeed.”  In other words, for kids who are told they are “smart”, failure is not an option, so they don’t risk stretching themselves, instead choosing success over growth.  Further, and more alarmingly, “they may feel a sense of superiority, since success means that their fixed traits are better than other people’s.” 

      According to Dr. Dweck, the solution for all kids of any level is to teach them a “growth mindset”:  understanding that their abilities, intellectual and otherwise, can be developed through learning and practice.  So, informed and skillful teachers can mitigate some of the potential damage of ability-grouping by:

      1. Teaching students that they can expand and grow through effort,
      2. Consistently emphasizing and recognizing effort over results, and
      3. Framing failure as “a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.  

      The problem is that teachers need to be aware of these ideas in order to act on them, and I worry that many don’t.  Further, they also need to be aware of another potentially harmful factor:  their own beliefs.
       
       
      Teacher Beliefs
      In addition to the very real risk of reinforcing students’ negative beliefs about themselves (as described above), there’s a further danger that ability grouping can influence the teacher’s beliefs as well.  It’s called the Pygmalion Effect, and according to psychologist Robert Rosenthal, it is the result when “what one person expects of another comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” 

      Research has shown that teachers’ beliefs and expectations about their students can make an enormous difference in the students’ achievements.  A teacher who believes in a student’s potential and expects that student to succeed is warmer and more encouraging (verbally and non-verbally), provides more material (and often more difficult material), allows more opportunities for the student to contribute, and offers higher-quality feedback. This is an unconscious choice by many teachers, however, and ability grouping can either reflect or reinforce teachers’ own limiting beliefs and expectations about their students.

      So, if you are a parent whose child is put in an ability-level group, I urge you to do the following:

      1.  Take action. Speak to your child’s teacher and explain your concerns.  You can let them know that their own union, the National Education Association, is against this practice and even has a statement against it on their web site. Then, jointly come up with a plan for addressing your concerns, including encouraging them to find another way to meet students’ needs beyond ability grouping.

      2.  Read “Mindset” (see link below).  If your child’s teacher is not able or willing to move beyond ability grouping, you will need to intervene with your child. This book will help.



      More about “Mindset”If you are a parent or teacher and have time to read only one book about educating children, this is the one.  Your children’s mindset about learning and success will impact them throughout their lives, and the information and techniques in this book will help you support them.


      Click here to see other books I recommend.