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Monday, 10 December 2012

Why Are There So Many Private Schools?

I just read an article that there will be three more private schools opening in the Ottawa area.  This has occasioned the usual comments about two tiered learning and schools catering to highly specialized groups.  My response?  So what.  I have news that may come as a shock to some people - rich people have more opportunities than poor.  Is this fair?  No, but it is a fact.

Shouldn't all children have a right to a good education?  Yes, and according to the Education Act, that is precisely what the public school system offers.  However, neither the Act nor most of the public can define a good education.  That is because we all have our own idea of what a good education entails.  Some want what they had.  Others don't want their children to go through what they went through.  Some want strong academics.  Others want applicable, useful skills training.  And the public system is supposed to do its best to accommodate all these different goals and ideas.

But, let's be realistic, can one system meet everyone's needs?  Can one grocery store offer all kinds of food?  Can one hospital specialize in all areas?  No.  So the society compensates by offering options.  And those options are private, because our public system is a huge monopoly that acts more like a big business than a public service.  We need to separate the concepts of  "a strong public system" and the current public system.  I am in support of the former but not the latter. 

I wonder at the people who get upset with the existence of private schools.  Do they really think that these schools will weaken or diminish the public system?  That really doesn't make much sense.  If they are only for the wealthy, then only a few will ever attend. The loss of wealthy parents from the local school will have impact only if the parents were happy with the local school.  In which case, they have no reason to leave.  Unhappy parents do not support that school which is not meeting their needs.  And, just in case you have forgotten, parents of children in private school still pay public school taxes.  Some claim that the private schools are taking the best and brightest.  If this is true, then why aren't the public schools doing something about this?  Why aren't they meeting the needs of the best and brightest? 

Why are there so many private schools?  Because parents are willing to pay for the education they think their children need.  If there weren't unsatisfied parents, there wouldn't be private schools.   As with all sectors of our economy, there is only a supply when there is a demand. 

The increase in number of private schools and homeschooling families should be a wake up call to the public system.  Is the alarm loud enough?  I hope so.  I would love to see my grandchildren get a good education at their local public school. 

Don't believe in private schools?  Then don't send your children to one.  But if you  want something different from what the local school is offering, there are options. 

Monday, 3 December 2012

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Every year thousand (more likely hundreds of thousands!) of teenagers sit down with a parent, or a teacher, or a school counselor, and try to figure out what courses to take the next year.  And these students are asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  A few lucky children might actually have an answer but most have no clue.

So what is a student (or parent) to do?  The key is to keep as many doors open as possible.  Take classes that will lead to many opportunities.  If there is really no direction or preferred subject then try a few of these simple tasks.

Without thinking too much, quickly write down three things that you would like to achieve in life.  There are no limits except that you have to stay a human and probably live on Earth, although that is becoming unnecessary.  Then write down three things you would get if you could have anything in the world.  No restrictions. Remember these tasks have nothing to do with reality or being practical.  This is pure fantasy land.  Next, three things you would like to learn right now.  And lastly, three people, living or dead, whom you would like to meet.

Now take your lists and find common factors.  With the achievements: are they solitary or in a team?  Do they require physical skill, mental skill, both?  Are they competitive, collaborative, or a combination?  With the things: what is the appeal of each?  Do they represent a certain lifestyle?  Is that a life based on security (house, family) or adventure (fast car, world trip) or freedom (island holiday)?  For learning: are they hidden passions?  Would they take you somewhere else?  And people to meet: why did you choose them?  What do they represent that you admire?

All of these, particularly if done over and over with no repetitions allowed, will start to show you what you would like to do.  The trick is to take these clues, explore possibilities that lie in this direction, and make this into a viable career.  If you are still wandering, then head in a direction that has a secure future, while keeping your eyes open to other opportunities.  Luck is being open to opportunity combined with the courage to go for it.

So, what courses do you take?  Mathematics, because almost every career out there needs you to be able to do consecutive steps with precision.  English, because communication skills are vital.  The best idea in the world is useless if you can't communicate it to someone else.  History teaches us our place in the world.  How we got to where we are and why others might be in a different place.  And science is crucial to understand and examine everything around us.  A second language opens up huge vistas of understanding our global community.  The words of any language reflect the priorities of that people.  Take a broad spectrum, do your absolute best, and keep those eyes open.  You will be amazed at what lies out there.

And don't worry about what you will be when you grow up.  You'll find out when you get there.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

A Very Tilted History of South America

This week we were studying the Incas.  There was a line in the book which really caught my attention.  "Because the Incas had not yet invented the wheel, the mountain paths did not have to be very wide."  I thought, "Wait a minute, why can't we flip that around?  Because the mountain paths were not very wide, the wheel would not have been very useful to the Incas."

It makes me laugh when I hear anyone talk about an unbiased view.  Do you have an opinion?  Then you have a bias.  Are you breathing?  Then you have an opinion!   And guess what?  That opinion is based on several prejudices of which you may not even be aware.  We all have basic assumptions given to us by our society, but that is fodder for another blog!  Here, just let me clarify that I am not talking about blatantly prejudiced views but more pervasive tiltings which reflect the culture and motivations of the author.

Incan history is particularly fascinating because there are almost no primary sources.  They apparently hired professional memorizers (South American version of minstrels and town criers?) so they had no need for written history.  Of course, like most history, the memorizers only remembered big events involving important people.  After the Spanish arrived it would have taken some time for the Spanish to learn enough language to engage these memorizers, the few that probably were still alive.  And the Spanish had to justify their treatment of the Incas by demonstrating that these people were primitive and barbaric.  So many filters that the history recorded by the Spanish (the only written history that we have) probably had very little to do with reality.

How many of you have heard the story that the natives, having never seen a horse before, thought that the horse and rider were one creature and were the god incarnate?  This was the popular story told to me as a child in school to explain the rapid conquest of the Incan empire.  In truth, this is highly unlikely.  The Incan Empire rivaled Rome in its sophistication and development.  There was a complex bureaucracy, superb road and infrastructure system.  Huge cities and a population estimated at around 12 million.  Books like to point out that they were technologically backwards, having no wheels, or ships, or writing, or metal tools.  The geography  precluded wheeled transportation.  The only water around was an endless ocean.  They could not see islands on the horizon to indicate that there might be purpose to head out to sea.  I have explained perhaps why they didn't need writing.  Necessity is the driver of invention.  If they didn't have metal tools, then they didn't need them.  They certainly were proficient at working gold and other metals.

These were highly intelligent and advanced people.  They could easily separate a man and a horse.  Most likely their isolation and relatively conflict free lifestyle left them vulnerable both to the Spanish weapons and Spanish germs.   The truth is we will never know and that is something that I love to read in a history text.  How refreshing when the author admits that these are merely probable guesses.  Sometimes we can figure out more using our own brains and relying less on the highly coloured accounts of the conquerors.  

My point is that, in any history, unless you can examine the primary source yourself, there is a  tilt in the account.  This is not a bad thing unless it is not acknowledged.  The first thing we always do when reading a text is figure out the slant of the writer.  What is the purpose of the writer?  What world view or paradigm does the writer hold?  Are there other criteria that might be in play?  For whom is the book written?  By any chance, are the publishers trying to make the "Acceptable Curriculum Resource List"?  :) 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Honour the Parents

All parents know that moment when they realize just how fragile and vulnerable their little new baby is. At that moment they want to do everything to protect the child. We spend an enormous amount of time and energy keeping our babies and children safe. But it is more than this. We also want them to be happy and to avoid the growing pains that we went through ourselves.

But we also have to acknowledge the reality - that, if we want them to thrive in this less than perfect world, we cannot completely shelter them. No matter how much we wish to. Our job as parents, and as teachers, and as role models, is to teach them how to deal with the real world. It is no good to prepare them for an utopia that not only doesn't, but also in all likelihood can't, exist.

No matter when a child is first introduced to the larger society - daycare, playgroup, kindergarten, camp - the parent brings one critically important factor to the experience: the knowledge of the child. No one knows a child better than his parent. To anyone working with that child, that knowledge is priceless. The first insight into the makeup of the child comes from the parent. I have always felt that the first parent-teacher interview of the year should involve the teacher asking questions and the parents revealing their intimate knowledge of the students. Any teacher would benefit from this viewpoint.

Parents are always partners with the other people who help their children learn and grow. Parents should be respected for this and their role acknowledged. Just like we no longer just take the pill that the doctor gives us and stay ignorant about our own health, neither should we completely turn control of our child's education over to teachers and administrators. Yes, they know what is best for the average child, but your child is never average. In fact, the average child does not exist. It is a manifestation created from large amounts of data to provide a program that will suit most children most of the time. I would argue that that is not good enough, nor is it the way to run an education system.

Given the training and experience that good teachers have, they should be able to individually work with the parents for each child. Whenever I carefully express this opinion in the presence of teachers they always reply that there are too many children to do this. And yet, each teacher at the elementary level is only responsible for 30 children. This does not mean that the teacher needs to teach each child individually but that they first learn each child from the parent and from their own testing methods. Then they group the children for each skill at the appropriate level. They supply the tasks and the tools and let the children work it out in their own best way at their own time. With properly expressed expectations and responsibilities, this is not chaos but engaged learning - the only kind of learning that is meaningful.

Ask yourself this question: what lessons do you remember from high school? Why do you remember them? How much do you now consider useless? The curriculum has been put together by professionals who realize all the skills and knowledge that children should have to succeed in the real world. The fact that some of that you found useless is not the fault of the curriculum itself but the manner of the delivery. An unengaged student may learn enough to pass the test but will not learn what they will need to go forward in life. Many of us had to relearn what we were taught because we did not learn it the first time.

I can hear some of you now saying, "But I never needed to know the date of Confederation! I never used trigonometry!" But that is not what you were supposed to learn. Canadian history is not about the date of Confederation but an appreciation of where our country came from and how that affects decisions that are made today. Without this awareness we have no hope of understanding the factors behind the issues of today's politics - Aboriginal claims, French rights, social services, health care. And trigonometry is not about triangles and angles but about precision and multi-step procedures that require intense focus and accuracy. These are valuable skills and are the underlying reason for the curriculum.

So I repeat in conclusion that students must be engaged to learn. Teachers must know their students in order to engage them. And parents are the best source for this information. If teachers wonder why so many parents are not involved in their children's education, the system does not respect the knowledge and value of the parents. Embrace any teacher who does. They are the ones who will best teach your precious child the skills needed to thrive in this world of opportunity. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Mathematics of Happiness

I have always been fascinated with mathematics.  When I was young I saw a sign on my grandmother's desk which read "Monday is a lousy way to spend one seventh of your life".  That got me thinking about the numbers of my life.  Bear with me while I play with them a bit.

If I live productively to be eighty years old I will have lived 960 months or 4,160 weeks or 29,120 days.  If I dread Mondays, that will be 4,160 miserable days of my life.  If I even take off the first 20 years in which I was not working and the last 20 years after I retire, that still leaves 2,080 unhappy days.  That just seems wrong.  I can't waste that many days when there seem to be so few in total.

So why does Monday get dumped on so badly?  Obviously because it ends the weekend and our society teaches us that fun happens on the weekends.  We are surrounded by messages that tell us that weekends are the time for partying, getting together with friends, we work our weeks so that we can enjoy our weekends.  This is all based on the notion that work is not fun.  If it is fun then it is not work and somehow it is not proper.

Perhaps this all ties in with a recurring idea in history that we are meant to suffer.  Life needs to be miserable in order to be "good" or worthy.  Happy people are either mentally unbalanced, intellectually challenged, or somehow unfairly supported by other suffering souls.  Our rational brains tell us that this is silly but we are so indoctrinated into the idea of salvation through sacrifice and suffering that we subconsciously are suspicious of truly happy people. 

I must apologize because I am unashamedly happy.  I have been that way for a long time.  I love Mondays as much as I love Fridays but then I don't work - at least not in terms of suffering.  I follow my passion and teach children.  I get fulfillment and energy from my "job" and have no cravings for weekends or retirement.

So why am I going on about the math of happiness?  Because I see it in children when they first enter the school.  Many are teenagers who have had an love of learning pummeled out of them.  The first joy of going to school in kindergarten has changed through a realization that school is often boring, usually irrelevant, and sometimes painful.  By the time they come to us, school is something to be suffered through in order to start living.

This is a crime of such magnitude that it makes me want to weep.  How can children ever acquire the skills to pursue their passion if they hate learning?  How can they even know what their passion is if they are not given the opportunity to explore it?  How can they learn what they need to know to turn that passion in a means of support?  Why does our society "teach" them that both school and work are necessary evils in life? 

By the end of Grade 12 a child will have spent nearly 2,500 days in school.  That is 2,500 days where they can be exposed to the wonders of the world with enthusiastic guides helping them along their own personal journeys.  Since we only go from Grades 7 to 12, we only have them for just over a thousand days.  And yet they can learn so quickly if they are happy.  They want to learn if school is seen as a million open doors for exploration and adventure.  It is my sincere wish that none of my students ever has to hate Mondays.  And so far, we are doing just great.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Best School Year Ever

Next week million of children once again go to school.  For some it is an exciting time.  Time to see your friends, make new ones, learn new skills.  For others it is just the same old same old.  They are marking time until they can be free!  And for some it is a dreaded nightmare.  A place of bullying, judgement, and fear.  Sometimes we, as a society, just say it is all part of growing up.  That's what they used to say about getting drunk at a party and jamming kids into a car for a wild ride.  We don't call that part of growing up anymore.  An education which instills fear, dislike, or boredom should not be part of growing up either.  Education should give our children skills, knowledge, and above all, a love of learning.  If this isn't happening for your child, there are things that you can do.

The first question that all parents, and older students, need to ask themselves is : What is the purpose of education?  This is neither easy nor obvious and there are many different answers.  Some say that education is to prepare them for life.  What does that mean?  Teaching them accounting skills, how to get a job, time management, practical skills?  Or does it mean teaching them cooperation, teamwork, problem solving, people skills?  Or critical thinking, rational deduction, communication skills?  There are a lot of options.  Perhaps education is to show them how to follow their passion.  To develop that passion into a marketable skill.  Or perhaps the end goal is to learn how to learn so that education is a lifelong experience.  My point here is that there are many different purposes and they are all right.  You have to decide which one is right for your child.

After you have sorted out that, you need to figure out what the school's purpose is.  Do they have the same goal in mind that you do?  You need to know if you are both journeying to the same destination.  If you are not, then you need to supplement your child's education with the pieces that the local school does not offer.  One example which comes up all the time is in high school.  Parents have decided that they want their child to go to university.  They assume that somehow the school knows this.  They think that the school advisors will counsel their child into the best courses for going to university.  However the school counsellors actually have a different goal.  Their goal is to have all the students complete high school.  Therefore they may select courses which suit their goal and not yours.

First and foremost you must be an advocate for your child.  You must work with the school to achieve the end that you want.  Do not assume that they know what that is or, if they do, that they can accommodate you.  After all, they have thousands of students, each with their own goals.  It is essential that you work with the school, the administrators, and the teachers.  An antagonistic relationship will never work.  Your child will lose respect for the school and for education in general.  If you absolutely cannot work with a particular school or system then, for the sake of your child, you must change to another one.  How can you teach your child to respect teachers if you do not? 

This is one important step to helping your child have the best school year ever.  School should be a place of excitement and passion for learning.  And it can be.  If you are interested in more personal advice for your particular situation, send me a comment and I will respond privately.

Happy Schooling!

Education through Art!

Thursday, 16 August 2012

They all work...or not.

New math, unschooling, whole language, Waldorf, flipping school, Montessori... the list of educational methods is very long and constantly being amended.  And they all work - for some children  And none work for all children.  We want all children to have an equal opportunity to get a good education and that translates into each child receiving the same education.  This is a fallacy that we have been dealing with at least since the advent of women's liberation.  We confuse "equal" with "same".

We do not need educational experts to tell us what any parent of more than one child can tell us.  What works for one does not work for all.  We need to stop focusing on teaching the curriculum and start focusing on teaching the child.  The focus of public schooling is how to process the largest number of children in the most efficient way with the best use of resources.  Sounds like a valid business principle.  Except that children are not products that can be assembled on a line.  And we don't really want what that line would produce, unless we are Orwellian in our social principles.  We want children to become the best that they individually can become.  We want them to be passionate about what they do.  We want them to be successful.  We want them to be productive.  We want them to be happy.

All of which relies on nurturing them in their own unique ways.  To letting them flourish and grow within the context of their passions, abilities, and goals.  The "best" method for that is to educate the child.  Sounds simple and yet rarely happens, despite the best efforts of many good teachers.  The system keeps mandating "best practices", computer generated tests and assessments, criteria that have nothing to do with what is best for the child, or even for society.

Let teachers teach.  Give them the latest research and let them decide how best to apply it.  Use some common sense is assessing whether a child is flourishing.  Listen to parents and employers when they complain about the fact that today's students are completely unprepared for life.  Those in charge of administering the enormous education system need to start listening.  High school should not be something that you suffer through.  It should not just be a place to make friends and learn social skills.  It should be a place of learning and a place where they learn that learning is powerful, engaging, important, and wonderful.  A lesson for all times.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Education Through Art

Education Through Art

Education through Art, sounds impressive but what does it mean? What is Art? Painting, dancing, music. These are the Arts. But what is Art? Art is creativity, imagination, something from nothing, of no practical value - these are many other definitions. But more than all of these, Art is the passion. Art is the soul of the machine.

Long ago Western man decided to understand things by taking them apart. If you could grasp the function of each of the pieces then you would understand the whole. Body became separated from Mind. Physical from Mental. Reason from Faith. Practical from Artistic. For generations in sciences, philosophy, and education, we have analyzed and struggled to understand what makes us work, as individuals, as societies, and as a species. The problem lies in that only some parts are reducible to components. So we studied those parts, the body, the physical world, reasoning patterns, practical applications. And we learned how to pass these on to our children. Through formal education.

For the rest, the intangible, the soul, spirit, or whatever term you choose, we left that to the spiritual leaders, to traditions, to culture. And as a species we have been doing okay. Except recently. Now we have a breakdown of these support networks. Most families no longer have a spiritual counselor. Many have left traditions and family networks far behind in our global wanderings. So we look to our source of learning. We look to our scientists and our educators. And we ask them to take care of our children. To find the best practices for teaching. And they do their best. They use the system that they have always used. They emphasize the practical, the applicable, the concrete. Our children learn to use machines. They explore the world through their fingertips and electronic impulses which bring everything they need to them. The world is on the screen before them and they are all knowing.

No, they aren't. They don't know this information; they merely have access to it. In order to learn children must have the skills to learn. They must know how to think and use their minds in multitudinous ways. To see things from different perspectives. To imagine that which they cannot see or access. To stretch themselves. But teachers cannot help them to do that if they do not want to learn. We call them "reluctant learners" and they are a growing epidemic.

But all children learn all the time. They can't help it. It is basic instinct founded on survival skills. Knowledge keeps you alive and allows you to flourish. So what are they reluctant to learn? The very things that the scientists and educators keep telling them they need to know. They are reluctant because they are not engaged. There is no passion in their learning.

What is Art? Art is passion. Art is the realm of engagement. When you educate through art you inspire the spirit to crave the knowledge. A chemical reaction becomes a dance. A math theory becomes a thing of structure and beauty. A history lesson comes alive through the full experience of empathy. The children dream of gladiators. They wince at slavery as they read, write, draw, perform. They engage with the information and then they know it. Their passions are ignited and they are inspired and they learn.

Education Through Art.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Vision or insanity?

One man's vision may be another man's insanity.  Recently I finished Irving Stone's biography of Vincent Van Gogh, Lust for Life.  I also saw "Secretariat", the Disney movie starring Diane Lane
 and John Malkovich.  Each piece speaks directly to the theme of a personal intense passion.  In these two cases the passion produced a monumental masterpiece, or masterpieces.  In each case we have a person obsessed with one idea and that obsession eventually leads to greatness.  It is easy to see the value of following one's passion by looking at these great historic events.  As they say, hindsight is 20x20.

But what about when the past was still the future?  Van Gogh's family considered him a monumental failure, the son who could never hold down a job, never learn any business, kept bouncing from passion to passion.  His society considered him a madman and a danger.  And the other artists generally considered him to have no technique or skill.  Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat, arguably the best race horse ever, risked the financial future of her entire family, her own children, and her marriage for the sake of an unproven colt.  She was considered crazy by her brother, her husband, and most of the racing industry.  History has proven them to have been right.

But what about all those passions that never worked out?  Never had books written about them or movies made about them because they didn't work out?  What about the Vincents and Pennys of this generation?  How can you tell the difference?  The truth is that you can't.  The problem is not that we can't tell the difference between passion and obsessive madness.  We are asking the wrong question.  The question that we should be asking is - Does it matter?  Van Gogh's society judged him and found him wanting.  Only future generations appreciated what he did.  I wonder if he had been living now if he would have ever painted what he did.

We are so quick to analyze and label that which is different.  We want everyone to be happy.  On the surface, a lovely sentiment, but underneath it reeks of Brave New World.  Just give everyone a happiness pill and humanity is dead.  Humans need to feel passion.  They need to be allowed to pursue their passion no matter how crazy it may seem, no matter how little "success" they may achieve.  Because success is relative.  Success is socially determined and is not the same for all or for all times.  Van Gogh and Chenery succeeded because they didn't care what others thought.  They followed their own inner voice and they risked greatly in order to achieve greatness.  They did not strive for greatness.  They merely went where their passion took them.  The rest followed.

(Just an aside, I, of course, am not condoning any obsessions which lead to the damage or destruction of others.  That should go without saying.)

Just think carefully about the world that you want.  A world of "happiness" for all or a world full of passion.  And then think about our children.  Do we want them to be happy or do we want them to be all they can be?  Passion is not about happiness or success.  Passion is about strong feelings, immense energy, and a roller coaster ride of a life.  With pain, failure, stress, anger, but what a high!  We would no longer need drugs or extreme adventures to feel truly alive.  When you follow your passion you are complete.  That is a world of which I would like to be a part.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

I am a Gardener; I am an Artist

I am a Gardener.  Those who know me, know that I am not a gardener of gardens.  In fact, most plants seem to wither and die under my care.  No, I am a gardener of children.  (A Kinder Gartener!)  I take whatever young growth comes to the school and nurture it.  I give it the nutrients, water, soil, and sun that it needs to turn into whatever blossom it is going to be.  There is a video going around Facebook and YouTube about a young man named Andrew De Leon who is exactly the kind of flower which would prosper in our school garden.  He dresses like a Goth and claims to be a failure at everything and yet he has this amazing voice.  Until America's Got Talent, he was treated as a weed, someone who did not fit in the ordered, one-size-fits-all society of the masses.  Daily we see repressed, misfit children reveal hidden talents and amazing gifts.  So I am a gardener who sees a school not as a factory, which churns out productive citizens on a fixed and rigid system, but a garden where students can grow with the support and guidance to be whatever they can be.

I am an Artist.  Again, I can't draw at all, but I am a writer and I know the power of imagination.  We use the student's own imagination to gently allow them to explore, in all subjects, yes, even including mathematics, outside their box.  Out of their tiny, often fantasy, where they escape from the world,  comfort zone.  Breaking out of their shell and taking flight.  Yes, I am mixing metaphors and as an English teacher I should know better.  I do.  But the garden analogy can only be stretched so far.  Because the students may be nurtured by the concrete physical world.  We give them a safe launching pad with daily doses of mental and physical exercises.  But the final goal is to allow them to soar above the garden.  To use their imaginations, their self-confidence to pursue their passions, with firm roots in the here and now.  To dream is one thing; to realize that dream in this present world is another.  It is irresponsible not to teach them the tools they need to turn that dream into a viable, financially sound reality.  So we are a garden of flower birds. 

I am a Teacher.  I till the soil and watch them soar.  I couldn't imagine a better job.  This is my passion and I soar each day!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Where to Start?

Where do you start when you know something is wrong but have no idea how to fix it?  That was my dilemma several years ago.  I knew that there was something wrong at school with my kids.  I spoke with the teachers, the principal, even the board trustee.  I couldn't get any answers or even hints of a solution.  The problems were numerous - bullying issues, boredom, inappropriate material, awareness on my part that my children could be doing so much more.  I eventually realized that the problem was not so much the individual issues but the shape and size of the box that they were in.  Sometimes no matter how we try we can't fix a problem when the problem is an inherent part of the situation.  To be put bluntly, the problem did not lie with the teachers, the principal, or the board.  The problem was the system itself.  There was a basic disconnect between how I viewed a good education and they did.

So, when the box doesn't fit, it is time to look outside the box.  We hear this expression used all the time and, on some level, we understand what it means but, in another way, we often don't really go outside the box, we just look at the box from another angle.  Because what is truly outside the box is the unknown and that is scary.  I went outside the box to get my children the education that I wanted for them.  I went way outside the box.  It was hard; it took work; it was filled with uncertainty.  But I discovered something along the way.  Because my goal was always to have them educated in a way so that they could make responsible decisions and learn to love learning for its own sake.  Because we always strove to open as many doors to their futures as possible.  Because we always stay involved with their learning and growing,outside the box was just fine.

Every day I hear parents complaining about children being bored, teenagers hating school, a week spent watching movies.  How serious are these failures of our education system?  That is a decision to be made by each parent.  But let me ask you this: if the box they are in is not working, why are they still in the box?  Most importantly, why are they still in the box that failed you as a student?  The most common line that I hear when giving people a tour of Mississippi School for the Arts is "Where were you when I was going to high school?"  If this is the kind of school that you would have like to have attended, then why shouldn't it be a school for your children?

But even if we are willing to take ourselves into the unknown, we are very hesitant to risk our children.  But we need to.  If we don't then they will also live to regret that they did not have the opportunity to really learn what education could be like.  As Einstein said and is oft repeated, "The surest sign of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result."

Sunday, 6 May 2012

A Bit of Silliness (Is Good for the Soul)

Cody and Jody

Cody and Jody live in a magical house
Not quite like any other place
With toys all around
Six feet deep on the ground
And not one inch of spare space.

Their mother just stands there
Shakes her head at the mess
"Wasn't me," insists Cody.
"Wasn't me," insists Jody.
Who'll clean up the mess? Can you guess?

Jody and Cody have a miraculous place
Where the books leap down from the shelves
They fall and they scatter
Like any old matter
And they do it all by themselves.

Their father just stands there
Shakes his head at the mess
"Wasn't me," giggles Cody.
"Wasn't me," giggles Jody.
Who'll clean up the mess? Can you guess?

Cody and Jody have a peculiar spot
Where the trucks move all on their own
Roaring and crashing
Leaping and smashing
In a ear-crashing demolition zone.

Their grandmother just stands there
Shakes her head at the mess
"Wasn't me," shrieks Cody.
"Wasn't me," shrieks Jody.
Who'll clean up the mess? Can you guess?

Jody and Cody have a mysterious room
Where the clothes are fast disappearing
The pants on the stairs
Where's the underwear?
In the kitchen it just keeps appearing.

Their grandfather just stands there
Shakes his head at the mess
"Wasn't me," whispers Cody.
"Wasn't me," whispers Jody.
Who'll clean up the mess? Can you guess?

Cody and Jody live in an unusual land
Where the sheets are ajumble all day
Beds made in the morning
In a sudden, without warning
Bunch and scrunch up any old way.

Their parents just stand there
Shake their heads at the mess
"Wasn't me," laughs Cody.
"Wasn't me," laughs Jody.
Who'll clean up the mess? Can you guess?

Jody and Cody live in a wonderful house
Not like anywhere else in the world
While everyone's sleeping
"Wasn't Me" is a-sweeping
A-cleaning, a-sorting all unheard.

The grown-ups just stand there
Smile their smiles at no mess
"A new day," smiles Cody.
"Let's go play," smiles Jody.
Who'll clean up the mess? Can you guess?

Copyright 2001 S.L. Holzscherer

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Ah, to have ADHD

I wish that I had boundless energy. I wish I had more hours in the day, didn't waste eight of them sleeping; four would be enough. I wish I could hyperfocus on my goal and not be constantly sidetracked with distractions. I wish that fear wouldn't keep me from expanding, from trying new things, from leaving my comfort zone. I wish I could be more impulsive and not think everything to death before acting, which usually consequently never happens - the acting, I mean.

Let's see: boundless energy, need little sleep, hyperfocus on my passions, fearless, impulsive. Wait a minute! I wish I had ADHD!!! But isn't that a learning disability? Isn't it a "terrible" thing to have? Isn't it a curse? Why? And I ask again, why?

The only negative thing about people with ADHD is that as children they don't make good students. They don't sit quietly while being lectured. They don't demonstrate real, or feigned, interest in what they are being taught in school. They can't stop reacting, physically and verbally, constantly to what they experience. They want to grab life by the handful and not wait patiently while it is doled out in lesson plans.

And before you lecture me on how I know little about ADHD, let me remind you that I am a high school teacher and principal and have been for many years. I have spent hours, days, and years of joy with these so called "disabled" children. They are truly amazing. The key is to work with them. To find, as with any child, their strengths and to help them work on their weaknesses. Do they talk too much and not listen? Show them the value of listening. Help them see when their talking is interesting to others and when it is just babbling. Is their impulsivity dangerous to themselves or to others? Teach them how to judge actions and consequences. Teach them responsibility. Guide them. Nurture them. As we should do with all the children under our care. But don't suppress those very assets that will make them successful in life. Boundless energy, need little sleep, hyperfocus on their passions, fearless and impulsive.

Our future leaders in politics, entertainment, business, and social advancement will have ADHD.

If our school system doesn't destroy them first.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Willow - A Fairytale


By Sharon Holzscherer

Once upon a time there lived a woodcutter who had five sons. They worked hard with their father and he was pleased with them. Then a beautiful daughter was born. Her mother named her Willow for the large tree outside the window. Soon after the mother took ill and died. The woodcutter did not know what to do with the little girl. He only knew how to teach his sons to help him.
"Everybody in this house needs to earn their keep," he would say each evening when he returned from working in the woods.
And so Willow soon joined her big brothers in the woods, helping their father to gather the sticks and logs. She never seemed to have gathered much by the time dusk was falling and they headed home. Her brothers would proudly show the large piles of wood they had collected for their father. He would smile warmly at them and give them a nice hunk of bread. Then he would look at the small, untidy pile of little Willow and frown in disapproval. All she ever got was a dried crust.
"Little Will! Little Will!" her brothers would taunt. "Can't even find the trees."
"She's always feeding the squirrels," one would yell.
"She's always talking with the birds," another would sing.
"Little Will is useless," they all cried. "She is nothing but a burden."
"What am I to do?" sighed the father.
And so the next day Willow would vow to herself that she would gather more wood than her brothers and she would set to work willingly. But soon the squirrels would be calling her to help them gather acorns and she would drop her sticks and chase them scampering through the woods. The swallows would proudly show her their new babies. The squirrels would have her check out their hiding places full of nuts and acorns. The gophers would dig tunnels and pop up just where she sat down. All day long she would talk with the animals and learn their secrets, but them dusk would come and she would trail sadly home, knowing that her pile was no bigger than the previous day.
Soon the five brothers grew bigger and stronger and their father did not have to work as hard. They would say, "Father, stay home a while and rest your weary limbs. We will gather all the wood for you."
And the father would smile with pride and perhaps stay home for a while. Then he would see Willow running like a deer through the woods, having already become separated from her brothers, and he would sigh, "That girl is nothing but a burden."
One evening when Willow was almost a woman he called her to him. "Little Will," he said. "Your brothers work hard every day while you play your foolish games. You are a burden to them and to me. It is time that you left. Yesterday I met a man in the forest. He is looking for a wife. He is an older man with six children. He will be coming by tomorrow to take you. Perhaps you will not be a burden to him."
That night Willow waited until her father and brothers had settled quietly in ther beds. She listened to their even snoring and then crept quietly to the door and sneaked out. She was dressed in the ragged pants and shirt that her brothers had thrown out. She pushed her long hair up under her cap and took the thin blanket from her bed to wrap around her shoulders to protect her from the winter's chill. She walked quickly out into the night forest. Even being eaten by wolves was preferable to the fate her father had chosen for her.
For the whole night and the next day she walked. The birds sang to her and the other animals kept her company. It was a relief not to have to think about her father's anger and disappointment. The next evening as dusk was falling she spied a castle. The day was turning cold and snow was gently falling. She hoped to find a warm place to spend the night. The gates were tightly sealed and no one answered when she pounded on the door. Perhaps the castle was deserted. Just as she was about to leave, a small door opened in the side of the gate. An old woman came out with a basket for gathering twigs.
"Excuse me, old mother," Willow said politely. "Is there some place that I might sleep tonight?"
The old woman looked at her in horror. "Young man, you do not want to sleep here tonight. Go away! Go far away!"
"Why?" asked Willow. She thought it might be better not to let the old lady know that she was a girl. "I just want a corner in the barn or some place like that."
"There is an evil sorceress who comes each night and steals the young men from our town. There are so few left now. The king has barricaded the palace so that his son, the prince, might be safe. But it is no good. The king will see. She can get through the strongest gate."
"Old mother," Willow replied. "Take me to your king. I will help him."
Fearfully the old woman led Willow inside the gate and up to the king's chamber.
Willow knelt before the haggard, old king. "Sire, I will sleep at the door of your son's chamber tonight. He will be safe."
The old king shook his head. " You do not know what you are saying, young man. The sorceress will take you, and you will be lost."
"I would like to do this, sire. I am one of six brave brothers and we have been rulers in the forest for many years." Willow did not think this exaggeration would hurt.
The sorceress could not torment her more than her brothers and perhaps this way she could be useful. "Show me his chamber and he will sleep well tonight, my lord."
Reluctantly the king had his servants show Willow to the prince's chambers.
When the prince saw her he asked, "Who is this little fellow?"
Willow looked at his fair face haloed by his hair and was speechless. He was as tall as her brothers, but they were like rough rocks compared to the shining gold of the prince.
"Well, speak up, my young man," the prince asked kindly. "What do they call you? How can I help you?"
Willow found her voice. "It is I who will help you, sir. They call me Will and I will sleep at the door of your chamber tonight."
He looked at her curiously. "Do you know what that means?" he asked. "You will be taken by the sorceress. Are you very foolish or very brave?"
"I am your servant," she muttered. Quickly she pulled the door closed and sat herself on the floor outside. She pulled her blanket around herself and fell asleep.
She awoke as a cold wind pulled at her blanket. Opening her eyes she saw a tall, white woman standing before her. She found herself standing and following the sorceress with no will of her own. The guards were standing at their posts in a trance as they walked out the gates and into the forest. Soon they came to a beautiful clearing surrounded by tall bending willow trees. The sorceress turned to Willow and said, "There are three tasks that you must do for me or you will be turned into a willow tree like these others - to spend your life bowing to me in the wind."
Willow looked the sorceress in the eye. "Tell me the three tasks and I shall do them."
The witch laughed. "You are a cocky one. Very well. The first task is to make me a necklace of jewels from the ground. I will return in one hour." With that the sorceress went into her bower in the midst of the willow grove.
Willow went into the forest and softly called to the squirrels. "Come, my little friends. I need your help."
Soon they were scampering through the trees to gather around her. She explained what she needed. "I would like to have your biggest and shiniest acorns for a necklace for the witch or I will be turned into a tree." The squirrels quickly raced to their winter caches and brought back the nicest acorns that they had. Carefully Willow strung them together with a strong vine until she had a beautiful necklace. When the sorceress returned she handed her the necklace.
"What is this?" the witch cried. "These are not jewels!"
"They are jewels of the ground," Willow replied. "I have completed my task as asked. What is the second task?"
The sorceress grumbled, but it did not matter. This youth would never complete the other two tasks. "The second task is to bring me the gray fur of the summer fox for my stole." She looked at the forest ground covered with snow and smiled evilly. "You have one hour."
When she had again returned to her bower, Willow called to the swallows. "Please bring me your prettiest down from your nests or I will be turned into a tree." Quickly the birds flew to their nests and returned with the down that had come off their nestlings. It was soft and gray and quickly Willow wove it together into a beautiful soft gray stole.
The witch was outraged when she saw the lovely stole. "You are a crafty one, young man," she said. "But you will not be able to do the last task. You are too small and frail. In the clearing there is a large rock. It stands taller than I do. I would like you to take it away. I wish to have a smooth clearing there. You have one hour."
This time Willow summoned the gophers. "Please, dear friends, dig as strong as you can beneath this rock or I will be turned into a tree."
Many gophers started digging strongly. Soon the earth beneath the rock was cleared and the rock sank into the large hole. Willow smoothed the ground over the rock until there was a smooth clearing. The witch returned and looked at the clear ground in horror. "You are a sorcerer!" she screamed. "The curse said I would be destroyed by one of my own kind!"
Willow straightened up and loosed her hair from her cap. "I am not a sorcerer. I am a woman."
The sorceress screamed as her legs grew into the ground and turned into a twisted trunk. Her arms became branches and her hair turned into leaves. At last only a crooked hawthorn tree stood in the middle of the clearing. Then the willows started to tremble and gradually turned back into the young men of the kingdom. They looked at Willow in awe.
"You have saved us," they cried. "You are indeed a worthy lady."
Willow let the men escort her back to the castle. The old woman met them at the gate with tears of joy on her cheeks. When the young men told her of their rescue she took Willow up to a chamber and dressed her in precious clothes of silk. She brushed her long hair and then took her to be presented to the king.
The old king and his son were joyously greeting their returned subjects when Willow entered. The prince looked at her in surprise. Everyone fell quiet to behold the beautiful girl in their midst. The prince walked up to her. "What do they call you? How may I help you?"
She smiled at him. "They used to call me Will, sir. But my mother called me Willow."
He recognized with surprise the gentle youth who had guarded his door and saved his kingdom. "Welcome to my home, Princess Willow," he said. Then he turned to present her to the king.
The king asked her what she wanted in exchange for saving the kingdom. "Anything you want shall be yours."
Willow thought but she had no wishes. Her father and brothers were well enough left in the forest. She had become a woman and proved her worth. "I am looking for a warm place to spend the night, sire." She smiled serenely.


 1996 by Sharon Holzscherer

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Bullied who become bullies

Today on the news was a report that obese teenagers are not only more likely to be bullied (no surprise) but also more likely to bully.  In my experience, the victim can often become the bully in a different situation.  Understandable if they only know what they experience.  (Just as abused children can turn into abusers.)  If we follow the common logic which says that bullies come from neglectful parents then you can see the problem that we will run into.  One year they are parents of a victim - innocent good parents whose child is being tormented.  The next they are parents of a tyrant - negligent, brutal parents who have taught their child viciousness.  Not possible, people!  Bullies are bullies for many different reasons.  It is time to stop blaming the parents.  In fact, it is time to stop blaming the bullies.  It is time to look at the environment that allows this to happen.  And before you leap on me that I am blaming schools and once again allowing individuals to not take responsibility for their actions, let me clarify.

The environment that I am speaking about is not school.  It is not the home.  It is a society which does not make everyone responsible for his or her own actions.  The bully is responsible for what he or she says or does.  So is every other child in the playground or class.  So is every person in that office.  You are equally responsible if you stand by and do nothing.  Inaction is an action.  It is a decision.  It is your responsibility.  We all - bullies, bullied, and bystanders (to borrow a phrase from Barbara Coloroso) - need to create an environment that does not allow bullying to happen.  Just like drinking and driving and smoking have become socially unacceptable, bullying must become that.  People must stop looking the other way or searching for someone to blame.  When you have a disease, cure the disease, then look for the cause.

New legislation calls for counseling for bullies and the bullied - a good start.  It also calls for expulsion - a poor solution since it amputates the disease without regard for the child who is diseased.  Always remember that bullies are children, too.  The fourth part is that schools must support activities which promote understanding and acceptance of all.  This is also good.  But I strongly feel that they have missed the key ingredient in controlling bullying.  We must take ownership of the problem, whether it occurs in school, home, or work.  We must acknowledge it and accept that we each have a role to play.  If all the children report bullying as they would report a child with a knife, then bullying will be reduced.  We need to clarify, as a society, the difference between tattling and reporting a dangerous situation.  Bullying is dangerous and destructive, in some ways more dangerous and destructive than a weapon.  It is not hidden.  All the children and most of the staff are very aware of what bullying is happening. 

Bullying is being discussed in general term in schools around the country.  I suggest we take it to the next step.  Within the confines of each class, bullying needs to be addressed specifically when it occurs.  You are not violating anyone's privacy - the children already know what has happened.  Discuss the incident and come up with a solution that meets the needs of every child in that room - including the bully.  Remember the original study that started this blog?  Bullies and the bullied have a lot in common - low self-esteem, marginalization by their peers, lack of support.  What have you done today to stop bullying?