Thursday, March 31, 2011

What's next?

The conference was fun.  Now what?
The world is in big time turmoil.  The media is giving the country a very contentious backdrop.  I am not looking forward to the coming election season.  It feels like no one is playing nice on the big playground.  I keep getting emails asking for money to fuel the fight in Congress, and reading about what seems like necessary budget cuts which do not seem to be long-term focused.

Raise Teachers' Status, International Leaders Urge

Current U.S. actions seen as hampering efforts

Premium article access courtesy of
Education leaders from 16 nations that have or aspire to have top-performing education systems gathered here recently to share ideas on improving teaching.
Participants spoke repeatedly of the need to “raise the status of the teaching profession”—a task that is complicated, some said, by moves in several American states to curtail unions’ collective bargaining rights....
I don't think education is something that we can afford not to support.  It's like the foundation on a house.  It's like the walls and the floors, and the windows letting light in. The United States is no longer first in how it educates its children.  Were we ever?  I don't feel like supporting the current way education happens.  Who made it so numbers-oriented?  What happened to all of the wonderful details that are the glue that hold the entire picture together?
An effective education doesn't stop at reading, writing and arithmetic.  Well-educated children are curious and feel they have the right and responsibility to get involved.  They want to take things apart and see how they work.  They want to read books, see movies, draw pictures, interview people, create newsletters, cook interesting recipes, skype with kids from other countries, graph the growth pattern of their tadpoles, and clean up the litter in the park.  Kids who are well-educated will find a cure for cancer and Alzheimers.  They will move past the reliance on oil and inefficient automobiles.  They will make the political process a real process.  They will collaborate with other kids from other countries and stop all of this turmoil.  And, they will make sure music, and art and negotiation skills are right in there with the math.
I've been off-roading it for the past seven years by homeschooling.  It's possible to do all of these things; I just don't see how that can happen in an institutional setting.  It needs to happen, but I don't know how it can.  Without the opportunities to learn the best way they know how to, and some adults who are willing to put on their rose-colored glasses for a short time, the kids never get to develop the love of learning that makes all of the difference.  School becomes something that must be tolerated.
Okay, back to what now?  Can I do something about this?  The United States education system is too big to take on.  If I work with public school teachers training them to to experiential things, they may not be able to because of the constraints of budgets or existing curriculums.  I don't want to be a teacher in the current system.  Maybe I can't do something about this.  Maybe I'm not asking the right question.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Toolbox Conference

The Playground Design Group
The Low Tech Reading Tool Group
Occupational Experts' Panel during What's My Line?
Tired and Happy Conference Director with awesome sign
Thoughtful attendees
The Playground Design group trying to collaborate
Parents' group working to determine if it was bullying or just a tough boss

My short phrases only give a glimpse of the enthusiasm and activity that made the Conference such a great success!  I left with great ideas about making my materials more effective, and proof that some of my ideas were good ones.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

We have liftoff

How many times have I heard that phrase in my life, starting back when I was a kid watching the first Apollo flight?  Yes, we were all fixated on that small craft sitting atop a huge rocket getting propelled into space with three or four guys inside.  But, really, it took thousands of people, and lots of different types of connections to make that one moment happen.  That is how I feel about why The Toolbox Conference was the huge success (in my mind) that it was!

All but one attendee showed up, and unfortunately he was not feeling well.  The speaker who was going to psych up the group with his enthusiastic story didn't arrive (logistical problem) and you know what?  We went on and it flowed.  The three gentlemen who signed on as "occupational reps" were fabulous.  They went with the activity and the kids (attendees) had so much enthusiasm, and tried so hard to identify what these guys' occupations were.  Then I discussed an exercise I had given the kids in their registration packets, and again, high energy, lots of questions.  And, the afternoon went splendidly!  One group worked to design a playground.  One group developed a low tech tool to help disadvantaged kids learn to read.  And, the parents' group worked to identify whether a situation was bullying, in the workplace.  I haven't worked on game/simulation stuff like this for a long time, and I felt so at home.   The entire day felt very familiar.  That is a very cozy feeling.

So back to those people who made it happen.  My entire family supported me on this, and that made all of the difference.  The three men who spoke with the kids were gracious, had good senses of humor, and were wonderful examples of great communicators.  My homeschool colleagues who have listened to me go on and on, and especially those who showed up have made me feel throughout the entire process that I was doing something valuable.  I am a truly blessed individual!

And, now, I am working back to normal life (whatever that means).  I had the opportunity to be Michael's date Friday evening at the Karaoke party he gave for his staff.  That too was very high energy.  He and I won a prize for singing Kiss by Prince.  No wonder I was tired yesterday!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Check-in Time

Well, tomorrow The Toolbox Conference is happening.  All of this thinking, talking on the phone, asking, appreciating and coming up with props will be utilized, happen and chewed on afterward.  I really enjoy this process, and I feel great about the experience that both the kids and their parents will have.  It is not going to go perfectly, and I have no idea where the loose ends will be.  But, the joy, sharing, moments of aha, having to sit still and think at one place, and just go with it at another are well worth it.  Hopefully the day will pass with no natural disasters or movie icon deaths; it's nice to have good karma.  And, maybe one day in the distant future one of the kids who have then become adults will come up to me on the street and say, "I never would have thought of trying _____________ if I hadn't come to The Toolbox Conference."  Unlikely, but a possibility.

This is the schedule.  It looks like the cute little pictures of toolboxes didn't make it in the cut and paste, but you can imagine them.

The Toolbox Conference
The Toolbox Conference is an event hosted by Genevieve Griffin, who has homeschooled some or all of her three children, Emma, Margaret and Michael, for the past 7 years.  Genevieve teaches Literature at the Upper Westside Homeschool coop that meets on Fridays here at The Church of St Paul and St Andrew.  She also worked with two groups of homeschoolers who competed in the New York City History Day project.  Before Genevieve and her husband, Michael, were lucky enough to become parents she developed interactive health education programs for The Door and The Trinity School.  Genevieve strongly believes in experiential education!
Last year Genevieve hosted a Career Fair, which gave middle and high school-aged homeschoolers the chance to meet people from a wide variety of career areas, such as Screenplay Writer, Documentary Filmmaker, Lawyer and Acupuncturist.  Although this seemed a useful and interesting experience she realized that an interactive experience involving skills, life experience and occupations would be more valuable.  And, going to a “conference” offers a good experience, too.  So, we have The Toolbox Conference!
10-10:30am  Check-in
10:30  Welcome by Genevieve Griffin
10:45   Speaker:  Mr. Thomas DeGeest, owner of Wafels and Dinges
11:00-noon   What’s My Line
12-12:30  Lunch, chat with Occupational Experts
12:30-1pm   Learn about what the future may hold for some occupations, and learn what your “role” will be this afternoon
1-2:30/3  Simulated Real Life
3ish Share about Real Life
3:30ish  Wrap up and Good-bye!

Friday, March 18, 2011

What school teaches?

I've been homeschooling some or all of my three children for the last seven years.  Next year at least two of them will be in school again.  Recently I had an unexpected moment to do a very intense brief assessment.  This yielded some expected results, and some deeper memories of my own school experience popping up.  So here it is...
My children have not had a perfect, stress free experience with me as their teacher.  They have not read all of the classics, know all mathematical concepts, completed amazing science experiments weekly in our kitchen, become amazing musicians because they practice for hours and hours.  None of them ever showed great interest in preparing for the big Spelling Bee that often showcase homeschoolers.  Although our family has traveled quite a bit I have never made that cross country or round the world trip that some families make.  My children do not organize everything perfectly, do not always raise their hands in groups with well-thought out questions.  And, my experience as their teacher has often been far from ideal.  So, logically, you should ask at this point...why have you done this?

It's a collection of specific memories, and then the big picture they present.  It's the moment they walked up the stairs of the house Martha Washington stayed in at Valley Forge, pushed open the door to her bedroom and happily exclaimed, "this is her room, just like in the book (they were reading at the time.)  And, it was just the three of them standing there with their mouths open in a kind of awe as they soaked up the moment; not with 20 kids pushing behind them.  It was the many discussions we've shared about something that was happening in the world at the moment, because we have the freedom to learn about it while it is happening.  It was Emma's confidence while being a docent for an archeological dig she had participated in, when she was about 10.  It was the moment that Michael and his teammates won the NYC level of History Day for their Woody Guthrie documentary.  The experience of doing the documentary was one of the more challenging for them and me  (their "teacher") that I've had in my career, but the outcome was wonderful.  It is Margaret's love of Spanish has she works with her tutor, and then goes out and deciphers the conversations on the subway, and her taking on the tech person role during Country Day.  All of this plus much of the same.  And all tied together with who they are in the world.  Things may not always go smoothly in our home school, but how they communicate when they leave my door, what they know about, the fact they have opinions and want to contribute, and don't make fun of others who look, or think, or act differently; that is why I do this.  I don't have to have an assembly to talk about diversity or sensitivity.  I don't need to have a lesson on current events to make sure they know what is going on.  They know who the President is (I've met him).

Go back to my own school days.  Yesterday I made a list in my head about what I learned from my teachers.  Not the facts, although some of them will always be connected to certain subjects.  The question is what did I learn.  This is what I came up with:
K Mrs. Peterhans:  don't do work before you are told to or you will stand in the corner.
1 Mrs. McCollum:  follow the rules
2 Miss Knoblet:  not much of an impression but I remember I wanted my mom to be more involved
3 Can't remember her name, but I remember the wonderful lady down the hall with the exuberant personality and huge love of baseball.
4 Mr. Babich:  he screamed a lot, spanked and belittled Bobby Dorman almost daily and I learned my multiplication table.
5 Mrs. Hiser:   sentence diagramming
6 Can't remember her name but she was the best teacher I had ever had.  She had regular lessons plus taught us some French, and told stories of when she was our age.  She had a large, complicated class and somehow that was ok.  She always spoke loudly and with much energy.  The only time she got upset was when a student stole her wallet with very important photos inside.
7 - 8  Junior High  History class guy loved German (guess what language I studied in college?)  Civics teacher was large, loud, funny and used a game in class to make it more interesting (did I mention my advisor in grad school was a game designer?)  Math teacher was creepy.  Science teachers were young women.  I spoke with one of them last year and she told me she always knew I was an intelligent young woman -- I thought I was invisible.
High School  In general, painful but Mrs. Harbin was tough, charming and her reading list was pretty deep for that little school.  Mr. Macklovic made algebra and trig seem fun; and he discovered that Bobby Dorman was a math genius (remember 4th grade?).  Unfortunately I don't think he graduated from high school.  Mr. Anderson (speech) was creepy and manipulative.  Guess what?  He became the Superintendent and the financials have never been the same.  Mr. Nelson for Chemistry and Physics:  announced that women wouldn't make good scientists (but he did teach me to drive during drivers' training).  Biology teacher, he stared out the window while giving lectures that he had written word-for-word in his notebook.  Turns out his wife was dying and he was deeply depressed.  I really love Biology despite this.  And, Mr. Dillabough who was just beginning his teaching career.  He was tough, cynical and asked everyone questions so there was no hiding.  I call him now to go through kids' names before I give my scholarships.  Thank goodness he finally got married and hasn't changed much from that first year.  Still cynical, tough and absolutely loves asking everyone in the class questions.

During my school years there were teachers who did and didn't teach me things that were valuable.  Sometimes it wasn't what they were setting out to do.  I think of why I took Michael and Emma out of elementary school, and some of the classroom experiences Michael has had since he went back to high school.  I wonder what their list will look like?  Or if it will be important enough for them to make one.

It's not just about what's in the books.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Counting to 10

How long does it take to count to 10?  A simple question, right?
In the past week I have found several answers to this question.  Counting to 10 gave me an entirely new idea as I finished developing the registration packet for The Toolbox Conference.  It gave me enough time to take a new perspective on one of the daily challenges of being a mother of teen/tween children.  I counted to 10 to recount memories of time spent with a very dear friend.  It gave me the time to give extra pets to a very lovable dog.  As I was reading about the tsunami in Japan I had a new understanding about how long those seconds might seem as something so overwhelming approaches, and how short as everything in someone's life is swept away.

I like taking action, and counting to 10 makes me impatient sometimes.  But, then there are times when I am stuck in all of the possibilities when counting to 10 would free me from the details and let me just choose SOMETHING! because I am getting in my own way.

Sometimes the best use of counting to 10 is just listening to my own breath, and returning to that place of balance and peace.  And, at that moment all of the swirling emotions, details and frenetic energy just return to their normal, manageable size.

So now, I'm going to go count to 10 and see what the day will bring.  Will it be enough time for my daughter to wake up and get out of bed?  Can I de-clutter the living room?  Will my already stressed outlook return to a more relaxed set up steps into Wednesday?  Can I set aside the busyness long enough to let my heart fill with gratitude and joy at all of the wonderful blessings littered about in the swirling emotions, details and frenetic energy of my complicated life?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Small Steps

Ideas are great for me; they grow like weeds.  And then I write them down and they stick together and things grow--like weeds.  Then, I need to explain how they work to other people.  Sometimes it gets sticky, but often it works.  It is very satisfying when it works.  It is especially satisfying when someone doing something connected to my ideas says they make sense and my concept works.  Does this sound familiar?  I think we probably have all felt this way.

So, I just finished reading Three Steps from Gold.  The guy who does most of the front end work on the book asks lots of very successful people about how they got through trials and challenges to find success.  Guess what?  They all have great ideas.  Their ideas grow like weeds.  Sometimes it gets sticky, but often it works.  It is very satisfying when it works.  And, sometimes it takes years to work.  And, even more importantly, they find people who believe in them to share their ideas with, and to connect to.  That is the "sticky" I'm looking for.

Life isn't about the big jumps I think; it's about the small steps that lead to the big steps that lead to the big jumps.  When I was skiing a couple of weeks ago I was removed from the small steps enough where I could observe myself and not focus on each 6 inches of snow (no more death wedge).  And, I kept wondering "how am I able to do this?"  And, for a brief moment I actually thought about skiing in the trees with Michael (briefly).

The Toolbox Conference will happen on March 25th.  I may have 6 attendees or I may have 50 attendees; but whoever comes will get a lot out of my sticky ideas.  Yesterday my friend Anne gave me lots of great feedback and support, which has already made the conference better.  And, my son has recently told me I can't do this alone.  Good advice.  I'm glad I have him and his sisters to make sure my materials aren't lame.  I can begin to see that I am going to "go places."  Experience does that for a person.  And, people to share your ideas with.

I filled out an online form the other day to check my experience and salary against others in the US to see how on par I am.  I don't earn any money at the moment, I do get to bring my dog to work, I have a flexible schedule and I travel.  And, I realized that I have amassed 10 years of teaching experience (and people with similar experience in the US are earning $50,000 per year on average).  A pittance for preparing our children for all of the challenges of living in such a complicated world.  Something is not balanced about that.

I wonder if all of those other people get to bring their dog to work?