under a tangle of weeds

This year, establishing a school routine has been about as pleasant as strolling through a garden riddled with noxious weeds. Tempers have been short and disappointment great. The younger boy gets on the bus at 6:53 a.m. and the older one at 8:31 a.m. so I have been doing the get-ready-for-school coaching twice a day.

The elementary-aged boy missed the bus once already. You’d think a middle schooler could get all his books, soccer gear, iPad, and a packed lunch into his backpack independently by now. So perhaps it’s mostly my fault that he needs so many reminders and that the number of his near misses is far greater than the number of times he’s been out there the recommended five minutes before the bus arrives.

Then there’s the school work. “There’s no gym and no recess” in middle school, he reported the first day. He’s got one class that’s “chill” but the rest have homework expectations that fourth and fifth grade never prepared him for. I can’t believe how many overdue assignments he’s had already.

By mid-September, our garden had started looking pretty bedraggled. A few weeds had grown rather tall. The tomatoes were mostly done, with cages tipping precariously in several directions. One cage had fallen on its side completely from the weight of the plant. The cilantro had gone to seed. But there were still a few treasures in there, if you looked closely – or dug below the surface. One day I came home with a few juicy yellow tomatoes, ruby carrots and the prettiest purple potatoes. All produce you wouldn’t necessarily have seen in our sorry looking plot at first glance.

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The blessings of our fall schedule are similar – things I wouldn’t necessarily have seen at first glance. For example, now I have one-on-one time with each boy – time to help with homework, listen to anecdotes they want to share, and just hang out. The younger one has been helping me with projects after school, like assembling some new shelving, and spending more time cooking with me.

After about a month and a half, I’ve finally embraced our current reality and have gotten better about appreciating the small gifts, which are sometimes found under a tangle of weeds.

 

 

maker month

My kids don’t believe me when I say it’s good to get bored, but they’re improving at their ability to transform a blank page or an empty afternoon into something interesting. This month, they’ve been using their creativity and resourcefulness to find their way out of boredom, which I’d posit is an important life lesson. Below are some of the fruits of their unstructured days.

For the library’s summer reading program, my eight-year-old collected leaves from nearby trees and looked up the name of each one. He documented it in the following manner: 6009B0F3-9173-4D8F-B8F5-87F5CB6BC1CC

We can now tell you the difference between a sugar maple and a silver maple. After he finished this, we have found and looked up the names of four other leaves as well. The learning continues.

Word has spread that we have some Lego artists in this household, and so my two sons were enlisted to help finish up a Lego mural. They ended up reworking the whole thing. Don’t you like that eagle?

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Then there was the chalk dinosaur, ready to gobble up all cars coming toward our home on Cumberland Street. He’s wearing away little by little, but the remnants still give us something to talk about.

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Our 11-year-old has been working on creating his latest game, “Battle of the Fort.” He sometimes complains about the limitations of Tynker and how he can’t code all the things he’d like to. Most of the time I don’t fully grasp what he’s talking about – coding is a language all its own – but I’m glad he’s been developing his abstract reasoning and problem solving skills. With animation, the picture below occasionally has some lightning in the background.

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We’re also making memories, with many of the typical activities of summer like pick up soccer games at Lexington Park, swimming at Como Pool, and weekly visits to the library. They make me smile when they can’t even wait till we leave the library before they start in on their new book selections (though also a bit concerned about their safety due to an apparent lack of awareness of their surroundings when walking while reading).

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the beauty of a shared story

Parent-teacher conferences are as close as you get to a performance review for your parenting, my sister with older children used to say. If that’s case, my husband and I got two glowing performance reviews last week, one for each son. (Though I tend to agree with the sentiment that our children are not our report card.) Among the things I’ve thought about most from conferences was a comment our son’s fifth grade teacher said after she listened to him read aloud: “I can tell he’s been read to.”

I’ve been reading aloud since my oldest was an infant. It’s nice to have this affirmed, but the sad thing about her comment is the implication that reading aloud to one’s children seems to be an anomaly in this digital age. On more than one occasion when subbing, I’ve observed a child about whom I could say, “I can tell he’s NOT been read to.” It’s the child who can’t sit still for a story, the one whose attention is only sustained when there’s a screen in front of him. It’s the child who has told me, “I hate reading” and the one who has said, “Blacks don’t read.”

I read aloud to introduce my kids to stories they may not naturally pick up on their own. I read aloud because there’s a connection that comes from sharing a story (and I’m glad that people like Kate DiCamillo are talking about it.) One never ages out of listening to a story. This is why in our home we nearly always have a read-aloud book in progress.

Tips to Get Your Kids Talking about School

The following is an article I wrote for my sons’ school newsletter.

One way parents demonstrate the importance of education to their children is by talking with them about school. Some children volunteer information about school readily, while others need a bit of encouragement to get them sharing. Following are some suggestions for getting the conversational ball rolling. It may only take one question, or it may take a few, but once your child gets started, hold off on additional questions for the moment and let him or her direct the conversation. You may be surprised by what you learn.

Sometimes it can be as simple as asking your children to tell you about any artwork or take-home papers that come home in their backpacks. I often ask my kids to reread Scholastic News (ignoring any protests about already having read it) and then we use that as the basis for a discussion.

Use books as conversation starters. Pick up a book about school from the public library and read it together. Even upper elementary learners benefit from being read to. Picture books are “everybody” books – don’t let your bigger kids tell you otherwise. Some good books set at school that we’ve read recently include Hannah’s Way by Linda Glaser and A Letter to My Teacher by Deborah Hopkinson.

Model talking about your day. Tell them something that happened to you today and then give your child a chance to share. By talking about your interests, challenges and joys, you are providing models of what you’d like your kids to share with you.

Ask specific, open-ended questions. Try out some of the ones below if you’re looking for new ideas:

What book did your teacher read aloud today?

Whom did you sit by at lunch?

What was the nicest thing you did for someone today?

Who made you smile today?

What is your teacher’s most important rule?

Which person in your class is your exact opposite? How or why?

Tell me something you learned about a friend today.

What did you do at recess?

How would you rate your day on a scale from one to ten? Why?

What was the hardest rule to follow today? Why?

What is one thing you hope to learn before the school year is over?

Whom do you want to make friends with but haven’t yet?

When did you feel proud of yourself today?

What challenged you today?

 

 

 

 

a snack and a poem

Recently I pulled out a box of alphabet crackers and suggested each person write a poem using the letters on his crackers. (We’re finding creative ways to avoid summer slump in our household.)

So my ten-year-old got the letters G, L, A, V, W, P, and M. He used each one to begin a line of his poem:

George

Limped

Away and then a

Vulture with a club

Whacked him on

Purpose. A typical

Monday for George.

 

now that it’s summer, shall we put these thoughts on the back burner?

“The lights went off in the middle of lunch. That was when the criminals appeared. This is what happened. Everybody screamed, ‘The school is on fire!’ The sound of a rifle echoed across the walls. All of the students ran into the bathrooms to hide. The intruders came in. The kids were cornered.”

This was the start of a story that my fourth grade son brought home from school earlier this year. I asked him about it, but he didn’t want to say much except that the first sentence had been given to the class and they were asked to continue the story. Not long before that, the same son had asked me whether I ever used to feel scared about going to school. My heart felt heavy. How have we gotten to this place where school and violence are so often associated with each other?

In March I claimed a half-day assignment in a second grade class at a school on St. Paul’s east side. Ms. Romo, the classroom teacher, had requested a half day off of teaching to catch up on paperwork and I had taken over her role midday. Just a few minutes after Ms. Romo left the room, a school staff member announced over the intercom that we’d now have a “lockdown with warning.” When they had heard this, the second graders scrambled out of their seats toward the wall farthest from the classroom door. Someone turned out the lights, a few other students started pulling down window shades. Two girls started crying. Actually one had been whimpering ever since she’d come back from the buddy room. There she’d heard from another student that Angel had “almost got kidnapped” during recess, which sounded hard to believe to me, but had sent this young girl into a panic.

There was a knock on the door, only adding to a sense of fear that had been rising in the classroom. They seemed to be afraid that someone was coming for them. Then we heard the key turn in the lock. Ms. Romo entered the room just as emotions were nearing the point of hysteria. I took a deep breath, thankful that a trusted adult could help me calm them down.  

She called them to a circle on the carpet and reminded them that “lockdown with warning” meant they could continue with their regular classroom procedures with the classroom door closed. This was not as severe as “lockdown with intruder,” which required additional safety measures – though she didn’t go into detail about what they’d do differently in that situation. Then she gave them all a chance to share how they felt. She reminded them that they need not get all worked up when they hear a rumor, something that has not been verified. She told them, “You need to trust that the adults at school will keep you safe.”

I wanted to believe her – as I’m sure many of the children wanted to believe her – but hadn’t they heard too many news reports to the contrary? Just the month prior, in Parkland, Florida, 17 people were killed. Not long after this incident, in a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, 10 were wounded and 10 killed.  

The New York Times has labeled us “a nation plagued with mass school shootings.” I read that one reporter interviewed a student in Santa Fe and asked if there was a part of her that thought this would never happen at her school. The student responded, “I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.” Who could blame the kids in St. Paul – including my own – for thinking any differently? 

 

why I won’t abandon the picture book even though my kids think we should

Our ten-year-old has become known for devouring thick books, but he has very definite ideas about what he likes to read. He’s recently made it though the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series and has moved on to Heroes of Olympus. A few weeks ago he was a bit agitated when he was out of said reading material and still had one more day to go before his next library visit at school. His affection for 500-plus page tomes sometimes leaks out as scorn for picture books, a sentiment that his younger brother has picked up on. Not to be left behind, our seven-year-old has also expressed a preference for chapter books. Trouble is, he can’t read too many of those himself.

So, I’ve been adding more chapters to our read-aloud times. I insist the older boy put down his other book when I’m reading a chapter book aloud. He’s been known to express his displeasure about this, but he is often drawn into the story more than he’d like to admit. We recently finished reading Caddie Woodlawn together and both of the boys have brought up topics from it for discussion later. My younger son even retold the Pee Wee story from the book at a recent family story time. (His dad and and an aunt who was here hadn’t heard it before.)

But I’m not ready to give up picture books, so I still scan the shelves at the Rice Street Library during most of our visits. Sometimes I even find a book that pulls both boys in. Last week, I was reading The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt aloud to my seven-year-old, and about half way through, the ten-year-old joined us. He’d been listening, I could tell, because there was no request to turn back or start over. Both boys had had their imagination captured as we read this story set in an “ancient and distant kingdom” in which three great warriors each sought “a worthy challenge” and hoped to prove themselves in “the glory of battle.”

I considered it a victory for the picture book, a subtle reminder of the power of a good story to engage, amuse and provide fodder for conversation.

 

 

sharing a feeling

Last week I was subbing in a preschool classroom. Annika was one of the five kids at my table for small group work. Though the other kids had scattered to various play areas after finishing their worksheet, she lingered at the table. “Today after school, I have to say with Nana, but I want to be with my mom,” she said.

“Is your mom working?” I asked.

“Yeah, and she comes back after dark,” Annika said. “She spends a lot of time with her boyfriend. I don’t get to be with her that much.”

“How does that make you feel?” I asked.

“Sad,” she responded.

“Maybe you should tell your mom that,” I suggested.

“I already did,” she said.

“And what did your mom say?”

“She said, ‘Oh, I do spend time with you,'” Annika told me.”But I want to be with her more.”

We sat together for a few moments, that sweet five-year-old and I, each thinking our own thoughts, sharing a similar feeling. I wished I could make it better for Annika. I wish Annkia’s mom realized that her little girl isn’t going to be little for long, in the grand scheme of things, and that she should savor every moment.

The only thing I could offer this little girl was a listening ear – and perhaps a story. “Do you want to read a book?” I asked.

She brightened. “Go get one you like from the bookshelf,” I told her. She came back with the colorful I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More and we let the silly, sing-songy story distract us for a bit.

 

 

 

of child’s play – and life

Last week our preschooler had a friend over to play. They started out by pouring out the contents of the toy box and picking through it for the most interesting things. Those items in the toy box are rarely touched these days, but when looking at them through a new set of eyes, my son did end up thinking a few of them were worth his attention again, at least for part of an afternoon. But it wasn’t too long until they pulled the marble ramp from the closet, followed by the wooden train set. They played with each for a good ten minutes before casting about for something else. Then my son started creating something out of K’nex while the other boy became engrossed in the workings of a submarine. Soon it was time for each to revisit their favorites among the toys scattered around the living room and one bedroom. I heard marbles going down the ramp again…

When the play date was over, we had a lot of things to pick up and put away, but I had good help. And I have few complaints of this kind of play: two boys enjoying each other’s company as they mostly do their own thing, but everyone once in while cooperate to make things go better – or have a brief conversation.

Somewhere along the way, play tends to get more complicated so that by the time you’re eight you’re much more likely to be absorbed in someone else’s script. Earlier this year and at the end of last, our second grader was consumed by Star Wars. (No coincidence that it started shortly before the release of the latest Star Wars movie.) There was – and still is – a lot of Stars Wars going on at the school playground, if my son’s stories are any indication. The boys who have seen the movies or have some other good source of Star Wars information are the ones who get to tell everyone else how to play. They teach the others the names of the good guys and bad guys, explain who does what, when and how … In such games, my son is a follower. He hasn’t seen the movie – and most probably won’t for several years since it is rated PG-13.

Maybe that’s not quite as big of a deal now as it was three weeks ago, though. Because that’s about when our second grader came home with four Pokémon cards that Eli had given him at school. Since then there has been no rest about adding to his “collection.” More specifically, he believes we need to go out and buy some more cards. Right. Now. (I’ve put him off till the end of February at least. I hope they’re on to a new topic by then.) It’s the same scenario about following someone else’s script. The kids with the most knowledge about the Pokémon trading card game are the ones who dispense information about this fictional world, including details such as who is a “fire type” – and what that even means.

Every day I am reminded what a heavy dose of pop culture comes with public education. I’m left with a lot of questions about how we as parents help our son navigate that, especially as the pop culture values seem to grow more and more divergent from our own.

learning from failure

I recently read The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey.

Gift of Failure This book offers an alternative to today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting approach, which “has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.” Lahey begins the book by describing her dawning realization that she had been overparenting and chronicles some of her own struggles to grant her sons more freedom and more responsibility. She makes a compelling argument for allowing children the safe space they need to fail – and learn from that failure – at a young age when the stakes are still low.

The controlling parent or the one who always comes to the rescue of her child is challenged to begin parenting for autonomy and competence, which involves setting clear and specific expectations, being physically and emotionally present and offering guidance when a child is frustrated or needs redirecting. She argues for giving children responsibility around the home as an important part of helping kids feel autonomous, competent and connected.

In a discussion of motivation, the author describes how overparenting inhibits intrinsic motivation and essentially teaches children that without parents’ help they’ll never be able to surmount challenges. By protecting kids from failure, she argues, we’re communicating that we don’t have faith in their ability to overcome the challenges they face.

Throughout the book, Lahey offers some practical suggestions for parents, including the following:

Allow for mistakes and help children understand the consequences of those mistakes.

Don’t offer to rescue your child from the consequences of his or her mistakes.

Value the mistakes as much as the successes – in other words, support and love them just as much whether they’ve succeeded or failed.

Acknowledge children’s feelings of frustration and disappointment.

Provide feedback that supports effort and guides a child toward seeing his or her mistakes and then finding a workable solution.

Praise kids for their effort, which encourages them to draw the connection between effort and capability.

Encourage risk-taking in learning; fear of failure undermines education.

Emphasize goals rather than grades.

The Gift of Failure is a worthwhile read that may have you rethinking your expectations for your kids. It challenged me to consider what level of independence I will expect of my kids by the time they are young adults and to make parenting decisions in the present that will help them reach that goal.

This school year, after reading the book, I’ve taken more of a hands-off approach to the getting ready for school routine each morning. My son packs his own lunch, though still with some supervision. He’s responsible for getting things into his backpack too. So far, he’s forgotten his homework at home once and forgotten a book that he was supposed to take to school. This is when my temptation to take over kicks in, but for the sake of fostering independence I’m trying not to.