My daughter Hilary is going into the family business: teaching.
In September, she will welcome her first group of kindergartners in her first classroom that is all her own. So she is encountering the August teacher dreams for the first time, preparing her room with decorations (a T-Rex model named Edwina! A science experiment center!), posters, crayons, desks, and, most importantly, curriculum and classroom routines.
She e-mailed one morning from her classroom. Her little dog Betty was her only companion, and Hilary was busying herself in preparation and the quietude of a kindergarten room awaiting kindergartners – or, as John McPhee might put it, “the silence of [kindergartners] intending to appear.”
The essential question came to mind. “What am I going to teach these kids?” asked Hilary.
I know many a veteran teacher that asks the same question in August, dreams the same August dreams unique to teachers and copes with the insecurities and uncertainties of the novice teacher – the novices in themselves. I too am a veteran teacher, as is my wife. Hilary comes by the trade almost by osmosis. She has seen us pass through 30 Augusts, watched our preparation and trepidation. Certainly, her resources are within, awaiting detection.
I thought for a minute, and then wrote back: “It’s easy. Teach this: Hold hands. Stick together. Look both ways. Flush when you’re done. A-B-C-D-E-F-G. Be nice. Ask permission. Listen. Take turns. Say thank you. Be reverent. Use the 25 rules of civility. Done.”
Easy? Come to think of it, this isn’t just the kindergarten curriculum. It’s the Life Curriculum. But if the mindset is established in kindergarten, it becomes the inauguration of crucial habits of mind, heart, and hand that will stand the student in good stead long beyond the playground and sandbox – as they have for Hilary, and for her parents.
When I walked Hilary to her own kindergarten class at her new school – my school – I remember the frisson of parental uncertainties, so different from the customary teacher feelings. Now I was entrusting my child to my colleagues; I was entering a new “school” of fatherhood. What will they teach these kids? I wondered. I understood the faith and trust offered me by the parents of my students. Now I am dropping her off in another respect, at the portal of her career.
I was reminded of another inaugural moment, many years ago. I’ve always loved the poem by Howard Nemerov that an experienced teacher shared with me when our son entered kindergarten. In “September, First Day of School,” the father in Nemerov has arrived at the same door of his own letting-go as a boy, a lifetime ago, while also realizing that he will return, still the student but with the pangs of the parent, for the same young man finishing 18 years hence.
He thinks of the incredible act of trust it is to place him in the hands of his teachers, trust in the very functions and foibles of school itself. It’s a hand-off that we all make every year, with greater and greater ease and less ceremony after that first big day. The first time is the biggest hand-off. Nemerov summons a humble desire:
May the fathers he finds
Among his teachers have a care of him
More than his father could. How that will look
I do not know, I do not need to know.
Even our tears belong to ritual.
But may great kindness come of it in the end.
I see it as a peculiar privilege of people who work in schools to enjoy this inaugural day of our own every year as we watch the newcomers enter the schoolhouse doors. I had 22 of my own student first days – 18 with each of my children, not counting college – and I now contemplate my 30th as a teacher.
But each time I am new. And watching over the shoulder of my daughter, the new teacher, gives a special pleasure and pride. It’s a new view. The son is father to the man; the student to the teacher; the school head to the youngest child ... and his own daughter, now walking herself to her new schoolhouse – and so on. Doorway upon doorway. We await the appearance of ourselves, over and over. This, too, is what we’ll teach the kids. As we hold hands, stick together. Be reverent.
Following the 14-part China adoption series, Gretchen Belsie provides occasional updates on how 7-year-old Madeleine Bao Yi is adapting to the US and her new family – Monitor business editor Laurent Belsie, Gretchen, and their first Chinese adopted daughter, 10-year-old Grace.
It’s funny how a four-year trail of tedious bureaucratic paperwork – which often feels like it’s going nowhere except in a circle – can nonetheless pave the way to startling life changes that ultimately make you forget all the bother that preceded the glory. As adopting parents, we know the endpoint we’re aiming for, and we wait and crane our necks to see if we’re getting any closer to the much-anticipated crossroads. But for a child, like Madeline Bao Yi, who had no idea her life was about to be totally redirected, there wasn’t the same anticipation.
When she got to the looking glass, she went through it like Alice – and immediately started having a blast.
After the two-week bonding time in China, we headed home to Boston – but not to settle into the daily routine of family life. No, we decided to go on a family reunion-style vacation, and headed to Quebec to introduce our new daughter to family members of mine from the East Coast.
A mere 48 hours after getting home – a 57-hour journey with numerous delays and re-routings – we loaded the car, mimed to Bao Yi to buckle up, and proceeded to drive 10 hours to a rustic lakeside camp an hour north of Ottawa.
With the language barrier still firmly in place, and her general lack of US geography, we couldn’t find adequate words to explain to Bao Yi where we were going – or why. Of course, Grace kept talking earnestly about Canada, but to a little girl from Shenzhen City, what did that mean?
The terrain in rural Quebec was so unlike anything Bao Yi had ever seen; she seemed busy looking out the window at cows and large rolls of hay in the fields. The tiny town of Gracefield – the last point of “urban civilization” before heading into the woods – offers such services as a taxidermy shop, an improbable travel agency boasting trips to exotic locales, and a dollar store. As we crossed the antiquated one-lane trestle bridge over the river, the level of excitement in the back seat picked up.
Family members swarmed to see the newest Belsie, and then served up a welcome dinner of stick-to-your-ribs fare. Bao Yi hovered near Laurent but was not shy about digging in to spare ribs and scalloped potatoes.
Dragon melon – the Chinese staple similar to watermelon but with fuchsia rind and Dalmation dog-inspired fruit pulp – was, quite literally, now a world away.
The transition from vacation in China to vacation in Canada was one squiggly line of continuous fun. If there was adventure to be had, Bao Yi was right in the thick of it, chattering away in Chinese without a care in the world. She was in the lake as often as possible, floating around on her beloved neon-pink ring, or learning to swim. She even took up kayaking, determined to figure things out on her own. Turning around, a necessary skill? Not really. Bao Yi just kept on going until someone hauled her back.
Another tradition – the family Fourth of July parade past the boathouse – Bao Yi accepted at face value. Didn’t most people don berets and sunglasses and pretend to play dented instruments collected over the years from antique shops and general junk stores?
Grace’s role in this year’s parade was to be a junior miss beauty pageant winner, waving primly from the wheelbarrow pushed by Uncle John. I had fashioned a tiara out of aluminum foil for her, and she had the wave down pretty well. Once Bao Yi saw that shiny crown, she would not rest until she had her own. Hers lasted far beyond the three-minute parade. She wore that thing day in and day out like Jughead from the old Archie comic strip, pleased as punch with the look.
Underneath the frivolity and carefree fun, significant changes were happening. Bao Yi was setting down roots in our family. She began to bond with me, showing more open signs of trust and affection. Laurent was still leagues ahead of me on that score, but it felt good to be appreciated as a mama and to be thanked for the little things that mamas do.
We also saw indications of who Bao Yi is: an adventure seeker, an I’ll-try-anything-once kind of girl. That’s quite a contrast to Grace’s more cautious and neat approach to life’s opportunities. Together they helped each other share new perspectives. In the process, we all grew much closer as a family unit, and we’d only been at it for a month.
I only have one lurking apprehension: What will happen when we get home and she figures out that Laurent goes to work every day?
Martian time, that is.
Since the landing of NASA's newest Mars rover, flight director David Oh's family has taken the unusual step of tagging along as he leaves Earth time behind and syncs his body clock with the red planet.
Every mission to Mars, a small army of scientists and engineers reports to duty on "Mars time" for the first three months. But it's almost unheard of for an entire family to flip their orderly lives upside down, shifting to what amounts to a time zone change a day.
Intrigued about abiding by extraterrestrial time, Oh's wife, Bryn, could not pass up the chance to take their kids — 13-year-old Braden, 10-year-old Ashlyn and 8-year-old Devyn — on a Martian adventure from their home near the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory where the Curiosity rover was built.
"We all feel a little sleepy, a little jet-lagged all day long, but everyone is doing great," Bryn Oh said, two weeks into the experiment.
Days on Mars last a tad longer. Earth rotates on its axis once every 24 hours — the definition of a day. Neighbor Mars spins more lazily. Days there — known as sols — last 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than on Earth. The difference may not seem like much each day, but it adds up.
To stay in lockstep, nearly 800 people on the $2.5 billion project have surrendered to the Martian cycle of light and dark. In the simplest sense, each day slides forward 40 minutes. That results in wacky work, sleep and eating schedules. Many say it feels like perpetual jet lag.
The Oh family broke in slowly. A sign on their front door warns: "On Mars Time: Flight Director Asleep. Come Back Later."
Days before Curiosity's Aug. 5 touchdown, the children stayed up until 11:30 p.m. and slept in until 10 a.m. In the beginning, it wasn't much different from a typical day on summer vacation. As the days wore on, they stayed up later and later, waking up in the afternoon and evening.
One day last week, the family ate a 3 p.m. breakfast, 8 p.m. lunch, 2:30 a.m. dinner and 5 a.m. dessert before heading off to bed.
To sleep when the sun is out, their bedroom windows are covered with aluminum foil or cloth to keep out any sliver of light. In the hallway, a handmade calendar keeps track of the days and schedules are written on an oversized mirror. A digital clock in the master bedroom is set to Mars time.
Bryn Oh keeps a meticulous spreadsheet updated with her husband's work hours and the family's activities. They wear a wireless device that monitors their steps, calories burned and sleep patterns.
When David Oh tells co-workers on Mars time and friends on Earth time about the switch: "Some of them think it's really cool to have the kids along. Some who worked on other Mars missions have said, 'You're crazy.'"
Being night owls has its perks: Braden, Ashlyn and Devyn saw their first shooting star. The family went on night hikes in the hills around the neighborhood. They had a late dinner in Hollywood and gawked at street performers on the Walk of Fame with other tourists. They saw a midnight screening of a zombie film and then went bowling.
One night, Bryn Oh took the children biking in an empty parking lot. The youngest shed his training wheels, and for the first time, pedaled around.
Of the three, Ashlyn has the most difficulty sticking to the Mars rhythm. She tends to wake up too early and balks at naps.
"It's awesome, but it's tiring," she said.
Braden thrives on the weird hours. What teenager doesn't like staying up as late as possible and having frozen yogurt at midnight? He started a blog detailing the family's experiences.
Earthly sacrifices were made. The family traded a real vacation for a glorified staycation. Dental appointments, harp lessons and play dates were scheduled around when the kids were awake, which was a moving target every day.
Still, they managed to host a party a week after the landing, throwing a Mars-themed backyard barbecue complete with a cake shaped like Gale Crater, Curiosity's new home, and topped with candles shaped like stars.
Bryn Oh said it's easy to lose track of what day it is. A simple question like "What time is it?" is difficult to answer. Do you mean Earth time? Curiosity time? The time that their bodies think they're on?
For the mission workers, the schedule is also more grueling than in the past. Their work hours tend to whiplash around depending on when orbiting spacecraft fly over the rover landing site to relay signals to Earth. One shift sends up commands spelling out what Curiosity will do for the day; another pores over the pictures beamed back.
To cope, workers talk as if they're on Mars, saluting "Good morning" to one another even though it might be dark outside. Cots are available for siestas. There's also free ice cream — "a little pick-me-up in the middle of the night," said mission manager Mike Watkins.
Watkins said it's tough for anyone to stray from Earth time let alone a family.
"It's something they're going to remember the rest of their lives," Watkins said.
There have been growing pains. David Oh accidentally showed up to work an hour early one time. The youngest tended to get tired at night.
The family recently reached a milestone: Staying up through sunrise and sleeping during the day.
And just as the children get used to Mars time, they'll have to reboot later this month when they revert to their terrestrial ways in time for the start of school.
US researchers have stumbled on a compound that may finally lead to a birth control pill for men.
In lab experiments, male mice given the pill were rendered completely infertile during treatment as they produced fewer and less mobile sperm. The drug, originally tested as part of a broader cancer research project, does not affect the hormone system or sex drive, the team said on Thursday.
"There is no effect on the mouse's mojo. The animals exhibit the normal sexual behaviors ...." said James Bradner of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, whose study appears in the journal Cell.
What's more, the effect is completely reversible. Once doctors stopped giving the drug to mice, they were able to sire healthy litters, with no apparent side effects, Dr. Bradner said.
The study is "an exciting report that could have major scientific and social impacts," said Professor Moira O'Bryan, head of the Male Infertility and Germ Cell Biology Laboratory at Monash University in Australia.
The social impact of effective contraception was huge, separating sexuality from reproduction. The Pill – oral contraception for women first introduced in 1960 – promised women almost unlimited freedom from worry about pregnancy because, for the first time, they could control their fertility. This "sexual revolution" lead to more relaxed attitudes about sex outside of marriage and had a significant effect on women's ability to plan their families and careers. Among American women who use contraceptives today, the largest proportions use the Pill – 28 percent – according to the Guttmacher Institute.
The Pill significantly tipped the balance of responsibility – including costs – for contraception to women. An effective contraceptive pill for men might expand their involvement in contracption and reproductive decisions.
Scientists say the research is exciting because it applies a unique approach to the problem of male contraception, which is now largely comprised of less reliable methods like condom use, or more permanent procedures like vasectomies.
Bradner's lab focuses on cancer drug research but developed a compound that appears to target a protein specific to the testes called BRDT which instructs sperm to mature. Bradner said the compound does not appear to do damage to sperm-making cells, but they forget how to create mature sperm while under the influence of the drug.
Bradner reached out to reproductive health expert Martin Matzuk of Baylor College of Medicine, another author of the report, and his team tested the compound in mice.
What they found is that the animals began producing fewer sperm, and the ones they did produce were poor swimmers.
"When the drug is removed, these instructions return," Bradner said.
William Bremner from the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in the research, said in a commentary the finding was "a breakthrough new approach," noting that there has not been a new reversible contraceptive for men since the development of the condom centuries ago.
"It's exciting basic science that provides a new approach to think about how a contraceptive for men might be designed," Bremner said in a telephone interview. "At the same time, it's a long ways from being in clinical trials in men, let alone being on pharmacy shelves."
Other teams have developed hormonal pills that are effective, but they disrupt hormone balance in men, Bremner said.
August heralds the back-to-school season, which will probably mean a renewed debate about how public education can be improved. But instead of looking for the one big thing that might make public schools better, maybe we should acknowledge that the health of public education instead relies upon a hundred small things that, collectively, give students what they need to thrive.
Among the ingredients in my recipe for education success is something so simple that it’s easy to overlook: a fresh coat of paint for your local campus.
All of this came to mind a few years ago when we transferred my son to an inner-city public school in our home city of Baton Rouge so that he could participate in a stellar gifted and talented program. We welcomed the promise of quality instruction, but the physical condition of the school, as I quickly learned, left much to be desired. Only moments after walking through the front door for a tour of the campus, I felt a flurry of flaking paint landing on my head. The walls and ceilings seemed as if they hadn’t been painted in years – a dilemma, I know, faced by many public schools across the country. When school districts face budget cuts, spending on routine maintenance is often the first item on the chopping block.
But deferred maintenance on school buildings takes its toll. Brushing dried paint chips from my scalp, I thought about “The Experience of Place,” a 1990 book by Tony Hiss that illuminates a profound truth: The quality of our daily surroundings can deeply influence the quality of our feelings and thoughts. Hiss mentions a downtown Manhattan courtroom in which the wall clock has stopped, the paint is peeling, “and maybe a chunk of plaster is missing too.” Hiss suggests that the condition of the courtroom conveys the not-so-subtle message that what’s going on there isn’t really that important. Can jurors be expected to care about their work when the surroundings betray so much public ambivalence?
Poorly maintained schools must surely encourage a similar apathy among their students, the shabby halls and classrooms sending a message that learning isn’t a community priority. In such a campus climate, no one should be surprised when so many students fall behind.
Luckily, my story has a happy ending. Perhaps in response to some gentle prodding, our local school district found the staff and resources to have the outside woodwork of my son’s school painted. In conjunction with the exterior spruce-up, my family joined with other parents and City Year, a terrific corps of committed young volunteers, to stage a painting day for the inside of the building. In the space of a single Saturday, moving with the speed and energy of a military operation, we gave many of the walls, doors and ceilings a new lease on life.
I don’t pretend that we solved all or even most of public education’s problems that day. But perhaps the biggest enemy of education reform is the belief that because we cannot do everything to address the challenge, then we can absolve ourselves from doing anything.
Which is why, as my son progressed to another campus this year for middle school, I joined with other parents for yet another painting day at his school. The principal, returning to campus after running an errand, noted with satisfaction how much better the school was looking from her vantage in the front driveway.
She was doing what we should all do as another school year begins: Drive up to the front of your neighborhood school, and see it as a youngster might for the first time. If the picture proves sobering, get out your paint brush, and see what you can do to make it brighter.
Once upon a time, we might have complained that Disney Princesses set unrealistic beauty standards for little girls. You know, the slim Belle waist, the big Cinderella eyes, the suggestion that all of life’s activities take place in a poofy dress. Not to mention all those messages about waiting for the prince.
See, according to a group of Venezuelan plastic surgeons, whose ad featuring Ariel has gone viral on the Internet, the Little Mermaid, well, needed a little bit of “work.” And not just for her tail.
As part of Clinica Dempere’s “We Make Fairy Tales Come True” ad campaign, Ariel is shown swimming up to the operating table. Then she displays a new pair of long, skinny legs, a rather curvy backside, a full set of lips, and a chest that has been enlarged to the point that it would, I imagine, make any return to life under the sea quite difficult.
Yes, that’s right: According to the plastic surgeons, Disney Princesses just need to get sexier.
We’ve written a lot in the past about little girls and body image, as well as the ways the beloved – and omnipresent – Disney Princesses impact the way girls embrace sexuality at younger and younger ages.
(Check out our cover story on this from last year – “Little girls or little women? The Disney Princess effect”)
We’ve also noted the rise in plastic surgery for kids. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, cosmetic surgery on teens make up 5 percent of procedures nationwide. And that stat is growing. The number of Botox treatments on teens rose 20 percent between 2010 and 2011; the number of breast augmentation surgery climbed 4 percent, and “chinplants,” or chin augmentations (I’m serious) skyrocketed 69 percent among teens during that same time period.
(See our article about this here.)
So ads like this? Not so helpful.
Sure, the Clinica Dempere ad is campy and, to an adult, a joke. But the message that not even the Little Mermaid is sexy enough adds to what little girls already absorb from clothing stores, music videos, celebrity magazines, television shows and their peers. They learn that “sexy” is desirable, and that young women should sculpt themselves into sex objects – long before they understand what “sexy” means.
In the five weeks we’ve had Albie, our half yellow Lab, half golden retriever rescue dog, I think I’ve met at least a hundred people I’d never have talked to before. To be with a dog, especially one as appealing and welcoming as Albie, is like wearing a sandwich board with blinking lights that says, “Come say hello and ask me about my dog!”
This is not an altogether bad thing. A week ago I was outside a grocery store in western Massachusetts waiting with Albie while my wife Judy shopped inside. Before I knew it, a rather attractive woman in a revealing top was talking sweet nothings in Albie’s ear and striking up a conversation with me. She was in the area spending a month at a well-known yoga retreat. I know Albie was the main attraction, but it occurred to me that during the lean, single years of my early 30s, my biggest mistake was not having an irresistibly adorable dog as my wingman.
As this woman admired Albie, Judy suddenly appeared with a bag of groceries. I was able to tell Judy that she and this nice stranger had something in common: a love of yoga. At the store for five minutes and I already knew a surprising amount about this stranger’s life, including the fact that she had a dog at home she missed terribly, that she’s a yoga instructor, and that she’s moving to North Carolina soon. Judy was very impressed with all the information I’d been able to collect in the time it took her to buy two tomatoes, a cucumber and a small assortment of cheeses.
Albie has inspired random acts of kindness from total strangers, as well. A few minutes before I met the yoga instructor, a woman who worked in the store came out with a bowl of water. She’d seen us through the window and thought he might be thirsty. I’m reasonably sure that if I’d been waiting there by myself in withering heat with sweat pouring off my brow, no one would have looked out the window, taken pity on me, and delivered a tall lemonade with a sprig of mint, or even a glass of water for that matter.
As nice as it is to meet new people, the conversations do have a certain predictability to them, and I think there’s a fortune to be made selling T-shirts that would make these conversations more efficient. For example, mine would say, “His name is Albie. He’s three years old. He’s half yellow Lab, half golden retriever. Yes, he’s friendly. Yes, you can pet him. Thank you for whatever compliments you have bestowed.”
Maybe I should call the Life is Good guys because life sure is good with Albie.
Some schools allow parents to stay for a while. Others forbid them to even enter the room. That usually moves the drama to the hall. I’ve watched teachers skillfully gather the group to a circle for a story and others deal helplessly with three or four crying 5-year-olds. Sometimes I have had to usher the crying 35-year-olds out of the room and to my office.
So many kids these days have had lots of preschool so the separation is less traumatic, but not for mom and dad, camcorder in hand and tears in their eyes.
For this event I’ve never been able to maintain that professional psychological distance we’re supposed to have. I’ve often shed a few tears even before the parents and the kids, so I took my own babes into this monumental transition wondering if I would fall apart when it was our turn.
I did – just a little. Some were tears of joy when a friend took my shy daughter under her wing (they are still friends 20 years later). With my son the tears quickly dried with shock when he introduced himself as a “junkyard dog." He was the happiest kindergartener you’ve ever seen. He saved all his tears for the last day of kindergarten when he clung to his beautiful young teacher and sobbed at the prospect of leaving her.
I have often thought that I should take my own camcorder and film what takes place 10 minutes after the parents leave, so they could see how quickly kids adjust. Instead I have made many phone calls reporting how well their child recovered to ease the heart of the parent suffering their own separation.
At one school, the PTA has a coffee-and-rolls event in the auditorium with lots of tables for signups and information. It is the grown-up version of gathering them for a story and usually eases the parental transition.
I really treasure this little part of my work. To be present at such a significant moment for so many families is a gift. When called upon I try to help parents send their child into the big world with the message, “I will miss you too. I know this is a little scary, but I know you can do it. I believe in you, and I can’t wait to hear all about your day.”
Life is short: childhood is shorter. I believe we should honor this precious time and its painful and joyful steps.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Susan DeMersseman blogs at Raising kids, gardens and awareness.
I can’t be the only one to have read the news of the massive Bumbo Baby Seat recall with just a twinge of sadness.
This isn’t because I don’t believe in stringent safety standards for baby products – quite the contrary. Surely it’s no good to have consumer goods out there that injure kids, and thank goodness some part of government is standing up for our little ones. As Monitor business editor Laurent Belsie reported yesterday, the South African company Bumbo International and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) had received around 100 complaints of injuries related to the baby seat, including more than 20 skull fractures.
Even if that’s a tiny percentage of Bumbo users, it’s a clear sign that there’s a problem.
But the Bumbo – that weirdly shaped and brightly colored foam contraption that allows a young baby to sit like a big kid – was pretty darn cool. We didn’t have one ourselves, mostly because we were clueless and didn’t know for months they existed, but after being introduced at a friend’s house we were enamored. And Baby M loved it.
So, apparently, did many, many other babies. Bumbo International has sold 4 million seats in the US alone, all of which they are targeting in this safety action.
And, well, it’s just kind of a bummer that it is unsafe, although the company says consumers can install a new harness system that will help fix the problem.
(As an aside here – it’s hard not to wonder what people in South Africa, home of the Bumbo, think about this. The common attitude when I was living there was that the US was a strangely rule-loving place and that Americans needed to relax. It wasn’t unusual to see kids of all demographics riding joyfully in the back of pickup trucks, or dashing down impossibly steep playground slides that perched over cement. But I digress...)
The recent Bumbo news, of course, is just the latest in what seems like a never-ending report of danger lurking where you least expect it.
Some of the recent recalls:
- On July 24 CPSC and Peg Perego USA Inc. announced a voluntary recall of two versions of their strollers, the Venezia and the Piko-P3, due to risk of entrapment and strangulation.
- That same day the safety commission announced a recall of Kolcraft Enterprises Inc.’s Contour tandem strollers, for fall and choking hazards. Apparently the wheels and basket support screws can easily detach in some models.
- Folding beach chairs made by Downeast Concepts Inc. are a laceration hazard, according to the CPSC, as are Toysmith’s Animal Snap Bracelets.
- A group of safety advocates have launched a campaign to raise awareness of the strangulation risk connected to baby monitors.
And that’s just a sample of what happened in July.
It’s great we have these alerts. The regulatory structure and attention of official organizations such as the CSPC, as well as a slew of nonprofit safety groups, save lives. But as a parent, you kinda wish that you could just buy a stroller, say, and not worry that in a few months you’ll hear that you’ve been putting your little bundle of joy in grave danger.
At least we have Buckyballs, those small magnetic spheres that are a clear hazard to small children who might eat them, and which are now at the center of a new safety lawsuit brought by the CPSC.
Those, at least, parents should know are dangerous.
Here’s something I don't hear about very often in the school standards debate: the tone of teaching.
To this day, what I remember most vividly from my own middle school years is the tone of voice of my teachers — not what they taught me (though that certainly paid handsome dividends), but how they taught me (quadruple dividends).
Mrs. Tapley, Mr. Williamson, Mr. Stevens – they all had perfect pitch. The effect of their pedagogy and curriculum shows up to varying degrees in my adult writing, math skills, spelling, or geographical literacy. OK, long division still confounds me, but I have a good working knowledge of the earth’s important physical features; I can spell pretty good. But what I learned from them is not necessarily what I most remember – a clue as to what matters in schools. It was their tone – attitude and feeling, for me and for their academic subject – through which my teachers created an expectation for learning and a sense of aspiration. And this goes to the heart of the difference between standards and standardization.
Good teachers create a positive tone by making children feel cared for, understood, challenged, appreciated. Of course we also remember their moments of righteous indignation, mock ire, and withering glances. I can still hear Mr. Stevens, my fourth grade teacher, scolding Vicki Johnson for making a sixth trip to the pencil sharpener, in order to drop yet another note on Caroline's desk, instead of paying attention to his lesson on the apostrophe. I do not remember his lesson, per se. But Mr. Stevens somehow made it personal, and that is why I can form the possessive singular. I do not know if Vicki Johnson can say the same. His tone, though, conveyed its value.
I knew from their tone that my teachers were powerful, or not; knowledgeable, or faking it; sincere, or going through the motions; secure, or insecure. Looking back, I know that learning occurred most spontaneously, deeply, and lastingly for me when the tone was in sync with my developmental timing – and allowances were also made for the unique tenor of the given day. It was then that I allowed myself to be taught and conspired with my teachers to learn.
This is the fundamental transaction of good schools: students who can learn because their teachers know them intimately, have their trust, and ingeniously adapt information and skills in a way that is authentic.
I would like to think that my experience as a teacher and administrator includes some successes in effecting these transactions. I can be certain of precipitating many individual breakthroughs (“So that’s what that poem means!”); confident of training young writers in some key skills (even punctuating the possessive plural!), and hopeful that I’ve recruited, hired, and supported teachers whose gift for getting the tone right assured some future grateful memories of joyous learning. It would be my tribute to Mr. Stevens to think that I had, in fact, struck the right tone for just a few of my students and colleagues, just as he did for me.
Todd R. Nelson is head of school at The School in Rose Valley, PA.