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I like boys. I like being around boys. I like talking to boys. I like, no I love, teaching boys. Yesterday, I read a post, and the comments therein posted, titled Boys Suck. Teaching boys is one of the greatest joys I have in my career since many of the boys I teach are fun, funny, intelligent, and outgoing. Hearing educators complain about boys only reinforces the underlying causes behind the gender gap in higher education.

The gender gap in higher education should frighten people. Boys in higher education are becoming fewer compared to their percentage of the population. In fact, Ali Carr-Chellman addressed a lot of this in her TED talk “Gaming to Re-engage Boys in Learning.” The facts behind male education are frightening. In higher learning, according to the American Council on Education, boys represent 43% of those enrolled in or earning bachelor’s degrees. If you are a young man of color, that number decreases even further, with the American Council on Education stating that the numbers for Hispanic males were 42% in 2007-2008, a decrease from 45% in 1999-2000. According to information from the US Census bureau for the 2010 census, 50.8% of the US population is female and 49.2% is male. While there are 1.6% more females in the general population, there are 14% more females in higher education than there are males.

What does all this mean? Somewhere, Americans are failing their boys. Ms. Carr-Chellman discusses teachers who find gaming, or other boy interests, to be wasteful. She tells a story of a boy who wishes he could write a story about a tornado blowing apart a house but that his teacher would not like it. These two examples are but two of many that explore the manner through which boys are marginalized in K-12. Marginalizing even a small portion of a population, let alone nearly half of it, marginalizes all of us. When we preach education but focus only on those behaviors or interests that our society deems to be acceptable, we tell a segment of our population that education is only meant for those individuals who can conform to a set of proscribed interests. We discuss gender equality for women and want women to succeed, but why does that mean that we have to cause boys to fail?

Failure of any group, in part, relies on the views educators have towards their students. When an educator dismisses a student (or group of students) based on race, ethnicity, religion, or gender, that instructor has disenfranchised all the students in the room, not just the single ostracized group. When one group feels left out, they find themselves uninterested in the coursework as well as uninterested in maintaining an interest in the classroom environment. This disinterest based on marginalization can be interpreted as a disinterest in learning. However, feeling disrespected for simply being something – gender, religion, race – means that the student will withdraw from learning. This is basic human instinct. This withdrawal removes an entire realm of perspective from the classroom, one that if cultivated could add instead of detract. If boys are withdrawing, we, as educators, need to help them engage.

Aiding boys in their education does not mean pandering but understanding. Boys are often more kinetic. In education today, things like testing and information retention require calm and sedate behaviors. Classroom discussion often requires an orderly path of participation. However, understanding the need for boys to find their way means that at some level educators need to leave their own comfort zone and embrace those behaviors that make boys so enjoyable in the classroom.

The boys that have taught me the most about teaching boys are the ones that are the most rambunctious. I love having a raucous class that has lively discussion, humor, and fun. I love that my male students are often more willing to speak up on topics that interest them, while girls are more willing to give thoughtful comments even when they find the material useless. When my boys are engaged, they create a roomful of loud discussion and personal engagement. For example, when discussing self-identity with technology, a conversation that even briefly brings up the idea of the video game Call of Duty brought about a lively discussion not just of the game itself, but of how the players use the game to escape a mundane life. This was parlayed into a discussion of how people use avatars or social networking sites to create an identity that helps them escape from their normal lives. When discussing the debate culture in the classroom (a la Deborah Tannen), a link between the competitive nature of sports and the competitive nature of debate engages the boys. These simple links to topics that interested the boys helped them feel comfortable within the academic realm, giving them a sense of connection to the material and the classroom discussion.

Engaging students is not about pandering. Engaging students is about noting those overlaps between your materials and their interests. Boys are socialized differently than girls. In a writing class, for example, many boys have been socialized to believe that they are “bad writers”. They have been socialized to feel that writing is something for girls. They have been socialized to believe that the best writing is about emotion, not action. They feel that their writing should be about unicorns and rainbows, not pirates and swords. They have been socialized to feel that those things that interest them, sports or video games or rock music, have no relevance to the classroom. Girls have been taught that they can do anything, be anything, and learn anything. Are girls outnumbered in certain fields? Yes, they are, but educators recognize this and focus girls towards these fields. Are boys outnumbered in certain fields? Yes, but they are socialized to feel that this should be the norm.

Educators often discuss the need to understand different learning styles. The literature gives examples types such as aural, visual, and kinetic. Yet, in the majority of classrooms, those who are aural and visual have educators who can fit this into their classroom. Students who are kinetic learners often find themselves sitting at a desk listening and looking. At a certain educational level, the idea of manipulables are considered juvenile. However, for kinetic learners, a lesson as simple as “cut your outline up into strips and move the lines around” might be enough to help them see that their learning style can fit into even a college environment. A classroom activity using my two year old’s Duplo Legos (the only Legos in our home not attached to a specific “structure” such as the White House or Millenium Falcon) garnered more interest from my male students than any other lecture. The students had ten minutes to choose blocks, build a structure, and write instructions to re-create that structure that structure exactly (including by color of block). Pictures were compared between the originals and the re-created structures. The pedagogical goal was to teach students the need for clarity in writing. This kind of kinetic environment can be used in the college classroom while still maintaining the necessary decorum.

For the adventurous, allowing the boys to use sports or video games as their examples that relate back to classroom materials may seem to lead to chaos. Using the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry (or Patriots-Giants rivalry) as the example of how to create an argument focusing on a thesis (which team is better) can get the boys engaged in the idea that they exhibit these skills without realizing it. Of course, it also can lead to a heated debate regarding team hegemony, which of course only further proves the ability to prove an argument.  However, a controlled chaos is the discussion I love the most in my classroom. I love when my students are so passionate that they gesticulate or want to bang a table. I love the way that a discussion can become more than just words but show how words can evolve into physical actions. I love when my boys find themselves comfortable enough to step into the academic realm. For boys who have found themselves treated as troublemakers for being active, having a place in the academic world wherein they can express their thoughts without being sent to the principal is important.

Few boys will walk into a conference room at the age of twenty-five and expect the roundtable discussion of their file to relate to sports or a video game. Few boys will feel the need to talk loudly or be rambunctious in the office space. However, those boys will never be able to get to those conference room if educators keep marginalizing them based on their gender and interests. I love boys. I love teaching boys. What I want to see in colleges are more boys. Boys. Boys. And more boys.

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I’m a geek. Let me throw the bias out there for you straight up. However, in the last few months, I’ve been debating and discussing what constitutes a “gadget” with a lot of people. The news has also been discussing the evils of technology on families and children. The issue that I have been debating in my head is what technology actually rises above “gadget” to become useful and thus empowering to present and future geeks (and the population as a whole).

A few years ago, I bought myself the iPhone 3G. I love my iPhone. I mostly used it as a conglomeration of calendar/music/email. Once Monster  started seeing me on it, he wanted to play with it more and more. When the iPhone 4 came out, Mr. A and I jumped on that bandwagon like a pack of wolves staring down an Omaha Steaks truck. With that, we decided to try downloading a few apps for Monster. This is where the discussion of gadget versus geekery comes in.

The tantrums. Oh, the tantrums. This child would see one of our phones and start shouting “CHOOCHOO! CHOOCHOO!!” so that he could play his Thomas the Tank Engine game. The first game he loved was a “tilt the phone” game to move the train. However, since this seemed to amuse him when we played it, we started downloading other apps. We downloaded a small piano app. We downloaded a Thomas puzzle and matching game. Monster started to figure out what to do to make the games work. He began to…learn. After a few months, we finally decided that, as long as we monitor what apps he has on his “phone”, we would retool my old iPhone so that he could play games on it without bothering us.

A lot of news articles, recently, have discussed the evils of using phones to entertain children. The media loves sharing how children spend more time playing games than learning how to tie their shoes (of course, if kids were still using velcro sneakers like we did in the 1980’s, maybe this would be surprising). Studies have been coming out in the last six months focusing on young children and smartphone use. Debates have been springing up with mothers about what is an appropriate gadget for their children.

People’s decisions for their own families are their business. However, the term “gadget” has been bothering me. Recently, on my mothers’ discussion board, a debate sprung up about a 6 year old and an iTouch. A lot of mothers, not all but many, argued that these phones and machines are gadgets. Others stepped into the debate discussing how a smartphone has more technology than a desktop computer in the 1980’s. The discussion got me thinking, “at what point is a cell phone or a tablet no longer a gadget but a useful piece of technology that will overtake what we adults currently consider to be necessary technology for our lives?”

Before we retooled Monster’s phone, we thought long and hard about the goals we had for him. Yes, the phone is a magical tantrum remover. Yes, in a restaurant, it can keep him entertained long enough for us to finish eating. Yes, we love that he’ll play a game for twenty or so minutes at a time. However, while these are useful tools for us, what do they do for him? We thought carefully about what we wanted Monster to “get” from having his own “phone.”

1) Education. All right. I’ll start with the one that most parents care the most about. Monster loves doing puzzles and memory games on the phone. He will sit and do puzzles for twenty or more minutes moving the pieces across the screen. This is a child who, if he doesn’t fall off a table by the age of three, is most likely going to still end up having a concussion countdown, a la Varsity Blues. He’s never still. I can tell when he’s fallen asleep because that is the point at which his fingers finally stop fluttering and he is absolutely.immobile. Doing normal, non-digital puzzles normally involves throwing the board and watching the pieces bounce around my hardwood floors, in a rather noisy manner. This is a child who would never be able to control himself from overturning every card in a traditional memory card game. The digital versions of these learning games has enabled Monster to focus his attention on the mental skill without the distraction of the “OHMIGODTHERE’SSTUFFTOTHROW!” aspect of the traditional games.

2) Experience. For me, this is the number one goal. As technology progresses, it will continue to become smaller. What we consider microtechnological “gadgets” now may one day become the essence of an adult workforce. When I was in elementary school, people worried that playing games like Oregon Trail were going to dumb us down. “Tech ed” in my middle school days involved programming a lathe to make a keychain. It involved learning basic Logo. As computers became more prevalent, I found myself woefully unaware of the impact they would have on my future. I had an email account as early as 11th grade. However, I did not fully understand the educational value of the internet until I was 18 and in college. Today’s world revolves around understanding and effectively using technology. Businesspeople use smartphones to stay in contact or to work remotely while commuting on a train or bus. Tablet computers are rapidly becoming the new way to conduct business and be effective in a global market. The technology that our children learn on will be far outdated by the time they are adults. Understanding how to use and evolve with technology will better prepare them for their futures. To me, this is the key. As technology continues to simplify user interface and miniaturize, it will become even further integrated into the workforce on that level. In twenty years, the workforce may have flattened such that you never truly see the people with whom you work. To deny my son the experience of being comfortable with technology is to inhibit his potential in the long run.

3) Independence. We have uploaded different apps, music, and video to Monster’s phone. I love that he wants to play puzzle games. I don’t mind that he wants to listen to Yo Gabba Gabba music ad infinitum. I’m mostly ok with him watching the two Gabba episodes that we uploaded to the phone when he does not like what we’re doing around the house. However, he also has the option of playing some video games (we have a Lego app that basically involves tapping the farm characters to make them talk) or listening to the other music (music from his music class, Linkin Park, They Might be Giants). He has the opportunity, within the boundaries we have set, to make his own decisions. The fact that he feels he is making his own decisions gives him an element of control over his life. Yes, I have warned him on the fifteenth view of his Yo Gabba Gabba “Talent” episode in a row that the phone will be taken away if that is all he does with it. The phone isn’t available at all times. I take it out and put it away (surreptitiously of course) throughout the day. However, he does not realize, yet, that I still have control. In fact, he very often will play quietly for a while and then go play imaginary games with his trains. This is not inhibiting his creative play. It is supplementing.

4) Exploration. The three points above lead to this one. Exploration, to me, is the heart of intellectual curiosity. Allowing Monster to have the freedom to explore certain technologies and within those contexts different music, ideas, and languages (yes, we have a Spanish app on there and a math app too!) allows him to choose his interests. This exploration, to me, is the heart of learning to be a curious human. He is trying new things. There are apps or music or videos that he will try and decide he does not like. There are others that he keeps going back to explore further. He is learning that he can try something and decide whether he wants to continue to explore it further. He is exploring math, reading, music, and imagery. These explorations may seem minimal given their format. However, as someone who spends hours a week with young people, the exploration is the key, more so than the format. He is learning that following his interests will give him greater opportunities. To me, this is one of the most valuable aspects of letting him have a “phone.”

5) Sense of connectivity to the adult world. I do a lot of work on my mobile devices. I teach online classes. I stay connected to my students throughout the day. I send and receive business emails on my iPhone and iPad. Monster sees this throughout the day and wants to be like mommy. For him, having his own “phone”, even if it has none of the actual connectivity of mine, gives him a sense that he is like the adults. He is far more gentle with his phone than with any of his other toys. He does not throw it (normally…) and is careful to put it down gently. Rarely does it end up hidden or on the floor. He already understands that treating it poorly will make it go away. While we have taught him this, his desire to model adult behavior has made this lesson easier. He is far from an adult. However, all children wish to model adult behavior and this allows him to do it.

For us, and I do not deride others for their decisions, allowing Monster to have a “phone” has fulfilled various different objectives. We discussed whether this was being “indulgent” and decided that the overall benefits outweighed the spoil factor. Besides, the old phone was sitting around gathering dust for three months before we even entertained the thought. For us, this is something that was not done to alleviate tantrums (although, I won’t lie, it does help quell the screaming). It was not done so that he could “keep up with the Joneses.” It was done so that we could give him various options that he may not otherwise have.

Many adults – my age and older – do not understand technology. They find that the new technology is nothing more than a “gadget.” To that I say, no. Regardless of decisions made for children, I argue that much of the technology that people see as gadgetry is the future. In the late 1980’s, cell phones were considered gadgets. Today, people feel that they are indispensable. Twenty years ago, computers were viewed differently than they are today. Twenty years from now, smartphones or tablet computers will be viewed differently than they are today. As the workforce moves towards a service society and as people find that they can connect using digital media, a societal shift has begun, and will continue, to occur. People will always feel the need to connect face to face on some level. However, as more cost cuts take place and as technology continues to evolve, society and business will continue to evolve with them. I feel that I would be remiss in educating my child if I did not acquaint him with his future world. I teach him letters, numbers, and colors. However, to ignore the world that he will enter as an adult would be to do him, in my mind, a disservice. To those who say “pfffft” to smartphones and tablet computers, I counter, “what did your parents say about laptops, the Internet, and email?” As technology evolves, so will the world. Today’s “gadgets” are tomorrow’s indispensable technology.

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And now the reasons behind…

why teachers get frustrated. Posted on College Misery the other day was a link to a marketing survey about connecting with Millenials. In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that in some of my classes, nothing is ever good enough. South Park? We didn’t watch enough of it and, golly gee, it had to get connected to learning? Shucks. Discussing the evolution of gaming? If you’re not playing a video game in class, they’re not interested. Instead of hitting my head against a wall, I’ve just been querying “Why? Why? Why?” Some of what the marketing survey says rings true in education.

First, I want to discuss the comment that they want visuals and don’t like to read instructions. Visuals are great. I love to teach students how to appropriately analyze a visual text. Unfortunately, a lot of young people do not realize that analyzing a visual text requires not just looking at the text on the surface but also analyzing the actual words as well as the imagery involved. To many students, this seems a feat beyond their comfort level. This is fine. However, if this is a generation that, at least in theory, responds best to visuals, how can they not begin to understand the importance of the imagery used by their world? For example, when discussing a visual text, I ask them, “what does that remind you of? What is the imagery a reference to?” They can answer that question, after a bit of prodding. However, when asked, to analyze the importance of that image (storm clouds that look like hurricanes or imagery referencing the Titanic sinking) they suddenly become confused. They want to see images. They do not always seem to understand how those images impact their psyches. This is the concept that, for a group that allegedly appears to rely on visual texts, must be focused upon more clearly.

Second, the marketing survey indicates that students want to feel appreciated and understood. Many educators are frustrated by this need to be “special.” However, I think what gets lost in the education translation is that students can feel appreciated without being given a useless pat on the back. Everyone wants to be appreciated for their effort. Sometimes, just telling a student, “good effort” or “good thoughts” can be useful in this aspect. No one wants to feel stupid. Even a D paper can have its merits. I can understand how this desire to be special can be seen as a negative. The opposite of this is that although in education students seem to feel entitled, there is a difference between entitled and appreciated. Appreciated can run the range of descriptions, including being accepted for ideas and being accepted for effort regardless of outcome. This does not mean that their grade needs to be inflated. This does not mean that educators should praise a student who puts no effort into work and does a shoddy job. It means that in most student efforts, a gem can be found. Some students, this said by the writing instructor, have amazing thoughts that they have a hard time articulating. Giving the student credit for the ideas, at least in the comments, can help numb the poor grade based on execution. The goal is sort of a “golden rule” – do unto students as you would like them to do unto you. If you want them to remember that you had several excellent lessons over the course of the semester, even if there were some that were less than perfectly stellar, acknowledge that they had some excellent ideas, even if those ideas were sometimes nearly clouded by the use of text language.

For me, the biggest issue in the educational realm is the idea of including innovation in the classroom. I’ve tried. No, really. I have. I try to incorporate new ideas. I try to incorporate new technologies. I try to incorporate new new new whenever I can. I love the idea of cutting edge technology. I love the idea of incorporating things like Twitter or Facebook or blogs or other types of new fangled newness. The problem that arises is that nothing is ever good enough. Nothing is ever new enough. I think the problem is that there are aspects of education that de facto need to be old school. You can incorporate new ideas. You can incorporate new technologies. Under it all, there is still the same old grading, assignments, and class time that have to exist. Unfortunately, no matter how much new you bring in, the old will be what they focus on. This is a world where young people have learned that for almost everything, “there’s an app for that.” They can connect to people in ways that many of us only imagined when we were their age. They have access to a plethora of information at their fingertips. With this much connectivity and access at their fingertips, where do we find the new? How do we manage to be one step ahead of the latest popular culture fad or technology fad or teaching innovation? In a way, this is perhaps the student’s biggest problem in discovering an “academic self.” Academics and intellectual inquiry can be exciting an innovative. However, that innovation will not come to them. In their lives, they are the receivers of innovation. They are the users. What we, as educators, need to do is help transition them from their passive roles as receivers to more active roles as creators. We need to entice them to see their brains as innovations. We need to explore with them how to experience innovation from within as opposed to from without. How to do this remains the question left unanswered.

The marketing survey discusses the idea of faster processes. Sadly for students, learning is not always fast. In fact, recently, I had two classes in which students seemed stymied by the phrase “intellectual inquiry.” They could barely define it, other than using synonyms and rephrasing. For young people today, the idea of taking the time to explore things seems distant. Their world is fast. Their world never stops. They live in the 24-7 news cycle, which sadly, few seem to read. Faster processing to learning is sometimes impossible. In fact, it is often impossible. For students, this is sadly something that they will have to learn to accept, along with taxes. As educators, our role is to help them understand that growing the seed of thought is more important than reaping the rewards. In other words, we have to somehow excite them about the process, slow though it may be. For many, this will be difficult. Where do we find this inspiration? We find it in their interests. If we can help them look at their world in a new way, then we have won. Every semester, I ask my students what they read outside of class or what their hobbies are. So few have answers to either. In fact, I have had students stare at me when I ask about “hobbies” as though I’ve grown a third eye in the middle of my forehead. How can we expect students with no understanding of their own interests to accept that exploring their interests is a process? This is the tension of teaching the Millenials. They are so focused on grades, that they seem unable to look outside of their classrooms (except for those activities which will remain nameless) to explore the process of their education. Expanding their understanding of this process and giving them the inspiration to accept that this may not be an immediate process should be our goal as educators. We need to get these young people to slow down. Life moves too fast to be summed up as a series of fast processes. Perhaps, as educators, we need to embrace this as well. Perhaps, we need to remind ourselves that our lives are more than a process. Our lives should be models for our students. If we are so wrapped up in the speed of living that we forget to stop and do what we love, then we have not created role models for this young, fast, gone-in-60-seconds generation.

Finally, the marketing research indicates that students want drama and emotional connection. Personally, I don’t go in for the Drama Llama. I do, however, believe that the best learning comes from connecting emotionally to either the material or the instructor. Every semester, I work to try to get to know my students. When I reference their ideas in class, I pretend not to know whose it was (because to call out a student would be embarrassing), but that student always knows that I remembered what s/he wrote. In fact, in class the other day, I referenced something a student made in class a few weeks ago, the student looked up and said, “Wait! That was my story!” I looked at them and said, “Yes, I do listen. I pay attention to what you say.” The look on their faces was astounding. I try to connect by sending them individually, or sharing with them as a group, information – links, reviews, articles – that are related to statements they have made in class. I try to make sure that they know that I am listening. I cannot expect them to share ideas or explore ideas with me if I appear not to pay attention to them. We do not need to allow drama in the classroom. However, creating experiences wherein students, especially first year students, feel a sense of emotional connection to either the instructor or to one another can make the difference.

Education is not a commodity. We are not service providers in the same sense as insurance companies. Yes, students are paying an inordinate amount of money to spend time with us. For many of them, this implies that we are a commodity. We are something that they buy. Our attention is purchased. Our time is purchased. Our knowledge and expertise are purchased. However, we cannot give students a love of learning. We cannot empty our minds into a pensieve (hello, yes, Harry Potter reference) and siphon the benefit of our experiences into their head. What we can do, what we should do, and what we are being paid to do is to do is to inspire. We are paid to grade. However, we have to teach our students that their grades are not a commodity to be purchased online or through a bursar’s office. We have to give them their money’s worth. However, if we do our jobs right, they will hopefully get more than their money is worth. Money can’t buy me love – not a love of learning, at least. We need to teach our students that the reasons behind our frustrations are things that they should fight against. We need to teach them, to educate them, that their education is more than a piece of paper that can be bought. We need to enlighten them that they can be more than a statistic in their generation, more than a poll, more than a shallow representation of popular culture. That is our duty. That is the reason behind why we teach. That is how to change the future.

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Seriously. What happened to childhood today? Tonight, talking to a friend of mine, I got freaked out. No lie. The Kid is 17 months (almost) old, and here I am tonight, spending the evening researching none other than..homeschooling.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a fan in the long run. I won’t lie. I’m about to probably get slammed with spammable comments for this. However, the homeschooled kids that I knew in college? Kinda…well…weird. A little with the unsocialized. I’m just saying that my personal experience is one that I think made for occasionally sheltered children who didn’t really understand how to interact in society.

However, I have decided that there might be a really great purpose for homeschooling – Preschool. In today’s society, we have suddenly decided that being a small person with a intellectual curiosity does not matter. What matters, apparently at the age of 3, is being in a classroom and learning. Learning is apparently never done outside of that single, multi-child room. I’m not saying it doesn’t have a purpose. I’m lucky. I get to work on a flexible(ish) schedule and spend a lot of time home with Monkey. For people who are not as lucky as I am, I feel that preschool is the perfect solution. I’m not gonna lie – my schedule for the Fall freaked me out because ohmigodIcan’tsendkidtodaycarebecauseitcoststoomuch!!!!!! That meant that I really need to do more than lie on the couch and watch television with him. I really have to start getting him to learn things like colors and letters. Wow. He’s almost 17 months, and I’m freaking out about getting him behind. I totally expected school to take care of this for me. I expected to drop Monkey off a few afternoons a week and be perfectly confident that someone else was doing all the work.

Then I got my schedule. My schedule, for the records, rocks my socks off. I was thrilled with it, y’know, professionally. It was the personal aspect of being home all day long with Monkey that freaked me out. I realized that I have to be responsible for him learning. For him being an educated kid. For him going from baby to toddler to, potentially, something more some day. Wow. The responsibility.

So, back to our story. I’m talking to my friend tonight, and she’s freaking out. They’re moving up to Boston and started researching preschools and discovered that the local public preschool costs $7,000. Now, I don’t know the details, but I did see her freaking out. I’m assuming there’s a reason that the local public school preschool actually costs money. The privates apparently cost somewhere in the range of $9,000. Holy great costs Batman! All of this to learn colors and letters? Are you kidding me?

This got me thinking about the purpose of preschool and the potential, at different ages, for it to be effective. Here’s my theory, for what it matters. Preschool should fulfill the following objectives:

1) Teaching a child independence. Some kids are pretty parent-centric. If a child screams every single time a parent is hidden from view, even in the same room? That child might, potentially, need a place to learn the idea of independence. Monkey couldn’t care less about me half the time. If we go to the playground, he’s suddenly a little starving orphan child. He has no need for me. He just up and wanders away to the nearest child or adult. Sometimes he gives them gifts of handfuls of sand. Sometimes, he’s mooching food. Either way, my general existence is tangential to his. Apparently, this is a child who doesn’t need to learn further independence.

2) Teaching a child the basic rules of society/socialization. Children need to learn the basics of acting civilized in society at some point. For the most part, small people are no better than, well, sentient animals. They live in a constant state of “ME! ME! ME! MINE! MINE! MINE!” Little people think they are the sun with the rest of us revolving as planets around them. It’s a developmental fact. Teaching kids the basics of taking turns, not stealing toys, and not hitting the kid who’s got the green crayon you want? These are commendable purposes of preschool. Monkey is in the process of learning these. He’s good at sharing, I’ll grant him that. However, he’s even better at sharing when he wants to trade something. Occasionally, he steals from someone else. Occasionally, he pushes/hits (mostly his mama). Occasionally, he’s the bully. However, I’m not convinced that he can’t be socialized using only play dates and other outside of the house activities. Hmmph.

3) The basics of letters/numbers/colors. At three, I think that the educational goal of preschool should be to help prepare children for the next level. If by kindergarten, children need to know what we all learned in first or second grade, then by three they really do need to have some of the basics we learned in kindergarten down pat. Fine. While I may disagree with that, I can accept it as a reality. However, for some kids, learning through interest might be best. Watching Monkey, I’m not going to lie – he is the type of child who learns best when he’s interested in the topic. Part of me starts to wonder – at what point do I start to kill his intellectual curiosity with the dictates of a curriculum established by others? When do I say, “Ok, you have to learn the basics of reading, writing and ‘rithmatic by society’s rules?”

As an educator, I can say that one of the worst aspects of teaching college aged students is that they tend to lack intellectual curiosity. In fact, my favorite class to teach is the research paper class. There is a certain joy to teaching young people that they can find a way to incorporate their own interests within the academic realm. Have we adults, pursuing test scores and maintainable standards, somehow smothered any concept of self-exploration within the realm of educational goals?

In discussing these ideas on one of my mommy boards, I came to a very significant conclusion. The academic objectives of academic learning at a young age instill in children a fear or an inability to use their own interests to explore ideas and fundamentals. For example, if a kid is in, say, a dinosaur phase, and the preschool class is only working on Fall, that child’s interests are smothered for the greater part of a day. In fact, given that so many preschools are four days and many are full days instead of half days, at what point is there a chance for a child to freely explore the world around him/her?

Yes, true, even those children whose parents invest a great deal in their interests do not have the option (since, y’know, they can’t drive and all) to do what they want, when they want. That’s understandable. However, at least in a vaguely parent-controlled environment, the child is able to voice an opinion regarding what he wants to do/learn. How different is counting dinosaurs instead of counting fruit? Is it really imperative for a 3 year old to know what a cornucopia is just because we associate them with autumn?

So, I researched. I was shocked to see that Connecticut has an extensive discussion of homeschooling methodologies on the CT Homeschool, Inc website. Yes, I read through all of them. Interestingly, I think that what I have determined is this: no single methodology is perfect for an entire life. For example, I’ll own to the fact that, at this point, without realizing it, I apparently live by the Charlotte Mason method. Who knew? Essentially, it’s the idea that parents role model and create an environment for learning. However, I think that as children grow older, the type of methodology that is appropriate can change. Do I think that only being a role model for my child is the best way to encourage education when he’s 7 or 8? Probably not. Do I think then that a more formalized curriculum is necessary to incorporate all different types of learning styles (aka the Multiple Intelligences model) and analytical processes (the Classical Method)? Yes.

My concern for Monkey is this: at what point does his love of learning and his curiosity have to be curbed by a classroom in order to make him competitive in, y’know, kindergarten? Do children at the age of three really need to be in a classroom setting? How does that keep them from not becoming disillusioned with the idea of school earlier? No matter how much creative curriculum a school uses, it is still a school. Sitting a child down a few minutes a day at that age to work on writing makes sense, as long as the child shows an interest. If the child is interested in other things, working on writing simply becomes another in a long line of boring activities that sucks the fun out of learning. Why are we, as a society, so intent on meeting standards that we wish for children to see no joy in the learning process? For that is what it is, a process.

Another friend recently posted about being upset about anti-intellectualism. This is where our society is learning this fear of intellectualism. Our society is teaching children that learning is a job. It is teaching those who have the most desire to learn that they should view it as a burden. Society often means well. We all want the best for our children. We all want children to grow up to be educated, productive members of society. We want them to be happy. We want them to maximize their potential. However, children cannot maximize their potential if they see no benefit to learning simply for the joy of exploration. By teaching 3 year olds that exploration can only be done with a confined curriculum and based on a predetermined set of lessons provided by adults, they learn not to explore, but to follow. Children need to be allowed to be kids. They need to get in the dirt. They need to take out the dolls. They need to explore their world independently. They do not need to be hand fed information to be memorized and learned. This makes them nothing more than intellectual veal.  They need to be trained to self-educate.

We do not have children in our society anymore. We have sets of miniature teenagers. We have disillusioned five year olds going to kindergarten seeing school as just one more “thing” they “have” to do. It is a sad commentary on our society’s view of education that it does not allow for intellectual curiosity. It is a sad commentary on our society that we cannot find the children in our world anymore because they are too busy being stressed out and being forced to learn based on how adults think they should learn. It is a sad commentary that the magic of exploration is replaced by the black and white of numbers and bubble tests and laws and regulations. Perhaps, at the core, this is the problem with education as a whole. By starting so young, we suck the joy out of it. At the core, we need to encourage kids to be kids. We need to let them have that childhood sense of freedom before we cage their minds and souls. They are not little beasts to be corralled.

Where have all our children gone? Perhaps, by now, they never really existed at all.

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Sigh. Usually, my year in summary forward thinkingness and nostalgia are posted the first day of the year. It is now, officially, day 2 of 2010. First, I have to say, 2010 is the END of the decade, not the beginning. I am solid on this. I refuse to admit otherwise. Nothing can change this in me. When I review a decade, it will be on the year starting with 1. End of story.

Over the last few months, technological manners of communication such as Twitter and Facebook have allowed me to update friends and family on the day to day goings on. I have pondered, at great length, self-identity and the internet. Does referring to myself in the third person remove me from my own life? Do tweets and status updates somehow make life into a miniature caricature of the truth? A few days ago, I used the Facebook collage of status updates as a year in review for myself. Horrified, I realized how much of my life revolves around another person and how little of myself I truly share with friends. Depth of self has become nothing more than an internal monologue. True, my philosophy of “amuse, inform, or entertain” for updates likely adds to the shallow quality of this collage. However, has my life truly become this vapid?

This particular year probably falls into the top five most life changing years. 2009 brought a new person into my life. A little tiny person who I did not realize it was possible to love as deeply, passionately, and selflessly as I do. However, just as much as my life has revolved around him, it has brought a greater sense of self-awareness than I ever thought possible.

Life is not about finding yourself. It is about discovering yourself. It is about finding true passion – in people, work, and hobbies. Little Man is, obviously, the greatest discovery of self I have had. I have learned that it is possible to have a different self underneath your sense of self. Lurking within me has been this human that I never thought possible. I have become someone who is willing to choose being with someone else over being alone. I have become someone who treasures each day – both its trials and its wonders – in an attempt to grab hold of the moment, hang on, and go for the ride without thinking. Many days are redundant, obviously. However, it is just this redundancy that reminds me, every night around 7:30 when Little Man hits his mattress, that another precious day of his life has slipped into memory. It is at that moment that, every day, I re-vow to live in the moment. I never realized that those times alone that seemed so precious would seem so pointless when faced with the potential for having so many of them in the future and so little moments to share with a small person growing so rapidly.

This year also brought the greatest professional fulfillment. I enjoyed the classes I taught this past year more than I have enjoyed any other classes (at least, as a whole) before. I enjoyed watching my students in the Spring wish my newborn a fond welcome and be excited to meet him. I enjoyed teaching a class of predominantly young men about nerdism. I enjoyed the raucousness of my classes this semester. I enjoyed finally being willing to let loose and be myself in a way I didn’t realize I had been holding back. I found myself giving more to my students than ever before. True, it might be unhealthy, but for the first time, I realized that when I call them, “my kids”, I truly do mean it. I reached out to students in a way I had previously condemned within myself. I found that the part of me that nurtures my son, husband, and dogs is an important part of finding fulfillment within my work. I found that within my work I find a sense of self. It is this sense of self that allows me to be a better educator, to give to my students more than just information, but knowledge. It allows me to dig into the material to create a place where open discussion of ideas can, potentially, make a difference. For this realization, I am grateful.

In the course of making sure that a certain little someone has benefits that I did not have, I have stepped outside of myself. I have become that which I previously mocked, at least in some respects I have. I am, at times, the definition of a “soccer mom.” However, through the course of providing social surroundings for my son, I have stepped out of my normal introverted self and created new friendships. These new friends (and if you read this you’ll know who you are, I hope!) have touched my life in ways I did not believe possible. Only a few short months ago, I did not know some of these people. Only perhaps, one or two or three. However, these new friends have helped me adjust to my new sense of self. These new friends are thoughtful, generous, wonderful, and caring. For these friends, I find myself grateful. I am grateful that they have helped me to discover this other side of myself – the me that wants to be with others and forge new friendships. This me that is willing to step outside of my normal boundaries and discover ways to be a friend that are new, different, and wonderful.

Fulfillment of self, however, came in various other places as well. Knitting and spinning have become, as never before, an outlet for expressing who I am. Finding inspiration in surroundings is obvious. After all, isn’t that what most people do? They look to their life and then use life to create? However, for the first time, I think I understand how something from within can become something from without. Finishing the first handspun was an accomplishment. After finishing it, the yarn was set aside waiting for the right pattern. However, no such pattern emerged. Thinking of the yarn itself, I began to think up a pattern. This pattern gestated for a while in my mind. Sitting down one night, I had to begin the creation. True, it did not work correctly the first few rows. In fact, since i have figured out what I wanted to do with it and made it work, I have thought of ripping it out and starting over. However, knitting is an expression, sometimes, of learning. This pattern is me. It is the visual, textile expression of my journey in the last year. It is all mine – start to finish. When it ends, I will have a tactile representation of my journey of self. For this, I am grateful.

2009 has gone. It is over. Tears, for the first time ever, were cried for seeing the end of a year that has brought such wonder to my life. 2010 looks to be an amazing year. However, 2009 will always hold a special place in my heart as a year in which I discovered my inner self. The self that I have been looking for my whole life. This is the end of the year as I knew it, and, y’know what? I feel fine.

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…and some days you’re the rock star. Most days, I’m the rock. I don’t do much but weigh things down. Or break windows. Or knock people unconscious. You get the drift.

Calling a mother a “working mother” is kind of like calling a vodka martini “an alcohol infused vodka martini.” It goes without saying that it’s redundant. A mother is always working. A vodka martini is always alcohol infused. That’s why the working mother loves the vodka martini. I digress.  However, when you love your job and feel a responsibility to it, being a mother and being a worker become more or less synonymous.

Teaching and parenting are rather similar. Both are incredible responsibilities. Both require that the individual care less about herself than about those to whom she owes the responsibility. The best educators are those who put their own wants – be they time or interest – behind the needs of their students. Most of the time, being an educator is part teaching and part den mother. I would say parent, but I don’t go quite that far. You have to understand when to give the tough love and when to give the leeway. Educating well requires the same attempt at making a connection that parents of teens work on day in and day out through the high school years. As an educator, some days are pound your head on a wall depressing. The days where the students ask you a question you’ve repeated the answer to for weeks. The days where only 5 students out of 20 hand in an assignment that’s been on the syllabus since day one because, “you didn’t remind us!” The days where you try to walk the student through something for forty-five minutes only to realize that the student will never understand, even if you contort your explanation like a Cirque du Soleil member to show all manners of understanding.

Being a parent requires much of the same. It requires that kind of unconditional love not just of the person, but of the job. Parenting is a job. It’s unpaid, kind of like a volunteer position. Only, you get to go home after a day at the soup kitchen. When you’re a parent, you’re always home. You’re always working. There are the days when you want to scream, run, hide. You want to find a beach and sit on it with frosty frozen drinks and little umbrellas. Only, you’re afraid that if you do that, you’ll use the little umbrella to poke your brain out slowly through your eyes. There is the incessant crying. There is the feeding and the sleeplessness.  There are the days where you leave the house to run an errand because you just can’t be in that tiny little box anymore with the ear splitting screaming, only to lock your keys in your car. You contort yourself and sense of self the way you would contort an explanation to a student.

Those are the days where I feel like the rock. The days where I feel useless and pointless. Those are the days where, no matter how hard I try, I can barely find the road most taken, forget about the one less taken. I start to wonder why I care about either job. I start to wonder if the students or child will even care. There’s a hopelessness that goes along with both.

Then, there are the days where you’re the rock star. You read through papers and find that the students did understand you. You see the light bulbs go off on their faces. They ask questions, and your answer makes enough sense that they say, “That’s why an outline is important!” You see a paper that a few weeks earlier you felt was hopeless and realize that you made a difference. You read a paper and have an uncontrollable urge to email the student to congratulate him/her. Those are the moments when you are more than a den mother, more than a coraller of cats. You are an educator. An honest-to-goodness, life changing educator.

Motherhood is the same. There are the days when the baby wakes up smiling.  There are moments wherein he gazes at you as though you are the most important person in the world. There are the days when he snuggles into your shoulder, and you realize that even if he doesn’t know what love is, he does love you. You get to watch him learn and get frustrated and problem solve. You get to watch him hold up his arms for you because even though he’s been with you all day, he just wants you to hold him. You get laundry done and get dinner made and have playtime and make a baby happy.

At the outset, both of these jobs feel overwhelming. They feel in conflict. You don’t want to ignore one for the other. You don’t want to trade off. You don’t want one to feel abandoned or feel underappreciated or feel unimportant. The two jobs seem so all-consuming that it is difficult to find the time in one day to be able to do both. Those are the times when it becomes frighteningly overwhelming and questioning, “What did I DO?!” becomes the mantra. How can I love both of these jobs so overwhelmingly much and yet so differently?

That is when the rock star days make everything worthwhile. A day like today, where I can read nine student papers including making comments on them, play with the baby, and take care of the household. There are the days like today where I feel in control – of my work, my life, my everything. There are days where I feel like Superwoman. Those are the days that I blog about. I blog them so that I can look back and say, “Yes, that day was real. That day was not a dream. It is possible to be the me that I want to be, even if it’s not all the time.” I don’t have to meet my self-expectations every day. I just have to meet them one day. I have to be able to look back on that day and know that it is possible to be educator, mother, and self.

Because, you know, then there are the days when the Diaper Genie eats your hand and leaves a bruise. True story.

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Acting Like a Teacher

A few days ago, an email survey went around in which one of the questions asked was, “What did you want to be when you grew up?” The answer given by yours truly was, “teacher or actress. Which turns out? Same thing.” Then, I’m sitting watching a DVD of Connecticut Forum’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” from last year in which Bob Saget, Mo Rocca, and Nancy Giles discussed comedy. At one point, the comedians discussed the difference between old time comedy in which many jokes were based on people laughing at themselves and society, a la Archie Bunker, and present day comedy, in which comedians have to be sensitive to the ethnic/racial/gender makeup of the audience.  Bob Saget said, “New people that are coming up…you have to love your audience and you have to love performing.” All of a sudden, the light bulb went on. For someone who is generally an introverted person, teaching is a performance of love.

One of the biggest problems educators have is getting students involved in learning. Making them intellectually curious becomes more and more difficult every year. One of the issues that many teachers discuss is how to involve students in the joys of learning as opposed to just wanting good grades. Listening to stand up comedians, the parallel between standing up in front of a class and standing up in front of an audience becomes clearer. The same improvisation on the stage is necessary within the classroom.

Take, for example, an eight o’clock in the morning class. The most difficult part, at least at the college level, is getting the students to continually come to the room at that ungodly hour twice a week. Students will come to class only if they want to be there. In order to engage them intellectually, a good teacher needs to entertain. When students are entertained, they are interested. When students are interested, they become curious. When students become curious, they are willing to learn.

Learning is about connection. Connection between the topic being taught and the students’ lives. Connection between the students and the educator. The best educators create this connection through caring about their students. Standing in front of students and showing one’s humanity creates a connection between students and teacher. Making students laugh makes learning fun. Exhibiting moments of full on stupidity, such as using humorous anecdotes from one’s life to make a point, are moments in which the teacher’s humanity allows students to see that person as a human, not just an authority figure. These moments are the moments that bind the students’ interest to the individual in front of them and to the topic at hand. These moments of entertaining are no different than putting on the persona of a particular character. When the educator is in front of twentysomething faces glaring up at him/her first thing in the morning, the person s/he is no longer exists. The educator exists. The teacher persona does not have to be one reminiscent of nuns with rulers. It is, however, sometimes not the same person that gets in the car to drive home. Acting the role of edutainer, educator/entertainer, in order to get students interested is what makes being a good teacher difficult.

Sometimes, jokes fall flat. These “cricket” moments are the ones during which the students stare at the person in front of them like he has a third eye in the middle of his forehead. In some respects, teachers have to be willing to face these moments of minor failure in the classroom. These brief moments of personal failure are worth the humiliation when viewed in the greater scope of the moments that succeed. The moments in which the teacher entertains and connects. Those are the small spaces in which the connection that leads to learning manifest themselves. In these spaces, the educator can find her greatest successes. When the students fill those gaps with their laughter or their interest, they are suddenly willing to learn. This learning, this interest, becomes curiousity. This curiosity can spur the students to something greater.

These are the spaces between being an educator and an entertainer. In these moments, educators prove their love of their audience and their love of entertaining. These are the moments when teachers act like entertainers and when actors become teachers. These are those brief moments of brilliance and connection in learning.

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