Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Canvas

I just caught myself being jealous again. Yes, jealous! I read the review of a book I wish I wrote on a topic of my passion, “Stories That Heal the World.” The reviews were terrific, and they were all written by people whom I respect. I gulped and bought a copy. Why didn’t I write that book? Wait, I didn’t have the time (or the mental capacity) to write that book because I chose to be a homeschool mom instead, and for the last 15 years I have been in the trenches being a parent: A very committed and very hands-on parent. Do you ever feel this way? Like someone else is living the life you thought you wanted, or someone else has the kids you hope your kids will become?

Living in Los Angeles has made me keenly aware of this phenomenon. Ever since my kids were little I have been privy to conversations between parents about how great their kids are…parents boasting and bragging. I have even been guilty of this! Why not? We should be proud of our kids for their accomplishments and feel good that all of our driving and money spent on activities has paid off. For those of us who have chosen to be very hands-on parents, our kids are our canvas. At least it feels this way, even if it is not entirely true. If we were career driven prior to having children we may even see our peers and colleagues rise up the ranks while we seem to be treading water in the same place. But are we staying in the same place? What is this canvas and the picture we are trying to paint by being so intensely involved in our kids lives, especially if we are home educators?

Do we want our kids to be smart, achievement oriented, good athletes and musicians, great singers and dancers? Do we want our kids to win the science fair or be chosen to play college football? Can we measure our success as parents by the outcome of our kids? My mom, the late Dr. Evelyn “Effie” Golden was an incredibly inspiring person to many in her community, and my role model. She was a doctor and community activist. In 1958, the year before I was born, she was the chairperson for a large PTA convention in Michigan. She gave the keynote speech and in it she said:

“Most of our discussion will center around what young people are doing today, but I believe we should be discussing what young people are thinking. You and I as parents and educators are guilty because we have been more concerned about the minds of our young people than we have about their hearts, more concerned with their intellect than we have with their emotions. We have examined intellectual growth more than we examine who they care about. Their attitudes toward life, their concern for poverty, ignorance, prejudice, greed, racism and their concern for humanity. Their concern for the kind of person they want to become. Their desire to make this a better world, and their courage and willingness to be trail blazers and to assume risks, to work and make this land of ours a better, cleaner, healthier place for people to live. If this world is to get better, it will be only as the people in it get better.”

Her words could have been written today. Nothing has really changed. Our world is still a fraying tapestry and the holes are getting larger rather than smaller. On the eve of this Thanksgiving I sit and ponder her words and I think about my canvas: My kids. I chose to be a painter on this canvas, rather than the writer of that great book. Perhaps someday I will write that book, but not today. As I let my jealousy subside I am reminded that I am exactly where I need to be. My painting is a work in progress and the paint is still wet.

My mother’s words ring loud and clear. My hope is that my kids have absorbed an outlook on life that focuses on caring for others perhaps through the care I have given them. Parenting should not be viewed as a sacrifice, but rather as the greatest mission a human can have, raising the next generation. Being a parent is not a “job” that gets you promotions or wins awards. It is rare to hear the words “thank you. It is not glamorous and there is no pay…and did I mention that it is 24/7? And yet the payoff is greater than any “job” I have ever taken. The payoff for me is a legacy of repairing the world for future generations.

This is the last year of my journey as a homeschool mom (to my own kids) my kids are growing up. They are adding colors to the canvases of their lives that I could never have imagined.  My mother used to say “give them wings and they will fly”. I am so proud of all their accomplishments but I am equally proud of the people they have become. They are caring and have the courage and willingness to be trail blazers and to assume risks to make the world a better place for all.

We are exactly where we need to be. Painting can be challenging. Often it is hard to figure out what to paint, especially if the surface is not smooth or the colors don’t stick. This painting is not a paint-by-numbers, but an abstract. Some of us have chosen to be home educators while others have landed here by default. It doesn’t matter how we got here, all that matters is that we understand that painting is an art…education is an art. Great art is not only filled with passion, but compassion. We are all artists on a journey and for some of us this is a full-time job.

This Thanksgiving I am thankful that I live in a place where home education is possible and I can pass on the legacy of my mother and the values that are important to me. “If this world is to get better, it will be only as the people in it get better.” It is not what we say but what we do that makes a difference for our kids. Be an example of care and compassion and your kids will follow. Today your days may be long and the work hard, but in the end the reviews will be outstanding. I send each of you a hug for a job well done.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Assessing Educational Assessment

      Imagine that you are sitting at your kitchen table and a voice booms out, “You cannot leave the table until you finish a questionnaire of fifty questions about a book you read last night before going to bed.” You are shocked, but the voice is serious and you feel a bit threatened. “This is no joke, you are going to get into big trouble if you don’t finish the questions. You cannot get up from your seat, and also, if you get an answer wrong you have to go back to the beginning and start over, and the questions will all be new questions.” The voice says, “I wrote the book that you read and I want to make sure you understood it correctly. I know you were supposed to go out for coffee but you can’t do that until you finish answering all of the questions.” You feel really sleepy and want a cup of coffee and your head is bobbing up and down. “I just added ten more questions. You can sit here even longer,” says the booming voice. How do you feel? Nervous, upset, angry? “Why should I have to do this right now? Can’t I do this after I have my coffee?”  “No!”…booms the voice. Do you feel helpless, small, not acknowledged? Come on….how do your feel? I know this scenario is a bit of an exaggeration but I want you to focus on how you feel.   
            Now imagine that the person sitting at the table is seven and the voice is yours. Yes, this is you telling your child to sit at the table and finish a questionnaire to prove to you that they read a book and are learning something. Did you forget how it felt to be forced to prove that you know something? And even worse, did you  forget how it felt to not be acknowledged for your feelings? And yet, as parents and teachers, we feel it is OK to demand that our kids be tested to prove that they have learned the lesson. But you might ask, “How will I know if my child is learning unless I test him/her?” There are many ways to assess a person’s knowledge. Testing is only one model.
     Written testing is measurable in the same way filling in worksheets is measurable. There are right and wrong ways of doing this activity. When my kids were little it became very apparent to me that they did not like doing worksheets or workbooks. I wanted them to complete the pages because my school-modeled brain said, “If it is on paper, I can see it. If the blanks are filled in correctly, it proves that they know the information.”
     But soon I realized that filling in the blanks only means that the blanks are filled in with either a correct or incorrect answer. It does not mean anything else beyond this. Paper testing is the easy way out. Active knowledge is far more important and usually sticks for longer, but it takes creativity to assess and it also requires a reversal of roles. The teacher becomes the student and the student the teacher.  Being able to have a conversation about a subject, write about it, or in our house write a song about it and dance it meant the new knowledge was alive inside.
     We acted out the solar system, created artistic renderings of the multiplication tables and put on plays about the food chain. We threw out worksheets and testing in favor of project-based learning. Our house became a museum of learning filled with hand-made displays and our kitchen a science lab. The grocery store became a big math test, “Find the best deals on bread,” and political science lesson, “What brand fits with our ideals about life and global politics?” Our kids learned early on that I don’t support the purchase of Nestlé’s products because of their policies on infant formula in third world countries. Being a La Leche League leader and breastfeeding counselor, I could not support a company that undermines the heath of mother’s and babies.
     But were my kids as smart as their peers in school? Were they on grade level? These are two of the biggest worries of home school parents. I believe a better question to ask is: Are my kids learning what they need to know on their unique journeys in life? This is a huge paradigm shift and one that is difficult for many school-based thinkers. Shouldn’t education be one size fits all? Shouldn’t all children know the same concepts to be successful adults? How could a custom education be useful? If a child has a custom education, how can we measure their knowledge to ensure they are learning enough?
     The whole concept of being on grade level comes from a per-conceived notion that there is such a thing as measuring knowledge quantitatively. As if knowledge is measured in cups and by the time a person is in third grade they should have 30 cups of knowledge in their heads. Or you need 120 cups of knowledge to go to college. If my child is not on grade level they will have to pour in that missed knowledge to catch up. At age 56 should I have 560 cups of knowledge? Should I have more knowledge because I am older?
        One thing I have learned is that an older person is not necessarily wiser. I learn many things from my younger students. We are all teachers, even kids. We have the opportunity to embrace this paradigm shift, not to quantify knowledge but to recognize that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Assessing by grade level is a way for educators to group students to the best of their ability, but it is a human based quantifier. Humans do not innately have this quantifier. Life is a journey for gathering knowledge. Some knowledge serves us on our unique path and other knowledge is quickly forgotten because it is not serving us at the time.
     As homeschool parents we also have the opportunity to view education for what it is. Education is the process of facilitating learning. Let me say that again. Education is the process of facilitating learning. Knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and habits of a group of people are transferred to other people, through storytelling, discussion, teaching, training, or research. Education frequently takes place under the guidance of educators, but learners may also educate themselves in a process called auto-didactic learning. Any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts may be considered educational.
     Please try to put yourself into the shoes of your kids. Would you want to spend hours each day filling in worksheets? Would you want to be tested just to show that you remembered a concept (only to forget it the next day). As parent educators we have the opportunity to think about education and assessment as a creative endeavor and not simply a quantitative exercises. There will come a time when your kids will have to take tests, state testing if they are part of a charter school, the SAT or ACT tests if they want to go directly from homeschooling to some four-year universities, or tests as part of classes they may take that are not taught by you. They will learn how to take tests when it is necessary for them to have this knowledge. In the meantime, make learning fun, hands on, memorable, and most of all, relevant. Throw out the one-size-fits-all approach and become a custom tailor. 
      When my daughter was little we went on many museum tours and the tour guide would often ask the group of kids a question. My daughter never answered. I knew she knew the information and one day I turned to her and said, “You know the answer, why don’t you raise your hand.” She replied, “I know the answer, it is enough that I know it. I don’t need to prove to anyone that I know it. There are other kids in the group who need to prove that they know, so I let them speak.” You have all been given a tremendous responsibility: The keys for unlocking your children’s passion for learning. It is up to you to use these keys wisely.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Day One CLP 2015

Dear CLP Families, Staff and anyone else reading this blog,
For many years now I have thought of writing a blog, I have always envied those who write blogs. I write short stories but I have never written a blog. But what would my blog be about? This got me thinking. I love what I do at CLP and I manage this program much like an artist creates a painting, with mindful passion, but I will always be an artist first and foremost. My expression is as a teaching artist, storyteller, musician and writer. After making it through the first day of CLP yesterday, today I spent most of the day at my computer emailing families and teachers, and the rest of the day putting out fires, I now understand what I need to write about. So here it goes:

Let’s all take a step back and take a deep breath. Ahhhhhh…...What do we all want in our lives? What is really important? For me, as a parent, I want my kids to be thinkers and problem solvers, passionate about each day and life itself. I want them to be giving, and to genuinely care about others. But equally important, I want them to not be judgmental and to give people a chance. I want them to know that we all make mistakes. Adults make mistakes, kids make mistakes, we all make mistakes. Some people don’t know that their actions could be hurting others and when they find this out, they often feel terrible. I want my kids to be forgiving. I have learned over my lifetime to be a very forgiving person. I don’t want to waste my time feeling anger or resentment, especially when I am not sure why a person may have behaved in a certain manner. There is a Native American saying that says, “Don’t judge another person until you have walked in his moccasins.” My mother, of blessed memory, Dr. Evelyn, “Effie” Golden lived by this motto. She had it taped to her mirror along with a myriad of other quotes and sayings. So why am I telling you this, why today?
     Yesterday was our first day at CLP. So many new faces, so many people, soooooo hot! Lots of stuff to unload, not enough storage space, spilling water, babies crying, trouble with the front gate, families locked out, Friendship Circle Staff asking us not to use the front door but rather, the gate, the pre-school teachers asking our students not to play with the little bikes and cars (two were damaged, please tell your kids not to play with the little cars, thank you), a lost sweater, more crying…..
     Kids showing up (How great) that were not registered, oops, not enough supplies, other families forgetting to come. Many of us were on edge, this is not an excuse, but rather the truth. We all wanted the day to be perfect. Teachers want the first day to be great, parents want to feel like their kids belong and this program will be a fit and kids want to feel like they can make friends, have fun and learn something. But…..and here is the big BUT…..we all make mistakes!  We are all doing our best. Often stuff gets in the way.
     Please try your hardest not to be judgmental, but rather to observe and take note. This is a great lesson to teach your kids as well. Try not to jump to a conclusion right away if it is less than positive. Many of the emails I received today could have been handled with a hug! If only hugs could come over email.
     So, I reach out to give all of you a hug and I say thank you for doing your best. Thank you to parents and teachers for caring so much about these kids that you only have their best interest in mind. Thank you for wanting to make a community. I forgive you if you make a mistake….we all make mistakes. I am sorry If I made a mistake! It was so great to meet all of you. I hope to get to know you better over the coming months. Please remember that I am a staff of one. If you put it in writing I will remember it better. If I left you in the middle of a conversation yesterday, it was not my intention. I am sorry.
Thank you for your support!!
     For those of your celebrating Jewish New Year this weekend, Happy New Year! May it be a sweet year for all of us filled with love, community, support and learning!!