The First Day of School

The First Day of School

Today I swiped a technique from Mir of Kitchen Table Reviews and interviewed my kid.

Back when you were starting kindergarten, I asked her, were you worried about anything?

YES, she said, and reeled off a vivid list: she was worried that she wouldn't have any friends, the teacher wouldn't like her, she wouldn't like the teacher, the bus driver would be mean, the bathroom would be really, really, far away…

In fact, none of that happened. She made lots of friends, the teacher was warm and wonderful, the bus driver was a jolly fellow right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and the bathroom (not surprisingly) was right near the kindergarten classrooms.

School starts again for us next week, and my now-almost-third-grader seems totally at ease. She'll even be walking to school by herself! It's hard to believe this is the same kid as that worried new kindergartener I remember from three years ago, setting off bravely for the school bus in a hand-crocheted poncho that was almost as big as she was.

I've been reminded of that scary starting-school feeling in the last few weeks at work, every time a worried parent or helpful teacher asks books to calm anxiety about the first day of school. There's no shortage of material, but my favorites are often checked out already around this time of year. In my ideal library, with multiple copies of everything readily available, here's what I'd press into those helpful (or shaky) grownup hands:

To bolster an extra-worried kid (or parent): The Kissing Hand or Wemberly Worried

For the kid with a sense of humor: I Am Too Absolutely Small for School or The Teacher from the Black Lagoon

For the eager beaver who can't wait to jump right in: Emily's First 100 Days of School

For the family who likes to read chapter books together: Ramona the Pest (the scene where Ramona is told to "sit here for the present" has to be one of the funniest fictional misunderstandings ever)

For the teacher who wants to reassure kids that the first day is a big event for him/her, too (and provide a quick and fun alphabet review along the way): Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten

And for everyone who's starting school for the first or the fourth or the twentieth time: squeaky new markers, friendly and vigilant crossing guards, welcoming teachers, and a wonderful year.

August 26, 2008

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Phelps and Focus

Phelps and Focus

Any frequent reader of this blog could easily predict my reaction to Michael Phelps' triumphs at the Summer Olympic Games. In fact, my cheers might have been heard around the world. I appreciate and applaud Phelps’ remarkable accomplishments, but above all, I am enormously grateful to him for shaking up mistaken notions about non-conforming kids. Teachers, parents, coaches, etc. all too often jump to unwarranted conclusions such as that of Michael’s teacher who boldly told his mom (as quoted by the New York Times), "'Your son will never be able to focus on anything.'"

When I was a graduate student in school psychology, a very wise professor repeatedly cautioned, "Don’t jump to the conclusion that a child 'can't focus' when the fact may actually be that he isn't focusing on what you want him to focus on." That's Michael Phelps' story for sure.

While kids like Michael are not truly challenged, they do challenge us to find a way to reach them. Debbie Phelps did exactly that. Michael was always "all sports," so she gave him the Baltimore Sun sports pages to make reading worth his while. Although her own life had many other challenges, she made the effort to focus on who the real Michael was. She listened and took him seriously when he said he wanted to get off Ritalin to spare himself the embarrassment of the daily call to the school nurse’s office to take a pill.

With their physician’s approval and monitoring, Michael did, as promised, manage his own behavior without meds. Though never a star student, he had learned to do at least the minimum school work required. He found his focus (and then some!) in the family sport of swimming. By his 11th year, his coach predicted Olympic stardom, and the rest is history, underscored by his mother’s level-headedness and singular respect for her son’s unique strengths (although she was mindful of his limitations too).

For more real stories illustrating the merits of discovering your child’s strengths, I heartily recommend a book (written before the Michael Phelps story) by Jenifer Fox entitled Your Child’s Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them. There is a determined (though, to date, minority) movement in American education to focus on kids' strengths rather than their weaknesses. The author of this book, an educator of distinction, makes a case that should liberate more talented children from unhelpful labels. Michael and Debbie Phelps have contributed to that cause in a very important way.

August 26, 2008

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Night Night, Sleep Tight

Night Night, Sleep Tight

It's amazing how many picture books there are on the subject of bedtime. I just took a quick browse through my child's bookcase, and found at least twenty picture books that are either blatant bedtime promotion, or at least feature the protagonist all tucked in for the night and ready for peaceful slumber on the last page.

It turns out that lots of the classics--Madeline, Eloise, Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No-Good Very Bad Day, Make Way for Ducklings, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and More More More Said the Baby, among many others—more or less end with "…and then they all went to bed."

You'd think sleep would be the least dramatic of topics, but ask any parent of young insomniacs: it is chock-full of tension and excitement. Like my fellow Scholastic parent-blogger Catherine, I have a sleep-resistant child, and we're not so much with the consistent nighttime routines. Many's the time I've started out the evening full of energy and resolutions to get things done, only to find myself wrung out and exhausted by the time I've wrangled my kid into bed.

The last few weeks have featured especially late nights, as summer heat and exciting vacation events and visitors have wreaked havoc on whatever flimsy bedtime rules we once had. This week my daughter has summer camp, and while it's probably good for her to get used to having to be somewhere in the mornings again, the exhaustion and grumpiness is taking its toll on all of us.

Well, at least we usually are able to fit a nice cozy read-aloud session in there at night between the tooth-brushing struggles and the post-lights-out "why are you still up?/okay but just one glass of water" exchanges. Now that my daughter's reading on her own, she usually gets some solo time to read in bed before the lights go out, too. (I've even been known to look the other way when encountering some surreptitious flashlight-reading.)

One of our favorites was, and still is, Peggy Rathmann's Ten Minutes Till Bedtime, in which a troupe of hamsters invades a young boy's house and enacts the fantasy of bedtime resisters everywhere by partying it up until the very last minute. Another one I've always liked is Tucking Mommy In, by Morag Loh, which is more of a sleepy parent's fantasy (and is out of print, mores' the pity): when Mommy conks out while putting her two little girls to bed, they take things into their own hands and tuck her in instead. I used to read that to my daughter in hopes that she'd follow suit, and occasionally it even worked.

There are more excellent bedtime-book suggestions on Scholastic's Best Bedtime Stories for Babies and Toddlers booklist. Several of them were in heavy rotation during my child's own preschool years, with dubious results as sleepytime propaganda. But they're pretty swell read-alouds anyway. If they also convince your child to actually close his or her eyes and snooze, you're one lucky, lucky parent.

August 20, 2008

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It's Not All About Anthrax

It's Not All About Anthrax

Here we go again. I know I have raised the question before, but regrettably, it's still frighteningly relevant. Do we, as a culture, have any respect for massive evidence of severe emotional disturbance in a person who has the power to act out violent fantasies? It is absolutely mind-boggling to me to learn that the scientist whom the FBI names as the Anthrax killer was widely known to be what his therapist called a "homicidal maniac"! His paranoia and readiness to act on it was well known far beyond his therapist’s office. He was smart enough to diagnose himself--to document his preoccupations and impulses in emails to colleagues and friends.

So what’s the deal? Are these grown-up scientists, employees of the U.S. government, loath to be called "tattletales"? The New York Times reports that a U.S. Attorney called Dr. Bruce Ivins "'a troubled individual' who carried out "the worst act of bioterrorism in U. S. history." Did anybody wonder about continuing to allow a documented psychotic individual with paranoid delusions and a lack of impulse control to handle anthrax? To have easy access to such materials for murder with the blessing of the United States government?

This isn’t even a question of whether therapists have a "duty to warn" (which they absolutely do) when presented with persuasive evidence of a client’s impulse to commit a violent crime. It seems that Ivins’ menacing qualities were well known to his colleagues. And what sort of a friend allows his buddy to commit heinous acts without acting to protect the perpetrator from himself?

Something is very wrong here. While millions of sane and sober citizens are taking off their shoes in airports, being denied a bottle of water as they board, a certifiably mad and dangerous individual is afforded the continuing right to menace others. For my part, the question is not “Did he act alone?” or even at all; but why are we allowing a cultural predisposition to dismiss psychology and its lessons to put so many innocent people in grave danger?

We’ve got to get a grip and deal with the reality that twisted minds cannot be dismissed as just harmless "nuts" with the right to be free. I am hoping that the increasing numbers of psychologists running for and winning legislative offices, notably in the U.S. Congress, will make their voices known in the full definition of terroristic threats. Homicidal maniacs should be barred from positions of power over a naïve populace.

August 19, 2008

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Busman's Holiday: The City of Books

Busman's Holiday: The City of Books

It's true that I am a library nerd. It's true that I get a kick out of visiting libraries on vacation, and even once made a carload of people wait on a roadside in rural France while I dashed into the local library to check out the children's section, browse the French "Harry Potter" covers, and get into an excited if language-impaired conversation with the staff, who at first were under the impression that I was asking for a job (at which they were understandably nonplussed).

So I got to spend a few days in Portland, Oregon last week, just me and a college friend, no spouse or child along, and guess where I went? Three times? And then once more to the branch at the airport? 

Why, to Powell's City of Books, of course.

Powell's is to most regular bookstores what War and Peace is to The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It is huge; HUGE: a whole city block, and not a small one, either. And it's highly well-organized. Each section has its own room, and the rooms are color-coded.

Children's and Young Adult books are in the Rose Room.

I spent a lot of time in the Rose Room.

I didn't actually sit down and read anything; it was too overwhelming for that. Instead, I went for impressions: what looked good? What made me want to grab it? What, when I picked it up, gave off that ineffable "read me" tingle? (I know this probably sounds weird, but it's just something I do. I used to do it as a kid, too: run my hand along the juvenile fiction shelves until a book tingled at me. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much.)

These are some that jumped out at me:

Rock 'n Roll Camp for Girls, by the organizers of the Rock & Roll Camp for Girls in Portland. . This looked really cool. If I had a rocker girl, I'd get it for her in a heartbeat.

Frankenstein Takes the Cake, by Adam Rex. A sequel to Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich! O Joy! O Frabjuous Day!

Does My Head Look Big in This? By Randa Abdel-Fattah . I've been seeing this around for a while, and really want to read it, but haven't had a chance yet. It's out in paperback now and I could feel the bright shiny cover and new pages calling, calling, calling to me.

Breaking Dawn, by Stephenie Meyer. It was hard to miss this one; there were displays all over the store. This 4th title in the teen vampire romance series had just been released a few days earlier, and the hoopla was far from dying down.

New Baby Train, by Woody Guthrie; illustrated by Marla Frazee. Marla Frazee does the illustrations for the Clementine books, and she gets that spirited and charming kid just right. Whoever thought to pair her timeless-feeling yet lively style with a Guthrie song was truly inspired.

The Red Tree, by Shaun Tan. This one, I've actually read; I even own it. It's a weird and beautiful picture book, one of those titles that is probably better for older kids or even adults than the usual picture-book crowd. When I first bought it, no one much had heard of Shaun Tan, but now, thanks to The Arrival, his name is everywhere, so it was nice to see this more obscure title so prominently displayed.

I did try to restrain myself at the cash register, but…well…I had a half-empty suitcase when I came to Portland, and it was a lot less empty when I returned. But, hey, how often do I get to go to a whole city of books, in person?

August 13, 2008

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Semper fidelis

Semper fidelis

I truly enjoyed a recent New York Times op-ed column by Doris Kearns Goodwin, entitled “Defeat Your Opponents. Then Hire Them.” I have long admired the author’s scholarship, and the ease with which she enriches history with a dash of psychology. This particular article happened to strike a timely personal note.

A week or so before reading it, I had been driving on the New Jersey Turnpike when one of my tires suddenly blew out. Fortunately, I was near an exit. I pulled in to a gas station with my smoking, pancaked tire, grateful to have made it. But the station attendants categorically refused to change my tire. I suspect they didn’t know how. One pointed to a man standing nearby.

With some trepidation, I approached him, asking if he worked there since I was looking for someone to help me change a flat tire. In a rich Southern accent he answered, "I don’t work here, but maybe I can help you, ma'am. I notice you have a Marine sticker on your car. Are you in the Marines?"

Wow! What a case of mistaken identity. I was wearing faded green sweat pants and a t-shirt, with my trusty high-topped grey-green Merrells. Maybe that helped to complete this grandmom’s disguise as someone courageous and always faithful. "No," I hastily corrected the misimpression, "it is my nephew who is a Marine."

"Oh," he said, with a friendly smile. "I am Navy and I have great respect for the Marines." We walked together toward my smoking tire. Then while he deftly found all that he needed in my car’s trunk and proceeded to exchange the dead tire for a live "doughnut," he shared his story.

My modest rescuer is a reserve Naval pilot, who had years of career service including tours in Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and the current Iraq war. He enjoyed every minute of his overseas service. Since retirement, his day job has been to fly and manage the maintenance of a corporate jet. Sadly, that "great job" would be ending the next day, the plane grounded because business is suffering.

So this perfect gentleman had taken a walk from his motel to think about what comes next for him. He has an opportunity to go back to active duty. He would love to go overseas again. He has always wanted to serve his country and deeply admired the military. He has a "very supportive wife, herself a child of the military," and a young son. They live in the South where he was born and raised.

Predictably, he would accept no gift of gratitude from me, and only reluctantly agreed to allow me to send some books to his son. The fact is, I had happened upon a generous man who could not only change any automobile tire, but was completely versed in doing the same for jet airplanes. In a gentle way, he indicated that his mission in life is service, in the broadest sense of that term; and he was proud to have been able to be of some help to me.

What does all this have to do with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s sage political advice? Everything. The tire episode was something approaching an epiphany for me. I do have family members (though not blood relatives) who have voluntarily served in the Air Force and the Marines, some who still do. I love and admire them; but live in a very different ideological world. Crudely put, they are "red-staters" and I am all blue. I not only oppose the current war, but was a vocal young peace-nik during Vietnam. During Desert Storm, I chastised the military in a letter to the editor for routinely deploying two parents in families with young children.

With an academic, Eastern seaboard mindset, I certainly don’t consider the term "liberal" defaming. What is more, I am under the illusion that I am an independent thinker. But today, I couldn’t agree more with Goodwin’s implied caution about being so narrow-minded that we shoot ourselves in the feet. Not only must each presidential candidate be open to drawing on the wisdom of opponents, we, the voters, need to be reminded that this isn’t a recreational rivalry like the Yankees vs. Red Sox (although I know Doris Kearns Goodwin could never agree with me about which to cheer!). We must urge our leaders to follow the examples that Goodwin cites, of past presidents who drew on the gifts of strong leaders without regard for ideology. This America belongs to all of us after all, to be protected in any way we each can.

August 11, 2008

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Further over the top

Further over the top

Last fall, I wrote about a wave of parental anxiety over kids’ academic performance. I wondered whether incessant parental worry about achievement might represent an unspoken struggle between working and stay-at-home noms. Are they each trying to prove, mostly to themselves, that their way is the right way to parent; witness their successful kids?

Now, in recent weeks a startling news story suggests support for that notion. It reported a rash of electronic parental academic surveillance which, in my view, is truly over the top. The headline of the lead article in the New York Times Sunday Styles section was "I Know What You Did Last Math Class." It told of parents’ routinely logging on to sites such as ParentConnect for exhaustive info on their children’s test grades, class cutting or lateness, missed or failed assignments, up to the minute grade point averages and class standings. And this isn’t the only site with such a mission. Others include Pinnacle Internet Viewer, PowerSchool, and Edline. The opportunity to get such current info on kids’ school performance is not new, but lately the practice has become very popular with parents and schools throughout the country.

I frankly find it offensive, going against the developmental grain of adolescents struggling to trust their parents while growing more independent. Some speak openly about resenting the indignity and lack of privacy, and accuse their parents of "snooping." It knocks the wind out of their sails to have their every move in school monitored by family. In some cases, parents know their children’s grades on tests before the students themselves have received the results.

The Times article reports, "the software can certainly be a boon to working parents," as well as divorced or otherwise absent parents. So involved parenting no longer implies being there physically, as long as there is internet access to achievement data. Dogging their children may be becoming the new model for would-be superparents. Fortunately, not all have bought the online monitoring idea; and some schools distinguish constructive and caring parental involvement from hovering. But for all too many worried parents, the ends justify the means when it comes to the brass ring of academic achievement.

Quoting a parent interviewed for the Times article: "'It can be hard to resist. It speaks to all your neuroses as a parent, all this need to control, that pressure to make sure everything is perfect… How are these kids going to learn to be responsible adults?'"

I wonder about that too.

August 4, 2008

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Summer Rerun: Books Into Movies!

Summer Rerun: Books Into Movies!

We just moved, all our stuff is in boxes, and I don't have two brain cells to rub together. So in the spirit of summer, I offer you a rerun of a post I wrote on my other blog, back in May 2007:

It's a good time of year to do some low-key, easy lesson plans. One of my favorites for 4th and 5th grade is "Books into Movies."

First, I pull a whole bunch of books that have been made into movies and put them out on the tables (Wikipedia has a pretty good list). When the class comes in, they have to look at the books on the tables and guess what they have in common. Some years they guess and guess and never come up with the answer ("Animals!" "No, they're all fantasy!" "No, they're all classics!"), but this year someone guessed it almost right away in both 4th grade classes.

Then we talk for a while about the differences between books and movies: Have they ever had the experience of reading a book and then seeing the movie, and wondering how the two can even have the same title? What are some reasons that a movie might have to be different from a book? Why might the people making the movie decide to change things around?

This year I talked about my experience seeing the movie "Harriet the Spy" after loving the book as a kid, especially my disappointment that Harriet was so skinny and cute (I showed them the illustrations from the book as a comparison) and that the movie wasn't set in New York. I also gave them some of the scoop about the upcoming Inkheart movie.

They did some silent reading, choosing a book from one of the tables (I encouraged, but didn't require, that they pick a book they'd never read but whose movie adaptation they'd seen), and then after checkout we read Shrek, which is a great example of a book that's completely different from the movie. I thought they might think it was too young for them, but both classes were highly amused by Shrek's evil temper and by the poetry.

When asked about books and movies in class, kids will dutifully reply "The book is always better": they've learned that books are supposed to be Good for Them and movies are faintly unwholesome fun. Sometimes teachers even act like the existence of a movie taints the book, and won't let kids read books for reports if they've already seen the movie.

Kids believe this, too; I don't know how many times I've suggested a book to a kid, only to have them shrug it away with "Oh, I already saw the movie of that." This class shakes that up a little and asks them to think about the two mediums in a different way. Plus, it's just a blast to teach.

July 31, 2008

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