education

Casual Conversations Between A Shark And Justin Bieber

Everything you can imagine is real. ~ Pablo Picasso

A shark talking to Justin Bieber on the phone...imagine the conversation.

Justin Bieber on the phone with a shark in the back seat. Think Justin could turn the shark into a Belieber? I doubt it.

Today we took the boys to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I won’t ruin the movie for you if you’ve somehow managed to escape the myriad trailers this holiday season, but I will warn you that it may make you want to travel. After the film on our way home, our boys who, like Walter Mitty, have very active imaginations, began having crazy phone conversations in the back seat of our car using some old telephone handsets they found in the cargo area. I was only half listening while talking about the film with my husband, but at one point I believe Joe was a shark and Luke was Justin Bieber. I love my sons’ imaginations, and it’s in precisely those moments that I deeply appreciate our left-brain dominant boys and their non-stop creativity. The other night we were discussing what life might be like if we had to exist in the present with Tyrannosaurus Rex looking into our second story windows as we were getting ready for bed. Adults never have conversations like this. It’s a shame too because it would make dinner party conversations far more interesting and it would keep us from bickering about politics and religion.

Thinking about Walter Mitty and his daydreams I keep coming back to one thing. Creativity and imagination are far too underrated in this world. You have to dream it before you can do it. Someone imagined flying before the Wright Brothers actually flew and someone envisioned walking on the moon before Neil Armstrong ever did it. American society praises innovation and creativity as if we were the first upright beings to employ them. One look at our schools today, though, and you see that we talk a good game but we don’t play it. There is little room for imagination, creativity, and out-of-the-box thought at our public schools, which are instead consumed by standardized tests meant to make sure all kids measure up to the same rubric like faceless automatons. We’ve somehow determined that this is the best way to get ahead in the world, by engineering our future generations to a measurable standard. It’s sad, really. The kids who think differently are passed along because no one wants to deal with them. Their skills are undervalued and lost. We are systematically eradicating they very things that make us uniquely human…artistry, creativity, and independent thought. We squash imagination in the name of forward progress, but imagination is the one thing that allows progress in the first place.

My dyslexic kids might not fit into traditional schools because they think differently than other kids, but because of them I see possibilities. I see life and the world differently than I used to. I think “why not” instead of “we can’t.” And, maybe it’s crazy, but I sure would like to see that conversation between Justin Bieber and a great white shark realized. Somehow I think that could only make the world a better place.

Schoolhouse Rock!

Schoolhouse rocks!

Schoolhouse rocks!

Today, my son’s dyslexia tutor suggested we get him some recorded songs to help our auditory learner remember his multiplication facts. Thinking that was a brilliant idea, I hit up my friend Google for some suggestions. As I was flipping through the treasure trove of information, I happened upon something I could not resist. Schoolhouse Rock! Need I say anything more? I have many happy memories of sitting in front of Saturday morning television watching cartoons and catching all kinds of useful information from Schoolhouse Rock! I tell you with absolute certainty that the only reason I can recite the entire Preamble to the Constitution is because I can sing it first in my head to a tune I remember from those Saturday mornings. True story.

Joe was sitting with me as I was looking  at Amazon trying to decide which DVDs to order. He looked over at my laptop and saw Schoolhouse Rock on the page. He got very excited.

“I’ve seen these!” he exclaimed. “My teacher shows these to us in class.”

“Really?” I replied. I knew his teacher, Mrs. Downs, was good people.

“Yes. All the math ones and some social studies ones. Here….I’ll show you,” he said as he ran off to grab his iPad.

He came back with a bunch of videos queued up on You Tube. He opened up the Elementary, My Dear video about the two times table and hit play. We sat and watched it. It made me smile. After that we watched Three Is A Magic Number. Then, I saw it in the side margin. A video of The Preamble. I clicked on the link.

“I know this one, Joe. Watch.”

Then, along with the video, I sang the entire Preamble while my son watched in complete amazement. At least, I think it was amazement. I prefer to think he was looking at me with awe because he had no idea I knew these videos rather than in horror because I should by law be banned from singing publicly. I prefer to think he’s continually shocked by how smart his mother truly is.

I have to wonder if my boys would have had struggled as much as they have with their math facts if they would have had the pleasure of sitting each Saturday morning and watching Schoolhouse Rock like I did. I’m not entirely sure that the Schoolhouse Rock songs cemented the math facts into my head, but it is kind of intriguing that 35 years later I still remember the words to the Preamble I learned while catching my dose of Saturday morning cartoons. It can’t all be coincidental. Some of the things I saw as a child stuck.

I wish more networks made programming choices based around what was best for people rather than what made them the most money. There was a time when there were public service announcements on television for our children to watch, things like Time for Timer where kids would learn about healthy food choices. Now, though, our kids get nothing but a healthy dose of ads for all sorts of processed junk food and then more junk food in the form of brainless programming all hours of the day and night, on demand even.

Maybe it’s a romantic notion to wish that we could go back to a time when there was some actual thought given as a society to how to raise children to become well-balanced, informed, thoughtful, healthy, and creative individuals. I admit it. I wish kids had less homework and more time on their bicycles, fewer hours of television and more hours for creative and social interaction with friends via a means other than texting. I’m a dinosaur, I know. I’m not suggesting we go back to the 1970’s (personally, bell bottoms pants were never a look I could rock), but it would be nice if we could give our kids a little bit of the childhood we had. It might be nice to give them a break from the innumerable activities topped off with hours of homework. As I think about Schoolhouse Rock, what becomes clear is that it’s not that our children watch too much television but rather that they watch too much of the wrong television. The things I learned on Saturday mornings have stuck with me this long, and now I’m going to share them with my kids. Hopefully they will remember Conjunction Junction and I’m Just A Bill and forget everything they’ve ever seen on My Little Pony.

Yep…They’re Special All Right

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Definitely our special kids!

A couple days ago I had to do something I’ve been dreading doing for a while now. I had to visit the principal at the boys’ small, private school and tell her that it’s likely that our boys won’t be returning next year. I had to tell her this now, months in advance of fall registration, because I need to pass along some evaluation requests about our boys from the school in which we’re hoping to enroll them next year. I wasn’t dreading this conversation because I thought I would get grief or because I eschew conflict (which I truly do). I was anxious about this conversation because for the past eight years this school has been a safe haven for our boys, a place where they felt loved even though they knew they weren’t exactly like all the other kids. It’s been a place where they’ve always felt special.

When Steve and I first received Joe’s ADHD diagnosis, the psychologist told us he might benefit from a more specialized learning environment or, at the very least, a school with special education services. We looked at our bright, articulate son and couldn’t even begin to imagine him at a special school because the term special somehow implied slow. Jokes from our childhood about the short bus began driving through our head. We considered switching him to a public school but, after talking with several special ed professionals, we determined that Joe might not even qualify for special ed assistance in a public school because the need is so great. I couldn’t imagine transferring him to our local public school, where the class size would be double the class size at the private school he was in, on the off chance that he’d receive enough services to make up for the deficit in personal teacher attention. So, we kept him where he was because at least there we knew they would accommodate his needs, and we knew he felt comfortable.

Turns out, though, that his comfort level isn’t enough of a reason to keep him at the school he’s always known. He and Luke, we’ve discovered, will benefit greatly from placement at a school that specializes in teaching students with learning differences. I recently read that 1 in 7 people have some type of learning difference. These type of issues often run in families. They are not indicative of lower intelligence, although most people seem to think they are. The truth is that a learning difference is just that, a different way the brain processes information. Because schools have to cater to the majority, most teaching is done in the systematic way that works best for most students. Our sons are not in the most category. It’s taken us a while to accept that they’re different. It’s taken us even longer to acknowledge that putting them in a special school doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with them.

So, we’ve at last arrived at the place where we’re ready to make a big leap and switch them to a special school. As parents we’re finally able to admit that our boys are different and to believe that, although their differences are difficulties now, someday those differences will be valued as strengths. When I began to explain to the boys why they struggle the way they do, I wanted to put a positive spin on it for them. So, I did some research. I told them about Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, Charles Schwab, Bill Gates, and Steven Spielberg. I told them how thinking differently made those men special in a good way and how their differences made them successful. I told them that while they may struggle greatly on the front end learning a new task, in the long run they may be better off for the unique perspective. Funny how the more I did research to try to help my boys feel better about themselves, the more I found myself feeling better about them and their potential. I no longer look at dyslexia as a life sentence (although Luke will have it for life), nor do I look at ADHD as an impenetrable road block. Do they make things a bit more difficult for my guys? Absolutely. But, as Luke told me after we watched The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia with them a few weeks ago, maybe true success requires a special brain, the kind of brain he knows he has. Go ahead. Call my kid special. I dare you. He’s just different enough to understand it’s a compliment.

We Need To Go Old School Again

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” ~Fred (aka Mister) Rogers

My boys engaged in free time play

Lisa, my dear friend who happens to be a high school English teacher, shared a link to an intriguing Psychology Today article the other day. The article discusses the steep and steady decline in the creativity of our nation’s children over the past twenty to thirty years. Studies have shown that as we’ve become a society more focused on test scores, our children have lost their ability to think creatively. The more we’ve restricted free time and free play (through both increased school work and increased extracurricular activity), the more heavily these creative losses are felt. While I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised by the article’s revelation, I was a little shocked by the statistics behind the assertion:

“According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average Elaboration score on the TTCT, for every age group from kindergarten through 12th grade, fell by more than 1 standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984.  Yikes.”

When I was a child, my mother would hand us a piece of paper on which she had drawn random squiggles, lines, or shapes. Our job was to create a picture incorporating the designs she had already placed onto the paper. While my mother’s impetus for giving us this little exercise was most likely to acquire some uninterrupted free time for herself, what she was actually doing was helping us develop our creativity. As it turns out, this simple exercise my mother used to engage my sisters and I when we were children is the exact test that researchers use to measure the Creative Elaboration mentioned in the above paragraph. The goal is to have the child take what exists on the paper and expound on it in an original, meaningful, and possibly humorous way.

As I reflect on the amount of homework my boys do, on the assignments they have in school, and on the advanced level to which they are asked to work in their educational environment, it’s really no wonder that my eldest will sometimes come home in tears, lamenting the knowledge that he won’t have much free time to play after school. It’s heartbreaking, really. I did homework when I was in grade school. I know I did. But, I didn’t have much of it, maybe 30 minutes in fifth grade. Maybe. I did most of my work in class, including studying for exams, and the work I did at home was largely reading and practicing some spelling words. Joe has thirty spelling words in fifth grade, including ten vocabulary words for which he must memorize definitions. This week, on Joe’s list, appear the words hypotheses, phenomena, and memorabilia. I know adults who can’t spell those words. Joe also does 28-30 analytical, multi-step math problems a night, none of which he has time to do in class. It’s no wonder he’s stressed out.

In grade school, a million years ago when I was a child, we did fun, creative things. I remember one lesson we did for Social Studies. Both sixth grade classes were assigned an imaginary culture. We were told what the people in our make-believe country prized and how they lived their lives. We practiced acting within the boundaries of our assigned culture. Then, the teachers opened the doors between the two classes and we were prompted to interact with the other culture. One culture was entirely money-based while the other was entirely love- and affection-based. It was a hand-on lesson in culture shock. In sixth grade at my elementary school, we also studied a unit on the ancient Egyptians. With the research we had done in the library, we constructed “artifacts.” From cardboard we fashioned headpieces, Anubis likenesses, and even a sarcophagus. And…get this. We did all this work in the classroom. None of it was homework. Then, believe it or not, we dressed like the Egyptians and took the children from the other grades on a tour of our ancient Egyptian tomb, which was conducted in the school’s basement crawl space. I’m not kidding. Can you imagine the potential lawsuits from that type of activity today? Kids ducking their heads and walking around in a darkened, dusty, uneven, underground space in the school guided only by sixth graders? But, I will never forget that experience because we had to be creative to carry out our project. Our teachers, given the necessary freedom, taught us to be enthusiastic scholars. Today, my son got in my car in tears over tonight’s homework load.

I’m not a policymaker in Washington. I don’t hold a PhD in education. I’m just a mom who is home with her children. But, it seems clear to me that what our schools need more of is freedom to make learning a creative exercise and fewer standardized tests for which our children spend the entire year preparing. If we want to be the country that others imagine us to be, full of that American ingenuity we are constantly praised for, then we need to rethink our educational system. Let’s use some of the creativity we developed through the free time and play that we were allowed back when we were children to reinvent a landscape where our children are rewarded for thinking outside the box and solving problems ingeniously. Not only would it make the future of this nation brighter, but it would make our present time with our children more enjoyable and less tearful as well.