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Elementary School Redux: There’s Always Another Way

September 15th, 2009

School has been a bit challenging this year for our young one. The 2nd to 3rd grade transition begins focusing more strongly on independence and responsibility.  Lots of new expectations, routines and challenges.  And not all of them something each child is ready for.  In some ways it seems like they’re trying to make miniature college students out of elementary kids… our son has even got an official weekly planner that he must fill out everyday on top of his homework.   Good that they’re teaching planning and organization skills I suppose, but sometimes it’s just so much for them at 8-9 years of age.

He is fortunate that his school is full of caring, professional educators- it’s really a good little public school.  However there’s always an oddity or two among classroom management styles. His 3rd grade teacher, for example, does not allow the students to have more than one pencil in their desk.  If they lose that pencil, they must ask for a new one, and then they lose one of their recess playtimes for not keeping track of their pencil. If they just want a new one, they have to hold up the stubby remains of the old pencil before getting it. Ugh.  This new rule after having had access to pencils for the previous three years in K through 2nd grades.

Anyway, unlike the sweet, touchy-feely first and second grade teachers (and don’t forget the treasure box!), his new teacher is all business.  So he has been a bit confused and overwhelmed by these new rules and expectations.

Case in point: The other day a note came home that he just “sat there” for three hours doing nothing in the morning.  I asked him what was the matter, and at first he didn’t know (he lives in the moment…).  But then he remembered:  “I lost my pencil and didn’t want the teacher to get upset by asking for another one, and then I didn’t know what to do…”  He really didn’t mind losing recess (they have three of them during the day), but he didn’t want to upset her, he felt overwhelmed and confused and so he just sat there with his head down.

Naturally my first reaction stemmed from that innate parental desire to just make everything okay for him (I haven’t figured out how to do that yet, and if you’ll be kind enough to share the secret I’ll gladly pay you a bunch of money).

leaving-for-school

     More rationally, I wondered why in the heck his teacher didn’t try to find out what the problem was, or try encouraging him to do something else instead of just letting him sit there for so long?! Argghhh.  And truth be told I was frustrated with him for not making his needs clear and asking for a new pencil and just getting busy.  It’s not like his teacher is a monster- she’s actually a petite woman and seemingly quite nice.  Well that’s another story…  But her business-like demeanor in the classroom will take some getting used to for him.

Besides, it’s so simple to me, right?  Just get a new pencil and get the job done?!  I was like that in 3rd grade, right?  Well, not at first anyway, but I was a fast learner.  Bear with me for an historical digression:

School always seemed fun and exciting to me somehow, and learning was a positive challenge.  But I remember testing boundaries in 3rd grade, to the point of making a really cool paper airplane once during a reading session.   I don’t know what I was thinking, other than being a little bored and trying to get the other kids’ attention.   They watched me with that airplane, wondering what I would do… almost daring me to throw it.   I remember the smiles and glee in my classmates’ eyes when I zinged that sucker toward the front of the classroom while the teacher was sitting with her head down reading.   Incredible!  That airplane flew beautifully, it was an amazing sight really, soaring toward the blackboard, rising higher and higher, and then?  It swooped down almost purposefully into the great big foot-high bun of hair right on top of the teacher’s head!

At first the silence was broken only with the gasps of my classmates while all eyes were riveted to the white airplane sticking out of the teacher’s hair.   And then laughter erupting all around me, at least until the teacher stood up.  I thought maybe it was okay?  Maybe doing something funny was good?   I was looking at the airplane, amazed at the result of my craftsmanship while also staring at the teacher’s face.  My eyes then grew wider with the knowledge that I just did something really, really bad.  Reality set in quickly with the,  “Who threw this airplane!”  voice that I had not heard before in a classroom.   This was one of three Catholic schools I attended in various states, at least through fifth grade, and I wasn’t going to tell a lie and commit a sin.   I raised my hand slowly, somehow knowing that I was all alone in this, and she motioned me to come up to the front.  I was then forcibly escorted by my arm into the hallway where I received a very stern lecture by a red-faced woman with spittle coming out of her mouth.   That was a new moment in my life.

I have no idea what she said, and was left in a chair for an hour to contemplate my actions.  I like to think I helped educate an entire class of kids regarding what one should or should not do in a classroom.  And it was about that time that I came to the conclusion that upsetting the teacher didn’t result in anything good, ever, and that doing tricks for one’s classmates didn’t help matters much either.  Getting in trouble was just not worth it, and I didn’t like the visibility.  It really didn’t have anything to do with my parents either- I’m not even sure they knew about it.  If they did, I was fortunate in that they probably just laughed.

But I think I decided then and there that I would not stick out in the classroom ever again.  And I didn’t. *(Pamela makes a good point that this  would be a sad lesson- learning to be invisible.  I would absolutely agree, but that really wasn’t my point.  What I mean by not sticking out, is that despite a person’s experience, there’s always another way to go about things, or see things, or learn from things… and you didn’t need to try to do things (like throwing paper airplanes) and stand out in a negative sense, except to be yourself.)

Somehow I managed to figure out at a very young age, that if you just do what the teacher wants, getting things accomplished, along with the studying and homework of course, you can get decent grades and get through school just fine.  And then you can manage your own time… your own program and do the stuff you really want to do.   Teachers love kids who just do what they ask them to do…

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     So back to the story at hand:   As I sat there with my son last week, I really wished I could inject him with some kind of Vulcan mind-meld device that would give him years of experience and knowledge about the world around us, just for momentary use of course…  Enough to stand up, walk briskly to the teacher, look her straight in the eye and say:

“Ma’am it seems I’ve lost my pencil. Now I understand I’m going to lose my recess, and that’s fine even if it is a really silly rule. But I would in fact like to learn something here! I really love school you know,  and I especially enjoy science and reading.  Math? Not so much, but even that is better than just sitting in my chair for three hours with a sore butt!  So please get one of my personally-labeled pencils out of your cabinet, and would you mind redirecting me a bit? I seem to have forgotten what it is we are working on. Thank you!”

The squeaky wheel gets the grease as they say, even in the classroom. Our young one is a bit shy and not very assertive at times, so he doesn’t ask for help when he needs it. After relating his predicament to his teacher, she remained ever the professional.. “He needs to learn the rules and do it on his own…” Ah the rules, always the rules.  We don’t want learning to get in the way of the rules now do we?

She’s right of course, within reason, and at least in terms of her classroom management style and meeting the expectations established for the kids in that context.  The pencil rule isn’t something I would do, but then again she’s been teaching for 20 years and I haven’t. The kids are going to have to learn to succeed in that environment.   But you know, there’s always another way… another angle, a different approach and a child that isn’t the same as the four thousand seven hundred and fifty-two children they’ve worked with previously. And it’s not just teachers, but as parents and mentors too.  Sometimes I think we miss opportunities to really make a difference and gain a little perspective.

Ah well, the school year has just begun.   And it looks like I’m going to get to know his teacher really well this year.  We all must learn to navigate the written and unwritten rules of life.  And more often how to succeed despite those rules and the challenges we find along the way.  As for my son, I know he’s going to have to learn at his own pace. And I’ll love him just the same. But sometimes it’s really hard to watch.

Recipe for Summer Fun

July 6th, 2009

1 medium sized Boy;
1 large Yellow Lab;
1 squirty hose;
Add water;
Stand back!

labrador-fun

Imagine the playfulness of that dog in the picture… and then imagine he’s that way no matter where  he is, and that the boy loves  to play with him.  They both have a smile on their faces.  I think watering flowers was the mission, as you can see by the watering can.  But it didn’t work out that way.  It’s like having a 90 pound three year old racing around with an 8-year old boy.  Neither of them listen very well, and both of them are intent on doing something.   Since I’m never quite sure what that is, I usually just direct traffic or try to stay out of the way…  


Cartoon Days

June 4th, 2009

Look! It’s a plane! It’s a bird! It’s a…. a…. superfast 8-year old cyclist boy hero racing by at inhuman speeds to save the day!  (Okay, it’s really a blurry picture taken by a Dad who just mashed his camera buttons as his son rode by).  But could it be something else?

There’s no need to fear, Superboy is here!

superboy 
Speed of lightning, Roar of thunder!
Fighting all who rob or plunder!
Underdog… Underdog!

Memories of growing up, and I loved that cartoon.  With the nation’s older demographics, lots of stores today are marketing copies of  cartoons and tv shows from 30-40 years ago to folks who walk by (like me) with memories flooding back in seconds, and wallets coming out to relive youthful adventures.   Not a bad idea…  and it’s fun to share them with kids today.  Last year our son enjoyed watching Underdog from the ’60’s, while I marveled at how corny it was.

We don’t watch a lot of tv or cartoons, but there are a few cute shows on PBS that the boy enjoys such as Cyberchase and Arthur.  Since we don’t have cable, it’s either PBS or videos (or more often doing real things outside!).   But he loves cartoons, and I can’t blame him- growing up I loved to watch cartoons too.  The saturday morning cartoons are still here too, but they don’t seem quite the same.  That probably just means I’m getting older.

This year I had to share Mr. Peabody and Sherman with him- a cute show with a wacky historical theme from the ’60’s also.   Simpler cartoons, simpler times.   It’s fun sharing nostalgia from the past, like old computer games too from the 1980’s.  Sheesh… the ’80’s seem like yesterday!

Now has anyone seen the one about the turtle and Mr. Wizard?!  I don’t remember what it was called  but when I was little that was one of  my favorites.  This young, curious turtle just had to go on many adventures, always seeming to get himself into a pickle and needing rescued.   I loved the part when the turtle would get in trouble, yelling for help from Mr. Wizard, who would work his magic saying something like, “Trizzle, trazzle, treezle, trome.. time for this one to come home!”  And the turtle would go spinning back in time in a kalaidoscope of color, saved once again by his benevolent magician. 

I said Mr. Wizard’s words to the boy the other day, telling him it was time to come in… he looked at me like I was goofy.   A small privilege of parenthood… you get to act goofy around your kids and relive the times when you were young too.   And we end up having fun and being goofy together.  But he’s getting old enough now that sometimes he looks at me with penetrating eyes and just shakes his head.   We’re still in the cartoon days, but he’s growing up so fast. 

 
 

Journeys Through Life

March 2nd, 2009

Time to catch up after a busy weekend- and it has been a cold few days!  The signs of spring continue to surprise me… this morning a red-winged blackbird had joined the gathering of birds at the feeder, returning to its summer breeding site near the pond after a winter somewhere else.  Technically they are listed as year-round residents in our region, but all I know is that by October-November they are gone, and don’t return until March.  I wonder where the blackbird has been and how far the journey was.  It could be just down the street for all I know, but I suspect the southern wetlands of Missouri and Arkansas provide more comfortable winter accomodations. 

The chores are piling up and now it seems spring is coming almost too fast.  Ornamental grasses sure are beautiful to look at but not much fun to cut back!  I need to come up with a better approach- I straddled this big clump between my legs and used a little chainsaw to cut through the heavy stalks.  

Cutting ornamental grasses

We’re almost out of wood completely after such a cold winter.  But that’s a good thing- I don’t like to keep old wood around because it attracts too many critters that live in or around woodpiles.   The next few months will be time to remove several dead trees on the property and to begin the wood-cutting cycle once again.  Of course we’re still thinking about what to put in the garden, and that’s kind of exciting.  If we were really on the ball we’d be planting starts from seeds… haven’t done that very successfully before.  Do you buy starts or seeds each year?  Somehow I like wandering around the garden center looking at little plants, but maybe we’ll try to plant some seeds this week indoors too.

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Over the weekend we had our annual cub scout birthday banquet and ceremony for the kids- they received their advancement badges and other awards, and performed some really cute skits.  Makes for a long day, but seeing the excitement and pride in their eyes is so worth it.  We did have one young scout drop out last week and I was disappointed.  He was new and only made a few meetings.  He didn’t really spend enough time participating to have a rounded view of the activities we do, most of which involve character development and learning practical things.   We also play games and have craft projects, and the kids usually love it. 

His mom wrote me an email and said he just wasn’t comfortable and she was disappointed too.   As the den leader, that gave me a little pause for reflection on how to work with the kids in a more constructive or well-rounded fashion.  We started off with about 6 kids last year and now have 10 scouts participating.  I understand people are different, but I wish I knew what I could have done to help him enjoy the experience more.

I also find myself thinking about how we close off opportunities in our lives for one reason or another.  Looking back I’m sure I did that at times when younger, and probably still do it without realizing it.  We put so much “in the moment” especially where emotions are concerned, and if not careful our perceptions are colored in ways that really may not be accurate. 

What if you never knew that green or fall-colored leaves existed? 

Reflections on Fox Haven pond

When we make decisions based on those short-term perceptions or emotions, we may be doing so without seeing what’s really going on.  Sure that could be a good thing at times, keeping us out of trouble or on the right path as we trust ourselves and our intuition.   But are we semi-rational creatures subject to changes in our emotions that affect our experience each day?  Or are we emotional beings that use intelligence and rational thought to help navigate through life?  Depends upon the person perhaps, but certainly a little of both. 

More often I think we miss embracing the fullness of life, especially when we are personally or physically challenged, and we have that little voice inside that knows we’d like to do something, yet we keep making excuses… but, except, I can’t, if only, I wish, I don’t know how, maybe…  and we hold ourselves back.  

I was fortunate as a youngster to have a wonderful family that supported many opportunties to explore and grow.  I also had many incredible experiences and met other people who challenged me in ways that proved very helpful.  At some point in my life I realized there were few absolutes or real answers, and that Emerson had it right when he said that, “Nothing at all will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be removed…”     

So between the fear, the misgivings and the uncertainty, I began to question and seek what it really was that I wanted in life.  All I knew was that some things make you come alive in thought, vision and experience and we are not on this earth forever.  All I know is we can be active creators of our experience- we can be whatever we want to be in our lives!  And that questioning and exploration has been the seed to every aspect of growth… coupled with a willingness to learn of course.   It’s not a journey that ever really has a destination.  Just when you think, “I’m here! I finally made it…” life will surprise you and present some new challenge or opportunity.

The older I get I find myself both more and less certain about many convictions once held.  I feel humbled by so many things, and thankful for so many more.   I walk outside and breath the cool, fresh air of the morning, and hear the birds sing.  It’s a new day,  and regardless of the challenges that exist I feel such an enormous sense of appreciation.  

Cub Scouts

I watched our son fixing his bowl of cereal this morning, and running around feeding the animals.  Is there a pride greater than that of a parent for a child?  I don’t really know.  He carried the flag through the audience before the cub scout ceremony started this weekend.  It was his first time to do that- and afterwards I asked if he enjoyed it.  He said, “Uhuh…”  and I asked if he was proud of himself, “Uhuh….” and I told him we were proud of him.  I asked what he was thinking about while carrying the flag, and he said, “Umm… like 250 people were watching me!”   I laughed, understanding the feeling.  “But you did it, didn’t you?”  And he smiled.

Kids and Nature Just Go Together

May 14th, 2008

A nice day today, without rain.  Started cloudy and cool and then warmed up beautifully.  We walked to make the bus for school through the wet grass, with the yellow lab running around us.  As we waited, playing catch with a newspaper, the lab decided to find a comfortable spot in the tall grass and settle down.  He’s becoming more independent as well as comfortable with the world around him.  He was happy just to lay here in the grass and wait until the walk home.

Yellow Labrador Retriever in the grass

In many ways the seven year old is the same.  I find myself looking for opportunities that our son can use to stretch his own independence.   The boy runs around finding interesting things to play with in nature, climbing trees, riding his bicycle, collecting rocks.  When he comes home from school he loves to watch one particular cartoon, and will sit in front of the tv if allowed.  But he loves being outside as well, and comes out pretty quickly to play and follow me around.  He watches and helps me with various projects when he can.  

After the windstorm the other day, we worked together staking nine little trees.  It’s not always my nature to think of ways to involve him, but I’m getting better.  I’m a “do-it-yourselfer” most of the time, and just move from one project to another trying to keep up with things that need done.  But as our son grows I want to share knowledge and find opportunities to involve him and help him learn.

I’ve been watching an interesting show tonight on PBS about kids growing up while living closer to nature versus in a suburban environment.  Did you see it?   Paraphrasing one of the themes:

“The kids growing up over the last twenty years see nature as an abstraction. Something “out there” apart from their own lives.  And that fosters a disconnection with the natural world.”

One of the reasons I love living in the country is to be able to maintain that connection with the natural world.  To live it, touch it and be part of the changing of the seasons.   We thought it important somehow that our son have the opportunity to experience this lifestyle, while balancing the modern world’s tools of technology and communication.

What young child isn’t fascinated with tadpoles?  He loves to play by the water, and always seems to find neat stuff.

Boy finding tadpoles at the pond in spring

But that’s also the challenge in many ways.  As a society we have evolved and are continuing to change very quickly. Kids today are challenged to adapt and are faced with countless choices involving what I call technological literacy.  Certainly basic reading and math literacy is critical as a foundation, but I also believe that technological literacy is something that can empower and leverage an individual’s life and choices in a myriad of constructive ways.   I think that tech literacy must reach a point where a child recognizes the benefits as well as learns the limits of the technology they will use in life, and that it’s really just another set of tools.

Personally I have run the gamut of being an early adopting tech addict years ago, to managing thousands of the most advanced computers and communications equipment in the world, and now back to being a simple user of technology in a way that expresses creativity and helps me keep up at home.  I feel like I’ve come full circle, and have heard the same from others.  I’m still tempted by new-fangled gadgets, but weigh the cost of owning and using them not only in dollars, but also in time.  Time seems to become more precious in many ways, and I am thankful to have time to do what is necessary each day.

But I always come back to nature, or what I see as “real” with the world around us.  Perhaps as a way to find a centered place within, and a foundation of being well grounded. I fear losing the connection with nature and what is real.  Somehow the spirit of the living and the energy that exists in nature are like healing waters that a metaphorical fountain brings forth.  When we work and take part in the natural world we touch our roots, and renew the bonds of life that exists between the human species and the living world.  

So where our son is concerned, a lot of it has to do with me. I have always sought a rural lifestyle, and a chance to learn and practice basic skills of living and self sufficiency.  I like that about living here.  But at times I wonder if the boy isn’t missing out with many of the various activities that a suburban lifestyle might offer.

We do try to involve him in typical activities such as baseball and scouting.  And he has the run of ten acres of land, joining more land in the area.  But driving to town takes a few gallons of gas round trip, so it’s not something we do routinely without a reason.  There are no nearby places to go and interact with others unless we get in the car and make the trip.  So he does miss different aspects of living in society such as a suburban area with parks full of other kids.  For all those who live in this area, it’s just the way it is.

Thankfully he has a full school day and a district that believes strongly in physical activity.  They usually have three recess periods to work off excess energy (or catch up on work not quite finished).   By the time he gets home he needs a break, but is then ready to head outside and play again.

I know as he grows up he will have the opportunity to experience far more than we see here at home anyway. In that regard I’m not worried about what he may miss for a few years.  To see him run and play, discovering new critters, finding cool rocks or snail shells to collect, shouting and screaming at imaginary creatures, all are things that I believe help create a balance and ability to find a centered place within himself which he will carry for the rest of his life.

Blowing Dandelion seeds in the wind

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it’s where I am.  I have this sense that he needs this in his life, and that many years from now he will reflect on it and find satisfaction and strength in his experience.  Certainly all parents must make choices that they believe best for their children.  There are times in our lives that we are fortunate to have the ability to make certain choices, where others may not.  For however long we are here, I am thankful for our experience. 

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