Friday, June 20, 2014

Go To Hell, It's Summer!

 Yesterday was the last day of school for my three oldest kids. I feel like I just crossed the finish line of a marathon, hands on my knees gasping for air.  The past few weeks I’ve passed other parents at bus stops, in school hallways, on field trips and returned their dazed looks with “how are you?” The predominant refrain is, “you know, June is crazy.” Yes, I know. Here is a sampling of what has been added to my already full schedule this month. Three separate choir concerts, a dance recital, 6 field trips, an end of the year medieval celebration, my daughter's formal “spring fling dance” and middle school graduation. Somewhere in there is the pressure to get (or even worse- make) a grand thank you gift for all my kid’s teachers and the guilt of failing, again, to do this simple task that everyone else seems capable of. Top that off with under-slept kids frantic about finals, excited about yearbooks and over sugared from end of the year celebrations. As I drop my daughter off at the school at 6:15am for a field trip to Canada that gets her home at 11pm, I find myself thinking, “mile 20, I’ve made it this far. No sense in dropping the kids off at Walmart and driving away now.”

So imagine my emotional reaction when, with only ½ day of school to go, my daughters first grade teacher sends us parents a final email with this:

This week we talked about the importance of continuing their learning over the summer.  Here are some ideas in addition to MobyMax, RazKids, and XtraMath.

Typing practice:
·         All the Right Type – directions for accessing this resource are included as an attachment. 
·         Student should be writing every day, and their writing journal from the year still has plenty of empty pages.  Today we brainstormed a list of ideas that they could write about and they have a copy of this in their journal.

GO TO HELL!!!  I just finished a marathon, don’t tell me I’d better keep running!! That was my emotional reaction. I don’t actually fault this teacher, who has been amazing all year. I suppose she is obligated to give this good advice, just as my dentist urges me to not eat too much sugar. For the record, I eat chocolate after every meal (yes breakfast too, wipe that horrified look off your face!).

Now, I’ve been at this public school thing for 10 years. There was a time that I had lofty ambitions that I didn’t know were lofty.  I thought things like “we are going to read everyday and spend time practicing math. My kids are going to be on top of their game when they go back to school.” But 10 years of complete and absolute failure has worn me down. I no longer have any na├»ve ideas about our summer educational achievements. The only thing I know for sure is that we will listen to audio books in the car on road trips. This is not for educational reasons. This is so I won’t leave my kids on the side of the road half way to our destination. Whenever I make this threat (BE QUIET, STOP FIGHTING OR GET OUT OF THE CAR!!) my husband nods knowingly and quips, “you better be quiet, when she says she’ll leave you on the side of the road, she means it!”

Let’s be real for a moment. My kid’s summer is about 2 ½ months. During that time, this is the education I want for my kids. I want them to catch bugs, eat watermelon and marvel at the blue sky. When they are bored I want them to sulk around until they strike on a brilliant plan, such as building a fort or spying on me and their neighbors- (spying on me gets boring, I’m sitting on the couch reading a book, eating chocolate- no you can’t have any, this is moms chocolate. Go outside!!).

I heard on NPR this week that a city in Sweden is debating a “No Homework Policy.” The argument for this policy is this: kids should be able to learn what they need to during the school day. We shouldn’t be overburdening them or their families with homework. Different types of learning take place as they interact with their families and the world. There should be a space for that.

So, we are having a Sweden summer at my house. I will limit screen time and order some books from the library. But that is as much effort as I will make to “continue their learning” this summer. We will go to parks and hike and camp and watch movies together and revel in our freedom from the tyranny of school (which I am grateful for, ultimately).  Nine months a year is enough for book learning and worksheets. And I pledge to do this all guilt free. Want to take the Sweden summer guilt free pledge with me?? Then go get some chocolate, a good book and order your kids outside. It helps to lock the doors, FYI.

Looking for some good audiobooks to enjoy with your kids this summer? Here are a few of our favorites (we get ours downloadable or on CD from our library):

Extra Credit by Andrew Clements (we love all Andrew Clements books)

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Number The Stars by Lois Lowry

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Ida B by Katharine Hannigan

Monday, June 9, 2014

Let's Play!!

Photo Source
NPR recently ran a series on the the pressure to cut recess in favor of more academic time in American schools. My youngest is about to start full day kindergarten. He is my fourth child to do this, but my first boy. In light of this TED talk on boys in our schools, I’ve been wondering what it will be like to watch a son go through school. I’ve felt more apprehensive than I did with my girls. The NPR spot on the decline of recess in our schools alarmed me. I immediately looked up how much time my son would have at recess this fall. Turns out he will get 70 minutes a day, which I am happy with, though I wouldn’t complain if he got more. Apparently, many American kids aren’t so lucky and will have to make do with much less play-time.

The decline in play time in American schools is a response to failing schools and dropping test scores, which became mandated with the No Child Left Behind Act. The faulty premise is that if we have more time to cram knowledge into our kids, they will perform better. Contrast this with Finland, which has gained notoriety lately for its phenomenally performing schools (which out perform our schools by any measure). How do they approach play? Well, differently then us. For starters, Americans average 27 minutes of recess time a day, while the average is 75 minutes in Finland. That contrast is made all the more dramatic when you consider that their school days are shorter than ours (and they spend less time doing homework). Anyone want to move to Finland with me?

If there is one mantra that sticks out to me from my child development classes in college, it is this: “play is a child’s work.” Which is to say, all kinds of valuable things are happening in a child’s brain when they play. They are actively learning when playing. They are processing and solidifying classroom learning on the playground. Not only is play learning, it is preparation for learning. Active play puts kids mentally in a space where they can absorb new information when they go back to the classroom. So much is lost when we yank this mental/physical rug out from under them. As Ken Robinson says, “If you sit kids down hour after hour doing low grade clerical work, don't be surprised if they start to fidget.”

I feel strongly about our kids need and right to play time. It is an essential component of a well rounded curriculum.  Take some time to explore the links below to learn how different cultures approach child's play and education.

  • I know they are 20 minutes, but oh please, listen to the brilliant (and funny) Ken Robinson:
           How To Escape Educations Death Valley
           Schools Kill Creativity

Friday, May 30, 2014

Media Literacy How-To

Following my last post on media literacy, which focused on girls, I received this question from Lindsey, “Can you share some dialogue examples for pointing out the dehumanizing tricks? I want to help my boys recognize this, but I haven't been able to come up with a succinct way of talking about it.”

Photo Source I hate to include examples of advertising
that I find so abhorrent, but we must understand what we
are up against.
Since I didn’t acknowledge it in my last post, let me say here that the harm wrought on girls by media and advertising in no way exceeds the damage to boys. Levin and Kilbourne explain, “Boys learn to look at girls as sex objects, they really learn a lot about how to treat girls. At the same time, boys are seeing images of being violent, tough and macho which go against being able to have caring connective relationships when they grow up.” How sad. Our boys are hit constantly with a double whammy (be tough and girls are objects to be manipulated for your own gratification). Those two ideas combine in a toxic way. As Levin points out, this double whammy message can erode our boy’s ability to form and maintain warm, loving, connected relationships. Of all the things I wish for my son, being part of caring relationships tops my list.

So, how do we talk about media and the myriad of negative messages therein with your children? Before I give specific suggestions, let me first say that saying ANYTHING is better than saying nothing. Media literacy is all about an ongoing dialogue we share with our kids. That conversation is a stronger antidote than you might suspect. Secondly, I have focused thus far on how women are depicted in media, but that is only one problem among a myriad. If we pay attention, there are many ideas being peddled to us that are problematic. Media communicates ideas about gender roles, sexuality, race, happiness, consumerism. . . .
Photo Source

A good place to start with kids is by helping them understand the intent behind advertising or other persuasive forms of media. Let me illustrate this point by a cross-cultural comparison. In America, television used to be regulated. Then "in 1984 the Federal Communications Commission deregulated children's television. With deregulation it became possible to market toys and other products with TV programs.” Contrast this with Sweden, where it is illegal to advertise to kids under the age of 12. This ban on advertising in Sweden is,  “based on research that indicates children can't fully distinguish between advertising and programming until about age 10.”(Source) That being the case, Sweden deems limiting advertising to kids the moral thing to do, as children clearly are not able to reason through advertising as adults are. You and I understand the manipulation in advertising. We know, of course, that we are being sold something. We assume kids know this too. They don’t. To them, this is just information about the world, as accurate or valid as any other information they get.
Photo Source Does an image like this
make anyone else angry? This would
likely be illegal in Sweden, as well it
should be. It seems an exploitation to me!
Once you’ve helped kids understand that most of what we see in media is created to try to get us to buy something, you can begin talking about how they do that. Discuss the messages ensconced within the alluring images around us. I can only give a few examples here, but if you are looking for opportunities to have this discussion with your kids, you will find many. You can point out the unkindness of portraying women as objects or portraying boys as tough and aloof. Identify how happy or exciting people look in advertising then ask, “what is making them so happy? Do you think buying that _____ would really make someone happy? For how long? What things make you happiest?” Let them know that the people creating the ads want you to believe something as a result of what they see. What is it they want you to believe? Is that true? (e.g. They want you to believe that if you drive that car, you will be cool and have lots of friends. Is that true?) What is being taught about what it means to be a man or a woman or how men should treat women? You can let kids know that almost all images they see in advertising have been digitally altered. Once you create this framework for looking at media in a critical way, your kids will start doing it on their own. I still remember driving down the road, when I heard my 6 year old declare indignantly from the back seat, “look at that picture! They are trying to trick us that we will be so happy if we eat that. That’s not true!!!” I smiled to myself. My beautiful daughter was defining the world for herself on her terms and I loved it.

Photo Source
I want to end on an inspiration note and what better than
a quote from Maya Angelou, as we honor her memory. Bravo to a
woman who taught us what true beauty looks and feels like.
Photo Source

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Media Literacy

Years ago my life offered up a juxtaposition with a profound lesson. I was a mom of two little girls under the age of 5 and relishing the experience. During that time I was asked to help lead the youth group at my church. During the day, I spent my time oohing and awing over crayon drawings of heads with arms and legs coming out of them. Not that my two daughters needed my praise; they clearly felt whatever they created was a masterpiece without my saying so. 

In the evenings once or twice a week and every weekend, I spent time teaching and playing with girls ages 12 to 18. I began to notice something startling. My little girls preened and danced and colored and delighted in themselves and life. You could tell them they were smart, kind, talented, beautiful and they would grin and nod knowingly. Not so with the teens I loved. They would continuously scrutinize themselves and find themselves terribly lacking. Try to compliment them and they deflected. Of course, there were girls who bucked this trend, but it was a clear trend nonetheless. The New York Times reported, "this survey of 3,000 children found that at the age of 9 a majority of girls were confident, assertive and felt positive about themselves. But by the time they reached high school fewer than a third felt that way."

I began wondering how I could avert this disaster for my daughters (I ended up with 3). This search led me to the work of Jean Kilbourne. From her website: "Jean Kilbourne is internationally recognized for her groundbreaking work on the image of women in advertising. . .In the late 1960s she began her exploration of the connection between advertising and several public health issues, including violence against women, eating disorders, and addiction, and launched a movement to promote media literacy as a way to prevent these problems."  I read her book Deadly Persuasion (republished under the title Can't Buy My Love) and kicked off my own little "media literacy" campaign for my daughters. I realized I'd never eliminate the media effect from my daughter’s lives (or mine, for that matter) no matter how strictly I monitored it (and monitor it I did!). I needed to empower them; give them tools with which to navigate the media saturated culture that they were marinating in. 

Guided by Kilbourne, I began deconstructing media's message with my daughters. We'd be driving down the road and see a billboard and I'd say things like, "look how happy that lady looks in that picture? Why do you think they made her look so happy? Do you think wearing those jeans (or driving that car or eating that Sara Lee cake) could really make her happy?"
Photo Credit
I would point out dehumanizing tricks of the trade, such as women being turned into objects or, even more insidious, being dismembered in an ad, showing only one part of a woman's body. I was amazed how my young daughters took to this and began doing it on their own. More than 10 years have passed since I began that dialogue. I set out to help my daughters, but I did more than that. I helped myself. Until I began examining it, I didn't realize how effected I was by advertising. Today I have a beautiful 15 year old in high school. But that isn't noteworthy. When I stop by her school, I am surrounded by a sea of beautiful girls her age. What is noteworthy is that her confidence hasn't taken a nosedive. Despite the occasional complaint about her hair or a zit, she still knows she is amazing, just as she did 10 years ago. This is what I wish for every girl and for every woman. To always know and feel her worth, despite overwhelming media messages that would persuade us otherwise for their own purposes.

To become better informed on this issue, check out this video clip of Jean Kilbourne, it will give you a glimpse of what girls and women are up against:  

Also, read this touching letter from a Mom to her daughter. It sums it up perfectly: