• I met with a student yesterday before class who left me feeling at a loss.  I am struggling, yet again, to set realistic expectations when it comes to writing.

    The student came to me wanting to make sure he understood what I was asking in an upcoming essay.  After we had worked together to clarify and develop a strategy to complete the assignment, we had a few minutes to talk.  “Who are you?”  I asked.  “I mean, when you’re not at school, what’s your life like?”

    Like so many at UMass Boston, the student is “non-traditional.” He’s probably in his forties. Emigrated as a teen to Cape Verde from Angola with his parents. Married and had two children in Cape Verde, came to the US, served in the military, brought his wife and kids over, has worked in law enforcement for decades. He puts in 70 hours a week in his job and has one child in a Boston Public “exam” school (competitive entrance) and the other in a private school. He knows five languages; his spoken and written English are rough. Unlike many I teach, he  is an incisive thinker and is unfailingly prepared when he is in class. And he is always in class. When I asked him what “year” he is, he responded by telling me he doesn’t think in terms of “years.” He thinks in terms of courses. He has eight courses left until he earns his undergraduate degree. Taking two courses a semester, he will be on track to graduate in the next couple of years.

    After the student left my office, I began to second-guess myself.  I give lots of feedback to students on even short assignments. I ask them to pay attention to grammar, sentence structure, verb tenses, and word choice.  I expect them to proof read, and if they don’t, I ask them to revise and resubmit. I insist students move from summary to abstract analysis, and I ask them to cite with precision. Am I asking too much? How would I fare were I working more than full time, raising children, and commuting to a campus to earn a degree?

    These questions woke me at 4 A.M.  I was filled with a sense of overwhelming shame as I imagined how hard many (but not all) of my students are trying to get ahead. I don’t want to be condescending. I don’t want to lower expectations to the point that students aren’t making genuine progress on writing, either, which I continue to believe essential. Why essential?  If students can’t analyze text, can’t formulate actual thoughts in writing, then how well can they handle bank loans, elections, job applications? Don’t these students deserve to be taught how to express themselves eloquently? Should the ability to craft a sentence belong only to the American elite?

    Teaching writing takes time. Learning to write takes time. What to do when students’ most precious possession is time?

    More questions than answers this morning.

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  • I wish I had a photograph — or, better yet, a video clip — of Sam in the family van, heading out of our driveway this morning. I thought of running inside to get my  camera/phone. It just didn’t seem the right moment to impose my Smotheriness on Sam and his friend, both strapped in for their last trip from Boston to Ohio. So, I will conjure the image through words.

    A pale, winter sun had risen, revealing a clear sky. Far above the garage, a songbird perched on a bare branch. It wiggled and warbled. Nary a car passed on the street ahead. The mini-van — nominally “Silver Gray” — dented and dinged in its 13+ years of service — stood at the ready. Sam had commented as he’d lifted the hatchback that even it made a rasping sound these days. Sam turned the key in the ignition, causing his steed to cough to life, emitting more of a Lauren Bacall three-pack-a-day burr than an emphysemal wheeze.

    And then…they sat, these two young men, going nowhere. I stood in the drive, warm enough in my long underwear, Polar Fleece pants, ratty wool sweater, and down vest. I scanned the bare branches, the song bird, the plume of exhaust puffing out the back of the van. Then, like steam from a sauna, wafted a beat to put a shimmy into the Old Grey Mare’s hum.  Sam’s single upgrade when he inherited the O.G.M.: a first-rate sound system, which neither Mark nor I can figure out how to silence when we are infrequently behind its wheel. A minute more, and the guys were off.

    As the van’s wheels began to roll, I began to wave. “Winkie, Winkie!” I said to no one. My wave continued until the boys had turned from the driveway into the street. And I could see, through the O.G.M.’s tinted windows, the span of Sam’s long, drummer’s arm waving back.

    A family tradition, this Winkie, Winkie business. My in-laws would stand in their driveway, side by side, waving to Mark and me — and then, later, Mark, the kids, and me — until we were out of sight. “Winkie, Winkie!” they’d shout. A German tradition, Mark explained early on, coming through his father, embraced by his mom. A kitschy farewell. A magical gesture to ensure safe travel, safe return. Sometimes, after my mother-in-law would gaily shout and even giggle, she’d lower one hand to brush away tears.

    No tears for me this morning, though it is not always so.  The beat coming from the van’s speakers reminded me to smile way down deep.  What will Sam remember from his last semester of college? A particularly good lecture? A well-written essay? Late-night carousing with friends and flame? Balancing the heft of a dining hall tray loaded with limitless sweet cereal and milk? Long after graduation, he’ll savor vivid memories of these drives between Boston and Ohio, fueled by Red Bull and tunes. The journey not the destination, the wise ones say. Expectations and a twinge of anxiety on the trip out. Exhaustion and a twinge of anxiety on the leg home at semester’s end.  And surely Winkie, Winkie, a sacred rite passed from generation to generation.

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  • Two well-written and reasoned pieces responding to Marco Rubio’s assertion that we need more welders and “less” philosophers:

    — one by Scott Timberg in Salon

    — one by Farai Chideya in Five Thirty Eight Politics

    Both question assertions about pay as well as the false opposition between liberal arts and vocational educations.  My favorite bit: a reference to Matthew B. Crawford’s short, smart book, Shopcraft as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.  Crawford (who earned a Ph.D. in phiosophy) argues for the importance of skilled, thoughtful manual workers.

    I was reminded, yesterday, also, of my favorite plumber, who is one of the best problem solvers I’ve ever known.  The guy can fix almost anything.  But that’s not why he’s so talented.  He thinks elegantly, assesses entire systems, and generates solutions that are so ingenious they sometimes make me laugh.

    Rubio and others out to ding the humanities would impress me a whole lot more were they, themselves, able to express with eloquence and inspire.  But for that, they’d probably need — dare I write this — a first-class liberal arts education.

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  • Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio seems to have distilled his education policy during tonight’s debate. “Welders make more money than philosophers,” declared the Florida senator. “We need more welders and less philosophers.”

    If Rubio is serious about education, he shouldn’t draw an artificial line between welders and philosophers. This country will not get stronger by assuming that workers who “do” don’t think…and that those who think don’t “do.”

    Our next president needs to value an education system that values critical thinking as well as practicality. Workers can’t adjust to markets’ demands if they can’t reason.  Neither can they find employment without practical skills.

    Perhaps Rubio’s handlers can teach him a few grammar lessons (when, for instance, to use “less” and when to use “few”) while they help him generate a more sophisticated approach to education, one that doesn’t pander to the current right-wing penchant for humanities bashing. As journalist Fareed Zakaria has written in The Washington Post, Republicans seem to delight in asserting that “[a] liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward. It is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans survive in an age defined by technology and shaped by global competition. The stakes could not be higher.” At the same time, Zakaria writes, “[n]o matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write.”

    Here’s to an expectation that all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, affirm students’ rights to speak, read, and write clearly.  And here’s a wish for the coming year, when Americans will be choosing a new president: may candidates work for a world where philosophers get paid welders’ wages and where welders are assumed to think as nimbly as philosophers.

     

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  • I had to stop myself before filling in the customs re-entry form on the flight from Heathrow to Boston last Wednesday. Name: fine. I remembered it. Address: ditto. Carrier, flight number, passport number, passport issue date, passport expiry, yadayadayada. At the bottom — profession. I gripped my pen…and then I remembered: “housewife.”  I had gone to India as a housewife, so, I figured, I’d better come home as one, too.

    Amazing what this housewife got to do in India. Serendipitously interviewed a fascinating bunch of people while working on a documentary about a 90-year-old left-leaning missionary. Chatted animatedly with an elegant older Bengali gent about educating students with special needs in India and America — and spoke of what I would do from Boston to provide contacts. Stood in line to clear security at the Taj Mahal with my daughter and got whacked in the ribs by a coterie of be-saried Afghanis intent on cutting the queue. Ate in the home of an actor-cum-driver and his nurse wife, savoring chole and chapatis, watching their 7-year-old son dance on a coffee table. Got a sense of Indian community health when the beloved 90-year-old fell and fractured her collar bone and shoulder. Rode a jeep through a tiger preserve and saw tiger paw prints. Huffed and puffed my way through a string of bazaars overlooking the foothills of the Himalayas. Shared a wild, segmented, 10+-hour taxi ride from Landour to Delhi with a gracious, garrulous movie star.

    What to do with all of these experiences and memories? A good housewife would cook. And since I am an excellent housewife, I’ve been studying the recipes and techniques of Auntie Manjula online. A good housewife would also put together a pitch for a radio story and begin piecing together video and sound for her documentary. And do laundry. And give friends gifts. And watch the Oscars with her husband. And write a few thank you notes. Check, check, check-check-check.

    Ah, to travel the world under the capacious mantle of “housewife!” A privilege? A disguise?

    If you want to see what I saw — and also to see what daughter-of-housewife is seeing and doing — follow this link.

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  • Lily came out of her interview at a small, elite New England liberal arts college sure that she’d had a good conversation but frustrated by the content. She knew she was supposed to “take charge” of the interview, so she asked a question about how well the college accommodated students with learning differences. She wanted to know, specifically, how she would go about fulfilling a language requirement given she’s dyslexic. The interviewer reassured her that the academic dean was always willing to go to bat for students with documented disabilities. Some professors wouldn’t “get it,” the interviewer said, but college policy would always back up LD students. With accommodations, Lily would be able to fulfill her requirements, just like everyone else. “Besides,” the interviewer told Lily, “it’s no one’s business.”

    I shook my head as Lily gave me the report. The phrase “no one’s business” evoked the kinds of things people who considered themselves enlightened would say about “different lifestyles” when I was growing up. Upon learning that so-and-so was lesbian or gay, a free-thinker in the ’70s might say, “I don’t have a problem with that. It’s no one’s business, whatever two people choose to do behind closed doors.”

    How far we’ve come as a country in terms of sexuality. Our goal isn’t to tolerate but to embrace. Full equality means that workers put same-sex partners on health insurance policies, high school students take whomever they wish to the prom, and little kids grow up celebrating family as two moms, two dads, one mom, one dad, a mom and a dad, or any combination thereof. Ads, TV shows, films, music — all forms of popular culture normalize the range of sexuality at long last.

    In the best of all possible worlds, every college admissions interviewer would openly ask students about their learning styles. Kids wouldn’t just submit standardized tests. They’d submit learning profiles. The goal wouldn’t be to see if institutions of higher learning adhered to the law.  It would be to make sure that every professor, lecturer, and teaching assistant had undergone rigorous training in multi-modal learning.  Every syllabus would offer a variety of assessment techniques.  All students would be choosing courses based on what would maximize their chances to master material and produce good work.

    Hip schools have come to promote LGBTQ safe spaces, pasting rainbow-colored stickers on classrooms, offices, and meeting areas, making it everybody’s business to protect against discrimination and danger. I’d like to see LD communities developing a similar icon, something that would immediately signify that kids with learning differences are welcome and safe.  The ADA may have reached its 20th anniversary, but we still have a long way to go when college admissions officers think they’re being sensitive when they tell students “it’s no one’s business” if they’re LD.

    I felt terrible telling Lily to steer future interview conversations away from dyslexia and accommodations.  What did she want the admissions folks to know about her?  That she is a tremendous student? That she is a budding documentary filmmaker?  That she has tons of experience working with young children and is interested in human development?  That she loves to spend time outdoors?  Only after an institution has admitted her should she bring up dyslexia, because, as the admissions officer explained all too clearly, we’re living in an academic world of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

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  • Tomorrow, May 1, is D-Day for high school seniors.  All those who have been put through brutal application and acceptance processes, these kids who have a new appreciation for the concept of a “wait list,” will have to make up their minds.  By tomorrow, they’ve got to fill out paperwork and mail deposits into the colleges of their choice.  This is it.

    I’m hearing from family and friends how hard it is to balance feelings of pride and delight against the sadness of upcoming loss as their kids make these sometimes tough decisions. I spoke on the phone last night with my sister-in-law who lives in Virginia. Her daughter — my niece — has decided to start school next September in California.  A beloved friend in San Diego is coming to terms with her son’s decision to head to Boston. The silver lining is that we’ll have more opportunities to visit, but that doesn’t ease her heartache at having her son leave home in such a definitive way. And I am struggling with the implications of one of my kids’ decision to attend boarding school in New Hampshire in the fall.  Distance.  Life as we know it is about the change dramatically.

    My sister-in-law, my friend, I — we are all members of the tail end of the Baby Boom.  We have all made choices to curtail professional ambitions so that we’ve been able to have more time with our growing children. Sociologists and gender analysts in a few decades will surely have a field day when they pick apart our lives.  I shudder to think what they will conclude.  Here on the ground, in the moment, what I see is a desire for deep connection with family.  A friend has told me since her kids were born that her greatest accomplishment will be if her kids want to come home for Thanksgiving when they are grown.  I think she speaks for an entire generation.

    I don’t know if our desire for proximity and reciprocity among our growing children is good or bad.  Don’t know if it’s mostly about us or our kids.  Do we want something for them that we didn’t have? Is this deep-seated desire yet another manifestation of the narcissism of our generation?

    NBC has tapped into these complicated feelings with its new drama Parenthood. The show airs Tuesdays at 10 PM Eastern Time.  It chronicles the ins and outs of the Braverman clan — two aging Early Boomer parents, their four mid-life Late Boomer kids, and their six growing grandchildren.  Each episode is studded with scenes in which adult children gather to celebrate even the smallest extended family happenings. The camera lovingly films the extended clan gathered at a local park to cheer on one of the kid’s baseball games.  It shows the entire family in a public pool as the youngest member successfully swims for the first time.   The Bravermans all grapple with demons.  None is perfect.  But none suffers alone. They share their imperfections, seeking each others’ advice in person and on the phone.  They take comfort in their ability to drop by each others’ homes and offices. Their lives are tightly braided together, and the show’s writers demonstrate again and again that this mostly brings the characters deep satisfaction.

    I have come to think of Parenthood as family porn.  We Late Boomers who feed our children slow food at family suppers want more time with the people we have raised to adulthood.  And just as they are heading off to have their own adventures like so many tufts on a dandelion, we crave stories about families who choose to live in proximity.  The cameras filming Parenthood linger over the faces of siblings who choose to babysit each others’ children and attend their birthday parties.  We grew up watching Dynasty and Dallas, night time soap operas about the evil machinations of family members hell-bent on destroying each others’ lives.  Now we are hungry for shows that allow us to fantasize about the essential goodness of kin and connection. If we can’t have our own family suppers, at least we can watch the Bravermans enjoying theirs.

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  • Thanksgiving has come and gone.  My kids are not quite half way through their junior year of high school.  PSAT scores are wending their way to the house.  If only Harry Potter’s Hedwig would deliver the College Board’s first official judgment, infusing a bit of fun and magic here at the starting gate of Upper Middle Class College Admissions Hysteria (to be followed later by Upper Middle Class Wedding Hysteria).   Anxiety has predictably been rising this autumn. Grades on tests and papers have seemed even more important than ever.  And I decided yesterday after a particularly awful week of UMCCAH that I am resigning from my role as Nagger-in-Chief.  I mean it.  I quit.

    I don’t want to compromise kids’ privacy, so I won’t tell you much about what’s been going on. Suffice it to say that I have reached a point where I am convinced that the best thing I can do is butt out. The supports are in place.  So are the consequences.  If I write here that I truly don’t care if the kids start college in 2011, will you believe me?  If I tell you that I honestly do not care where they go, will you think I’m just trying to sound a little boho chic?  It matters to me that they find something they can work hard at and that they find people who will love them.  I care that they are able to live independently and that they are physically and mentally sound.  It would be really nice if they’d love each other and want to come home for Thanksgiving.  And anything beyond that is, well, gravy.

    What does this mean on a practical level?  I haven’t been getting anyone out of bed in the mornings for almost a year. Best step I ever took. From here on out, I’m not going to ask when papers are due, if anyone has studied for a test, if they’ve got the poster board they need for an upcoming project.  Yesterday was the first day of my new life, and as soon as I’d made my resolve, I was able to sit down and write half a script for a radio piece.  My heart slowed a few beats.  I told my kids about my plan, and we had an honest discussion.  We sat down to supper — late.  They looked across the table at me and smiled.

    I’m getting the kids ready for college.  Not by writing essays for them (which I would never do anyway).  Not by reminding them to fill out forms.  Not by shoving SAT course prep books down their throats.  I’m getting them ready to assume responsibility for themselves and their actions. Of course, if they ask me for help, that’s a whole different matter.

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  • Back in Brookline, missing the hell out of the beach, and the kids started 11th grade today. President Obama gave a great speech to the nation’s school children. Everybody’s got homework already.  I hope they work hard and find much of their study meaningful.  Is that too much to ask?

    Along those lines, I share with you “A Learner’s Bill of Rights,” a brilliantly articulated manifesto that Kirsten Olson uses to begin her new book, Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture (New York and London: Teachers College Press, 2009). Olson’s ideas and feelings are passionate and ring true.  If kids have the wobbles in these early days of the school year, share with them the following:

    A Learner’s Bill of Rights

    by

    Kirsten Olson

    Every learner has the right to know why they are learning something, why it is important now, or may be important to them someday.

    Every learner has the right to engage in questioning or interrogating the idea of “importance” above.

    Every learner has the right to be confused and to express this confusion openly, honestly, and without shame.

    Every learner has the right to multiple paths to understanding a concept, an idea, a set of facts, or a series of constructs.

    Every learner has a right to understand his or her own mind, brain wiring, and intellectual inclinations as completely as possible.

    Every learner has the right to interrogate and question the means through which his or her learning is assessed.

    Every learner is entitled to some privacy in their imagination and thoughts.

    Every learner has the right to take their imagining and thinking seriously.

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