If You Were President, What Would You Do?

Image result for images of the oval office So, our daughter-in-law asked us last night what each of us would do first if we were elected to the U.S.  presidency.  Cait would take on campaign finance reform. Phil’s immediate concern is income inequality. Dom has health care at the top of his to-do list.

Me? No-brainer:  universal child care.  I am not smart enough to tell you precisely how that could be accomplished, though I do believe Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax could go a long way toward funding this priority. I can, however, tell you why it must be addressed.

Child Care Is Not A Luxury

When our kids were very young, we were fortunate enough to have one of us home with them. That was because Dom was able and willing to work nights and afternoons while I worked days.  Times–and employment– have changed. In 2020, both parents must hold down jobs,and child care is a fact of twenty-first century life. It’s not a negotiable add-on. It is a necessity. But not all child care is equal.

What hasn’t changed is this: Every parent still wants the best for her children: attentive, educated, nurturing care givers,  safe facilities, administrative oversight. We all want those pint-sized toilets and sinks, the colorful murals, musical instruments and outdoor playgrounds.

What we want may not correspond to what we can afford.

Quality child care comes with a hefty price tag. Annual, full-time spots in well- staffed, accredited centers can run the equivalent of a year’s tuition at a public college . Even with two incomes, the average working family is often priced out.

It Matters to Us All

So what? People want to know why tax dollars should go to child care for someone else’s kids. 

There are lots of reasons. Some are practical and immediate. Workplace productivity improves when parents know their kids are well cared for. Turnover among day care providers is lower in well run centers. Children are safer and healthier in quality facilities; every year, kids die in unlicensed day care centers.

But wait…there’s more

You don’t think the earliest years of a child’s life matter? Think again. High quality child care is a giant step toward future opportunity. Children lucky enough to have slots in the best facilities will enter school already on the road to more academic and economic opportunities. They have already begun to learn how to learn. They see themselves as members of communities with the commensurate perks and responsibilities.  They have consistent care givers in an environment that is devoid of hazards.

Statistically, kids in quality care environments– where there is conversation, where books are available– typically start kindergarten with 1,000 more words than kids who are cared for in under-served environments. 1,000 more words. Literacy experts assert that it requires a minimum of ten exposures to a word before a child “owns” it.  The literacy gap widens annually leaving kids behind before they have a chance to catch up.

Some might say that parents can–and should– make up the difference and that is partially true.  But in our current economy, where parents sometimes more than one job to meet basic needs of shelter and food, that might be a stretch. 

And this is one of the things I like about Elizabeth Warren. She understands the urgency associated with early childhood and Pre-K. It isn’t a luxury. This is the future. It is your future and mine, too, as today’s kids will become tomorrow’s social and economic engines.

 

As I write this, I realize that all four of us were right last night about presidential priorities. Without campaign finance reform, we will choose among only those candidates with enough wealth to participate in elections. Income inequality puts a huge percentage of kids at an immediate disadvantage; more and more of our kids see themselves as the “have-nots.”   And health care? Who wants to choose between paying the child care bill and pediatric expenses?

 

 

Education Really Does Matter

In this week’s NYT, columnist David Brooks describes how Scandinavian countries consistently earn fist bumps for just about every aspect of daily life (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/13/opinion/scandinavia-education.html). Brooks attributes this all-around success to a particular brand of Nordic education.Image result for images of scandinavia

In the Land of the Midnight Sun, education isn’t all about test scores or compartmentalized, content area instruction.  This blue ribbon model challenges all learners to see themselves in increasingly larger contexts, as personal, social and community participants.

Image result for images of college diplomas  In the US, we have come to equate education with career prep. From the earliest grades, we are told that we need to excel in school in order to excel in life. Grades–above all else– are the goal.  We compete with one another for admission to top tier colleges where we battle for academic honors that we take into the workplace with the expectation of monetary pay back so that we might make a dent in the mountain of student loans we have accrued.

That’s not education.  It’s not even vocational training.

Education is recognizing the patterns of history, nature, art, science. Education breeds empathy, and respect for the truth.  Education is learning that you are a player in the world around you, that what you do and say matters. Education reminds us all that we are responsible to each other.

That’s why education matters. When we recoil at the horrors of the Holocaust or marvel at the discovery of penicillin, we are stepping outside ourselves, seeing a broader world beyond our limited contexts. Great works of art, ancient philosophy, poetry all help us to transcend narrow personal experiences . Ironically, education is learning how much more there is to learn. It is finding your voice and contributing to what’s around you. It is finding ways to enrich those communities that depend on you.

So the quality of life we admire in Scandinavian countries–their economic and social success, their personal levels of individual happiness–seems to come from their understanding of their interdependence.

 

 

 

Egon, Print is Not Dead

Image result for images of egon spengler from ghostbusters

In the original “Ghostbusters” film (1984) paranormal scientist, Egon Spengler, proclaims, “Print is dead.”

I hesitate to contradict the venerable Dr. Spengler–clearly the superior intellect of the ecto-slime crew. But a trip back to the future would have shown him that though it has jumped from the page to the screen, print is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

Print: We create it. We receive it.  We share it.  Sorry, Egon. The reports of print’s death have been exaggerated.

We use words now more than ever: texting, tweeting, emailing, posting on the internet. Words still matter. Image result for images of electronic print

With a click or a tap, users access what they want to read. Books. Newspapers. Political opinions. Movie reviews. Sports statistics. Presidential tweets. On December 12, President Trump tweeted 91 times before noon. Even at 140 characters a pop, that’s a lot of reading.

Image result for images of students wondering clip art       Reading still satisfies our curiosity: Hank Aaron’s lifetime batting average. Jim Morrison’s resting place. The actor who played the Cowardly Lion. The year the first music video premiered.

From the comfort of our couches, we can conduct scholarly research that once demanded presence in a library and/or that magical medium: microfiche.(Try explaining that to college freshmen!) We can brush up on literary criticism–what would Wordsworth do?  JFK’s Inaugural Address is there in black and white–“Ask not what your country can do for you!” The history of the Apollo program is forever afloat in cyber space.

Image result for images of e books  If you want to read it, likely you can pull it up on your screen.

 

But… there is always a “but,” right? Though readers can easily and quickly locate info on almost any topic, caveat emptor.

Image result for images of old time reporters …In the stone age, in my previous life, I was a journalism student. We scrawled on spiral notepads and sometimes slung bulky 35 mm film cameras around our necks, operating on the this acronym: FACT. Fast. Accurate. Concise. True. Among the Fordham faculty, accuracy and truth took precedence over speed. However, truth is less true today and accuracy is too often an afterthought.  Readers today beware: what you read may or may not conform to past standards.

Access to information morphs at warp speed, and readers, too, must adapt. As educators, the responsibility to manage technology weighs heavily on us.  Because we have access to so much material today, being able to read critically is more crucial than Dr. Spengler could have imagined. And this is why must continually remind our students–and ourselves– about healthy skepticism.  Evaluate sources. Look for bias. Demand credentials.  Just because it pops up on our screens fast and is concise doesn’t verify it as either true or accurate.

And if we must shift gears as readers in this age of print overload, as writers we have even an even heavier responsibility to remember that words matter. But that is another post, for another day.

 

 

 

 

 

What I Learned On My Summer Vacation

Disclaimer: I know this is late, very late. But stuff happens. Like family. Like work. Like dead car batteries. 

But I digress. Let me take you back to August when the days were longer and the leaves were lush. Let’s go back to summer.

Summer vacation isn’t all Utopian perks: sleeping late, espresso at four, binge trash reading.  Well, maybe it mostly is about this.

But there can be some real learning happening, too.  Like karaoke is best enjoyed as a spectator sport. Or there is such a thing as too much kite string on the beach at night.  Or SPF 100 isn’t all that effective on the kitchen table.

It has been said that the best lessons are those that occur spontaneously, unexpectedly. In no particular order, allow me to share five unexpected take-aways from my summer vacation.

Respect the Earth

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau

Image result for images of walden pond

A visit to Walden Pond linked past, present and future. No exaggeration: it changed my life. The pond–actually a lake–and its protected woods reminded me of the undeveloped beauty not just in this park, but in so many local places we take for granted. Beyond sustenance and shelter Thoreau discovered, there are spaces for reflection and for recreation.

In this setting, the enormous responsibility of stewardship weighed heavily. Thoreau would likely be horrified at aspects of modern life.   Waste. So many unnecessary plastics: bags, bottles, packaging.  Unbridled consumption.

I am on it. Small steps to be sure, but on it none the less.

Want Isn’t Need  Image result for thoreau images

For me, want vs. need is usually about footwear: I want a new pair of boots. But I don’t need them.

I am no Kondo-maniac, but there is merit in simple living.  Thoreau knew this.

I picked up this lesson when fellow travelers– in a souvenir-fueled feeding frenzy– randomly seized tee shirts, shot glasses, jewelry that may or may not already be lost in space. All out of  momentary want not from need.

I may not be able to exist as simply as Thoreau did, but I learned I don’t want my life characterized by conspicuous consumption.

 

 Walk in someone else’s shoes

Image result for thoreau images  Or boots. Or sandals. Just walk. Look through a new lens.

On a bus tour of Nassau in the Bahamas, we walked in the opulence of several all-inclusive resorts. Strolling in those shoes–Jimmy Choos and Louboutins– , on glistening marble floors among high end shops was a momentary walk in privilege.  The last stop on the tour, a Bahamian neighborhood of  makeshift food stands and grocers, was a bare-foot trek into the reality of poverty and strife, thatched roofs, dirt floors.

Even as it shrinks, the world is a huge place. None of us are at its center.

Hiking someone else’s trail yields multiple perspectives and evolving empathy.

 Listen more. Talk less.

Image result for thoreau images

Thoreau had three chairs in his cottage: one chair was for solitude, two chairs were for friendship, and three chairs were for society.  Solitude has its place, but we need one another, too.

Everyone has a story. Everyone.

This summer, we tried to hear the stories that define people. The story of a Canadian woman whose challenged son was initially written off because of his disabilities, but who went on to earn an MS in engineering. The story of a newly wed couple from Pennsylvania. The story of a bartender from California. The story of a grandmother from Long Island. The story of the man wearing two different shoes.

Listening changes you. It changes how you see others, how you see yourself. You may feel gratitude. Envy. Pity. Hope. Joy. Faith.  But mostly, you feel connected to humanity.

We need more time to use two and three chairs.

Device detox

Image result for thoreau images

By necessity, we had to look up from the phone, close the laptop, step away from the tablet.  Inconvenient at first; wonderful in the long run.

Technology has its place. It’s true: you can’t get news from your doctor or close out a utilities account without going on line.  Sharing photos and experiences bridges miles that separate us.

But escaping the relentless bells and whistles of instant communication brought me profound peace, in a small way, like how Thoreau must have felt at Walden, secluded from the nineteenth century buzz of Concord.

 

Though Thoreau never said this, I will: better late than never.

Image result for thoreau images

 

 

Educational Inequity

Image result for black and white images of books    The Pre-K-8 district where I last worked had its flaws, but demographically, it was public education at its finest.

A mere blip on the map of one of NYS state’s wealthiest counties, our district served both the most privileged kids and the neediest. Our students learned–from one another–about Ramadan, the Holocaust, immigration, civil rights. Every kid–regardless of status–had the same direct access to a highly effective, trained, dedicated faculty and first class facilities on a lush campus.   One of the perks of working here was my small role in this cultural and socio-economic ideal. Image result for images of ideal

Ideal may be the operative word, however.

 

 

Kamala Harris’ and Joe Biden’s recent–and incomplete– discussion about busing reminds us that education in this country remains unequal. Awkward attempts to find balance have largely failed.  Racial segregation, poverty, and geography are only three of the forces that continue to fuel a system that apparently neither promotes cultural exchange nor provides instructional equity.

Related image   High school grads possess the same credentials signifying their achievement. Because of where they attended school, though, these graduates don’t necessarily possess equal skill sets.

 

That the issue came up in the recent Democratic debate, is a good sign. A very good sign. Equal access to quality education is perhaps one of the three most pressing problems facing us as a nation. Education is at the heart of a functioning democracy and a prosperous economy.

And here’s another thought: it will be educated kids who will find solutions to the other two pressing problems facing us: climate change and world peace.

That the issue came up via a two-candidate personal skirmish, however, is not such a great sign. We need candidates to own this challenge, not just for an evening or a sound byte. We need candidates with vision, a plan.  The proposal doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be a start.

By the way: I love the idea of free community college for students who qualify. Kudos to Elizabeth and Bernie. But success in college calls for prerequisites.  For some students, by the time they reach college age, it may be too late.

Kids who haven’t had the benefit of a quality K-12 experience will be underprepared for collegiate demands. They may be under-employed, too. We have to commit to starting earlier, giving every kid a chance to successfully and equally participate in free college.

I don’t know how to fix this; I am merely a simple retired school teacher. Money is surely a huge component of any solution. Cultural understanding and racial respect will play a role as well.

I do know that everyone benefits when our populace is educated. I also know–from experience– how well equity works in the context of a school.   I think it is time we demanded some potential answers from the people who are asking for our vote.  Image result for vote images

My Year In Community College

When I earned my MS in Teaching in 1993, my husband and kids gave me a sweatshirt bearing a shiny red apple and this now tragically famous quote from teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe “I touch the future; I teach.”  Image result for images of apples and teachers

It’s safe to say that I have been professionally fortunate. (I have been personally fortunate, too, but that’s another story for another time.) 25 years in public education allowed me to “touch the future.”

When restlessness set in just a few months after cashing that first pension check, a bit more vocational luck prevailed. I landed a part-time position at our local community college in the Writing Center.  Image result for black and white images of students writing

Though it seemed a perfect fit, I was nevertheless prepared for a learning curve; there was so much I didn’t know. I expected it would take time to find my way in a new learning community.

What I didn’t expect was how inspired I would be by the students I have met on the first leg of this journey. In a single academic year, these students have given me so much.

Yes, most of our students are young adults, fresh from local high schools. They bring us idealism and excitement. Their visions of the future are filled with hope for us all.

Image result for images of suny wcc

But this campus also serves so many adult learners, men and women returning to school for a variety of reasons, people who have not had seats in classrooms for years. Some have served in the armed forces; our school has been officially designated a “Veteran Friendly Campus.” Others have been occupied with the unending business of raising families or have spent years in jobs they didn’t like. The challenges of starting over might be intimidating, but adult curiosity and experiences give them an edge their younger classmates don’t have.

Many students–young and old– hold down full time jobs and still find ways to master challenging course work across the curriculum.

Image result for black and white images of students writing  Students on this campus speak 49 different languages yet they are reading James Joyce and Toni Morrison, conducting academic research and writing business proposals all in English. Working with these students is at once exhilarating and humbling.  Think about writing a persuasive essay in Croatian or describing a microbiology experiment in Spanish when English is your native language.

I have been moved to tears–the people who know me I am not the crying type–by  stories of adversity and triumph, of resiliency and determination, of kindness and generosity.

Image result for images of apples and teachers   My year in community college has been a learning experience. With a mix of gratitude and humility, I am so happy that I am able to continue to “touch the future.”

 

 

 

 

The Price of Over-Parenting

Image result for mistakesRemember that time you waited until the last minute to study for the algebra test? What about shouting in the hallway? Ditching softball practice? Forgetting homework at home? Spending your entire allowance impulsively and having nothing left for the movie you had planned to see?

Of course you do. Because we have all done that, been there. But, when you recovered from these minor mistakes–as we all do– you also learned the value of picking yourself and getting on with things.

Sometimes messing up yields a better lesson than succeeding.

Yet most teachers I know are spending more time convincing parents that age-appropriate mistakes are not only OK, but essential for personal and academic growth. Parents want so much for their kids to be successful that they are willing to shelter them from any experiences that potentially–and yes, ironically– lead most often to success: failure.

It is always a tough sell. Always.

Image result for sad face images   No one wants to see his/her child unhappy. I get that; I have kids, too. Both as a parent and as a teacher, however, I know that kids need their “oops moments.” No, we don’t want them making mistakes that could endanger themselves or others. But one bad grade after blowing off test prep? One day on the bench for missing practice? These are cause and effect learning events.

 The Rise of Snow Plow Parenting

Enter snow plow parents, the moms and dads who refuse to permit their kids to experience disappointment that accompanies everyday gaffes. Snow plow parents have displaced helicopter parents and are hell bent on clearing the road for their kids. They push away all obstacles and clean up the mess that is childhood before their kids can even make their own awkward stabs at independence.

Though this behavior arises out of the best of intentions, snow plow parenting hinders kids, preventing them from learning from mistakes and finding the confidence that evolves from seeing they can recover from errors. Kids need to know that mistakes don’t define them, that success resides in how we respond to our failures. They can only learn how to do this if we let them.

The goal for us as parents and as educators is to foster independence. To help our kids find their own strength, their courage, their resilience, we must craft our own obsolescence.  When toddlers learn to walk, they fall. We keep them safe and tend to the minor scrapes, all the while understanding there is no other way for them to find their feet. That process continues throughout life when kids forget homework, blow off practice, sass a teacher. As much as we might want to clear the road for our kids, we have to be willing to let them fall a few times.