What Students Are Missing the Most This Week

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I currently teach for an online high school. Online schooling is the best option for SOME students. It is NOT the best option for ALL students. It is also a term that is being used pretty loosely at the moment; “remote learning” is maybe a more accurate description of what will be happening in most homes for a while. But this post isn’t about online schooling.

All of my teacher friends who work in school buildings are working incredibly hard – shedding tears even – to figure out how to do their jobs a different way with little training and without the tools that online teachers have. Also consider that when online teachers are hired, they may not know what they are doing, but everybody else working there does. There are “veterans” to call for help. Not so for most of our brick-and-mortar teachers right now. So many of them are excellent at their jobs, and they just want to provide the BEST for their students. They love your kids! My heart hurts for them. 💔

Most people don’t understand that students enrolled in online schools are expected to work 5-6 hours per day – basically, a school day. For my students this week, it is business as usual. Most people also don’t understand that online students DO have live classes with their teachers. Yes, we have class “together” at the same time. They can see me if I turn on my camera. We can talk to each other with our mics. There is a real-time running chat where they can ask questions. This is different from most online college courses that many adults have experienced.

Monday and Tuesday before our lessons, we took some time to allow the students to share how they are feeling right now. Some of them are very anxious about what is happening outside their homes. The pictures of bare shelves scare them. The constant stream of new information confuses them. Just like the adults, they are rattled.

My students are lucky that their schooling still provides a bit of routine in a confusing time. But many have siblings home from school now, parents home from work, vulnerable people they are worried about, and financial concerns at home. We empathized with them when they said that focusing can be difficult in the midst of all the unexpected change.

My co-teacher and I listened to them and responded to their comments with reassurance. We helped them look for the good and reminded them that it’s not their job to worry – the adults are working together in amazing ways to support each other and create solutions.

After class yesterday, it occurred to me that maybe even more important than the education many students are missing this week is the comfort they are missing from their teachers. And I mean all of our students – from kindergarteners to seniors. My sons often come home from their schools and begin sentences with “Mrs. Scott said…” or “Mr. Chid said…” because they trust their teachers’ wisdom and reassurance so much. Teachers reinforce what we parents are saying at home, or in some cases provide the only calm, encouraging voice a child or teenager hears. They aren’t just teaching content. They provide safety and stability.

Teachers are so important. All of them. My teacher friends are trying to do the impossible this week – either teach online students who are completely (and expectedly) distracted or figure out how to teach an entirely different way with limited time and resources.

Everyone is doing their best under the circumstances.

Maybe don’t worry so much about your kids falling behind in math or English this week. Maybe take some time to look them in the eye and check on how they are feeling. When they express concern, maybe even ask them, “What do you think Mrs. Smith would say to you about this?” Not because you aren’t MOST important as the parent, but because your child looks to their teachers to back YOU up. Your child would have gotten comfort from you AND comfort at school if things were different. And I know that it is hurting your child’s teachers not to be able to share that message themselves… so maybe you can do it for them. ❤️

#bettertogether

A Message to My Classmates 25 Years After High School

There were 273 of us. It was 1994, and there were 273 of us wearing the same caps and gowns, sitting in the same folding chairs on the same green grass under a blue sky in the same beloved football stadium. There were 273 of us with our own unique talents and ambitious dreams, our own secret fears and diverse perceptions of what our high school experience had been. We were an eclectic bunch, divided by interests and abilities and circumstances.

But for a sunny day in June of 1994, we were one.

When a classmate asked me to write something in honor of our 25th class reunion (which is impossible, frankly, because we can’t be old enough for this), I struggled to find the words to share. How do you speak on behalf of 273 people, many of whom you haven’t seen for, well, 25 years? How do you speak on behalf of the ones whom we’ve lost? What do you say to the classmates whom you never personally knew? To the classmates who are bursting with excitement to reconnect this summer? To the classmates who have never considered attending a reunion at all? I hoped that the words would come. So I waited. And they finally did.

Here is what I want to say to you, my classmate from MHS: You aren’t the same person you were in 1994.

I realize this isn’t an earth shattering revelation if you are the slightest bit self-aware, but in a world that teaches us that living equals running at full speed from sun up ‘til sun down, I’m asking you to slow down and reflect for just a minute.  Who were you when you stepped onto that football field twenty-five years ago? And who are you when you look into the mirror today?

I’m going to guess that you are wiser. I’m going to guess that you are much more aware of the world beyond 208 Davis Avenue. I’m going to guess that you are more knowledgeable, more open minded, more compassionate, and maybe even (a little) more mature. You are, in many ways, an entirely different version of yourself.

And that is fascinating. And also really, really cool.

Let me give you an example.

In 1994, I was voted “Most Studious” by my classmates. (Yeah, you voted on that, remember?) Those votes were based on my grades and… well… really, that’s probably all. Maybe my work ethic was noticed by a few people, but mostly my grades sealed the deal. At the time, it was affirming; I mean, I did spend a lot of time studying. But as time has passed and I have occasionally remembered that recognition, it sometimes feels like a sharp stick poking at my insecurities. In 1994, as teenagers escaping the confines of high school, there was an assumption that being “studious” would lead to being “successful.” And success in high school meant something REALLY BIG AND WONDERFULLY EXCITING. Success was glittery and attention grabbing. It was flashing lights. It was prestigious colleges. It was big checks and huge houses. It was power, status, and control, the kinds of things that make other people jealous.

And I’m here to tell you that I’ve achieved exactly none of those things. Not one of them.

To my classmates in 1994, those teenagers sitting in that football stadium, that would probably mean that I am dreadfully unsuccessful.

Except that my idea of what “successful” means has changed dramatically with 25 years of life under my belt. And I’m guessing yours has, as well.

Because you aren’t the same person you were in 1994.

So how has my perspective of success transformed?  If you work hard to provide for your needs and the needs of your family, you are successful, in my book. If you sacrifice your time, energy, and resources to somehow serve others within your community, that is success, for sure. If you are trusted and respected by the people who know you  – that is success! And if you are striving every day to overcome the mistakes that you made in the past and create a better life – you are truly SUCCESSFUL, my friend.

Success doesn’t mean the same thing to me that it did in 1994. Those grades were important, but they weren’t quite as important as I thought they were at the time. (But let’s not tell my kids that I said this until after they graduate, okay? What is said at the 25 year reunion stays at the 25 year reunion…)

When we were in high school and our circumstances seemed overwhelming, our problems often sounded something like this:

• Should I try to meet curfew, drive around a while longer, or see who’s parked at
Burger King?
• What color spray paint would really pop on the rock?
• Who am I asking to Homecoming, and how am I going to pay for the tickets?
• If I get a job, can I still play sports and finish my math homework for Mr. Miller? And if
I can’t, would I rather have money or repeat math class?
• If I can’t balance the equations on Mr. Luthy’s chemistry test tomorrow, will there be
trouble in River City?
• How fast am I going to drive back to school to avoid a tardy after open lunch?
• What’s the recipe for the glue that holds the toilet paper in the chicken wire at float
building?
• Garth Brooks or Nirvana?

But in 2019, life looks a little different for most of us. Some of us faced some seriously tough times in high school; let’s acknowledge that up front. But MOST of us have experienced so much more than we could have possibly imagined since we wore those caps and gowns 25 years ago. There have been spectacular moments. The highs have been higher than we ever dreamed. And the lows… Well, those have been brutal in ways that most of us couldn’t have predicted at 17 or 18 years old.

When you sat in study hall with Ms. Livingston and daydreamed about the future instead of studying, you couldn’t have known if you would meet your soul mate in college or marry your high school sweetheart or decide to live the single life or survive a difficult divorce or elope to Las Vegas. When your mind drifted between CPR drills with Mrs. Meeks or Mr. Burke, you had no idea if you would struggle to start a family or adopt your babies or choose not to have children or raise a bigger family than you ever expected. When your mind wandered during gym with Mr. and Mrs. Pape, you couldn’t have predicted if you would experience the heartbreaking loss of a sibling or a child or a parent or a spouse before our 25th reunion. When you dressed in a sparkly prom dress or a sharp tuxedo, you had no clue if you would move to five different states, commit to a life in the military, open your own business, struggle to pay the bills, change careers after 40, follow your creative passions, travel the world, fight depression or anxiety, care for an ailing parent, watch a newborn enter the world, or hear a frightening diagnosis. You didn’t know if your own kids would wear a Marietta Tigers jersey or if your teenagers would bleed something other than orange and black.

Collectively, so many things have happened to bring us joy, and so many things have happened to bring us pain, and now, after 25 more years of being human, we have so much more in common – we are so much more alike – than we were when we were handed those diplomas in 1994.

When reunions approach, there are some common refrains among people who aren’t quite sure about revisiting the past.

“I don’t keep in touch with anyone from high school anyway.”
“I haven’t accomplished as much as I thought I would by now.”
“High school wasn’t the best time for me. Why would I go back?”
“People will expect me to be something that I’m not.”
“I have a lot of regrets from back then.”
“So much has happened. Those people wouldn’t understand.”
“I’m not the same person that I was in 1994.”

You know… You’re right about the last one.

You aren’t the same person, and neither is anybody else.

The cliques, the ridiculous ways we divided ourselves up to sooth our insecurities, well, that’s so 1994.

In 2019, we are a diverse group of people with a deeper, richer understanding of who we are and what it means to be a human. We are a group of people with something else in common, too: We all searched for our identities in the same halls in the same upside down high school in the same wooded ravine in the same small town that has always taken pride in its roots. We all walked the same brick streets. We all skipped rocks into the same two rivers. And even though we have ended up all over the world, we all share memories of one special place that nourished our angst-ridden teenage souls.

Hail our Alma Mater.

Marietta High.

If you are an MHS classmate (or anyone else) who is visiting the blog for the first time, WELCOME! Please check out old posts, find Still Chasing Fireflies on Facebook, and sign up on this page to receive emails of new posts.  Thank you so much for reconnecting!  HUGE THANKS to Missy Pracht for asking me to write something and to MHS alum Melinda Patterson Crone for sharing her beautiful photograph!

~Mary Ann

The Homework Assignment Your Kids Must Do This Summer

Awaiting

**PLEASE NOTE: If you assign an interview during social distancing during the coronavirus threat, please update this assignment so that students complete the interview via PHONE, FACETIME, or SKYPE rather than meeting face-to-face.**

I have been teaching high school English Language Arts for over fourteen years now.  Throughout those years, I have assigned hundreds, maybe even a thousand, homework assignments to bright-eyed students who have stuffed the work into backpacks and recorded due dates in tattered planners.  I never thought to keep an ongoing record of how much work I have assigned over the years.  But I do have a fairly accurate idea of how many students have thanked me for giving them homework in high school.  That number is somewhere around, oh, I don’t know . . . Let’s just say it is a very, VERY low number.

And I get it.  Nobody likes homework, especially when the skills that are being practiced may not always seem relevant to a teenager’s life in the present.  Most sixteen-year-olds, even the most diligent and scholarly, would rather be sleeping, eating, or dating than writing a detailed literary analysis for me, and I understand this.  Plus, I live with my own tween/teen boys, and I am fully aware that we are all smarter as teenagers than we will be at any other point in our lives.

But some assignments are different, and I want to tell you about one of them.  I receive actual thank you notes from my students for assigning this senior citizen interview project.  EVERY.  SINGLE.  TIME.  It is an incredible way for your child to disconnect from technology, practice face-to-face communication skills, and LEARN really important historical information.  It can strengthen family relationships and may even help students retain some academic skills over the summer.  Students of all ages can participate.  I encourage YOU to assign your own children or grandchildren this project over the summer months.

Now that I’ve gotten you really excited about this project, you may be expecting your kids to feel excited about this, too.  Maybe they will cheer and give you warm bear hugs when you tell them that you found this great summer homework idea on a random teacher’s blog on the Internet!  This is not going to happen.  My teacher experience tells me that your kids may make some unhappy grumbling sounds or mumble something indiscernible under their breath or roll their eyes.  Or maybe they will do all three while also shaking their heads as if you are a total disgrace to parents everywhere.  This is a perfectly normal reaction.  Do not surrender!  The “thank you” will come later.  I promise.

You won’t regret this.  Just trust me.  Or trust Adam, one of my amazing students:

Grandma Adam B

Or believe Amarah, another one of my incredible students:

My Grandmother by Amarah

I even completed this project myself after assigning it to my students several years ago.  I interviewed my own grandmother using the original assignment, which led me to continue calling her to ask her more questions that had not been on the list.  Eventually this morphed into a binder that included my grandmother’s answers, my family’s special personal memories, photos, and recipes compiled as a gift for my grandmother for Christmas.  I read through that book this morning while preparing this blog, and it remains one of my favorite gifts and keepsakes ever, especially now that my grandmother has passed.

Dear Grandma

So let’s get this homework assignment started!

Step 1:

Schedule a time for your children to interview a senior citizen.  I encourage my students to choose a family member if possible, but I know that this isn’t possible for everyone.  Interviewing an older friend or neighbor will also be very educational.  Older generations, like great-grandparents, have even more historical details to share, so do not overlook them when choosing someone to interview.

Your children should ask permission to interview this person, meet when it is convenient, and explain that the person is free to share as much or as little as she feels comfortable.  Audio or video recordings are wonderful keepsakes, but only if the senior citizen approves.  This year, a student submitted her interview as an audio recording instead of in writing.  I was going to ask her to transcribe it for me, but before I knew it I had listened to the full twenty-six minutes!  (I had over 100 to grade, so assessing audio recordings was not time efficient.)  Listening to her interact with her grandfather was incredibly engaging.  You could literally hear their admiration for and understanding of one another growing as they talked.

(Note: If your children see their grandparents often, they are likely to say that they already know their grandparents very well.  Ignore this.  I knew my grandmother well, but I did not know that she pole vaulted in high school!  My grandma did that?  NO WAY!  My students ALWAYS say they learned new information, even students who live with their grandparents.  Think about your normal conversations.  We typically don’t dig very deeply into personal details.)

Step 2

Choose questions.  I usually provide a list of questions for my students to pick from based on what they already know about their senior citizen.  For example, asking about how weddings and marriage have changed can spark a very interesting conversation with some interviewees, while that question might be too painful for others.  Help your children choose appropriate questions.  I’m adding extra questions here beyond what I use with my students so that you have plenty to choose from.

Encourage your children to ask follow-up questions or to ask for more explanation.  This is a great conversational skill to learn!

This list has been edited and revised multiple times since 2001, so I don’t recall which questions I created, which ones I added from other sources, and which ones were from the original assignment created by a teacher at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis North Carolina where I taught many years ago.

  • When and where were you born?  How did your parents choose your name?
  • What is your definition of a hero?  Who is someone you would consider a hero and why?
  • What major historical events have occurred in your lifetime?  How did they change the world?  How did they affect you personally?
  • What are the advantages of being a senior citizen?  What are the disadvantages?
  • What advice for living a good life would you give today’s teenage generation?  What would you warn me to stay away from?  What would you suggest I spend more time doing?
  • How do you feel about teenagers today?  What do you like and dislike about them as a group?
  • How do you see families changing in today’s society?  How do you feel about that?
  • Tell me about your own parents.  What impressed you about them?  How were they similar to and different from parents today?
  • If you could change one thing about society today, what would it be?  Why?
  • What are a few of the most memorable aspects of your childhood?
  • What was your favorite toy as a child?  Why?
  • Share a holiday memory from your childhood.
  • What kind of entertainment did you enjoy when you were a teenager?
  • What does being an American mean to you?  What is the greatest responsibility of being an American?  What is the greatest privilege?
  • How was your parents’ culture a part of your childhood?  Did you have any special traditions or recipes that were tied to your ancestry?  Did you share these with your children?
  • What are the most significant changes that you have seen in society throughout your lifetime?  Do you consider these changes to be positive or negative?
  • How has your own perspective on life changed since you were a teenager?  Why?
  • What was your wedding like?  How was it different from weddings today?  How long have you been married, and how old were you when you got married?
  • What advice would you give a couple that is just starting their marriage?
  • What advice would you give a teenager who is starting to date?
  • How much have prices changed since you were a teenager?  How much did a gallon of gas cost?  A new house?  A new car? A candy bar?  How much did your first job pay?
  • What is the one rule of life that you live by and that has guided your actions?  Why?
  • What is the best gift that you ever received?  Why is it memorable?
  • Describe any memories of wartime that you have.
  • How did you spend your free time when you were a child?  Do you think kids today are lucky or unlucky to have their own televisions, computers, and cell phones?
  • If you had a chance to do something that you have not yet done in life, what would it be?  Why?
  • How have schools and education changed since you were a child?
  • When you were a kid, who did you look up to?  Why?
  • What is something that you remember disagreeing with your parents about when you were young?  Looking back, who was “right”?
  • Tell me about a funny memory from your childhood.  Tell me about a happy memory.  Tell me about a sad memory.  Tell me about a time you were afraid.  Tell me about a time you felt proud.
  • Finish this sentence.  “Looking back, one thing I wish I had known as a young adult was . . . “
  • What advice do you have for someone facing a really hard time in life?  What has gotten you through your hardest times?
  • Are their any special heirlooms that are being passed down in our family?
  • Do you have a favorite song, book, meal, color, quotation, or religious verse?
  • You know me well.  What are your goals and wishes for my future?

Step 3

Preserve it.  Maybe your child could type the interview and share it with someone else who will appreciate it, if the interviewee doesn’t mind sharing.  Maybe your child could use the interview to write a special letter to the person who was interviewed.  As a teacher, I assign my students to write a reflection essay.  I don’t give them a specific topic because each student walks away from each interview with a different takeaway and a different emotional response.  However, students could be assigned to write about several lessons they learned or ways society has changed or answers that most surprised them.  Some students have also chosen to write beautiful poems inspired by their interviews as part of a creative writing project at the end of the year.

Step 4

Show gratitude.  I require my students to write a thank you note to the person who was interviewed, and I encourage them to share their final essay with that person, as well.  They typically walk away with a deeper appreciation for the person who was interviewed, so they are eager to share their thanks.  They sometimes write me a thank you note, as well!  (No more eye rolls!)

Friends, I am telling you that you will not regret sharing this homework assignment with your kids.  This year, one of my students worked so hard on her reflection essay that she revised it over and over again until she felt in her heart that it truly honored her grandmother.  Multiple students told me that they thought their grandparents really didn’t like teenagers or that they thought teenagers and senior citizens had little in common, but they discovered that their assumptions were completely wrong.  Many had no idea how much adversity the senior citizens they interviewed had overcome.

This assignment always reminds me that English Language Arts is a humanity, and that the humanities are important because they teach us how to be human.  Students have left my classroom as better writers and students have left my classroom as better editors and students have left my classroom with better test scores.  That is all very good.

But if students leave my classroom as better people, then maybe I have truly done the job that I’m supposed to do.

Awaiting

Imagine This . . .

Dentist Canva

Imagine for a moment that you are a dentist.  You have several years of experience under your belt, and you know that you are very skilled at what you do.  You could make a lot of money in a private practice, but you decide to open a clinic to serve those who are considered at risk of serious dental problems and those who are disadvantaged and have not been receiving the services they need.  Although your clinic will be open to everyone, you know that people who are satisfied with the dentist that they have will stay where they are.  You want to have a diverse client base, but you have a desire in your heart to attract and serve clients who are somehow in need.

You enjoy working at your new clinic, but there are challenges that you did not face in your previous practice.  You are now struggling financially, which was never an issue before.  You spend a lot of time teaching people, kids and adults, why dental care is even important.  In your suburban practice in an affluent neighborhood, families could not get enough dental care.  They would ASK you for tooth whitening procedures and referrals to the orthodontist.  Now you are passing out free toothbrushes and toothpaste because many of your patients need them.  You replenish the supply with your own money each time you get paid.

You find yourself trying to think of new and creative ways to reinforce basic dental health to your patients.  You look for ways to entice your patients to adopt good habits because you know that if you can get them started, then they will eventually see the value of what you are asking them to do.  With better dental care, they will have better overall health, increased confidence, and more job opportunities in the future.  Many of them just don’t see this yet.  But they will.  You refuse to give up on them.

You know that many of your patients have very difficult and unusual life circumstances, so you have flexible hours to try to accommodate them.  Sometimes they have to bring their children to the clinic with them because they do not have anyone to help them with childcare.  Sometimes they cancel on you at the last minute because they work two jobs and cannot pass up an unexpected opportunity to earn some extra pay.  Sometimes, you come in early or stay for late appointments, and the clients just don’t show up.  Sometimes, you work really hard to help a family, and you can see at the next appointment that they did not follow any of your instructions at all.  It can be disheartening.

But some patients cry when you help them.  They cry because they never thought that they would get the help that they needed.  They cry because your clinic offers the understanding, patience, and flexibility that allows them to do what is best for their families.  They cry because you recognize their individual needs and respect their humanity.  Sometimes, you cry, too.

You feel really good about the work you are doing in this clinic.

Then one day an inspector from the state visits the clinic.  He looks very serious.  He seems unhappy.

He says, “You are a terrible dentist.”

You are horrified.  You ask him how he came to this conclusion.  He pulls out two charts covered with graphs and tables. One chart shows data from a wealthier suburban dental practice.  The other chart shows data from your clinic.

You are a smart person.  You are a dentist, after all.  You know this isn’t good.

“Our data indicates that the patients at your clinic have many more cavities than the patients at other clinics.”

“Yes, they do.  I serve many patients who have not had good dental care in the past, and some of them are not convinced that dental care is even important.  That is why I came to this clinic in the first place.  To serve these people.”

“You say that you are serving these clients, but the data shows that many of your patients are not brushing their teeth twice a day, even after they visit.  If this clinic were good, your patients would be brushing twice a day.  You are just taking their money.”

“Please remember that many of my clients were not brushing their teeth at all when they came here, and now they are brushing more than they ever did before, even if it is not twice a day.  I work very hard to find new ways to educate and inspire them to improve their dental health.  Plus, we do have patients who now have excellent teeth thanks to our clinic.”

“At this other practice, almost all of the patients brush twice daily.  Their patients also do not skip appointments.”

“I think our client base is not the same.  My patients are wonderful people, but a large number of them have serious medical or mental health conditions, multiple jobs, or other unusual circumstances.  Some of them are caring for sick family members or raising children with little help.  Some of them have been in and out of the criminal justice system.  Some of them have had very bad experiences with the medical profession in the past, and we are working hard to rebuild their trust.  We do experience more cancellations than other dental practices, but we believe that what we do is very important, and we do not stop trying to help people.”

“The other practice has a record of fewer cavities.  Therefore, it is an excellent dental office with excellent dentists.  That office and those dentists are much better than you.”

“But I used to work at that office.”

“You are not a good dentist.”

“When I worked there, you said that I was an excellent dentist.”

“You have really let yourself go since you came here.”

“Actually, I have learned a lot by working at this clinic.”

“I am going to recommend that your clinic is closed.”

“But what about my patients?  They will have nowhere to go.”

“They can go to the more successful practice.”

“No, no, no.  They do not feel understood at that practice.  They are tired of being treated like nuisances or outcasts when they ask for help or try to do the right things for their families.  They will fall far behind in their dental care because there is no flexibility.  Many of my patients really need this clinic.  I feel like there is a misunderstanding here.”

“I am sorry.  You are no good.”

 

This is what it feels like to be an ECOT teacher right now.

 

I will be the first to say that we need major education reform in this country.
BUT . . .
Please do not believe everything that you read.
Please think about what data actually represents before you jump to conclusions.
Please understand that newspapers are clearly showing bias and journalists are not doing their homework.
Please do not drag students, teachers, and families through the mud when your actual concerns are about politics and school funding.

You can disagree about politics and school funding without distorting information and minimizing the good that is being done for many kids, both in traditional classrooms and in the online environment, by excellent teachers!

 

A New Year’s Gift for You!

hand 2016

There is nothing magical about a new year’s resolution, but I do love the freedom and promise of a fresh start.  Don’t you?  The transition from one year to another is a perfect time to think about the year that passed and to plan for the year ahead, if for no other reason than because you probably have a little bit of time off when you could squeeze some reflection into your busy schedule.

New year’s resolutions get a bad rap.  I feel a little sorry for them, actually.  They don’t fail because they are a bad idea; they fail because we call them “resolutions” when they are usually just fleeting thoughts rather than sincere commitments.  We break up with our resolutions when we were never seriously dating them to begin with.

It’s not you, Resolutions.  It’s us.  We were just pretending. 

Setting personal or family goals is a great way to model for your kids or grandkids how goal setting is really supposed to work.  Put something in writing.  Break big goals into smaller pieces.  Post reminders where they are visible, and put checkpoints on the calendar.  Encourage one another.  Teach your kids the reward of accomplishing a goal, and teach them how to pick up the pieces (rather than quitting) when the train runs off the track.  Because it will.

That is not called failure.  That is called “real life.”

Sometimes we forget that reflecting and planning and goal setting are LEARNED SKILLS.  I have taught countless high school students who have huge dreams but no goals; they are confident that they will play for the NBA or become President of the United States or earn a Ph.D., but they have no concept of the thousands of small steps that they could begin taking right now that might ultimately lead to those accomplishments.  Trust me; you want your kids to have these life skills, and you want them to learn them early, you know, before they are making critical decisions about finances, marriage, parenting, careers, and dangerous temptations.  You and I both know that life will test our children’s resilience over and over and over again.  I want my own sons and all of my students to grow into people who are able to reflect, plan, and adapt.  Isn’t that what you want for your own family, too?

As a teacher and mom, I love it when I find a fun tool to use so that I don’t have to create something myself, so here is my new year’s gift to you!  Try out this printable pdf for yourself!  It can be a fun starting point for both kids and adults to discuss the coming year.  Talk about it over a family dinner this week, and don’t forget to contemplate the smaller steps that you and your kids can take TODAY to start reaching your goals in 2016!

Bring it on 2016

BRING IT ON 2016 PDF

HAPPY NEW YEAR!  Thank you for sharing and reading!

What are your goals for 2016?  Leave a comment and join the conversation!

 

Back to School Edition: Tip #9

Bus

First let me say that if you have read all of my nine tips in nine days, you are an overachiever, and, also, THANK YOU!  This “little project” turned out to be an ambitious endeavor, and after a few days I thought “What have I done?  This is too much!  No one wants to read my posts every day for over a week!  And how on earth will I keep up?”  But you surprised me, and you did read some posts, and you did send me encouraging messages and new ideas, and I did accomplish my goal.  Hooray for all of us!

In the process of writing these posts, I learned a some things about myself – because you can’t really explore an idea in writing without some deep self-reflection.  I am no expert on anything, really; any advice that I give is just advice that I am giving myself, first and foremost.  I hope that reading these tips led you to some self-reflection, too.

Before we end our series, the teacher in me wants to quickly revisit where we’ve been.  Here are the first eight tips with links in case you missed one or just want to review.

Tip #1: If your first impression of the teacher is negative, keep it to yourself.
Tip #2: Work as a team with the teacher, even if she isn’t your BFF.
Tip #3: Be open and honest about what your child needs.
Tip #4: Make your child’s school experience personal.
Tip #5: Never react too quickly.
Tip #6: Create a plan to help your child open up to you.
Tip #7: Teach your kids to have an optimistic outlook.
Tip #8: Invest time in what matters most.

Which leads us to Back to School Tip of the Day #9

Preserve the memories.  And what this really means is that you have permission to force your kids to (fake) smile for first-day-of-school pictures. In fact, they need to learn that life often requires us to do things that we don’t want to do in order to make someone else happy. Like making coffee for the boss. Or cleaning the toilet for guests. Or smiling so that your mom has a picture from every first day of school of your entire life.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, kids, so say, “Cheese!”

I’m exhausted, so that is all for today, but thanks again for supporting the 2015 Back to School Edition of my blog.  I already have ideas for some additional tips in the coming weeks, but my pace will slow now that my school year has begun.  Since today is the first day of school at our house, and that is like January 1 to us, we wish all of you, whether you have kids in school or not, a HAPPY NEW YEAR!

first day 2015
See, I made my kids do it!  Aren’t they handsome?
I won’t mention that they had to RUN so that they didn’t miss the
bus on the first day . . .  My fault . . .  We are a work in progress, for sure! 😉

 

Back to School Edition: Tip #8

Clock

Tomorrow is the end of our series on creating a mindset for a
successful 
school year.  You can read them all, starting here!

Tip of the Day #8

Invest time in what matters most.

Hey, You.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m talking to you. School starts tomorrow, and we need to have a little chat.

The two of us, we have a lot in common. I know how you think. I know that you are a very busy person. You complain about it sometimes, but you actually enjoy being involved in many things. You like to help people. You like to be connected. You like to make a difference. You like to work hard. When someone asks you to do something, you just do it, usually because you want to, but also because you have a hard time saying no.

You hear yourself say things like, “I’m sorry I didn’t (fill in the blank), but last week was just crazy!” You realize that you could say that every single week.

You also realize that you apologize a lot, but you aren’t always sure why. Should you really be sorry that it is humanly impossible to do everything?

The start of the school year is a new beginning. Maybe it is time to reexamine how you spend your days. How you spend your hours. How you spend your minutes. Maybe it is time to budget minutes just like you budget dollars, to reserve some just for fun and to at least know where the other ones are going.

Which things on your schedule are directly connected to what matters to you most?

Which things are nurturing your most important relationships?

Which things in your life are making the most positive difference for others?

Which things are helping you to experience personal growth, physically, mentally, or spiritually?

Which things are teaching your kids, directly or indirectly, the lessons that you want to instill while they are young?

Which things require a personal investment that is not worth the benefits, to you or to others?

Which things surprise you by the amount of time that you actually spend on them?

Which things could you manage differently or share with others in order to be more time efficient?

What important things are not even on your schedule?

What unimportant things can go?

Does the way that you spend your time truly reflect the priorities that you think you embrace? I mean, if a priority is something that you regard as most important, then shouldn’t your priorities take up most of your time?

So, You. Yes, I’m talking to you again, the lady looking back from the mirror. Some things need to change around here. Some things on that list need to go. They are good things – they really are – but they aren’t the best things for you right now. And some other areas of your life need room to grow.

Your kids are happy when you spend time with them. They will be spending a lot of time at school soon, but they are excited whenever you step into that place. They like to see that their most important people – their family and their teachers – are a team. They like to see that their most important places – their home and their school – are connected. They like it when you go on a field trip or help with an event or volunteer for an afternoon. An afternoon. You do not have to sign your life away to make a difference. Spend a little time at school.

Take the time to enjoy the activities your kids are doing. Don’t just watch. ENJOY. Without thinking about the other things you need to do at work and home. Soak it up. Don’t just “spend time.” BE PRESENT.

The truth is that you are busy, and you will probably always be busy, because life is busy, and you like it that way. It makes you feel like you aren’t wasting time. But when you are too busy, you might be wasting time all over the place by committing to the things that aren’t most important. It’s time to reassess. That time before work and after, don’t let it just slip away. Remember that being in the house together is not the same as investing time in your relationships. Think about how you could use the first and last ten minutes of the day to somehow acknowledge the things that matter most.

You have some work to do, Friend. But I’ll be here for you, in the looking glass, every morning.

You know where to find me.

Tomorrow is the last day in our back to school series!
Join me as I send my own kids back to school!

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/95380107@N05/9197295814″>Despertador</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Back to School Edition: Tip #7

Fish (2)

Thanks for reading my nine back-to-school tips in nine days!
Missed one?  Start here!

Back to School Tip of the Day #7

Teach your child to have an optimistic outlook. Several weeks ago, my nine-year-old son and his six-year-old cousin enjoyed a fishing adventure with my dad and my brother. For my sons, fishing with grandpa ranks up there with going on vacation, eating cookies for breakfast, and tormenting one another on their list of favorite things to do. They. Love. It.

After this particular fishing trip, my son had a fish story to tell, and he didn’t even need to exaggerate. He had caught the biggest fish that he had ever caught in this particular pond, his largest fish yet and one that exceeded his brother’s biggest catch so far, as well. He was so excited that he proudly posed for pictures (not his favorite thing), you know, just in case the Guinness Book of World Records called.

Fish (1)

Meanwhile, my nephew was patiently waiting to catch a big one himself. So far, he hadn’t been catching anything. When you are six, it’s hard to watch someone ten feet away experiencing success and feeling rewarded when you are working just as hard over here on the dock for nothing. Even adults find that situation annoying. But he waited, and he persisted, and he kept fishing, and it finally happened. The kid felt a tug on his line.

He reeled in his catch, his adrenaline pumping, with great anticipation hanging in the air. Everyone was watching to see what he had caught. Would this fishing trip be recorded in family history as the day that the big fish were biting? He pulled and reeled until the catch broke the surface, and there, on the end of the line, was the teeniest tiniest fish, wildly flipping and flopping, obviously unaware that he was too small for dinner.

Grandpa and Dad and Cousin all paused, wondering how he would react to the little fish dangling on the line. They expected disappointment, maybe tears, because this little fish could not compete with the fish that his cousin had caught. It was tiny.

My nephew looked at his miniature catch and studied it for a moment. The audience held its breath. Then the little man smiled from ear to ear and proudly announced, “This is the biggest baby fish I’ve ever caught!”

And that tiny fish has gone down in history – because it reminded all of us of something important.

That “baby fish” reminded us that the exact same situation can be disappointing or rewarding, simply depending upon how we choose to look at it. And I hate to accept that responsibility! When I am cranky and frustrated, I want to blame my situation. I don’t like the truth – that I actually control my attitude and my response. But my six-year-old nephew reminded me that I do.

I want my family to be the glass-half-full kind of people. I want my kids to see the good in difficult situations – and in difficult people. I want them to look at failures, at school or outside of school, as opportunities to grow. I want them to see struggles as learning experiences and mistakes as chances to recalibrate or change course. I want them to find joy in the smallest successes and inspiration in dreams that seem impossible to reach. I don’t want them to compare themselves to others.  I want them to see the tiniest catch as the biggest baby fish in the pond.

The school year will be full of challenges, but my goal this year is to instill a spirit of optimism in my children. I can’t prevent them from facing life’s challenges. I can’t protect them from dealing with difficult people. I can’t necessarily change the circumstances that they face. But I can do my best to model positive thinking and self-control away from the pond – because you will NEVER find me putting a worm on a fishing hook!  Maybe this is a goal that you can adopt, too.  Maybe all of us could benefit from a little more optimistic thinking.

Only two days left!  
This series ends Wednesday when my own kiddos head back to school!

Back To School Edition: Tip #6

dinner

Catching up on this back-to-school series?  Start here!

Back to School Tip of the Day #7

Create a plan to help your child open up. Some kids are natural chatterboxes and delight in sharing every detail of every minute of the school day as soon as they get home. But many other kids, especially older ones, don’t volunteer much information. This leaves the moms of the non-talkers no choice but to consult the moms of the excessive-talkers to find out what is happening at school. (“I can’t believe that the school was on lockdown for four hours and she didn’t even tell me!”) So how can you get a child who doesn’t volunteer information to start opening up?

The truth is that it is idealistic to think that the best conversations are born naturally; teachers and trainers and bosses facilitate successful discussions. In other words, there is a framework in place before people actually start talking. The facilitator may not know how the conversation will develop, but he has thought about where it will take place and how it will get started.

In our family, we have found four types of conversations to be the most productive in terms of learning more about our kids. Maybe some of these will work for you this year, too.

The Dinner Table Conversation

We attempt to sit down at the dinner table every night. Sometimes that means two of us. Sometimes that means three of us. Several nights a week, all four of us get to sit down to eat and talk together. The nice thing about the dinner table conversation is that it can be part of a predictable routine for your child, and some kids are more open and comfortable the more predictable life is. If your family can’t eat together every night, maybe you can set aside certain nights that are nonnegotiable family nights, even if that means eating unusually early or late on those evenings.

Some nights, our dinner table conversations are vibrant, and some nights getting kids to answer questions is like pulling teeth. If your kids tend to give terse answers, try something new. First, make sure that you are asking open-ended questions that require longer answers. A question like, “How was school today?” will most likely elicit a response of “Good,” “Fine,” or “Awful,” and then the conversation has stalled. Try asking questions that require more of an investment from your kid, like “Tell me about something that you wish you could have changed today” or “Tell me about how you helped somebody after you left this morning.” We have also experienced success with asking each person to share a high and low point of the day and with using a conversation jar (a jar filled with interesting conversation starters). I know other families that challenge one another to identify things that they are grateful for each day or people and situations that need prayer. The key is to create a routine and stick to it so that your kids know that these conversations are important, and then experiment with creative ways to glean information so that your kids don’t feel like they are under interrogation.

The Let’s-Go-For-A-Walk Conversation

Last week, I took my boys out to lunch. This should have been a fun end-of-summer activity, but, frankly, we were all a little grumpy. The food was good. The conversation, not so much. The boys were irritating each other just by being alive, and my patience gauge was on E. I was irritated that I had spent money on a special lunch that nobody appreciated, and this just goes to show you that even though we value the dinner table conversations, they aren’t always everything that I hope for.

On our way home, we decided to stop at a metro park where we could walk the trails and get some exercise for an hour. We weren’t really in the mood to spend more time together, but we were feeling the crunch of summer vacation coming to an end, so we did it. We chose a trail that traced the path of the river and spent some time skipping rocks, exploring, and just soaking up the sun. Somewhere along the way, the boys started talking. They talked a lot. They talked about the upcoming school year and a movie we had seen and things that they want to do as a family. It occurred to me that just being on a walk under a blue sky dramatically changed the mood for all of us and opened a line of communication. Lightbulb moment. I think I need to take more walks with my boys.

To sum it up, spend some time outside together. Maybe that means taking one of the kids with you when you walk the dog each night. Maybe that means planning a trip to a park once a week, just to walk and chat away from the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood. Maybe you could accomplish the same goal by going hiking or riding bikes or golfing together. I spent, or actually wasted, some money at the restaurant that day when the best part of our day was free!

The Bedtime Conversation

Every once in a while, one of my kids will open up and want to talk at bedtime. I will admit that this is the absolute worst time for me to have a deep conversation because I am exhausted when everyone crawls into bed. However, I know that if one of my kids starts a bedtime conversation after our prayers and goodnights, something is REALLY bothering him, and he may be so worried that he can’t fall asleep because of it. I usually listen for a few minutes, soothe his nerves, and then create a plan to discuss it further tomorrow. Thank goodness that works for my kids – because I am seriously useless after 9 p.m.

We don’t spend a lot of time talking at bedtime, but I know some moms who enforce early bedtimes so that they can snuggle up and talk to their children at night. If that is the time when your children are most likely to open up, then maybe bedtime conversations need to be part of your family’s routine.

The You’re-Stuck-in-the-Car-With-Me-So-We-Might-As-Well-Talk Conversation

This kind of conversation is becoming more and more useful to me as my kids get older, and I think there are two reasons.

First, as my kids get older, we seem to spend more time in the car. Almost every evening, I am chauffeuring somebody to something, and sometimes that is the only time in the entire day when the two of us are alone. This is a great time to have a heart-to-heart, especially if the day has been so busy that dinner conversation is not an option. If your kid will open up on the way to basketball practice, then it may be worth stepping out of the carpool in order to put that quiet time to good use.

The You’re-Stuck-in-the-Car-With-Me Conversation is also fantastic when you need to talk to your older child about something difficult. I don’t care how open and honest you are with your children, some conversations are just HARD. You know it’s true. My older son and I have had our best growing-up-is-rough conversations and things-you-should-know-before-you’re-a-teenager conversations in the car during the two-hour drive to Grandma’s house. I recommend planning individual road trips with your kids every once in a while and ditching the electronics on the way. If you are brave, let your child ask you anything. This will give you a true glimpse of what is on that kid’s mind and will reassure your child that the lines of communication run both ways.  Try not to seem surprised or offended by whatever comes up; your disapproval is the fastest way to send the conversation into a shutdown.

Aside from the fact that you are stuck, the other benefit of the car conversation is that you don’t even have to look at each other if either of you starts feeling uncomfortable!

If you have other ideas to help kids open up, please leave a comment! Most importantly, don’t be discouraged if your first attempt at starting a family conversation doesn’t go smoothly. It may take some time to figure out what works for your kids, but don’t minimize the impact it has when they know that you are trying!

Join us tomorrow for Tip #7!  Only three tips left!

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/98682907@N00/3817165257″>Set</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Back to School Edition: Tip #5

ice cubes

Catch up on the first four tips starting here!

Back to School Tip of the Day #5

Keep it cool. Creating an open line of communication between you and your child is SO important.  Investing time in talking and listening when your son or daughter is young increases the chances that you will have a finger on the pulse of what is happening when that kid becomes a teenager. Listening to your child, whether she is crying about a devastating disagreement with her friends, struggling to make a difficult decision, or just laughing about something that happened at school, shows that you want to hear it all, both the big moments and the small ones. It encourages your child to trust you and to seek your advice when times are hard.

But you already knew all of that, right? This is where things get a bit more difficult. Listening, at least for me, is the easy part; controlling my reactions can be very hard, especially when one of my sons is feeling hurt.

Trusting your child is important, especially if he is feeling unsafe, but it is also important to realize that what he shares with you in the heat of the moment is often shaped by emotion. Respect your kids and listen to them and let them know that you appreciate what they share. Help them to brainstorm solutions and teach them how to navigate the choppy waters of relationships. But also remember that children (and even adults) sometimes allow their sadness, anger, fear, or frustration to give them a biased view of a situation. It’s our job as parents to help our kids see the bigger picture, and sometimes that means that they need to accept some responsibility for the situation at hand.

When your child says that the teacher was mean to her, be sympathetic, but don’t lose your cool and rush to call the local news. When your child says that this is the worst school year ever, be understanding, but don’t immediately leave the principal a voicemail with words that are only allowed on television after 10 p.m. When your child complains about other kids or parents, don’t grab your megaphone and announce it to the neighborhood. Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Breathe deeply. Let everyone cool down. Consult others you trust. Take some time to assemble the puzzle before you say or do something that you will need to apologize for later.

Here’s the truth, friends.  In many cases, today’s drama is tomorrow’s “no big deal.”

Unless, of course, you just went Real Housewives in front of the school’s security camera.  Uh oh.  In that case, you’re on your own.

How can you get your child to tell you more about his day?
Join us tomorrow for ideas!

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/98640399@N08/9378147944″>Ice 9331</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;