3 Boys + 1/2 Day of School = More Learning than PARCC

Testing season has begun at my kids’ school, and we are suffering the burden of PARCC this year. For weeks I’ve been meeting with other parents, joining Facebook groups, trying to strategize ways to put a stop to this nonsense, and generally letting the rest of my life and responsibilities slide. But I’m not here to talk about PARCC today.

I’m here to talk about what happens when kids are allowed to explore and learn on their own. The boys had a half day of school and their favorite thing to do is walk home, stopping for pizza and candy on the way. But yesterday they had a mission. One of Older Son’s friends had a book with blueprints for “weapons of mini destruction:” blow darts, catapults, missile launchers, and the like made with household items like Q-tips, tape, and candy boxes.

The night before the half day, Older took inventory. He made a list of what we had here and what they’d need at the store. He searched on shelves and in drawers for random items and made sure he had enough cash to cover the items we didn’t. They did stop for a bite, and then they hit every store on the block for the rest of the supplies.

Mad scientist work area

Mad scientist work area

They came home and gathered all the rest of the tools they needed: twine, hole punchers, scissors, the sharpener from the knife block (I have no idea why. Probably just because it’s cool). I haven’t seen them this focused and excited in weeks. I didn’t hear a peep while they worked except for an occasional thud and then a lot of cackling laughter. The mad scientists were hard at work.

When they brought me the finished product I was truly impressed. I hadn’t thought they’d be able to come up with much, considering all the failed cereal-box projects we’ve tried in the past. These things actually worked. They were made with great care and attention to detail. I discovered the new deck of cards from Christmas had been sacrificed and at first had the mom reaction – Why would you ruin a complete deck?! – but quickly got past it when I realized how hard they’d worked. Plus they hadn’t played with the cards anyway. They couldn’t wait to show their creations to Dad when he got home from work.

When I asked the boys how the tests were going at school, I got one-word answers and exasperation about how hard the questions were. When I asked about the mission to create the blow darts, I got a lecture. “We had everything but the pens, and we didn’t think they’d have them at the auto parts store, but we were already on our way out of town so we decided to try there. And they had the roll of tape that was twice as big as at the hardware store, but it was 85 cents cheaper! The hardware store ripped me off! And I have no idea what the people at the drug store thought, these kids buying this random stuff, but nobody said anything. Did you know that when I shot this at the door, it stuck, but on the couch it didn’t? I need to figure out why. Maybe if I use a new dart.”

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I had to put pictures of the finished products up on Facebook (some parents brag about their honors kids. I brag about homemade weapons). One of my teacher friends commented, “Created new from old…synthesized, designed and applied, and can explain his process… Too bad he won’t be tested on those abilities!” She didn’t even get to see the planning, economics, trials, and analysis that went into it as well.

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That’s real learning. That’s what our kids should be doing in school, and it’s what I’m sure the teachers would much rather be doing as well. Our antiquated education system and dangerous obsession with testing have got to go. When the kids can learn more from being set loose on the town for an afternoon than they did in the previous two weeks of test prep, there is something rotten in Denmark (except Denmark doesn’t have standardized tests, and they rank significantly higher than America). In our time, in this economy, now more than ever, our children need to be creative thinkers and problem-solvers in order to carve out a decent living. Our schools must be allowed to provide them with the education they truly need.

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Kids and Violence

“There’s so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?” – The great Dick Cavett

I don’t want to write about Aurora. But sometimes you can’t write about anything else until you write about the thing you don’t want to and get it over with.

I have no expertise in this area and don’t intend to comment about that event. In fact I’ve been doing my best to put it out of my mind (though I was reminded by my dear friend who lives in Aurora that we don’t all have that luxury). These three articles explain it far better than I could ever attempt to.

What I do have expertise in is kids and violence. In the rush to explain why someone would do this, out come the statistics and quotes from all the children’s groups. It’s TV, it’s movies, it’s children being desensitized to violence.

Of course we’re trying to understand why it happened and how we can stop it from happening again. We want to be able to predict it, avoid it, or even see it coming and do something about it. And I think as time goes on it becomes less and less easy to say “that will never happen here.”

There are ways to teach our kids that violence is not acceptable. We do it every day by being non-violent people. I have to agree with Mr. Cavett. We deny a child’s capacity to know the difference between reality and imagination when we say “if they see it on TV they become it.” Kids actually don’t like violence, and they don’t like to be hurt or see their friends get hurt.

I have two boys. They’ve been playing with guns since they were five. I’m not proud of that, and I wasn’t very happy with it, but I realized it was inevitable. Now they love watching the WWE, witnessing some of the ugliest behavior and nastiest hand-to-hand (or table, ladder, chair, 2X4, sledgehammer, whatever’s handy) violence you can see on television.

But my boys are also sensitive, kind, thoughtful, and caring. They’ve learned it because it is my number one priority to raise kids who have compassion. Good grades, what they eat, how they do in sports, it’s all secondary to being a good person. I pick my battles with other subjects, but meanness is never allowed.

They’ve also learned it because they’ve watched me for ten years now using compassion every day, all day, when dealing with my day care kids. I demonstrate for them over and over again how anger does not work in interpersonal relationships. In fact it pretty much never works (or if it does, the momentary success isn’t worth the hard price you pay trying to clean up the mess).

At the same time we learn what to do when we are angry, because we sure as hell get angry. And that’s completely natural and normal, and you’re not wrong to be angry. But you can’t take it out on someone else – and there are very good ways to get the anger out of our body without hurting another person.

My boys certainly fight, to the point of pain and tears sometimes. Without this book I wouldn’t know how to handle that. It saved my life. So I recommend that EVERY PARENT OF SIBLINGS read it. Now.

When I was young and my future husband started taking me to grimy clubs in New York to see groups like the Ramones, Stiff Little Fingers, and the Butthole Surfers, I told our friend I didn’t understand the allure of punk music (I have since seen the error of my ways). He said, “Look – we’re angry young men. We’re full of testosterone. We’re sexually frustrated. Isn’t it better to be here taking it out on the music than picking fights with people?”

That one little comment spoken on a drunken night at 2AM changed the way I see the human animal. And now that I’m raising two small (male) human animals, I remember it often. I have no answer for mental illness and psychosis. But I do know that depression – some say the leading cause of shootings – is anger turned inward. If we could learn to handle our anger we’d be a happier society.

And Then There’s the Gun in the Cabinet

I went to get a new toilet paper roll this morning and when I opened the cabinet I saw this:

Just in case someone intrudes while...nevermind

It’s so Jason Bourne-like I can’t stand it. Somebody is serious about his privacy. I can’t explain the duct tape though. Then again, what can I explain about this situation?

But I do feel safer now that I know the weapons are being stashed in strategic places.

 

So How’d You Spend Your Saturday Morning, Part 2

I am sitting in my kitchen with the doors closed, music on, trying to drown out the screaming of my Older Son.

*Possibly the best line I’ve ever written on my blog.*

He’s losing his mind over Mario Super Sluggers and screaming so loud that even Younger Son said, “He needs to take a break.”

He did the same thing last night and we eventually left him to go upstairs and read Harry Potter (yes, thank you Lord, my son is finally reading the books after owning them for three years, because the endless unanswered questions left by the movies drove him to it).

Anyway it’s such a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning. I had to give Older credit because he was up an hour before me and didn’t make a peep so that I could sleep in. Holding that in must have been hard but he did it for his dear old Mum. And for that I have to hold in my urge to tell him to “KNOCK IT OFF!!!!”

I thought we were finally past this phase. He used to do the exact same thing when he was younger, venting his frustration at seemingly impossible video games. Then he finally grew out of it and it was like a cloud lifted.

But now he’s back to it and I think I’ve figured out why: hormones. He’s getting flashes of pre-teen angst, snide comments here and there, running up to his room and hiding. ANYTHING my husband says to him is taken as a personal attack.

Dad: You made a great save.
Older: I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT!!!!!

I knew all of this was coming and I’m not surprised or upset. I’m really quite sympathetic (well he’s my kid, of course I’m on his side). I think part of why I work well with children is because I remember quite vividly what it feels like to grow up. Not the exact details or events, but the VERY BIG FEELINGS that made everything seem like your life was about to end dramatically.

I look at the challenges he’s facing and they’re pretty big for an 11-year-old boy. His team gets crushed every Saturday and Sunday. He’s dealing with a whole new set of fears that have just appeared after a long time of feeling overly confident about the world and his capabilities to handle it. He has a huge burden of homework, some of which he doesn’t understand and no one can seem to explain to him. He wants to feel capable and strong, not confused and emasculated.

Of course none of this compares to my Polish neighbor, who was in a German POW camp at age 11, so we do try to keep it in perspective.

But still, the pain of the screaming. I have a hard time relating to Older’s outbursts because well, first of all the sound makes me want to do horrible things to him. But it’s also not how I handle anger. I hold it all in until I lose it and have to go in the basement and punch the heck out of Nubs. Older vocalizes his pain.

But then I remember, I learned this technique when I was in labor and it really worked. Someone (probably my pregnancy yoga teacher) told me it’s the worst pain of your life, you’re allowed to yell. But do it in a growling way to release it instead of shrieking like a banshee. And it actually did work.

Nowadays if I stub my toe (or slice my hand with a knife, which I did last week while cutting the cantaloupe and yelling at a day care kid to stop hitting someone), the rumble comes up from my gut and actually eases the pain, or at least takes my mind off it.

So I have to accept for a while that this is Older’s outlet. I know it will pass because it has before (and then God knows what he’ll use to soothe the pain).

It seems that my banshee finally won the level so he’s calm for the moment. But I know he’ll be back.

What More Can I Say But…WWE

OK. I’ve done it. I’ve been to the dark side…and come back to tell the story.

I went where I swear I would never have gone, and had no desire to go, in my whole life – if I didn’t have two sons in it.

A real-life WWE cage match.

This is just the latest thing I banned from my kids’ lives and they insisted on having, so eventually I caved. Just like how I said there’d never be war toys in my house and now we have an arsenal – literally. There are so many guns and swords that they had to be moved into their own room (you know, the office/guest room/armory).

BUT, as I learned with the guns, the toys you play with don’t make you who you are. It’s how you treat other people. And teaching my boys how to treat other people has nothing to do with toy guns. So I do my usual daily work of guiding and teaching, and I let the WWE seep in. Or come crashing in, literally and figuratively, as it did for my boys. And we continue to talk about how you don’t resolve your problems by throwing someone through a wall.

Older Son was angry when I told him how I felt about professional wrestling. Here he’d found this awesome, intensely cool thing that spoke to him on a level I can’t understand, and all I could do was say how bad it was. I told him I can’t stand to see people beating on each other.

He put his hand on my arm, looked in my eyes, and in a tone of real concern asked me, “You do know it’s fake, right?”

I had to admit it – he’s a pretty smart kid. So I let it play. In a matter of months they’ve obtained toy wrestling rings, a collection of action figures, and a soundtrack that must be cranked whenever we’re in the car. So Santa decided it would be fun to take them to a real match (against my will). I decided to look at it as a sociological experiment (which I guess is pretty much how I see most of my life these days).

I figured the crowd would be entertaining and boy was I right. There were a few who were really downright scary – you could see the security guards keeping an eye on them (and in real life they’re probably the sweetest people but put them in the right situation and they look terrifying). The 65-year-old lady and her 35-year-old son gesturing wildly to each other when the announcer said the next live match would be in March. The (again, adult) lady behind us yelling and screaming and making the most hilarious comments – to people who don’t take the WWE seriously enough (“Oh yea, he’s dirty like always!” “Look out behind you!! The chair!!! HE’S GOT THE CHAIR!!!”). Full-grown men wearing WWE championship belts.

And I loved how the wrestlers had security guards escorting them down the aisle to the exit. You, John Cena, man of muscle, who just lifted a 275-pound 7-foot tall man on your back and slammed him to the ground AND won the match, need this scrawny dude to protect you from the weaklings in the seats?

The wrestling actually looks more fake in real life than it does on TV (sorry everyone who believes it’s real – and there are SO MANY of you out there). But even I gasped and covered my eyes several times when people were being body slammed or worse. And of course there were moments that got the teacher and protector-of-children in me going, like when they showed the video montage of the WWE’s anti-bullying program.

Really? A sport that is based solely on bullying, and they’re sending the stars out there to tell kids not to do it to each other? They actually had the nerve to say “It’s all about respect.” Because when you kick someone in the face, that’s respect!

And the fact that they kept making a big deal out of their shows being “PG.” What’s PG about people slamming other people’s faces into walls or smashing chairs into their bodies? Michelle told me, “The G is for Guidance, and as a Parent, that’s WHAT YOU DO.”

I told her to shut it.

And then we got in a divas cage match right there in the car on the way home from the show.

Today’s News, and Going to Gettysburg

I’ve got a piece in today’s Hampshire Gazette! But you might have to log in to read it. I’ll post it here in a few weeks, it’s about Little League and all the agony I endure watching it.

Here’s a piece I wrote for them a while back. It’s a little light reading about spring break at Gettysburg.

I am walking across a battlefield of the Civil War. I’m carrying six-year-old Younger on my back, because he is very tired from a long day of sight-seeing. This field was one of the bloodiest spots in the war, and we’ve come to reflect and watch the sunset. As I watch my husband and older son walk along the ridge, it finally all becomes too much for me. I kneel down in the grass, hug Younger, and cry.

A lot of people thought it was strange that we would pick Gettysburg as our spring break destination. Maybe it shows a certain level of nerdiness that we thought it was perfect. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to teach my sons by going there.

Boys (especially those who’ve never felt a real loss) view war so differently than girls. I was trying to pick out a good Civil War book for us to read together and commented to Older that it might not be the best choice. I thought it was sad because it had a lot of stories about the people who died. In his profoundly direct nine-year-old way he replied, “But isn’t war about people dying?”

For him, it was a simple fact of life that he’d already wrapped his head around. For me, it has always been devastating. I think of a soldier’s parents, siblings, children, spouses. I think of their personal stories and the future that, whether or not they come home “safe,” is irrevocably, tragically altered.

As we talked about the reasons for the Civil War and why the people were fighting, I tried to express these ideas to my sons. People aren’t always fighting for the cause they believe in. Sometimes they fight because they have to, they have no choice. And whether or not the Confederate soldiers really believed in slavery and freedom from Northern oppression, nobody on those fields really wanted to die for the cause. Everyone was terrified.

Older seemed to be getting it. (Younger enjoyed himself but remained more concerned about what time we’d get to the pool and when was the next convenience-store treat?) I think Older really began to understand when I told him that people often say the Civil War was brother against brother. He replied, “That just makes my head want to spin around.”

A statue is more than bronze

Abner Doubleday

So what did I want him to understand? That a statue of a general is more than bronze? It became so clear while we stood on the battlefield realizing what happened right under our feet. As we learned the stories of the men it was easier to understand that the person in the statue had a life and a family. Houses and barns from that battle are still standing, and one had a cannon hole blasted through the wall. I kept asking my husband, where did they go? Did they hide? What did they do when the battle was literally on their front doorstep?

I want my kids to know that America didn’t get where it is today without battles on many levels. No one is ever one hundred percent right, but working cooperatively for something better is the only way to make it work. Someone who throws a tea party in the name of patriotism, but spreads violence and hatred in order to improve our country, doesn’t grasp the true meaning of these concepts.

As I reflected on all these thoughts (while trying to translate them to kid-ese), I kept coming back to community building. The founding fathers tried to build a country. When the country was falling apart, FDR rebuilt it. I look at today’s Recovery & Reinvestment Act signs with the same pride I feel when I come across an old WPA project. While we studied a painting of Pickett’s charge, I told the boys they did it because the country was falling apart. They needed to save it.

The last stop before we left was to visit the spot where Lincoln stood to deliver the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln said, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

What have I done to live up to that? Is living a good life enough? Most importantly, more than any other lesson on this trip, I want my sons to walk away with gratitude. I want them to realize every day that something as simple as a hot shower is a miracle (if you doubt that statement, picture Haiti in your mind). I tried to grasp the unimaginable hardships that happened on those fields but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t picture walking hundreds of miles in blistering heat, no food or shoes, carrying a gun on my back that was intended to kill other people. And I should be grateful every day for those who did it.