My new blog

I have a new blog:

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Announcing my new book and my new blog!

At last–my new book is out!

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Lessons from my mother

“That wonderful feeling I had watching the waterfalls–it’s more than just a beautiful sight, it’s the forces in the waves and in the waterfalls and it’s a force that you feel, not only see. I liken it in many ways to the ocean, a stormy ocean or even when it was low tide and not such big waves. The variation in color and the movement of the waves, I guess, just thrill me. I love it!”

My mother’s vision is so bad, she can only see the bare outline of my face when she sits across the table from me. But she was thrilled by the waterfalls at the Columbia Gorge–thrilled the way a child would be, seeing waterfalls pounding down from the mountains for the the first time.
I want to make sure that when the children in my class have moments of delight like this, I take the time to stop rushing, to be present so we can celebrate them together.

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Taking a moment

Is there anything we can do as teachers to encourage our children to live in the moment when so much around them is full of pressure? Perhaps we can find brief moments to model it, maybe at some moment of their own pressure, they can picture us being more present with them, and they can slow down.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother and how her attitude keeps reminding me to stop and take the time to really listen to what a five-year-old is saying to me or to stop and ask a question so I’m sure I understand what is going on.
Here’s an example:

When she was ninety, my mother still loved to swim in the surf on the ocean side of her island home. When the waves weren’t too high, we would slowly walk down the ten steps from the parking area to the beach, she would take off her faded Greek fisherman’s cap and carefully put her sunglasses inside it. Then, holding my hand, she walked in without hesitation, not allowing me to stop to get my ankles used to the freezing water. When she was almost waist deep, she dove under the next oncoming wave. As soon as she had surfaced, she would demand that I come in, too. “It’s invigorating,” she would say. Then she rolled over, getting the back of her head cool, and float there a while. “It takes your whole body temperature down,” she would announce.
Although she was legally blind and had only a little peripheral vision, she had no fear of the waves. She knew how to go over them, letting her body be lifted slowly up and then gently set down on the other side, or she could dive through a wave that threatened to break right over her head. Her joy every time a wave passed was the delight of a toddler playing in the waves for the first time. “Oh!” she would exclaim, as though she had never done it before.
Coming out was more challenging. One day a wave pushed her forward and the sand shifted underfoot, she lost her balance and fell face first in knee-deep water. She was no longer the five feet three inches she had been at her height, but she weighed about the same as I did. I struggled to pick her up before the next wave came, but she was in an awkward position where she couldn’t help me. A young lifeguard saw us, came over quickly, and lifted her up. After that, I said I wouldn’t take her in without a third, stronger person with us.
This year, she decided not to go in the surf any more. I was unwilling to accept her verdict: with the right help, we could take her in, one on each side. She insisted she had loved it but it was time to give it up. She was still amazed that a girl who had grown up in a forth floor apartment in Boston, a child of immigrants, she had been able to spend years enjoying the ocean.
We moved our swimming to the bay side, protected from the wind, where the waves were small. I could not let go of my idea that with the right support, we could return to the surf. But she did not look back, refusing to share in the sadness of our mutual loss. When I took her in the water, helping her negotiate the strip of small stones at the edge, she got in waist deep, left me behind as she dove under, and turned to float on her back. “It’s invigorating,” she announced with delight. “You have to come in. There’s nothing like it to lower the temperature of your whole body.”

I want to give the children in my class a model of knowing when it’s important to hold on and when it’s important to let go.

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Resilience

Celebrating my mother’s ninety-second birthday, I’ve been thinking about resilience. How do we encourage children to have the capacity to overcome difficulties rather than shrink from or deny them? The fives in my class are going to have a lifetime of big challenges ahead and I’m thinking about how to help them develop this ability to grow with change rather than fight against it. My mother grew up in the depression, the youngest of seven kids. The boys sold peanuts in little brown bags on the Boston Common while the girls were the lookouts for the police because they didn’t have a permit. Now she’s almost blind, hard of hearing, has survived lymphoma, breast cancer, and quintuple bypass surgery. She takes the bus three days a week to go to the gym, where she does the treadmill, the bike, and a half hour of weight machines. On the other days she walks to the park, a mile round trip. Two days a week she volunteers at a nursing home, where she visits Ethel, who will be ninety-two in August. Ethel was the only wage-earner in her family when she was fourteen and washed dishes at a restaurant, paid the rent and bought school clothes for her younger sibs.

They both say that their greatest joy is helping others.

How can we help today’s kids grow up with this kind of resilience?

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When Boys won’t be Boys: Discussing Gender With Young Children

My daughter Hannah and I are delighted that our article, “When Boys Won’t Be Boys: Discussing Gender With Young Children” has been published in the Harvard Educational Review.

A few years ago I was puzzled about how to help a boy in my kindergarten class who said he wanted to be a girl. To help me understand how to meet his needs and how to talk with the other students in my class about this issue, I turned to my daughter, Hannah, a graduate student in health policy and gender studies at The George Washington University. We wrote this article in two voices, showing our conversations on the subject and how they affected my teaching. We loved working on it together!

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

We are counting the children in my kindergarten class during morning meeting, to see who is here and who is absent. “I want to count the boys,” Timothy says, adding to our daily attendance routine. He has recently become confident with numbers, able to count ten children without forgetting what number he is on or which children he has already counted, and I’m delighted that he wants to count in front of the whole class.
“Nine,” he counts.
“No, ten,” several children correct him.
“Nine,” he repeats confidently, “because I’m not counting myself.”
This puzzles me. Young children often forget to count themselves but when they do, they are not usually aware of their mistake.
“Why is that?” I ask.
“Because I like girl stuff.”
I pause, unsure of what to say. Timothy recently turned six, an age at which most boys decide that anything that might belong to girls is taboo. I have no problem with Timothy dressing up in the fanciest princess dress for dramatic play, making pink tutus for his stuffed animals, or taking female roles when we act out stories. But saying that he does not want to be counted as a boy is different than saying he likes dresses and mermaids. I don’t want to argue with him but what will I say if he decides to count himself as a girl?

Read the rest of our article here.

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Welcome.

I have been listening to young children in my classroom for over thirty years.  But in the last five years, I’ve also begun to listen to parents.  Why did it take me so long?  I used to think that I was supposed to have the answers.  If there was a problem with a child, I should be able to tell the parents what to do about it.  The fact that they didn’t teach that in my Masters’ in Teaching program, even at the university of Chicago, did not stop me from assuming I should be able to do it. So when parents were worried, or when I thought I should have some piece of wisdom, I did my best. That left me feeling defensive a lot and sometimes put me in an oppositional role with parents, where I told them what to do and they did or did not do it Then about five years ago, working on my book on internationally adopted children, I discovered that there were no experts with all the answers to my questions.   I knew i did not have the answers.  So I decided to ask the parents of these children what I should know about them.  One of the parents immediately, though hesitantly, told me that at our first conference, she had wanted to pull her child out of my class because I made assumptions about her child that were not true. That was uncomfortable for me, but it was at that moment that I decided to listen, really listen, and learn.  Since then, I’ve been asking more questions and learning a lot more than I ever did before. In this blog, I’d like to start a conversation between parents and teachers about listening to each other as well as about listening to kids.  What do we really want to say to each other and how can we be more open listeners so we become better partners, working to listen to and understand our kids?

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