That Old Expired Jar of Mayonnaise (Part 1)

Spring, 2022

“Well kids, we did it,” said Mr. McConnell leaning back in his teacher’s chair looking exhausted and relieved at the same time. State testing was finally over.

“You all handled that well. It throws a little bit of a wrench into our days, I know. Believe me, if I had my way you’d show your learnin’ on the McConnell Hilltop Compound Academy- wearin’ some work gloves and pickin’ rocks, plantin’ flowers and pullin’ weeds…”

He leaned back a little more and worked up a sort of entranced smile, eyes going kind of dramatic-dreamy. He pantomimed fanning himself in the sun and holding out a glass to act out a brief make-believe story about getting a kid to refill his iced tea, motioning for a little more “C’mon Owen, top that bad boy off, don’t be stingy,” sipping and ahhhh- ing… “Eva, not there, drag those branches over there…yeah, that’s it!

A few students protesting the thought of being turned into unpaid labor brought him to act woke out of his daydream.

“Oh sorry, where was I?” he asked the class.

This was all for show, of course. Unless there were volunteers for the Hilltop Academy (and oddly enough, they always volunteered).

The ridiculousness of the reverence and preeminence bestowed upon these tests had been growing for over a decade, and the chore of proctoring with tightly scripted directions (under threat of law, loss of teaching license, invalidation of student exams…) had led to even the inclusion of a very long list of electronic devices test-takers could not have on them because it risked the security and integrity of the data.

Data, incidentally, that can, has and will be used against public education. But to be scripted to go back in the proctoring script to repeat the list of devices, as if you are giving the second and final warning to any nefarious third-grade test spies that might just need to feel the heat and severity of the hypothetical consequences for the discovery of them having any of their spy stuff on their person when the government documents and cheap pencils are distributed…

“What have we become?” wondered Mr. McConnell in the moments he went back and challenged himself to read that list with one breath. He’d gotten very good at it.

“So, boys and girls,” he paused dramatically, looking around nodding slightly/eyeballing the kids with just a pinch of drama and that be ready for this look he liked to give when he wanted students to pay attention and be ready, “…I think with all that testing stuff done, today is the day.” His expression shifted to a satisfied, anticipatory, almost pleasure and at peace with the situation look.

“I think the time has come. You know what I mean.”

Mr. McConnell leaned back in his chair and reached with his left hand behind him for the spoon that rested in a coffee cup on the top shelf of the bookshelf that was in his corner of the room. It was a cheap soup spoon with some of that fake-fancy cheap spoon scrolly stuff on the handle. He transferred it to his right hand and reached back and up with his left again, saying:

“It’s time for the Because you never know mayonnaise.”

His hand found and retrieved the small jar of Helmann’s mayonnaise that had been there since day 1 of the school year. Indeed, had been with Mr. McConnell for some number of years, because it was three years expired at least. Students had asked about it, looked it over, and wondered why he even had it. Wondered about it on the very first day of the school year, in fact.

“Why do you have that jar of mayonnaise, Mr. McConnell?” a student had asked.

“Because you never know,” Mr. McConnell responded with a shrug. Truth be told he didn’t know why he had even said it at the time other than his tendency to drop nonsense on students just to make them think, ask more questions, ask better questions maybe.

After that, all year long, when describing preparation, readiness, and response to a problem or a situation that required a “You do this because you never know when it could help” mindset, Mr. McConnel pointed to the mayonnaise as an example. “You do this because you never know…You know, like that mayonnaise (insert casual gesture to the old jar of expired mayonnaise)

They probably didn’t expect him to bring that jar down close, affectionately even. The sigh, the look of anticipation, the almost whispered “I ‘ve really needed this”… They definitely didn’t expect him to twist the cap off that jar, dip that big old soup spoon in, and take in a big old sloppy mouthful with a satisfied and near euphoric expression on his face.

Just wait for Part 2!

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Real Educators and Real Education Reform

This might just be the first segment of the first episode of a new podcast.

Hello all, welcome. Come in, find your seat, or I guess find a seat- I won’t be assigning any yet so it’s okay, just grab the spot you want for now and if there are any problems I’ll move people around. Just know that if you choose to sit next to your bestie I’ll be watching to make sure you can do that and still make good choices.

Let’s get some definitions out of the way first. Since this effort I’m making here is called Real Educators, and Real Education Reform I should share the hows and whys of my using the terms “Real Educators” and “Real Education Reform”.

First, “real educators”. In my mind, if you are involved in any way with guiding learners as they come to grips with how to navigate this world we’re sharing, then you are a real educator. Most of the time my frame of reference will be how that is happening within the public school paradigm with a focus on classrooms and hallways.

But from parents to police, from presidents and their favorite porn stars to the guy at the newsstand on the corner selling the rags that reveal the darkest secrets of presidents and their favorite porn stars…

Everyone plays a role, so the key is paying attention to the role you play and the potential that lies within. 

You can make a difference, and chances are you do make a difference, but do you know that you can and do make a difference? 

Do you know that what you do and how you do it is a part of the education of others around you sharing this world with you? 

Do you think about what that difference you make might be or could look like? 

Maybe you see it as incidental or insignificant but it isn’t at all. All those tiny interactions add up. No matter how brief or in passing they are, they, and you, make a difference. Even tiny ripples travel and spread to the edges of a pond. Like the muppets sang on Sesame Street, they’re the people you meet when you’re walking down the street each day- except now you know that in the lives of learners you are those people. You are those ripples.

So sure, as a teacher my primary focus is on that role and other roles within the day-to-day school setting but having played that role for over twenty years the number one thing I have learned is that I am only part of the “real educator” team. A chance meeting, an every morning or afternoon hello from a fellow familiar…from cashier to construction worker, from preacher to police, all of these other humans tell us something about the world we are living in and tell school children as well. From puppets to porn stars it all informs us as we move forward through life. And if you are lucky enough to come across porn that incorporates puppets-definitely let me know. 

Purely for research purposes you know, I am a licensed, professional educator. Your children are safe with me

An invitation to story time

This is a description of, and an invitation to, an endeavor that is purely for the enjoyment in participating and value in whatever takeaways you find. The path and destination are TBD, but the jumping-off point is gathering initial interest, in this school and in others around us, from former professors and teachers I know, and writers in the area. I’m collaborating with SUNY prof David Franke and we’ve spoken about what might come next down the road, but at this birth-of-an-idea stage, there’s no submitting for approval. There’s no post-conference survey, which means it’s no inservice credit thing. Right now it’s more of a gathering together, feel-good, self-care, soul project, SEL thing: 

Who doesn’t have a “got pulled over” story?  Have a “my favorite teacher” story? And everyone has a “What was I thinking!?” story! We tell stories from morning to night because they’re informative. They’re how we make sense of our experience. They’re a generous way to share what we know. The best stories are crafted, and for that, storytellers need a good audience.

Dan McConnell (Marathon SD) and David Franke, (Seven Valleys Writing Project, SUNY Cortland, English) would love to have you join us, first online and then in real space, to practice our stories. Our stories do not have to be about school and teaching, but we figure that will figure in. To put it another way, we have heard a lot of badly told stories (the news is an example), but we get few opportunities to tell our own.

If you are interested in listening or maybe even telling, you are already on your way to supporting the skills your learners need. Feel free to reach out and learn more, maybe even participate.

dmaxmj@gmail.com

Taking Advantage of this Opportunity to Think Big

So, we have an opportunity to think big, and out of the box? Good news:

I think big as a rule…

  …and when I think about the best way to take advantage of some “closing the gap” funds and a significant opportunity, I think of targeting the foundation of learning first. For learners that foundation is a cognitive “net” woven during development from fetus to nurturing to parenting to schooling to life… It starts at the core of the person, and continues in the parents’ arms, satisfying the most basic physical and emotional needs.

Then it starts developing beyond that core’s reflexive responses to start reaching, touching, interacting. Those infant experiences are intertwining and stretching-weaving together continuously and then reaching outward and interconnecting with every new experience, whether introduced intentionally or just through circumstance. That cognitive net engages with its environment, makes sense out of it based on what it has already established, and then has new understanding as new experiences are integrated. Threads are created, reinforced, branches shoot off for little side trips that might connect with or just tickle/tweak other relevant experiences…  The result of a well woven net (aka prior knowledge and experiences) is that learners more openly experience new settings, new people, new ideas, new understandings… Kids just absorb it as they live it and new experiences get cross-connected in a “seven degrees to Kevin Bacon” way.

     The prepared and adept learner has an intricate weave and can access and pluck a plethora of threads that send signals all across that net and return information that drives that weaving and ends up providing the foundation for students at the beginning of their k-12 experience. We would like them to be at least “ready to learn” at the very beginning, and in the very best case scenarios: prepared to soar.

It seems our students are having difficulty, though.

The foundation, that “net” is the key. It’s gaps where threads in the net might have been. It’s threads and experiences we wish weren’t there. The things we need students to be able to do aren’t accessible to them yet because there’s weaving to be done. Maybe even undone and then redone.   A few years ago, as part of ongoing efforts to understand the students and their lived realities, their culture, we were made aware of what a pervasive and oppressive force poverty is during a poverty simulation.

     The differences in the learners’ exposure to language and vocabulary. The proportion of positive to negative interactions, and how starkly different that proportion looks when comparing our most stable and nurturing homes to those on the other end of the spectrum. Those eager to attack what educators are trying to do with catchphrases like “poverty is just an excuse” come up short on substance because they know the truth. The poverty line is not just a number to be exploited (like standardized test scores), and to engage in a rhetorical battle to blame teachers for the perpetuation of inequity and oppression through political and economic policy is disingenuous or misguided.

This process starts with students’ core relationships with parents or primary caregivers in their lives, which form a personality that is either secure and attached or insecure and unattached. Securely attached children typically behave better in school (Blair et al., 2008).

Our academic mission is supposed to be our primary mandate, but we find ourselves having to spend a lot of effort on social and emotional gaps in order to get to that mandate.

The in loco parentis role (I’m told that means we are like crazy parents) kicks in because we find that prior knowledge/learning/skills (“ready to learn”) is wanting in the areas largely pertaining to learners’ empathy, emotional stability, social connections, sense of self-worth… A growing number are “trauma informed” in ways we wish we didn’t know about, but need to know about to be our most effective.  We are spending a lot of time actively nurturing in order to get to the teaching we’ll be held accountable for. 

     So, us crazy parents have no choice but to rush into situational fires to save these children, only to emerge with them, covered in soot with our eyebrows singed off.

     So that we can then make them take standardized assessments and later be shown spreadsheets of test data that show how badly we are failing them.

Sure we have to move that ELA test score needle in the right direction in a sustainable way, but it is going to require a shift in mindset not just doing the same things more rigorously.

     We still need to target those mandates, but doesn’t anyone wonder if we married our endeavor to the wrong spouse? I envision a more desirable common-law wife than HEDI, but getting rid of her evil influence is a side mission of my own.

In the here-and-now I’d like a shift away from:

  • continually identifying, measuring and remediating/repairing on the back-end to try and catch those falling behind and falling through that “net” because they haven’t engaged in experiences and exchanges that weave well.
  • thinking that the space inside the four walls of the classroom is the “least restrictive environment”. 
  • accepting the crap of disingenuous reformers with an agenda that is more about markets and their opportunities, less about children and what they need.

I’d like to shift towards:

  • helping learners weave in more threads to extend their nets with, giving them more cognitive integrity and flexibility to support further (and more independent) learning.
  • re-envisioning the least restrictive environment. In my mind it is outside the box, out in the world, or at least in one that mimics the flexibility to move into and out of various settings and cooperative (mixed grade level, even) learning groups within the school.
  • teachers being the respected experts who have say in how education gets done instead of blamed for the results when others tell them what to do.

So, let’s think big and “outside the box”.

     If the regular, standard setting/environment/program is one that allows more movement between settings and groups, it isn’t an “accommodation” or “program modification” when it happens. It IS the program, and one that sends the fewest “why am I different” signals to students because everyone is doing it. The movement through and reconfiguration of various groups would be continuous and feel organic, while actually being planned to combine students in a purposeful way and track progress towards academic and social/emotional targets.

      It’s establishing that foundation/net and growing a culture of learners on the front end, and it could help prevent some holes in the net while inspiring more learners to start weaving on their own.Think of a district-wide PBL where “effective” (thanks to HEDI for that, at least) means active participation in one’s own learning as well as the learning of the others in your community. 

My opinion is that focusing on our school culture and nurturing learners first is a better strategy than obsessing over raised bars, grit and rigor. 

      A well-nurtured and guided learner is prepared for that grit and rigor when it happens. We shouldn’t force grit and rigor onto them hoping for better outcomes. Remember the fable about the sun and the wind having the contest to see which could get a man’s coat off the fastest? The wind was sure that by sheer force it could achieve the goal by just blowing the coat off. The harder it blew, the tighter the man gripped, held, resisted… and the coat stayed on. 

     The sun simply shone. 

     The man took the coat off himself!

     Pretty cool that warmth did the trick. Even cooler that I am using “cool” and “warmth” together in a sentence that way. Hey look…I did it again!

So let’s think big, shine like the sun, and warm this place up!

Building Brainpower 1: Hide-n-Seek, Dad’s Way

Learning can seem like magic when you observe it.

Starting with “peekaboo”, then moving to on-the-spot games like cover-uncover the binky (or some favorite little toy) with the spit-cloth, you are making magic happen. You are laying the foundation for a mind. Object permanence, the notion that even if I can no longer see it, I know that it exists. That quickly grows into I know it exists, and that it is somewhere where I can’t see it right now, so I COULD go find it. That’s where I’m heading with this: hide-n-seek.

First is the drive to explore, find things, get things, get into things…To recall where those things are kept and go there to get them! Who hasn’t found their child, new to and excited by the mobility of crawling, in the lower cabinets? Or in the laundry basket pulling out folded clothes; in the kitty litter pan pulling out…

Yeah, those kiddie cabinet locks are a pain, but you need them because kids are smart. And that’s just baseline smart with little effort or intent on behalf of the parent. The little rats basically come wired for trouble.

This is why intent and effort at this early stage have incredible returns on investment later on.

You really need to guide the development that itty-biddy humans are pre-wired for, because they’ll figure stuff out, alright. A responsible adult can move them in the direction of the right stuff to be figured out. While “responsible adult” might not apply to me in the traditional sense, I still attacked parenting with a mission in mind. I wanted my daughters to be super-sharp and out-of-the-box thinkers. Unafraid, self-assured, confident… And I know that type of person and mind is built. Beginning this building right out of the gate maximizes success.

At the same time baby-mind is developing that concept of object permanence with things, it is beginning to grasp the same concept with people. For example: Mommy or Daddy aren’t in the room, I can’t see or hear them, but if I call or cry they’ll come because they’re somewhere. They exist nearby and if I need something, they can help.

Once that understanding becomes locked in, baby starts to sleep in later, maybe start waking up giggling or babbling instead of crying for comfort because they know that comfort isn’t far away when they need it. They start to self-soothe and then even self-entertain. Baby thinks “Those important nurturing others that tend to me are somewhere nearby, so I can take a few minutes to swat away at that mobile, or shake and interrogate this Teddy here and try to make him answer a few questions.”

Okay, maybe not exactly that, but you get the picture.

The simpler object permanence concept starts to connect to the people and things in the environment and there is now an awareness of places beyond the immediate space-empowering planning to pursue some need or curiosity. Behavior is starting to become goal oriented and reaching out for other places and discoveries as mobility and curiosity increase.

Hide-n-seek is a powerful tool at this time because it exploits both the desire to interact and the growing desire to explore. Parents and guardians are vital in the development of mind and mindset, and you might as well have fun while you’re doing it.

The learning that goes on is perpetual, and it accumulates…

…threading, spreading, reaching, winding and weaving-making connections between things already known and the new things discovered- a nucleus of self and security shoots feelers out to establish other smaller conceptual “home-bases” (for parents, home, rooms, toy box, favorite foods…) that also shoot out to connect to related concepts. A connection might be made between the unusual sound of Mommy calling from some room where her voice resonates, and the room that makes it happen. That connection is made as Baby gets carried to it for a bath. The resonant sound is now attached to that bath place and Baby can hear in-person how it sounds, maybe shouting to hear their voice do it.

And, oh! The little yellow squeak ducky is there in its spot. Then it’s there again, and the next time, and again, every time it’s bath time. Pretty soon the mind has grasped where to go to find and get Ducky- It’s Loudvoice-Bathplace. When Baby becomes More-mobile Baby, he/she just might escape your sight, especially when you hit the walking/climbing stage. They’ll be on the way up the stairs to get Ducky on their own because they’ve pretty much mapped home in their memory.

They have become an adept seeker, and are now ready.

Stretching the mind of an adept seeker-child.

Seeking starts in the arms of one parent while the other hides. Looking in closets, under the beds, behind the shower curtain, with an occasional sneaky giggle from under the blankets as a “clue”. Baby starts to get that Daddy, Mommy (Brother, Sister…) are somewhere, but hiding on purpose, and the fun is discovering where.

Now while you are strengthening a mind and making connections, be warned that you are also inviting future trouble. Your consistent guidance on the how/where/when/why it’s appropriate to go off seeking is crucial. Trust me, the last thing you need is to be invited to the neighbors’ for dinner and have it be your toddler looking through Mister’s sock drawer. Curious is good, precocious and lacking discipline- not good.

So with the child at this stage, mobile, and knowing the home, I am going to switch from “child/baby” and just use a name. I am going to tell you how I did this with Chloe, the oldest of my three daughters.

We had followed all the required steps. The formalities had been observed.

For Chloe, finding me had become no challenge-other than how fast could she. Our house was quite tiny. But speed is a measure for concepts that are almost reflexive that get done pretty much the same way every time. Before calcification settles in you’ve got to throw in a curve and keep that hide-n-seek nucleus loose and capable of sending out new thread-connection to some novel concepts.

So I didn’t just hide, I used dishonesty and diversions.

It was probably by the tenth time of doing the same-old same-old that I changed it up a bit. Sitting in a chair covered by a big blanket was just too easy. Hiding behind the curtains that hung to just a few inches off the floor was too easy. Dad was either the lump in his chair or the feet sticking out from under the bottom of the curtains.

So I mixed it up.

Since we had already added the “Are you ready?” yell, and the “Not yet,” or “Come find me!” response, it was easy to buy the time to play a little trick and get myself hidden. Chloe was a good counter and could get to 20 and beyond with no problem.

This time my response was “Not yet, count again!”

I was busy, you see, constructing a “Dad-lump” under some blankets on the chair. Something bigger and poofy-er for the midsection, a couple throw-pillows maybe; a knit winter cap stuffed with some socks for the head, something to fill out that lap/leg space under the bottom of the blanket. Then, for the pièce de résistance: a baseball cap perched jauntily on top and a couple boots poking out on the floor down below.

There was no way a sane person, even a child, would think that lump was me.

But they’d think it just might be!

Chloe came down the stairs and ran to the Dad-lump to tear away the hiding blankets, only to be surprised by the stuffing. And then the giggle from behind the curtain where a different pair of Dad’s shoes could be seen. Sure, it only added about five seconds to the time it took her to find me, but keeping her from finding me was the last thing I cared about. I was dropping a new, little, pliable concept-nucleus. One for subterfuge and how to do it right.

I could have stopped with the lumpy stuff covered with blankets. But the hat perched on top and the boots down below added a twist. Visible cues that Daddy is being tricky, but this is just silly. He’s not really wearing that hat or those shoes-he’s making a crazy-looking pretend Daddy! What now happens is independent creation and invention start to branch out.

Chloe would occasionally make a fake Chloe, with a hat, maybe a pair of mittens…which I had to discover loudly and with cartoon villain frustration. She also started to adopt some of my “misdirection” techniques:

“I’m under the blanket.” (When I’m really behind the curtain)

“I’m in the closet.” (When I’m really under the blanket)

“I’m behind the curtain.” (When I’m really in the closet)

She would hear where I was calling from and go directly to that spot, at which time I would protest loudly “No, not here, I’m in (that other place)!

Deception, invention, creation…

Scenarios, strategies and possibilities. A world of pretend is opened up through this kind of play. With it comes the understanding that by using the creative mind-more things become possible. I am not advocating destructive dishonesty, but an ability to conceptualize and describe possible realities, stories that haven’t been told, ways to use the materials and supplies around to make cool things happen. I don’t want you to think I had fun lying to my children. At least not yet.

Because next comes the Lying to Children as a Brain-Builder!

“School choice” where pragmatism and propaganda collide.

Recently, the word “pragmatic” came to me in a reply to a brief twitter conversation. It was used by the author (I consider tweeting to be authorship) as a qualifier for good education policy/solutions. Essentially, that is a “What should we realistically expect  to get for our poorest and most under-served children, I mean really” (pragmatic) presentation of a “What efforts can I promote to stroke an image or agenda?” (propaganda) position.

But I don’t think a pragmatic settling for less should be the “go to” when it comes to improving outcomes for children. That’s like surrendering and accepting the attacks on children’s minds, bodies, hearts and souls coming from all directions, shrugging off the losses incurred, all while patting yourself on the back for any opportunistic half-effort made within that paradigm.

In education, that half-effort is called “school choice”.

Often, the framing of the school choice issue is that privileged families have all the choice they want, so why shouldn’t others who need it get choice as well? In that narrative, the lucky ones wander the vast school-scape looking for whatever school they want for their children and are just given access to the most fabulous schools and teachers they manage to find. The least privileged, on the other hand, are trapped where they are, in the sinking ship of failing schools manned by bad teachers, denied the freedom to wander that school-scape to choose the schools they want.

I am not so certain that privileged people wander around choosing schools. I am more inclined to believe that their schools end up having better outcomes because of the resources and stability within the communities they are in. When communities are oppressed, abandoned by the world around them, economically deprived and lacking in cohesive personal and social supports, the negative impacts compound in ways that carry over into the schools trying to serve the children living there.

So it’s no surprise that parents seek escape for themselves and seek schools less impacted by these forces for their children. Because that demand is there, it also isn’t a surprise that a market of educational lifeboats (i.e. charter schools) would arise to rescue them. Something has to be done, and as a wise man once wrote:

“ending poverty and integration are politically difficult and financially expensive goals at a time when political courage is in short supply and many elected officials – especially on the right – seem intent on starving government”

We can see this reality play out now in the current Democratic race for the presidential nomination. Leaders of the party that were once the party of the working class, the party that preserved the social safety net, now demonstrate a disdain for the working class and the poor and look to undermine and block candidates trying to pull the party of the pretend left back to the actual left. Education policy has been victimized by that rightward lean for some time, and that has led to an approach that favors free-market style solutions rather than a call to the moral and social obligations of public education.

It boils down to social and political thought that not only holds the reins of power, but has become captured by and enraptured with the wealth equals value mindset-the notion that the more money someone has or the more money something can make, the more valuable to us all it is. This fuels a bottom lines (dollars) and test scores (data) approach to school reform and school choice that deflects attention from the human condition and holds educators responsible for numbers on paper, not the actual little human beings in classrooms, in schools, in communities ignored by policymakers unwilling to address the human condition because of their lack of political courage.

Billionaires who like being looked to as authorities on how we can all be better (like them) like trapping people in that mindset. Politicians like helping to impose that mindset on the electorate because it keeps millions of people who deserve to be represented chasing the visions, policies and mandates advised by the fewest people with the most money, which is now equated with speech, and political math is simple on this matter: more money buys you more speech.

And that’s how we end up with propaganda. It’s “failing schools”. It’s “bad teachers” protected by unions and just riding it out for their cushy pensions. Funny, it never seems to be lead in the drinking water, over-policing in struggling communities, lack of health care, jobs that pay so little that it keeps parents out working instead of home hugging…

Pragmatically speaking, the response might be, how can you honestly represent and fight for the needs of the many in the current paradigm, we might as well just let them make their own schools. I am one hundred percent in favor of choices but when you start to qualify/quantify by applying words like realistic, scalable, pragmatic… Then the underlying message seems to be We can’t really do what we should for all, so let’s just do what we can for who we can. What kind of choice is that?

Is there a merit badge for surrender?

Only my daughters

About halfway through this family vacation, we looked for some active participation thing for the kids to do together. Jet skiing? Parasailing? A museum or a tour of some sort? One of the things my daughters and their cousin have enjoyed in the past are escape rooms. That is what they have decided to do.

If you aren’t familiar with these things, these “escape rooms”, let me describe them briefly. They are far more than rooms, and yes-the point is that the challenge is to escape. The escape is quite often a successful navigation of a mystery or adventure of some sort, not you as the victim of a kidnapping or unlawful restraint. The “escape” is a stage by stage progression through multiple rooms and areas as you successfully solve each stage of the mystery or quest. You emerge “free” at the end if you are successful in the time allotted.

A couple years ago I did one of these escape rooms with my two older daughters and a college classmate of the oldest. Between the four of us we believed we had quite a collection of brainpower, so we chose the most difficult “room” (you are provided a success percentage in the description of each before you sign up). We succeeded with the granting of a few extra minutes. Your progress, I guess, is observed via close circuit video and occasionally a voice from the sky either provides vital information as it’s scripted, or may give a hint. I think the extra time came after my oldest, in a moment of worry and frustration, looked up into the camera and said:

 “Can we please have more time. I will do…anything.

We escaped, and nothing ever came of that commitment, but my daughter worries about the day when the phone rings and that debt comes calling. She also worries about going back into the clutches of the same organization she made such a huge open-ended promise to. Which will happen tomorrow.

Of course I’m dramatizing this. There’s very little chance that all will happen. What will happen, though, or what is very likely to happen, is that these kids will run out of time and some very befuddled escape room staff will wonder what the hell is wrong with my daughters, my nephew, and the tagalong boyfriend who came with us. He’s an awesome kid. He came with number two, is a little younger than her, but a standup young guy.

Anyways, why my prediction?

They spent the time immediately after deciding on the escape room, and once again choosing the hardest room, deciding on what roles each would play within the world of the challenge. They have chose some pirate themed one. The basics are that they are supposed to complete a mission on the pirate ship in service to their captain. Before they get any details on what we’ll be paying for, though, they have decided to hatch their own plan. They have picked pirate names and back stories. They have assigned general roles. They are practicing pirate accents and insults. And have done a blind draw to see which one will take on the role of a traitor to the group… All I can imagine is these facilitators watching them act out this crazy crap as if they are on a stage built just for them and their story, while they try to complete the story they’ve paid for.

I can’t wait to hear how it goes.

Raise Them Right

This appeared first in The Cortland Standard

It’s graduation season, and I’m watching the second of my three daughters spread her wings. Is she ready?

As a teacher, I’m all too familiar with “college and career ready” propaganda, but as a parent I feel that’s a limiting construct. I want my daughters reality-ready. I want them  readied within themselves to meet head-on the world that actually is, not the one someone else defines. I want them to have high expectations of themselves-not aspire to anyone else’s. Above all, I hope for their approach to be “what can I bring to the world to make it a better place” not “what can I get out of the world for me”. Think about it: aim to make the world better for those around you, and the world around you becomes a better place. In my mind, that’s how they’ll fly-this graduating daughter and my other two. Actually, they already fly pretty well in that regard, so I am excited to see what comes next.

In addition to graduation season, it is high-season for political theater. This brings into sharp focus some contrasts between a self-interested bipartisan establishment, their mainstream news apologists, and my “what value should I try to bring to the world” mindset. It seems that the “do for others” approach is radical; far left; even (gasp) socialist!Is “being your brother’s keeper” radical now? I am proud to be raising daughters smarter than that, I just wish politicians were as well. All I have to say is watch out world, here they come.

What Reformers Avoid

Our students need to come loved first.

This post comes from the original, written by me about five years ago. My oldest, mentioned below, is now hours away, recovering from her second heart surgery.

My first daughter was born five weeks early.

I remember that night clearly: we had just got back from some shopping and my wife had sent me out for a Burger King cheeseburger (one of those pregnancy cravings that had to be satisfied occasionally). When I got home, not too many minutes later, I found her in our bedroom on the floor-laying on her side with a stopwatch in one hand, and the book “What to Expect When Expecting” next to her. It was one of those “triple-take” moments…my wife…the stopwatch…the book. Later I was to find out she had sent me out on purpose, and that she had felt “something” was happening.           

Before long we were in the car,

… and on our way to the hospital, which was maybe 3 small village blocks away (a five minute walk). I was driving like she might give birth in the car and she had to let me know that I could slow down…that the baby wouldn’t come in three minutes, but I had many memories of TV shows and movies where babies were delivered in the backseat of cars by husbands, cab drivers, firefighters, or some other random good Samaritan. It always happened quick with some yelling, screaming, crying, then smiling. Painful, messy, happy…and scary.  Needless to say, my wife was right and we had plenty of time-but I was right too-it was scary. Not just because it appeared that the moment may have arrived-but because it was five weeks early (at that stage, complications are more likely).

Even though there was no backseat birth or waiting room delivery,

…it became clear that our first baby was coming when they could do nothing to stop the contractions with medication and decided instead to induce labor. The worry was that if birth-weight was too low, our baby would be whisked away to a hospital more than a half hour away, and my wife would remain.            I’m pretty sure someone had their thumb on the scale-she was so tiny! But she was able to stay in Cortland, close to us. Jen was in recovery, Chloe was taken to the newborn observation room, under a hood with oxygen being pumped into it and being monitored. I went back and forth between Jen and Baby Chloe. Sometimes I would sing softly to Chloe, leaning down close to do “You are my Sunshine”, the same way I did while she was in Jen’s belly and I would sing with my mouth pretty much on her.

I can’t remember how long I did this back-and-forth between rooms,

…singing/ talking/ comforting… But I finally went to one of the nurses on duty and asked if they could bring Chloe to Jen. Jen had just given birth to her first child, prematurely,  and was stressed. Chloe hadn’t really spent any time with her mother and was in a bright impersonal room under a plastic hood. It had probably been a few hours-but time gets warped in situations like this. It was almost as soon as Chloe was in Jen’s arms that both seemed to be better. 

Chloe is 15 years old now,

…one of three sisters, one of four of the loves of my life. Parenthood is an amazing, painful, wonderful, awe-inspiring responsibility, and as I write this, I am seeing my wife’s post on Facebook. She is home with her own father and family right now. I won’t share details, but home with her father is where she needs to be. There isn’t much time left for that. I am home with our daughters. Jen’s  connection with her father is a powerful one-recognized and respected by everyone in her family (and me). She knows that she’s his favorite, (so does everyone else), and while he isn’t in the mood for much right now-she is the one he wants with him.

Her FB post:

Me: Dad, remember when you used to take me fishing?
Dad: Yeah, Beansie (her younger sister’s nickname, Jen’s is “Ding-Ding”…don’t know where these came from) went a lot too.
Me: How did we ever catch any fish? We sure did talk alot……… I guess is wasn’t about the fishing was it???
Dad: I guess not…
Me: Thanks Dad. 
*****sniff sniff*****

Chloe is sleeping right now. She’s a teen, but gives us virtually no trouble. She is bright, beautiful, creative. Brenna, 13, could be described pretty much the same (in addition to the sleeping thing)-but is already taller and “leggier” than her mother and Chloe…a fact she enjoys razzing Chloe (and Jen) with. Our youngest, Ella (8), sits on the couch with the journal of letters Jen and I wrote to her when she was only “Little Fetus McConnell”. There are too many great moments to remember, too many awesome things these kids do every day…We have from day one loved them, held them, supported them, encouraged them, and made it clear we love them unconditionally. And I think you can tell. If you are familiar with them, know them, or have seen any of the crazy stuff they do-you can probably get it.

I’m not trying to brag, I think we’ve merely fulfilled a minimum requirement that many others do as well.

But fewer parents can or do these days-cut loose to the free market and investment wind as well as policy makers and the silent hands that guide them.There is our real achievement gap problem. Education reformers avoid this conversation like the plague, because it is impacting factor numero-uno on student outcomes. Finding someone in school to blame (not something outside of school they might have to help fix) is the current agenda because it holds opportunities in a new “education reform” market. But what reformers won’t engage with is a meaningful discussion regarding the quality of the bond that parents and children share, and how significant that is in determining a student’s ability to focus and achieve in school. If their basic needs are met, if they are emotionally secure, they are more likely to succeed.  

Reform stars would probably say that they too understand and feel this love,

…this unbelievably strong bond that begins even before the moment you see and hold your baby in your arms. The feeling that parenting is the most important thing you can ever do-to unconditionally love; to put the needs of another first; to give the world the best possible future by laying a loving foundation in your family world first.
            They would say they feel the same way, and that they know lots of others who do as well. Of course they do. That’s likely how they were raised, that’s the world they live in: where families have the resources and background to form these secure and loving bonds.

For the sake of public relations, reformers cherry-pick just that type of family to put out front for their lawsuits or enroll in their semi-exclusive schools.

What they are NOT getting, or willfully avoiding, is the fact that more children are coming to public school classrooms without that quality family foundation in place. They are unfamiliar with and/or unwilling to discuss a different type of family and dynamic that leads to a different sort of student coming to many public school classrooms. And more of them are coming as we sacrifice real life truths to the demands of market perspectives.
The arrogance of enjoying a gated sort of existence and undeserved influence over others, then using outcomes of inequity as criticisms of those combating inequity is aggravating. Using influence from within those gates of inequity to decide on and enforce a brand of generic education for the masses outside is wrong. All kids should have the connections I see in my family, in many families I know, and that those driving reform likely have.

But fewer and fewer do.

No amount of testing, no exclusive “public” charter school, no amount of arrogant rhetoric from those who will not take on the real burdens, no posturing from someone who themselves enjoys a gated sort of existence can do it. It is time for honestly “shared sacrifice”. Those who already have sacrificed are being asked for more by those who continue to avoid it.

Think reformers will agree?

Some Socialism is Bad

Do you think crony capitalism, oligarchy disguised as two-party rule, and trickle-down economics is destroying stable employment opportunities and families, and that now more children come to school not prepared to learn? You may have noticed the changing students, and families. Some teachers are lucky to teach in wealthy districts or may work in schools that engineer their enrollment, and therefore see little or none of this. But most know that kids are coming with needs far deeper and more often now healing has to come before teaching.

Some socialism is bad. The type that allows the government (aka Wall St & corporations) and super wealthy to skip out on debts, evade taxes, buy policy and politicians, bail out big banks, maintain a revolving door between these criminal enterprises and Washington, fund endless war and terrorist organizations who will be temporary allies but future enemies…bad socialism for sure. The type that supports the working class and families that are the producers/consumers and lifeblood of the economy and nation? Good.

The system that is has not earned the right to judge me, my students, my own children or my school with tests that determine how well we can all be hammered into their failing system.