Friday, August 29, 2014

A Side Trip to Washington

Huge thanks to the lovely Adrienne Wichard-Edds for a really fun interview about THE GIFT OF FAILURE and ways to help your kids have a great school year for the On Parenting blog at the Washington Post. You can read the article here and you can follow Adrienne on Twitter at @WichardEdds!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Small Moments Define Good Teaching

Much has been written about Elizabeth Green’s new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), most of it about why Americans stink at math. (Spoiler: it’s because we also stink at teaching math). Green’s book is worth a read, and not just because she provides some great suggestions for ways we could improve the way we teach math and train the next generation of math teachers in America.

While I really enjoyed the math instruction aspect of Green’s book, there is so much more to her book than that. The parts that called out to me as a teacher were her examples of simple, reproducible classroom practices that separate the average teacher from the truly gifted educators.  These were the pages I tagged with my color-coded sticky tabs and have referred back to many times since first reading the book.

Building a Better Teacher is a manual for those teachers interested in changing the way they think about attention, behavior modification, classroom management, and emotional connection with students.

One example is so small, so obvious, I'm reluctant to even mention it because I'm embarrassed that after ten years of teaching, this had never occurred to me before. This scene happens in classrooms every day, around the world. It’s time to hand out a test, or an assignment, or some other document that must end up on every students’ desk. In order to make the most of every classroom moment, the teacher walks around the room, handing out the pieces of paper. While she does so, she runs down the instructions for the assignment.

I can't begin to count the number of times I've done this. Inevitably, hands shoot up once the students begin to complete the very clear instructions I've just outlined. “Where do you want us to put our name?” “Which question are we supposed to cross out?” “Wait—what are we doing today?”

Makes me want to tear my hair out. I just gave the instructions, how could they have forgotten already? Weren’t they LISTENING????

Well, no. I was setting myself up to not be heard. By handing the papers out while I was giving directions, I signaled to them that my instructions were not that important. How could they be, if I could hand papers out at the same time? Add the inherent distractibility of many students to the mix, and I'm surprised any of my students ever know what the heck to do with the paper once it’s on their desk.

So I stopped handing things out and giving directions at the same time. And you know what? I don't have to repeat my directions anymore. Well, hardly ever.

Green knows that small moments define good teaching, and that the daily struggles over attention, control, and autonomy are make-or-break opportunities to either heap on another layer of alienation to a student-teacher relationship, or to begin to break through transient discord and forge deeper bonds.

Yes, Green’s book is a fantastic discussion about consistency, depth, and breadth in teacher training. Yes, she has a gift for deconstructing the ways in which math instruction becomes unintelligible and how good teachers can help kids understand the signal in the noise. Yes, Green is an astute writer and a talented observer of human behavior.

This is not why my copy of Building a Better Teacher is stuffed full of sticky notes, however. I will keep this book on my shelf of go-to teacher inspiration sources because Green’s discussion of policy and curriculum and education politics are grounded in lessons I can use, today, to improve my teaching and reach that one kid who did not hear me the first time around.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Yes, You Can Step into the Same River Twice

This is a cross-post. The audio version of this post, aired Monday, August 4, 2014, is available here, at Vermont Public Radio. 

A couple of years ago, I faced a teacher milestone. One of my students died, someone I'd visited and emailed and laughed with in the weeks and days before his death, and I was at a loss as to how to deal with the odd, not quite parental, not quite friend-shaped hole. In the days after Andrew's death, I wrote

When I had children, I understood that I was opening myself up for a world of pain; that's part of the deal we make with the universe when we become parents. However, when I signed my first teacher contract, there was no clause for heartache; no asterisk denoting the fine-print possibilities.

That day, I drew on the presence of the students in front of me to fill up the hole created by the loss of Andrew

Happily, for each one of those horrible days, there have been so many others that overflow their bounds with happiness. As happens when a teacher's life goes on, there are marriages, births, graduations, and career milestones taking place all the time, it seems. With a decade of students out there in the world, it's bound to happen. I have teacher-grandbabies around the world, and I watch their growth on my Facebook feed like some kind of desperate, doting, distant Nana.  

Today, however, is special even among all those other, wonderful days. Today, two of my students are married, and as much as I love them individually, I am doubly enamored of their united form. 

I once asked Kira, the female half of this couple, when she first had an inking that Min was more than simply a classmate and friend, and she revealed that it happened in my classroom. I'm paraphrasing, as it's been years since she told me this story, but we were working on a project I love, a visual representation of the storm in King Lear. Kira said she watched Min present his project in all its brilliance and insightful interpretation, and she just knew. Knew he was something special. 

Fourteen years later, she still knows, and while I was not able to attend their wedding yesterday, I was there, with them, all day long. 

Today, I'm planning the lesson for a class I will teach on Wednesday about writer's toolboxes and what Stephen King calls "business English." My students today are the same age Min and Kira were when they created their Lear projects, and while I have no illusions that about marriages germinating among lessons on parts of speech and sentence structure this Wednesday (I'm not teaching Emma, after all), I do hope something of Kira's epiphany persists in every class I teach. 

If I do my job right, and I help each kid see something special and good in themselves, others will see it, too. 

I said it once*, and I'll say it again: 

The students may change, but the waters remain the same. I'm hip-deep in this river, and I'm staying. No matter what the water brings my way, drawn downstream, to drift out of sight.

Photo credit: Kira DelMar


Monday, July 7, 2014

A Mother's Prerogative

A very young Ben, reading one of my favorite books. 

Forgive me, this once, for a gratuitous display of my maternal pride. 
I promise it won't happen very often. 
The gratuitous display, anyway.
The pride is a constant.

I wrote for a long, long time before receiving any money in exchange for my words. I wrote for my high school newspaper, my law school paper, plenty of newsletters, journals, and, of course, for the private pleasure of my own literary navel-gazing. I wrote in exchange for the thrill of the writing itself as well as the miracle of publication. Sometimes I received complimentary copies, now filed away in my "Jess' writing" box in our basement, but more often, I received nothing more than a heartfelt "great job!" note from my mom.

My first paid writing gig was for Michael O. Leavitt, who some of you may remember as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. Through an unlikely series of coincidences and a crazy twist of fate, I was invited to help Leavitt write the inaugural speech for his third term as Governor of Utah. We had almost nothing in common - not politics, not religion, not verbal style - but we got along like peas and carrots, and the first time I heard my words emerge from his mouth, I was hooked.

And later, when I got paid? I could hardly believe my good fortune.

I was thirty when I became a paid wordsmith, but my son has me beat, big time. He will receive his first paycheck in exchange for his prose this summer, at the tender age of fifteen.

His review of R.J. Palacio's book Wonder, will appear in the July/August issue of Your Teen magazine (with Michelle Obama on the cover!), and with the generous permission of Susan Borison, founder and editor, I present Ben's half of our adult/teen book review article.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The More You Know

I love coming to New York to appear on the Today Show, even when the topic is depressing and impossible to parse in three minutes. I got a call yesterday afternoon to jump on a bus (and train and car) to appear this morning to talk about the California shootings and warning signs in kids. 

I always have a goal when I appear in an interview, one takeaway piece of information I want to convey in the segment. Today I had two. 

First, the crime rate has been going down steadily since 1993, and homicides are down between 40-60% depending on which age group you are talking about. Thanks to Lenore Skenazy for the FANTASTIC resouces at on reassuring, reality-check crime statistics. 

According to Pew Research

Compared with 1993, the peak of U.S. gun homicides, the firearm homicide rate was 49% lower in 2010, and there were fewer deaths, even though the nation’s population grew. The victimization rate for other violent crimes with a firearm—assaults, robberies and sex crimes—was 75% lower in 2011 than in 1993. Violent non-fatal crime victimization overall (with or without a firearm) also is down markedly (72%) over two decades.  

But here's the thing. Pew also found that due to the media onslaught surrounding isolated and rare examples of gun violence, Americans believe that gun violence is up. 

Despite the attention to gun violence in recent months, most Americans are unaware that gun crime is markedly lower than it was two decades ago. A new Pew Research Center survey (March 14-17) found that 56% of Americans believe the number of crimes involving a gun is higher than it was 20 years ago; only 12% say it is lower and 26% say it stayed the same. (An additional 6% did not know or did not answer.)

So, takeaway point number one. Chill out, turn off the TV, go back to what you were doing, and remember that the crime rate continues to decline in this country.*  

Takeaway point number two: when a teacher notices that something is up with your kid, and gets up her nerve to tell you about it (which is not an easy thing, ask any teacher), LISTEN. Listen with an open mind and know that if she's come to you, she's worried. 

That said, PSA over, and here's today's segment on "Navigating the world of troubled children."

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

*However, as a friend points, out, don't relax too much if you have a gun in your home or if your child has access to guns. That's just too damn dangerous. Here are some links from the Children's Defense Fund re: the stats on kids and guns

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Parenting: It's All a Big Test

This week, in the Parent-Teacher Conference, I answer the question of what it really means when a school asks to have a child tested. This is a wild and wooly topic, with lots of tangents and caveats, but I did my best to get the details down in 1000 words or less.

I even got to use one of my new action figures for the piece, and you can read it here.

Monday, April 28, 2014

I Think I'll Be Big Enough Next Year

Summer is coming, which means Finnegan's year of anxiety about summer camp is quickly approaching its climax. A year ago, when he was nine, we decided that it was time for him to head off to overnight camp, and as Ben will be celebrating his final year at this camp this year, it would be Finn's last opportunity to go to camp with a guardian sibling.

For the first few months, we were not allowed to talk about it at all.

In the deep midwinter, summer seemed too far away to worry excessively, but we did not bring it up often, just to be safe.

This spring, the boys forms arrived, and as it's my policy that they fill out forms for their own activities, I handed the pile of papers over to them with the obligatory doctor/dentist/insurance information and told them to get started.

An hour or so later, I found them in the playroom, heads together, working on the activity selection forms. Ben detailed each activity for Finnegan, explaining how archery or canoeing or sailing works, and when the water is coldest, and what time of day he'd want to take swimming class.

Finn's anxiety had turned to excitement, so I quietly left the room. My participation was clearly not needed.

In June, it will be time for me to take my own advice, which means I have less than two months to wrap my head around the idea of saying goodbye to my little baby, and leaving him in the hands of strangers for two weeks.

I will do my best to remember the plea of my older son, an arrangement we made when it was time to drop him off to camp at eleven, a plea I wrote about for the Atlantic last year, "Goodbye, and go away, thank you very much."