Room for Debate about Homework

I'm honored to appear in The Room for Debate at the New York Times today, on the topic of "Should Parents Help Their Children with Homework?"

The timing is great, as I'm headed out to the East Woods School in Oyster Bay, NY in about fifteen minutes to talk about that very topic this evening. That event, by the way, is free and open to the public, at 7:00 PM, so come on down! 

 

 

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

I made my annual pilgrimage to the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Leaders in Service Conference this weekend, and as happens every year, I'm feeling energized, hopeful, and optimistic in its wake. I became an Albert Schweitzer fellow in 1998 (Tim became a fellow in 1997) and we've continued attending these conferences, interviewing and mentoring fellows, and generally supporting the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, mainly because it makes us feel good. It gives us a regular great reminder that no matter what the bobbleheads on the news say, there are still many people out there who are set on doing good in the world. 

I was there to give a talk on raising motivated, yet caring, and empathetic kids, and I told the story of Mother Mallard, a duck who unwittingly helped the entire faculty at Crossroads Academy teach a few lessons in character, temperance, and kindness in the spring of 2013. I'm telling her story again, as it originally appeared at The Atlantic, both because I promised I'd post it for my session attendees, and because I'm always a fan of a good tale about a duck. 

When I signed on to teach English at a core virtues school, I had no idea what I was in for. I nodded and smiled in my interview when the Headmaster explained the virtues curriculum, and I parried back with everything I thought she wanted to hear; how I could infuse my lessons on To Kill a Mockingbird with discussions about empathy and courage. I may have even quoted Atticus’ line about walking around in someone else’s skin. I figured I could tack on some of that quaint “virtue” stuff before getting to the real meat of the lesson, the academic stuff.

And for the first year I taught at Crossroads Academy, that’s pretty much what I did. I made some empty gesticulations toward the core virtues bulletin board in my classroom and made some token mentions of fortitude at obvious moments in our reading of The Illiad and The Aeneid. I was teaching literature, but I certainly wasn’t doing Aristotle proud.

I mean come on. Character education? Core virtues? I teach English, not Sunday school, and besides, I teach middle school. If I were to walk into my eighth grade English class and wax rhapsodic about prudence and temperance, those kids would eat me alive. It’s hard enough to keep the attention of a classroom full of middle school students without coming on like an 18th-century schoolmarm.

Somewhere along the way, someone must have started dosing me with the character education Kool-Aid, because five years in, I have come to understand what real character education looks like and what it can do for children. I can't imagine teaching in a school that does not have a hard-core commitment to character education, because I've seen what that education can mean to a child's emotional, moral, and intellectual development. Schools that teach character education report higher academic performance, improved attendance, reduced violence, fewer disciplinary issues, reduction in substance abuse, and less vandalism. At a time when parents and teachers are concerned about school violence, it is worth noting that students who attend character education schools report feeling safer because they know their fellow students value respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work. From a practical perspective, it's simply easier to teach children who can exercise patience, self-control, and diligence, even when they would rather be playing outside - especially when they would rather be playing outside.

American schools used to focus on character education and civic virtue. The founders of this country, including John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin wrote about the importance of character education in maintaining the new republic. Those founders would likely be horrified by the loss of this goal, as they all cite character education as the way to create an educated and virtuous citizenry. As Gallup polls show that over ninety percent of American adults support the teaching of honesty, democracy, acceptance of people of different races and ethnic backgrounds, patriotism, caring for friends and family members, moral courage, and the Golden Rule in public schools, it seems odd that this facet of American education has disappeared from public debate over curriculum and academic content. The core virtues -- prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice -- make it into nearly every lesson we teach at our school and every facet of our daily lives on campus. The curriculum we use, designed by Mary Beth Klee, is a non-sectarian education in intellectual, moral, and civic virtues through literature, and can be used in conjunction with any academic curriculum.

This week, I gained a fantastic teaching assistant who has raised my character education skills to the next level, a wise teacher who has illustrated the importance of temperance far better than I -- or Achilles or Macbeth -- ever could.

As the core virtues program uses examples to literature in order to illustrate character, I choose my texts accordingly. In my middle school Latin and English classes, we explore the concept of temperance through discussions of Achilles' impulsive rages, King Ozymandias' petulant demand that we "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair," Macbeth's bloody, "vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on the other."

A Mallard duck (Mother Mallard to our students) took up residence on our campus this week. Mallards, or anas platyrhynchos, are also known as "dabbling ducks," and this particular duck has apparently been dabbling in Aristotelian philosophy, because she's presented our students with a real-life lesson in the core virtue of temperance.

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Her nest, made from feathers she's plucked off her own breast and filled with ten eggs, lies about eighteen inches from the entryway to our main building, a path our students take in out of school at least six times a day. Mother Mallard doesn't seem too worried about our students' feet...as long as they keep moving. However, the second those feet stop and one of the children pauses to take a good, long, look, she quacks angrily and abandons her nest. Her first day in residence, she spent more time off the eggs than she did on them, and we realized we were going to have to find a way to teach our students some self-control.

It just so happens that this month's virtue is temperance; stopping to think about our actions before we enact them, giving the best of ourselves, and saying "no" to our weaknesses. The middle school students use the term "temperance," and the lower school kids use the term self-control, but tomāto, tomăto, it's all the same idea.

In Stanford's oft-repeated experiment on self-control, children were faced with the immediate reality of one marshmallow versus the promise of two marshmallows if they can just wait for fifteen minutes. The children who were able to resist temptation and wait fifteen minutes for that second marshmallow had better life outcomes in the form of lower obesity rates, higher SAT scores, and higher levels of education. Self-control itself does not make a kid smarter, or fitter, or more proficient at test-taking, but it's the essential skill hidden within all of these positive outcomes.

Character education is not old-fashioned, and it's not about bringing religion in to the classroom. Character education teaches children how to make wise decisions and act on them. Character is the "X factor" that experts in parenting and education have deemed integral to success, both in school and in life. Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, calls that character-based X factor "grit," while educational consultant Dr. Michele Borba calls it "moral intelligence."

When I asked parenting expert Borba to explain why she thinks character education is so overlooked as a vital part of children's success, she wrote, "That's what parents don't seem to get, the hidden values of character traits for success. They see character education as fluff, because that's often how it's taught -- posters and worksheets. Character education needs to be relevant. It needs to be woven in curriculum, not tacked on. We are such a trophy-, SAT-obsessed society, but if parents would recognize the value beyond the humanness, civility and ethics, they might get it."

Here on our campus, our marshmallow is a duck. Our students must weigh their desire for a quick peek at Mother Mallard with the promise of ten ducklings waddling around our playground in 28 days. If everyone, even the youngest, most impulsive kindergarteners, can learn to exercise self-control, we will all benefit.

Next week, Mom Mallard will catch a bit of a break from our students, because they will be confined to their classrooms for a week of standardized testing. Our character education curriculum may not show up as an increase in this year's test scores -- but then again, it could: self-control, after all, is exactly what's needed to put off a video game or a TV show for another 20 minutes to finish reading or studying. Though temperance isn't easily measured with number two pencils and bubble forms, it has the capacity to foster and reinforce the skills those bubble forms do test.

Update: 28 days later, the students' patience was rewarded. We mis-counted, because eleven healthy ducklings were born, and the kids had a day or two to enjoy their company before Mother Mallard led them off to the nearest body of water in the early morning hours. I read somewhere that nesting spots can repeat in subsequent generations, so here's hoping she told her offspring about the kindness of the strangers she met at Crossroads Academy.


Helping Adolescents Who Self-Injure

My most recent "Parent-Teacher Conference" column has been nearly a year in the making. It wasn't until I'd read Dr. Michael Hollander's book, Helping Teens Who Cut: Understanding and Ending Self-Injury, and started spending time with Sarah, who agreed to tell me her story, that it came all came together. I've taught plenty of kids who cut themselves, but I've never felt as if I understood their behaviors and my role in their recovery adequately. Thanks to Sarah and Dr. Hollander for helping me find the words to describe what is too often an unspeakable act. 

You can read the article here

This is Twelve

Oh, dear. This one made me tear up. I don't know if it's because I'm overtired from a hectic week of travel and speaking, or because my copyedits came in last night for The Gift of Failure and I'm kind of afraid to look...it's more likely just that Allison Slater Tate is a lovely, lovely writer.

So without further ado, I present, for your clickthrough and reading pleasure, "This is Twelve." 


This is Eleven

Welcome to the first in our series, This is Adolescence. "Eleven" comes from Lindsey Mead, who writes at A Design So Vast, "One woman's journey to right here." Follow her on Twitter at @lemead.

Enjoy!

Eleven



In the last week of each summer, we traditionally spend a day at a beach north of Boston. Lately, these outings have felt like encounters with the tide. Last year we stood on a sand bar, marveling at the way it shrank under our feet as the tide came in. This year my children built a sand wall and watched it disappear under the onslaught of the rising tide.

Eleven is like this. It is the last visible piece of childhood’s sand as the tide of adolescence comes in, inexorable, welcome, but bringing anxiety in its wake, too. That tide whose approach we watch with both wonder and fear will change the landscape forever. It will dismantle many things even as it makes space for new ones.

Eleven oscillates between closeness and the distance I know she is supposed to be pushing for. Mothering an eleven year old is bringing to life all the academic study I did years ago about the mother-daughter relationship. I’m living that which I studied so closely, and though I understand what’s happening intellectually, it is still emotionally difficult.

Eleven walks a neighbor’s puppy by herself. She is responsible and organized, and lets herself into the house I have never seen, collects what she needs, and returns the same way. It is a small universe that she controls by herself. She also sleeps with four stuffed animals, all of which are dogs. She wants to be a vet.

Eleven can beat me in a set of tennis and can always, every single time, get a soccer ball past me. This summer we went for a run together for the first time and she left me in the dust.

Eleven can wear my flip-flops and is almost my height. She runs a six minute mile and is fluent with technology in a way I will never be. She doesn't have her own phone yet but I know that’s coming soon. She still sleeps with the two teddy bears she’s had since infancy. She likes to snuggle before bed and still says prayers that include “thank you for giving me everything I need and most things that I want.”


Eleven started running cross-country for her school this year, and I can’t watch a race without tears in my eyes. There’s something about watching her go, seeing her take flight, cheering for her sprinting towards the finish line, that makes me cry. A wise reader pointed out the metaphor that I can’t stop thinking about: she’s running away from me, and I’m cheering for her, on her team no matter what, even when I can’t see her.  Though I can’t see the part of the race that happens in the woods, I can imagine it, based on my own experiences (of running cross-country as a high schooler, myself, but also of being an adolescent girl).  Her path and my own feel interwoven, but that identification is largely in my head.  The woods she’s running in, and the tracks she makes through them, are hers and hers alone.

More and more, Eleven is in the woods.  Her world is her own. I have less visibility into what she is doing at school and the use of email and instagram has allowed her to develop friendships I don't know as much about. I trust Eleven and we still have a lot of rules about internet access and social media, but I’m aware of her autonomy and growing privacy. This is just another manifestation of the separation that I know is healthy and right.

This was Eleven’s fourth year at sleepaway camp but the first she was homesick. In the sagging middle week of her 3.5 weeks at camp, there were tearful phone calls and sad letters. Then, as the days towards pickup shortened, the mood brightened, and equilibrium was restored. I can't help thinking this was the last gasp of attachment before eleven pushes off for the other shore, for adolescence and young adulthood, for good.

For now, I will curl up next to Eleven at bedtime and listen to her stories about her day and cherish every minute of time she wants to spend close to me, both physically and emotionally. I can see the tide coming in, and I know what it will bring with it. I’m still looking forward to what is ahead and trying to trust, that like on the cross-country course, though she’s about to disappear into the woods, she will circle around and come back towards me.  She will have a smile on her face as she sprints towards the finish line, and she'll see me standing there, and I hope that will make her glad.

This is Adolescence


A year or so ago, a fantastic series of essays called This is Childhood was published in book form and at the Brain, Child website. I adored these essays, so was thrilled when Allison Slater Tate and Lindsey Mead asked me to be a part of a new series called, appropriately, This is Adolescence.

The first installment, "Eleven," by Lindsey Mead, will go live on Wednesday, October 22, and each week after that, a new essay will appear here and at the websites of the other contributors. Come on by, or visit the other authors' sites, and join us in a celebration of the insanity and wonder of adolescence. 

Eleven – Lindsey Mead
Twelve – Allison Slater Tate
Thirteen – Bethany Meyer
Fourteen – Catherine Newman
Fifteen – Jessica Lahey
Sixteen – Marcelle Soviero
Seventeen – Shannon Duffy
Eighteen – Lisa Heffernan

Remainders: The Rest of My Interview with Steven Strogatz



Response to the Atlantic article, "Teaching Math to People Who Think They Hate It," a look into Steve Strogatz's adventures teaching math to liberal arts majors at Cornell, has been lovely. I've received a couple of emails asking for more information about Discovering the Art of Mathematics, Julian Fleron and his team at Westfield State, so Steve and I thought it might be fun to post the rest of our interview, as well as a link to the scalene triangle straight-cut origami exercise described in the article (Chapter 3 of Discovering the Art of Mathematics: Art and Sculpture).

Steve is a great interview; he loves what he does, and has a knack for explaining the details of that love to other people. I hated having to cut anything he said, but in order to make my word count, I had to chop, chop, and snip, snip.

If you'd like to read Steve's work, and you have not read his "Elements of Math" series in the New York Times, I highly recommend that series of essays as a starting place. Be sure to start with the first one, "From Fish to Infinity." You can also hear him in his regular appearances on Radiolab.

And with that, here's the rest of our interview, with a few liberties made for the sake of clarity.
  


Lahey: What prompted you to teach mathematics to liberal arts majors?

Strogatz: For the past few years I've been growing dissatisfied with the results of my usual way of teaching, which is lecturing. Although quite a few of my students seemed to enjoy my lectures, many of them weren't engaging with the material deeply. Just watching a performance, a lecture, and then doing homework, wasn't enough to get them to learn the subject properly, to master it.

So I’d been toying with the idea of trying some more active form of teaching and learning, but I wasn't sure how to start. One day when I was at the big annual math meeting – the “Joint Mathematics Meetings” where the major mathematical societies come together in January – I was wandering around in the exhibition hall and came across an exhibit that caught my eye. There were three or four young professors from Westfield State who were encouraging people to play math games. They were handing out Rubik's cubes, getting people to play a game called hex, or tying knots, or even dancing and making knots with their own bodies in groups. When I took a closer look I noticed that they had workbooks strewn over their table. These were workbooks that they themselves had written for a "math for liberal arts" course that they'd been teaching for the past few years at Westfield State. These workbooks were so attractive, and so filled with interesting activities for students to do, that I started to think this could be a way for me to try teaching in a style where my students would be more active.

When I talked with these faculty from Westfield State, I was struck by their passion for what they called inquiry-based learning. I found myself coming back to their exhibit, over and over again, over the next few days. I kept bringing other colleagues over to their booth to show them what was going on, to show them how cool and exciting it was. Something about it grabbed me.

And I guess what really clinched it was when Julian Fleron, one of the faculty from Westfield State, told me that they had a grant from the National Science Foundation to spread their ideas widely through the math community, and that they would be delighted to come to Cornell to give us a workshop, to show us how to make this style of teaching a reality in our courses. That was an offer I couldn't refuse. So when the time came to choose courses for this year, I asked to teach a course that was already on the books at Cornell called "Mathematical Explorations." It turns out that a course in this active style of learning, this inquiry-based learning, already existed at Cornell and had been taught for a number of years. But I had only recently joined the math department, having spent the first 20 years of my career at Cornell in engineering. So the course was new to me. I asked to teach it.

In mid-August the Westfield State folks came to visit us and give us that workshop. They showed us how to teach in this style, and how to assess our students’ performance, and also how to approach some of the psychological issues that come up with this population of students, issues like math anxiety and math phobia. They also showed us what it would feel like to be a student in such a class. My Cornell colleagues and I were the students, doing a paper-folding-and-cutting game; the Westfield State folks were our teachers. That was important since none of us had ever been students in an inquiry-based learning classroom. We needed to know what it felt like, to have the right kind of empathy for our students.


Lahey: Your usual fodder, as evidenced by your Twitter feed, is higher math. Do you find teaching a more...elementary level of math interesting? 

Strogatz: Yes, I find it fascinating and thrilling. This population of students is unlike any I've ever taught before. The course I’m teaching fulfills our "mathematics and quantitative reasoning" requirement at Cornell. That's a requirement to ensure that all students in the College of Arts and Sciences are exposed to some minimal amount of mathematical thinking. As it turned out more than half of the students in my class of about 36 are seniors. In other words, they have been putting off this requirement for as long as they possibly could!

It's what you might imagine – these are students who have had some unpleasant experience with math at some point in their education. For the first assignment I asked them to write their mathematical autobiography, detailing experiences that they had both good and bad in their math education up to this point. I also wanted to hear about any teachers who made an impression on them, positively or negatively, and what other subjects they're interested in and so on. I'm still reading through some of those autobiographies now but what's emerging is that many of the students liked math for several years. These are all very bright students but somewhere along the line they got discouraged. Sometimes it was because of a certain teacher or subject. In other cases everything was fine through high school, but when they took calculus at Cornell, something about that class turned them off.

As for teaching at a more elementary level, well, first of all, math is interesting at every level. Elementary school math is just as interesting as middle school, high school, college, or graduate level math. I love thinking about the fundamentals! So the elementary nature of the subject is not an issue.

Besides, what we’re exploring in this class is not particularly elementary! This week, for example, the week that you're visiting, we’ll be investigating ideas in abstract algebra (in the particular, the subject known as group theory) but we’ll be doing it in an unusual way (at least, unusual for a math class): we'll use dance to explore symmetry. Dance may be a bit of an inflated word for what we’re doing (in fact, I was a little intimidated to start teaching about dance, since I'm such a lousy dancer myself). What we’re doing is more like striking a pose. Or moving very slowly from pose to pose, while a partner tries to follow the leader in mirror-image symmetry, or rotational symmetry, or some other type of symmetry.

I have to say that teaching this class has been a joyful experience in a way that no other class I've ever taught has been. I love teaching, and I certainly love teaching students who already enjoy math – don't get me wrong. But there's something remarkable about working with a group of students who think they hate math or find it boring, and then turning them around, even just a little bit.

For example, the first activity that we worked on was what's known as “straight-cut origami.” Imagine a simple shape, say an equilateral triangle, drawn on a piece of paper. The goal is to cut out the triangle with scissors. Except that you're not allowed to cut out the triangle in the obvious way. Instead you have to fold the paper in such a way that you can cut out the triangle by making a single straight cut. For an equilateral triangle this turns out to be pretty easy and everyone can do it. But if you pick a general triangle – a scalene triangle, meaning one where all three sides are different lengths – then figuring out how to fold the paper in such a way that you can cut out the triangle with a single straight cut turns out to be very difficult. Or, at least, not obvious. I had trouble with it myself for quite a while the first time I tried it.

So while we were working on this in class, with the students seated at tables of four, all discussing the problem, showing each other their ideas, things that had worked or not worked, after they struggled with this for about a half-hour it turned out that only one student out of 36 was able to do it. So at the end of the class, when I noticed that there were only about five minutes left I asked "Would you like a hint?" A few students immediately said yes, but then they were drowned out by the rest of the class, which said no!

I was so proud of them. They were having a true mathematical moment. That is, they were deeply engaged with a puzzle that made sense to them, and they were enjoying the struggle, and no, they did not want a hint! They were feeling what anyone who loves math feels, the pleasure of thinking. The pleasure of wrestling with a problem that fascinates you. No one in the class was asking, “what is this good for?” Or "where will I ever use this?” Those are questions that students ask only when they are not engaged.

I told the students to think about the scalene triangle over the weekend and to try it in their dorm room. Over the weekend I started to get emails from some of them expressing the excitement they felt when they solved it. One student wrote: “I am feeling exceptionally accomplished. I have to admit: this math assignment has made my day. I never thought I would ever be saying this.”

Lahey: There has been a lot of talk lately about approaches to teaching math, particularly as it relates to the Common Core State Standards. Do you have any thoughts about the "critical thinking" approach versus the traditional route toward mathematical fluency via math facts and rote execution of concepts?

Strogatz: On the whole I think we usually go too fast in our teaching of math. There's a big rush to cram all kinds of information into the students’ heads, and get them fluent with certain procedures, at the expense of their understanding what they're doing.

But let me be careful here. It's so easy to cast this discussion in black and white terms, to make one point of view seem ridiculous and the other obvious. I don't want to do that, because of course you need to memorize certain things and of course you need to have an understanding of what you're doing.

It'll probably sound like a wishy-washy answer, but I really want both. I want my students to memorize and know basic facts, and I want them to understand what those facts mean, why they're important, where they come up in the real world, how to calculate efficiently and easily with them, how they developed historically, what their connections are to the arts and humanities and sciences and engineering, where they pop up in daily life and in the universe. I want it all and I think students want it all too.

If we just stick to teaching them rote procedures, math becomes meaningless. That's how it's experienced by many people. So I'm definitely against that.

But likewise if we only teach conceptual approaches to math without developing skill at actually solving math problems, students will feel weak. Their mathematical powers will be flimsy. And if they don't memorize anything, if they don't know the basic facts of addition and multiplication or, later, geometry or still later, calculus, it becomes impossible for them to be creative. They can't take the first step, because they have to rely on their graphing calculator, or look something up in a book. That makes for a student who can never achieve the greatest pleasure or success in math, which is to be inventive, to think of things for yourself. It's like in music. You need to have technique before you can create a composition of your own. But if all we do is teach technique, no one will want to play music at all.

Nothing I'm saying here is very radical or surprising to anyone who actually understands mathematics (or any other creative endeavor). If you want to be a great soccer player, you can't just do drills. You won't even want to play soccer if you're just doing drills all day. You have to get out there and play the game, and learn from your mistakes and then practice. Drills have their place, and so does playing the real game.

We do too much drilling in school, and not enough playing of the real game of math. And as with any game, or playing music or making a piece of art, it's doing the real thing that's inspiring. We need to give students more of a chance to do that. And that’s what I'm trying to do in this class. They are actually making mathematics -- in many cases, for the first time in their lives. And they’re loving it. And why wouldn't they? It’s a joyous, glorious experience. At every level. Little kids can make math. It may be the mathematical equivalent of fingerpainting, but it’s still math. Genuine creativity is required at every level.

It's Not Rocket Science


What an amazing week I've had.

I secured a last-second invitation to the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting (as press) and scrambled to cobble together childcare (thanks, Mom!) and a substitute teacher to cover my class (thanks, Mark!) so I could attend, and cover a great education story that was embargoed until the last day of the conference. My plan was to show up, shut up, listen, and learn.

Mission accomplished. Well, save for the shut up part, I met some hysterically funny journalists and we had a lovely time tweeting the conference and mocking each other's clothing choices.

Related: you should start reading The Dodo, a "celebration of animals" site - their rights, their value, their stories. I've already retweeted a whole bunch of their posts (Albino orcas? Clouds on weather radar that turn out to be swarms of butterflies? I'm in) and am a new fan, both of The Dodo and a member of their community, David Becker. Follow him, @notadolphin, on Twitter. He's hysterical.

I'm struggling to recount the amazing things I saw and heard this week without sounding braggy or starry-eyed, but trust me, I'm simply in awe that I got to be there and bear witness. There are the obvious things - yes, I spent a lot of time in the same room as Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton (it was a BIG room). President Barack Obama spoke to us immediately after he ordered airstrikes on Syria, and yet managed to create a sense of unity and purpose in a room of people divided on his actions. I looked over to my right during a taping of a CNN segment, noticed Julia Ormond was a couple of seats over from me, and realized she was present not for the star thing, but to learn and advocate for farm workers. Yes, I got to watch Matt Damon rescue a moderator who had allowed a session to go painfully off-schedule with incredible kindness and skill. At one point, Madeleine Albright was just standing there, in the middle of a hallway, as if she did not even know that she's f-ing MADELEINE ALBRIGHT. Aloe Blacc, The Roots, Eva Longoria (her dress wasn't too tight; she was clearly nervous), Jason Mraz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Randy Jackson, Raining Jane, Seth Meyers, Natalie Merchant, Ashley Judd, Tony Blair...yes, I was there for all of that, but here are the highlights of my week, the moments that touched me, challenged me, moved me.

At the top of my list is Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and the President of the Gbowee Peace Foundation. To understand the power of this woman, watch the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. You can see it here, on PBS. At the very least, watch her interview on the Daily Show.

Here were my favorite Leymah moments from the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting plenary session, "Equality for Girls & Women: 2034 instead of 2134":

On fear: "It's not that I'm not afraid at times, but I never allow fear to stop me."

On living a life that will have value to the world: "I tell myself always that there are two options in life: to live and die, and everyone will come to that place. You will die at some point. Do you want to die, and there's no one looking around and saying, 'Oh! Did she die?' I want to die, and then that morning, when the announcement is made, everyone will be like, WOAH. This is a loss for the world."

On helping men understand the practical value of educating their daughters: "Ask them, 'How many men in this village have daughters who never went to school?' 'Ten.' 'What is their lifestyle, what is their economic situation?' 'How many men in this community have daughters who went to school?' 'Five.' 'Oh - what is their lifestyle?' 'Oh, that man? He owns a car, he goes on vacation!' That is the value of sending your daughter to school. It's not rocket science."

Here's the video from the session, CGI 2014 Plenary: Equality for Girls & Women: 2034 instead of 2134 (scroll down a bit), if you'd like to watch yourself. Go to 1:36:00-ish. As for me, I've downloaded Leymah's book, Mighty Be Our Powers, and will be listening on the bus ride home today.

Leymah. Sigh. I'm going to be thinking and talking about her a lot in the days to come. I may even use a section of her book tomorrow morning in my English and writing class. Maybe an exercise in writing autobiography... a 'what is your power?' kind of thing. I think Stephen King would approve.

Finally, here's the video of the closing plenary, "Aiming for the Moon and Beyond," which was fantastic. However, if you are short on time, go to 1:23:10, and listen to the last two minutes. I don't think I breathed during the last minute or so, and when I looked over at the journalist next to me, she was weeping. We were tired, on inspirational overload, and yet, that final minute managed to synthesize and articulate everything we'd seen, and everything we'd like to be, in a perfect moment I won't ever forget.

I Was Burned but I Called it a Lesson Learned

I do a lot of speaking, and I never take that honor and responsibility for granted. I get to do what I love because people regularly pay me to stand at the front of a room and teach them things. That's still amazing to me.

A while back, I got to stand before an audience of a couple of hundred people who had taken two hours out of their busy lives to learn more about education in this country, and that is an beautiful thing. I have no idea what I looked like up there on stage - I hope I appeared composed and calm, because inside, I was bonkers. In the two hours preceding the event, I'd had my own, private Gift of Failure experience. In the interest of viewing every failure as an opportunity, I'd like to take a moment to pass on a few things I learned from my many failures yesterday.

1. All of the streets in downtown Newark are either one way, inevitably oriented in the opposite direction you need to travel, or - and this one was new to me - marked for straight-ahead travel only. As in, yes, there are plenty of streets that run perpendicular to the street you need to get off of in order to go around the block, but that particular maneuver is illegal. In fact, if you try it, LOTS of pedestrians will be kind enough to point (and otherwise gesticulate) this out. Which leads me to...

2. There is a police car parked at every corner in Newark. I have no idea how many police officers the city employs, but it's a lot. And they are all waiting for drivers to try to make a turn off of these turn-less streets to nowhere. Especially the ones with New Hampshire plates. Here's the URL for a handy way to pay traffic tickets online, by the way.

3. The people of Newark are lovely. To the fifteen people I spoke with in search of the Holy Grail of Newark (AKA public parking, see point number 4), you are a beautiful, merciful, and kind people. Good Samaritans all. At the very least, you offered up your pity, which was nice, in its own, quiet and sad way.

4. It only looks like Newark has parking. This is a tantalizing mirage; do not be fooled. I can only speak for my own experience at lunchtime on a Wednesday, but as far as I can tell, Newark only contains "LOT FULL" parking areas, staffed with employees who are very good at the finger wiggle that signifies, "Don't even THINK about pulling into my lot, lady, because I already have six cars too many in here."

5. Even when an event is professionally managed, make sure they have reserved a parking space for you.

6. And that you know where the company parking lot is.

7. And that you have a direct line to the person in charge of the event and the number for the security desk and the number for an alternate person who can call down to the parking garage to insist, yes, it's okay to let the nice, sweaty, nervous lady into the parking garage even if her name is not on the list.

8. They don't let you in to some parking garages when your name is not on The List.

9. Parking garages have security cameras that you will only notice after you have pulled down your pants between two cars in order to change out of your comfy driving clothes and into your not-as-comfy speaking clothes.

10. Sometimes parking garages have no pedestrian exits. True story.

11. I may be late to the party on this one, but high heel shoes have metal in them. Just enough, apparently, to set off metal detectors, so even when you are in a hurry, and you have already been through the metal detector three times, twice without your glasses, they are still going to ask you to "step to the side, and wait for someone to do a manual scan."

12. When all of these things happen to you, you need to take a deep breath before shaking hands with the person who hired you. He or she deserves your best, speaker-ly, pleasant (if sweaty from running six blocks in metal-filled heels) self. Wait until after the event to share your story with a sense of humor, have a few good laughs with the event director over the irony that yes, your book is indeed called The Gift of Failure, and, see what you just did there, learning from your own failure? Finally, thank them so much for having faith in you, as you silently resolve to leave three hours of wiggle room - not two - before your next event.

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.

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


*


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.






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 FreeRangeKids.com 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."

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*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

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."



Life is What Happens...

I'm back in New York this week, hanging out with my friend Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, and this time, we're talking about making the conscious decision not to be busy on the Kathie Lee and Hoda show. Thanks to Brigid Schulte for providing the inspiration in the form of her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, and to Jacoba Urist for the piece she wrote for Today.com.



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Pimping the Pantheon

My vestigial teacher calendar notified me that it's National Mythology Exam season, so I though I'd re-share my favorite study too. I present, "Pimping the Pantheon." Enjoy! 


The National Mythology Exam is coming up in two weeks, and my Latin classes are knee-deep in Roman and Greek gods. We've been reviewing the stories, symbols, family trees, and domains, so today, it was time to test the kids to see how much they have learned.

I rolled my laptop up to the front of the room and projected this painting up on the white board:


This is the The Gods of Olympus, by Guilio Romano (1499-1546), a trompe l'oiel ceiling from the Sala dei Giganti that represents the gods and other immortals of Olympus. I blew the painting up so it covered most of the whiteboard, handed each one of the kids a marker, and told them to get to it: Identify all the gods.

I don't know what it is about markers and whiteboards, but my students go a little crazy. They circled and labeled and argued and voted...and watching them...it was the most fun I've had all week.

One of my goals is to get the students to the point where they can identify the gods by their symbols - trident, hat, armor, owl, whatever. And today, they did really well. The seventh grade found (going counter-clockwise from Zeus at 6:00 with his thunderbolts that look like wheat sheaves): Artemis, Demeter, Heracles, Dionysus, Hermes, Hephaestus, Apollo, Pan, Athena, (they missed Hestia; she's too ambiguous to identify here),  Persephone, Poseidon, Cronos, Rhea, Hades, Ares, Eros, and Aphrodite.

I then put up Saturn, by Goya.


I knew they would know this one, and they did. Some had learned about Goya in their art history class (thank you Crossroads, for having an art history class). Here, Saturn, or Cronos, is eating up his children so they can't overthrow him just as he overthrew his father. Too bad he missed one; that will come back to bite him in the ass.

Next, I put up a more challenging scene. Before moving on to this one, I reminded them of the various ways to "read" a painting - left to right if it's telling a story, or, in the case of this painting, which tells two stories, from the center out in opposing directions. 


Starting from the center, you have the first man, as modeled by Promethius, who is on the right talking to the lady with the red sash. I had given them the clue that this was a painting to be divided in two, so they quickly identified Promethius' brother, Epimethius, on the left. Back to Promethius. He's being counseled by Athena, who passes her wisdom (remember that later on when I point out an owl in another painting) on to Promethius, who then shares it with mankind. If you look up to the right, you can see Athena flying off with Promethius in the next phase of the story, and he's clutching the fire that he's acquired from Helios (see that vague shape of a chariot with horses in the cloud on the right?) hidden in a fennel stalk. That ember in a fennel stalk is the precursor of the olympic torch, by the way. I love that tidbit. Down in the right corner is mankind suffering from the torments that Pandora let loose out of her jar (see the little jar over to the left of the statue, on the ground in front of the bench?). Back over to the left. Epimethius is shaping a man out of clay in to match the model Promethius made, and there's mankind suffering again in the left corner. Oh, and that monkey guy in the tree? That's Epimethius after Zeus got mad and punished Promethius and Epimethius. I'd take the monkey transformation of Epimethius any day of the week over Promethius' punishment: eternity (well, it would have been, but he got rescued) chained to a rock while eagles (Zeus' bird) eats his liver out every day. Yeah, I have dibs on the prehensile tail.

Next, an easy one:


Yep, that's Hades taking Persephone off to the underworld in his chariot. There are some fun clues in this one, including his bident under his foot and a shadowy Cerberus in the chariot and that nymph trying to stop the chariot, but the kids didn't need it. I also mentioned that while this painting is called The Rape of Persephone, it's really more of the "seizing" of Persephone, which is appropriate, as "rapere" in Latin, which is the root of "rape" is actually to seize. 

Another hard one. I told them to be silent, look carefully, and put the pieces of the puzzle together. 


 Hints: look at what people are holding and remember that the most important people are in the center and in the foreground. The guy with the crown - that's a bident he's holding. The guy on the right has a lyre, and note the wings on the guy next to the woman. And those three biddies on the left in the front? The one of on the right has a spindle with thread in her hand.

Yep, it's the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Hades, the guy with the wings, has led Eurydice down to the underworld after her death (by snake, nasty stuff), and Orpheus has descended with his lyre to sing for Hades and his wife Persephone in order to beg to get his love Eurydice back. Persephone talks Hades into it. The Fates are there on the left because they are the ones who determine human life and would have something to say about allowing Eurydice to thwart death. Clotho ("the spinner") spins the thread of human life, Lachesis ("the drawer of lots") measures it out, and Atropos ("the inevitable") cuts the thread. Even Zeus could not go against these ladies, despite the fact that he often wanted to. Back to the story. Orpheus was allowed to take Eurydice back up to the world, but he had to NOT LOOK BACK, which of course, he does, and she disappears. When the gods tell you to do something, do it. That's the moral of that story.

Another story:


This one goes left to right. The quality isn't great, so I'll just describe it. This is a panel on a wedding chest, so it's the love story (not the sad bits) of Cupid and Psyche. On the left, Psyche is born and her two sisters hold her lovingly. Once humans start worshipping her more than Venus (see the suitors and the woman in white?), it's bad news for her and her parents, so they go to the temple of Apollo (background) and they are told to leave her on a hilltop (center) and she flies through the air and lands on the ground (follow the flying lady in white) where invisible servants take her to Cupid's palace, where she's told not to peek at her husband WHICH SHE DOES and all hell breaks loose. Do people not listen?? That's him, flying away on the far right. There's a happy ending, but not in this painting. On a wedding chest. Go figure.

Another easy one:


Hunter with arrows and dog stumbles upon bathing nymphs....one of the ladies has a moon on her head...yeah, that's the story of Artemis and Actaeon. Poor bastard came upon Artemis and her nymphs bathing in her secret grotto. Big no-no. She couldn't reach her bow to shoot him (her weapon of choice), so she splashes the spring water on him and he sprouts antlers, turns into a stag, and his dogs tear him to bits. Doh.

That's by Titian, incidentally.

Here's a more obscure story:


Check out the fingers. Yep - those are branches. Eros (hiding under the woman's dress because he knows he's in BIG trouble for starting this mess) made Apollo fall in love with Daphne, a nymph. You can tell that's Apollo because of his quiver and golden bow (and glowy head with a laurel wreath). Daphne was so horrified by Apollo that she ran away, shrieking for her father to help her out, and he rose out of the river (he was a river god) and turned her into a laurel tree. Now, I am always dubious when I teach this myth - how is being a tree better than being seduced by Apollo? As a parent, I give Peneus a break; he was protecting his children the best way he knew how.

Another story, left to right:



The kids nailed this one right away because of the labyrinth on the right, but the story starts on the far left with Ariadne meeting Theseus (with her sister, Phaedra). Moving to the right, Theseus takes her lovely string to the maze, goes in, kills the Minotaur, gets out, takes Ariadne away (the three figures walking back toward the center of the painting), and takes off for Naxos, where he sadly abandons Ariadne and she married Dionysus. There's also a ship with black sails in the background - Theseus had promised his father Aegeus that he would return with white sails if he survived the Minotaur, but Theseus got so excited he forgot to change the sails. His father thought Theseus had died, and he threw himself into the sea...which is why that sea is called the Agean Sea. Sweet story. 

On to one of my favorites...


Yeah. She's naked. Get over it. That's Leda. You can tell because she's having a moment with a swan - Zeus, actually - and there are babies coming out of eggs. Zeus wanted Leda, so he went to her in the form of a swan, she got pregnant and had egg-babies, two of which were Castor and Pollux. They are often portrayed with little skull cap hats to represent fragments of the eggs on their head. I know this because I looked it up last week. You never know when these sort of facts will come in handy.  

This next one's a classic, for so many reasons.


I thought this one would be the easiest myth to identify, but it took the kids a while. Maybe it was because the women are naked, maybe it was because they are, "a little chubby," as one girl put it, but either way, I had to really lead the younger kids through this one. I point them to the guy on the right. What do you notice? Shepherd staff, sheep, sheepdog. Sitting on Mt. Ida. Right. Paris. And the other guy? Winged cap, staff in his left hand - a caduceus, to be precise - and what is that thing in the shepherd's hand? Ah. An apple. I suppose it would have been an easier ID if the apple had said "To the Fairest" on it, but once you put the whole picture together, the story is clear. Three women. One with a peacock, one with an owl and a shield bearing the face of Medusa, and the one in the center stepping forward as if she's been selected (because she's that vain). Note the figure in the sky. That's Eris, companion to Ares, who just loves to stir things up. She's the goddess of strife, and she's the one who instigated this whole apple to the fairest scenario. This is The Judgment of Paris. And those chubby ladies? I call them Rubenesque, which is handy, as this painting is by Rubens. 

When we finished going over each painting, they begged for more, so I gave in and launched iPhoto on my computer. I found my album of photos from the Met's Greek and Roman collection, photos I had not really planned to use yet. I had a grand plan for them; last time I was there, I spent an hour taking photographs of gods and goddesses that might be identifiable by their stance, symbols, tools, clothing, and context, and they were supposed to get organized into a fancy-schmancy PowerPoint presentation. 

Oh well, whatever. I used to be OCD enough to care about this disorganization, but now...when my students plead for more, I can hardly complain about the frayed edges.

There are days I come home exhausted, ready to collapse on the couch, and then there are days like today. Days that propel me into the next day, and the next. 

And the next, which marks the start of February vacation. I plan to thank the gods by making an offering of the choices cuts of fat and meat in my backyard. 

But today? Today rocked. 

Never Let Schooling Interfere With Your Education*



I had a lovely day in Tarrytown, NY yesterday. I was the keynote at a fundraiser put on by the Hackley School Parent's Association at the Tappan Hill Mansion, formerly owned by Mark Twain. He bought what was formerly known as the Hillcrest mansion for his daughter and lived there for two years at the end of his life. As I looked out over his view of the Hudson River, wishing I had thought to bring my white Twain suit and black bow tie*, I had one of those sappy gratitude moments. I get to meet some very nice people in some really cool places.

I also noted, as I gazed out on this awesome view, that if you figure inflation into the mix, Twain got a damn good deal for the mansion and its 19 acres when he paid $47,500.00 for it in 1902. The purchase amount was well under the asking price of $50k, which makes sense. He was heavily in debt to his buddy and occasional benefactor Henry H. Rogers (Standard Oil money) at the time, so he was feeling the economic squeeze. He even resorted to the notably un-cool move of contesting his taxes and successfully had his town assessment reduced. Among the "Tarrytown Millionaires," lofty tax assessments were a boasting point, so his request was notable - and perceived as odd - at the time. It was not the first time Twain was ID'd as a quirky guy, nor would it be the last.

But back to the point of my post. As promised, Hackley parents, here is the bibliography for the long version of the speech I gave yesterday, including all of the books and studies I specifically mentioned and lots more I would have mentioned given more time.

Thanks again, for inviting me!

Books referenced in my talk:

William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I

Study: inflated praise makes children with low self-esteem feel worse. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_143884.html

Not referenced, but also very interesting:

James M. LangCheating Lessons: Learning from AcademicDishonesty (kids don’t cheat on tasks for which they are intrinsically motivated)




*This quote is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, but there is also some controversy about the veracity of this attribution. You can read more about this debate here.
**People tend to picture Twain in his white suit, but this was not a daily get-up. According to some quick research I did before showing up at the Tappan Hill Mansion (what can I say, I like to cover my research bases in case there's an appropriate moment for a Twain joke), he wore the white suit at a 1906 congressional committee meeting about copyright. Notably, he wore it in photographs, so it came to be his "thing" just as people tend to picture Emily Dickinson in black even though she usually wore white.