Gretchen Rubin

Sex, Drugs, and Dripping Woe

Lucie Manette expresses her disdain for winter's callous indifference to nap location #7 (of 24). 

Lucie Manette expresses her disdain for winter's callous indifference to nap location #7 (of 24). 

Oh, March. 

Every year I remind myself that the lions will, at some point, give way to the lambs, but it's hard to keep an eye out for those lambs when I'm racing around the house with bowls, tubs, buckets, and towels to catch the drips and drizzles seeping out of my doorframes, light fixtures and ceilings. We've signed on the dotted line for a beautiful, drip-free new roof, but alas, our roofer ran late last season with installations, so consequently, we came up a season late and a 50% deposit short.

While I've been holed up like a hermit in her drippy cave, I've had a productive month with sex and drugs. Well, research about sex and drugs, anyway. All I need is a Rolling Stone assignment, and I will have scored a trifecta.

Recently, a mother asked me about what might make her son, who was dabbling in drugs and alcohol, listen to her. What could she say that might make him stop and think, maybe even make better choices? I just happen to teach at a drug and alcohol rehab, so I asked my students to respond to her question. I then asked author and addiction expert David Sheff to take a look at what the kids had to say. Turns out, kids are smart. This isn't exactly news to me, but it was a nice reminder that sometimes, all we have to do is ask kids what they need, then listen to their answers. Here's the link to that article, "Teenagers, Dealing with Addiction, on What Have Helped," which appeared in my column, "The Parent-Teacher Conference," at the New York Times Motherlode blog. 

Which leads me to sex. I've wanted to write a piece about sex education for a while, but when NYU professor Jonathan Zimmerman's new book, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education arrived in my mailbox, I knew it was time. Zimmerman's book is fantastic, and it served as the perfect launching pad for a piece about the state of sex education in the United States. Specifically, it's about the history of sex education, what we teach kids and why, where we are now from a social and political standpoint, and where we might be headed. It features interviews with Zimmerman, sex education instructor Karen Rayne, and Savage Love writer and podcaster Dan SavageHere's that article, "What Schools Should Teach Kids About Sex." 

In book news, I just signed the contract for the audiobook of The Gift of Failure, and I am thrilled to announce that I will be recording it myself! Thanks to my Vermont Public Radio editor and producer, Betty Smith, I am feeling more than up to the task. I've known from the beginning of this wild ride that I wanted to record my book -  I wrote it in my teacher and mom voice, after all - so I'm beyond excited I get to head to the studio at the beginning of April. 

Finally, congratulations to the Massachusetts teacher I don't have permission to name who won the February Gift of Failure drawing! I'm always nervous when I put a galley in the mail, but now that the blurbs are in, I can relax a little bit. At the time the manuscript went out to potential blubbers, exactly two people had read the book, my agent and my editor. Well, three, if you include my editor's assistant. And no, not my husband, not my mom, not my friends. Three people do not a representative sample make, so when the book went out to some of the people I respect most in the world for their opinions, opinions that would end up in print, on my book's cover, I was, well, a little freaked. 

Fortunately, they liked it. I am forever grateful to Susan Cain, Gretchen Rubin, Ellen Galinsky, Amanda RipleyDan Willingham, and Jennifer Senior for agreeing to read my manuscript and for bestowing their kind words on its cover. I've included the blurbs at the end of this post, because it makes me all happy inside every time I see them. 

And thanks to all of you for signing up and being a part of this ride. As always, information on my book tour will be available here, and if you are interested in learning more about using The Gift of Failure as your school or community read (or to find out what the heck a community read is), head on over here

Have a great week, and stay tuned for the results of this month's signed galley drawing on March 31 (the day after a public event at 7PM at Resurrection Episcopal Day School in New York City - come on by and say hello!).  


“It’s hard to overstate the importance of this book. The Gift of Failure is beautifully written; it’s deeply researched; but most of all it’s the one book we all need to read if we want to instill the next generation with confidence and joy.” (Susan Cain, author of Quiet)

“How can we help our children grow to be resourceful, happy adults? Lahey shows in practical terms how to know what your child is ready for and how to offer support even as you encourage autonomy. A wise, engaging book, steeped in scientific research and tempered with common sense.” (Daniel T. Willingham, PhD, author of Why Don't Students Like School?)

“This fascinating, thought-provoking book shows that to help children succeed, we must allow them to fail. Essential reading for parents, teachers, coaches, psychologists, and anyone else who wants to guide children towards lives of independence, creativity, and courage.” (Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project)

“Instead of lecturing us about what we’re doing wrong, Jessica Lahey reveals what she did wrong with her own children and students -- and how she systematically reformed her ways. A refreshing, practical book for parents who want to raise resilient kids but aren’t sure how to start.” (Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World)

“Lahey offers one of the most important parenting messages of our times: Unless we allow our children to learn how to take on challenges, they won’t thrive in school and in life. Her extremely helpful book tells her story, compiles research, and provides hundreds of doable suggestions.” (Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making)

Out of the Red

I can be very, very stubborn. I am sure my parents, husband, sister, sons, friends, in-laws...pretty much anyone who knows me well can attest to this. When something or someone I love is criticized, my first instinct is to suit up for battle, stare the enemy down until he or she bends to my will while I bash them into submission with my keyboard. 

So when my beloved red ink, the ink of choice for teachers everywhere, was implicated as a weapon of teacher cruelty and cause of students' suffering, I dug in my heels. 

So much so that when one of my former students was given her first full-time post as a teacher this year, I searched and searched for the perfect fountain pen, and then, to complete the gift, provided a couple of bottles of lovely red ink. 

She sent a lovely thank you note - in red ink, of course - because she has to use all of that ink somewhere. It won't, she reported, be used at school, because teachers at her new school are not allowed to correct student work in red ink. 

I had no idea. Despite my love of researching and reading all things educational, I'd somehow managed to miss this entire controversy.

I looked around, and asked some teacher tweeps and Facebook friends about the situation, and yes, it's a thing. Apparently, the red ink controversy rears its head every decade or so. 

My first reaction was to mock the entire “controversy.” I know, I know -hello haters, I see your ire rising - but many of the early comments I got back from teachers and psychologists egged me on. 

From a middle school teacher: "Gosh, heaven forbid we express any sort of disapproval!!"
From an adolescent psychologist: "That is nuts. How much should we coddle kids?"
From a writer and teacher: "Why.... because it hurts kids' feeeeeelings? Pardon me while I barf."
From an education writer: “Oh. God. No. I remember sitting through a PD about this and how dispiriting it supposedly was for students to get papers back marked up with red ink. We read a piece about a group of teachers receiving training in this, which concluded with the newly enlightened and chastened teachers dropping their red pens in the trash as they marched out the door. Gag me.”
From a professor: “… boy can I tell which students have never seen red ink before. They also happen to be the same ones who have a nervous breakdown or have their parents call me when they get anything less than an A. One of them actually told me, ‘I don't like it that you give edits in red ink. It makes me feel like I'm not perfect.’"
And again, from that same professor: "Two years ago, one of my students told me he preferred red-ink edits. He said it made him pay attention, and it made him see those edits as corrections and learning moments rather than just notes that he might've perceived as optional or not important."

As you can see, the overwhelming reaction to the complaints about red ink was a strangled, gagging sound.

But then, a teaching miracle occurred. One of my former students offered up evidence. Actual, real, live evidence. This is sheer heaven for for me, particularly because this former student has become a teacher himself. It turns out that NPR, among other news outfits, covered the red ink controversy a while back. Guy Raz interviewed Abraham Rutchcick on All Things Considered about an article Rutchick published on the subject in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

I listened to the NPR piece, then located the original article. According to Rutchick’s article, "The Pen is Mightier Than the Word: Object Priming of Evaluative Standards:"

Because red pens are closely associated with error-marking and poor performance, the use of red pens when correcting student work can activate these concepts. People using red pens to complete a word-stem task completed more words related to errors and poor performance than did people using black pens (Study 1), suggesting relatively greater accessibility of these concepts. Moreover, people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors (Study 2) and awarded lower grades (Study 3) than people using blue pens. Thus, despite teachers' efforts to free themselves from extraneous influences when grading, the very act of picking up a red pen can bias their evaluations.

I was torn. I love my red ink. I have a large bottle of it at school, all sorts of red pens in felt-tip, rollerball, ball-point, and some fancy artists' felt tips I bought for a small fortune in an art supply store in Paris a couple of years ago. I save those for extra-special editing. 

I can’t imagine parting with my lovely collection just because a few students might be a little irked by the color. Besides, I have this lovely letter from a former student, decorated with comments I'd written on her papers over the year I taught her, and it just makes me so happy when I look at it. She saved those papers, valued those comments, and used them to become a better writer. How bad could red ink really be?

To seal the deal, I offer up the concluding questions from the NPR interview: 

RAZ: Professor Rutchick, you are a psychology professor at Cal State Northridge, right?
Prof. RUTCHICK: I am.
RAZ: And when you grade papers, what color pen do you use?
Prof. RUTCHICK: I use a red pen, actually. It's - I have to override somehow my urge to be nice and kind.

See! Even the author of the study that reveals the catastrophic psychic harm red ink can do to students is keeping his red pens!

Just when I was determined to hold on to that red pen until someone pried it out of my cold, dead, fingers, a discussion heated up on my Facebook page:

From an editor at a major publishing house: "As an editor I was always taught to use pencil, not pen, because authors might balk at the permanence of pen (as if the edits were a mandate and not a suggestion). Now I use Track Changes! I do know of one editor who objected to using red (pen or pencil) for its even more dictatorial connotations--he didn't want an author flashing back to some horrible childhood experience. Also, I remember a teacher once writing "awkward" in the margin of a junior high writing assignment, and it took me years to get over!"

And from my always-logical mother-in-law, Kate, a writer and former law professor: "I had no trouble requesting "accommodations" from my students, but only when it made sense. Pissing people off over the color of ink I used just didn't seem worth it, either personally or pedagogically. [...] The red-ink phobia wasn't my imagination; I regularly heard students complain about teachers who 'bled all over their papers.' I'd rather have a student focus on the content of my comments than on the color of my ink."

There it was: “I'd rather have a student focus on the content of my comments than on the color of my ink.”

I may be stubborn, but I am also a sucker for a reasoned, evidence-based argument. And, as I have been engaged in my own "Classroom Happiness Project" thanks to Gretchen Rubin's book The Happiness Project and Happiness at Home, I had to recognize the possibility that I might be making my own students uncomfortable rather than sacrifice my precious red ink. Gretchen writes about how important it is to "acknowledge the reality of people's feelings" in The Happiness Project, so I am. 

This year, I will be correcting my students’ papers in...drumroll...forest green. It’s my favorite color, and if there’s any possibility that my comments will be more readily heard in green rather than red, I’m willing to retire the red ink.

So if anyone out there needs to dye some clothes or whip up a batch of fake blood for Halloween, I happen to know where you can get about a half-gallon of quality red ink, cheap.

P.S. My students asked me to return to red. Or at least some of them did. I switch it up - I have orange, green, turquoise - the new Sharpie pens are lovely - but my sentimental favorite is still red.  

Finding Happiness in the Last Week of Summer

This is it. The last week before school starts. I'm fine once the students arrive, and I take my place with them in the classroom, but the week leading up to the first day is always difficult for me. The anticipation hits a peak in this last week and I tend to lose my head a little bit.

I've prepared my lessons, my classroom, my materials for the first day of school, so all that's left to do is obsess about what else I should be doing to prepare for the coming year.

This year, I am trying something new. In this last week, I am focusing on my home, my family, and my health. In the days leading up to Monday and Tuesday's all-day faculty meetings, and the first day of school on Wednesday, my focus is on happiness at home.

First, health.

My summer diet tends to be plant-based, as I have plowed up much of our yard to make way for vegetable gardens. I love walking outside in the afternoon in order to assemble dinner based on what's ripe. Along with those vegetables, however, we eat a lot of bread and cheese. I make my own butter and ice cream in the summer, out of the beautifully yellow cream of Lee Robie's cows. And because tI don't get up as early in the summer, my husband Tim and I drink more wine to go with all of that bread and cheese.

This last week of summer, the fruits of my garden will be consumed in the form of juice, juice, and more juice. My friend Tom Ryan, author of Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog and an Extraordinary Friendship, has spent his summer on a 70-day juice fast in order to break the cycle of his unhealthy diet and weight gain. He drank his way through the summer and through his book tour for the paperback edition of Following Atticus, and as a result, he's 80 pounds lighter as he begins this new phase of his life. I thought I'd do a shorter, modified juice fast this week in order to clarify my mind and jump-start my health as enter this new year. My fast is amended slightly in order to accommodate dinner with my family. I drink vegetable juice all day and then prepare a vegetarian, mostly raw dinner to share with my husband and sons at our dinner table. No alcohol, no caffeine, and no animal products. I'm feeling great - save for the caffeine withdrawal headache.

Here's what my daily juice ingredients look like. There's also a sink full of kale and chard next to this lovely pile of vegetables from my garden, and all of that becomes about two quarts of juice. I drink that all day, plus one small glass before dinner with the family. Last night's dinner was vietnamese spring rolls filled with rice noodles and raw veggies, dipped in chili-garlic sauce, hoisin and peanuts. Heaven.

Second, home.

I've been writing so much this summer that all of those projects I meant to complete this summer simply  never happened. I meant to re-side a few areas of my house that were rotting, make repairs to the chicken tractor, expand the raspberry patch, fix the rabbit tractor, create two new compost bins, paint over the green screen my kids installed last year in the playroom, and a few other stupid, small tasks. I completed exactly none of these tasks, and this feels terrible. I am used to filling my summer days with the active, tiring work of improving my home, and to reach the end of the summer and realize how much time was lost to an indoor, sedentary life is a real bummer.

So, yesterday, day one, of this last week of summer, I replaced the rotting siding on the lower third of the front of the house, the lower third of the back of my garage, and began repainting the areas that most needed scraping and a new coat of paint.

Today will be spent scraping and painting that garage and completing the second coat on the front of the house. If I have time, I will re-side the lower part of the back of the house.

Last week, Larry Ferlazzo asked me to submit a short piece on how I prepare for the first day of school for his EdWeek blog, which you can find here. When he asked me to write those words, I stuck to the subject of the classroom, but If he were to ask me to write that same piece today, I would have to mention how important it is for teachers to spend some time on themselves, their homes, and their families. Everything will fall into place when the students arrive on Wednesday, August 29, but if our homes are not in order, we won't be giving our students or our families everything they deserve.

This year, happiness in the classroom starts with happiness at home.

Update: front of the house re-painting complete, as long as you do not look at the dormers. I am afraid of heights and Tim won't let me put on my climbing harness and shoes and attach myself to a rafter. Believe me, I thought of it...

Happiness in the Classroom

(c) Leslie Fandrich's Happy Mighty Party Photos

It's August, and my attention is beginning to drift back to school. This happens every year. In June, I can't wait to get out of my classroom, to return to my home and family, to the tasks and responsibilities that have eluded me all year. And then, right around August 1, I can't wait to return to my students; my other family, my other home.

Last week, I returned to my classroom to consider what needs to be done before school starts.

The answer: Yikes. A lot.

I have been at this teaching thing for a while now. I know what I have to do to prepare for the new school year from an academic perspective, but I want to do something new this year, something that makes my classroom a welcoming and supportive place to learn. I considered new posters, bulletin boards, organizational schemes - all the usual teacher tricks. Those help - they certainly give my students something to look at when their attention wanders - but they are not enough. They are not what make my classroom a home, and that's what I want to give my students this year.

(c) Leslie Fandrich's Happy Mighty Party Photos

And then, thanks to the confluence of the stars and some kind friends, I found myself on a glorious terrace in New York City, celebrating the release of Gretchen Rubin's new book, Happier at Home. It's the follow-up to her massively huge New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project. I read The Happiness Project a long time ago and loved it, even before I found out that I have friends in common with Gretchen. As far as I knew, her book was just another nonfiction bestseller blurbed by A.J. Jacobs, and if it's blurbed by A.J., it's good enough for me.

Gretchen's books chronicle her efforts to be happier in her life, and about halfway through Happier at Home, I realized that most of her ideas translate beautifully to the classroom. Gretchen has become a hero to millions of readers, the inspiration for countless personal happiness projects taking place across the country. All I know is that she's a lovely woman whose ideas have managed to touch more readers than I can imagine...including my mother-in-law.

My mother-in-law, Kate, was thrilled when she found out I had attended Gretchen's launch party. She revealed that she keeps 18 of Gretchen's best "Happiness" hints (the chapter headings) in her desk as inspiration.

I told Kate I was thinking about taking Gretchen's tips into my middle school classroom, and asked her to distill her list down to five of her favorite tips. She went through her 18 cards and come up with:

1. Be yourself.
2. Act the way you want to feel.
3. Remember to be grateful.
4. Forget about results.
5. Ask for help.

These are just perfect. Five rules for inspiring happiness in my students and five rules for maintaining my own happiness in the classroom. Here, in the order Kate read them to me over the phone, are my goals for the 2012-2013 school year:

1. Be yourself. Students respond to authenticity. When I love what I am teaching them, they love what I am teaching them. Okay - not always, but most of the time. Students know when their teachers are engaged, comfortable in our skins, and authentically themselves. When we fake enthusiasm, or affection, or authority, they know. They always know.

2. Act the way you want to feel. Yes. I know I just said that teachers have to be honest, but come on. We all have those days. While I love my job, and am excited to go to work nearly every day, there are days that are hard. I am human, but even when I feel tired, sad, angry, or frustrated, I still have to stand up in front of class and be my best self. I hate the term, "fake it 'till you make it," but there's some truth there. If I act happy and enthusiastic about my lessons, I can keep the momentum rolling just long enough for a student to get happy and enthusiastic, and that's all it takes. The ball is rolling, and inertia takes over. The way I want to feel becomes the way I feel. Works every time.

3. Remember to be grateful. I am so appreciative of this tip. I know, Oprah, Christianity, Buddhism, whatever - it may be trite, it's still relevant. My favorite moment of the week is our middle school meeting on Wednesday morning. We make time for "compliments" at the beginning, and the students never fail to amaze me with the moments they recognize and make public to their classmates. "I'd like to compliment Mary because she notices when someone is down," or "I'd like to compliment John because he held the door for me today when my books were falling out of my hands," or "I'd like to compliment Mrs. Smith because she noticed the class was stressed out and she reduced our homework load." It's a magical time for me, and every week, I know I will have a few moments to remember why I love my students and my job.

4. Forget about results. I am frustrated by the importance placed on grades in my classroom, and every year, I attempt to create a focus on the process of learning rather than the results. More often than not, it falls flat, but sometimes, it sinks in. I taught one girl who resisted this message for three years, and in her last months of eighth grade, she made sure to let me she'd been listening. She's still acutely aware of her results, but she also understands that her journey is about letting go and enjoying the ride. That's all I can hope for, I suppose, and I am proud of her realization. My students are a work in progress, so my concession to the process is that I can't expect finished, polished works of art. They are masterpieces, but like Michaelangelo's "Unfinished Slaves," they are emerging masterpieces, and not of my design. They will have their own stories to tell.

5. Ask for help. I am stubborn. So stubborn. I don't like asking for help, because I'd rather spend hours looking for the answers myself than admit that I don't know something. However, this past year, I have opened myself up to the idea that my colleagues have a lot of expertise and information to give, and all I have to do is ask. I admitted to my math phobia and asked my colleague, Alison Gorman, for lessons in Algebra I. I stopped bluffing when it came to the holes in my knowledge of history and asked my colleague, history teacher extraordinnaire Peter Tenney, to help me fill in the gaps. You know what? They were flattered and honored to be asked, and our work relationship is stronger for the request. Best of all, my students have watched me ask for help, watched me admit to my weaknesses. Too often, teachers want to be seen as infallible, but the sooner I can disabuse my students of this notion, the better. We all need help, we all need support, and I am grateful to be reminded of this fact.

So thank you, Gretchen, for reminding me of this. For reminding me how to be happier in my classroom. Because when those first students wander in on August 31, it no longer a classroom. It is my home.

(c) Sheri Silver,