A Tale of Two Towels

All these things, and a thousand like them, came to pass in and close upon the dear old year two thousand and nineteen.

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See these towels?

These towels left our house in August of 2018, when my son and his girlfriend went out to enjoy a romantic evening by the firepit. The stone benches were wet, so my son took the towels to keep their butts dry.

The next morning, I noticed the towels were still outside, so I asked my son to bring them in and wash them. I mentioned for the record that no matter how long he delayed, no matter how effectively he hemmed and hawed, I would not touch those towels.

And lo, A Tale of Two Towels began.

The Towels saw summer wind down and a beautiful Vermont fall come and go. I could not see them for much of the winter, but they were still there, hidden but never forgotten, under piles of drifting snow.

Come April, when the last of the snow finally melted into mud season, the towels reappeared.

In the first week of May, my son invited a bunch of his friends home from college for dinner. Figuring they might use the firepit, he moved the towels (and about a pound of wet leaves and sticks) to the sill on the back porch, within twenty feet of the washing machine.

There was much rejoicing, and later, much passive-aggressive commentary .

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Yesterday, as we were preparing to host some medical students in our home, this writer’s husband freaked out and caved. Embarrassed by their smelly, wet nastiness, he gathered up the towels (along with the aforementioned pound of leaves and sticks) and placed them in the washing machine.

I discovered his tactical error later that night and determined not to let this one defeat mar twenty-plus years of marriage, started the machine’s self-cleaning cycle with a double dose of Affresh.

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For much of today, I thought our Tale was over. We fought the good fight for almost a year, but in the end, our son’s formidable delay tactics and my husband’s aversion to mildew were our undoing.

But this evening, I discovered my valiant and determined husband returned the towels, unfolded but sweet-smelling, to their place on the sill.

And with that, our Tale continues, afresh.

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Thus did the year two thousand and nineteen conduct their Greatnesses, and myriads of small creatures—the creatures of this chronicle among the rest—along the roads that lay before them.

Life Handed Me Lemons

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About a month ago, I got some news I’ve been dreading, but kinda-sorta expecting. The drug and alcohol rehab where I’ve taught for the past five years is closing its doors to teens. This is horrible news on so many levels.

Selfishly, I’m devastated. I’m not quite sure what to do with myself when I’m not in a classroom, teaching adolescents. I’ve been a teacher for twenty years, and when people ask me what I do for work, I always identify as a teacher and a writer, in that order. I can’t teach full-time due to my busy speaking schedule, not to mention the serious butt-in-chair time I need to finish my new book on preventing childhood substance abuse, so I’m on the hunt for a new part-time teaching gig. I have some ideas, and even have a few meetings on the calendar, but in the meantime, I’m bereft.

In the bigger picture, though, closing one adolescent rehab program leaves Vermont with only one remaining inpatient drug and alcohol treatment program for kids. There are a few outpatient, community-based programs, but only one place for kids to get away for intensive, inpatient treatment, and even that one remaining facility is best suited for kids with co-occurring psychiatric issues.

So here we are, in the middle of a drug addiction crisis, shutting kids out of residential treatment, often the best treatment option for kids, especially those in state care. Many students have told me that the rehab is the only place where they feel safe, the first consistent schedule they’ve had, and the first school experience they’ve enjoyed.

But I digress. I did not mean for this post to become a screed about the dearth of substance abuse treatment for adolescents. This post is about making lemonade from from all these damn lemons.

When I first took my teaching job, I thought I was volunteering. Turns out, it was a paid position. I decided to take my weekly paycheck, deduct the taxes, and spend the rest on books. I ordered new books every week, either as kids requested titles or as a ploy to tempt my reluctant readers with books about their interests. You claim you have no hobbies but you love your Pit Bull Terrier? There’s a book for that (Pit Bull, by Brownwen Dickey, and it’s great). The students stole all five copies of Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke? I can buy more. A full classroom set of David Almond’s Skellig or Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book so we can read along together? Sure, why not?

Even given the egregious rate of theft (but come ON, if a kid steals a book, that means a kid is reading a book, so I still win), after five years of spending fifty dollars every week, I have a lot of books. I could save them for my next teaching gig, but it feels like a crime to keep books on a shelf when they should be in kids’ hands.

So here’s my plan:

I will be curating five boxes containing my students’ very favorite independent reading, one box for every glorious year of teaching in my run-down, drafty farmhouse classroom.

If you’d like to enter the giveaway, fill out the form below. Entering means you will be eligible to win the books and you will also be signed up for my very intermittent newsletter. Don’t worry, your information will always be kept private.

I will be randomly selecting five winners on June 1. Note that I’ve included a field in case you spot a book you really want in the picture above, so feel free to make requests! Note: Not all books included in the giveaway are visible. *

Update: I just finished Shane Burcaw’s Strangers Assume My Girlfriend is My Nurse and loved it so much I bought additional copies so I can include one in each box! We interviewed Shane about his writing career for an upcoming episode of the #AmWriting podcast, and he’s simply delightful.

*US mailing addresses only, please. I’m not made of money.

Name *
Name

Letters to Boys About Love

Recently, Fatherly.com asked me to write my take on the prompt, “Letters to Boys About Love.” I usually have plenty to say to boys - my two sons in particular - but when it came time to write, the words would not come easily. I’d planned to write something light, a cheery and optimistic take on the joy to be found when we put our love and trust in another human being.

This is what appeared on the page instead.

Dear Inmate 20162,

I became your teacher on your first day of eighth grade, and as soon as we met, in my small New Hampshire classroom, I knew you were special.

A month after we met, I told my husband that you were the kind of person I hoped my sons would become. You were kind, generous and charismatic. I gushed about your formidable mind and unlimited potential.

I grew to admire you more as a glorious fall faded into a gray New England winter, and I started to get glimpses of the adult you could become. Adolescence had begun to carve adult angles from your round, pubescent cheeks, and you grew taller than me somewhere between Thanksgiving and the winter holiday.

As winter melted away, I began crafting your high school recommendation. Teachers and admissions officers communicate with a tacit lexicon of restrained adjectives and euphemisms, a sort of recommendation-speak used to convey students’ vices and virtues, achievements and potential. Once, maybe twice a year, a few students grant me the opportunity to depart from that coded language and write freely, enthusiastically, in a genuine language of respect and admiration.

Letters written in this language puts admissions officials on alert, it says: pay attention, for this student has the potential to leave a permanent mark on the world.

That spring, you got into your dream high school, and the possibilities seemed spread out before you, the world at your feet.

Four years later, on a beautiful summer morning, I opened my newspaper and read that you had been arrested and charged with rape. The words “aggravated” and “sexual assault” were printed beside a photograph of you, staring straight into the police officer’s camera.

I apologize for the jump, but you can read the rest of my letter here, at Fatherly.com. The other letters to boys about love are lovely by the way, especially this one by Sarina Bowen, “How to Write a Happy Ending to a Romance Novel.”


An Apology

As you may know, a quote from me in Friday’s Los Angeles Times has upset many, many people in the type 1 diabetes community. Some have asked for an apology. Some have rejected the one I made. Others threatened my livelihood and called me names.

I am deeply sorry for the pain my out-of-context and massively condensed quote caused. I hope this heartfelt apology and fuller explanation help ease that pain.

As Los Angeles Times reporter Benjamin Oreskes and I discussed the college cheating scandal and also the fine line between parenting and overparenting, I told him a story about a mother I met last year after giving a talk at a college. The mother approached me with a question relating to her daughter’s type 1 diabetes.

The mother said she monitors her twenty year-old daughter’s blood sugar on an app she keeps on her phone. The app allows her to see blood sugar highs, lows, averages, and long-term trends, and she can better understand what her daughter needs based on real-time data. The mother said she would contact her daughter when blood sugars were too high, or too low, and that the mother was the one in charge of adjusting insulin doses and diet in response.

We marveled at the app for a bit, and how it was an incredible improvement on the old-fashioned ways I saw blood sugar monitored in my family. Based on that family experience, plus my work supporting many students with type 1 diabetes, I said I saw how monitoring glucose through that app could help the mother be a crucial safety net for her college-aged daughter.

Then the mother asked me another question, saying it was the question she’d approached me about in the first place: How does a parent of a child with a serious illness walk that line between supporting a child with increased health care needs and doing too much for them? She said she wanted her daughter to learn to manage her own self-care at the same time she worried that she might be getting in the way of that maturation by always taking charge of her daughter’s diabetes management. She said she could not find a way to step back now even as her daughter had entered her twenties. She confessed she had no plan, and wasn’t sure how to make one.

I empathized as best as I could, given that I do not have a child with a serious illness. Then I offered the advice she asked me for. I suggested that she talk with her daughter about a long-term, gradual plan to shift the bulk of the responsibility for monitoring her diabetes to her daughter. We discussed some possible strategies that might work for her family … and that was it. She thanked me for my talk, I thanked her for sharing her story with me, and we went our separate ways.

In Friday’s Los Angeles Times, this long story was condensed down to 42 words, and Los Angeles Times reporter Benjamin Oreskes added his own characterization of the mother’s blood sugar monitoring, “this seemingly basic task,” a description I never would have used, since monitoring diabetes type 1 is anything but basic or simple.

As someone who has dedicated my career to the health, welfare, and education of children, I am deeply sorry for the way my quote has affected the parents of children with type 1 diabetes. I see those parents as heroes. As my children will eagerly tell you, I am far from perfect as a mom, and the last thing I would ever want to do is add to the challenges parents in the type 1 diabetes community face every day.

I hope this apology, and clarification of what I actually said, helps ease the pain my quote caused. I have learned a lot from the past two days, including that the type 1 diabetes community is strong, vocal and activated. That spirit of self-advocacy and empowerment is exactly what our children need.

A Short Walk

I have the incredible good fortune to live in the same neighborhood as my friend and #AmWriting podcast co-host KJ Dell'Antonia. When people ask how far we live from each other, I tell them I can walk up the street, across a meadow, and through some woods, and be in her front yard in under twenty minutes.

In just a few months, my weekly journey to KJ's house will change, as I am moving with my family to western Vermont, about two hours away. 

I will miss my short walk to KJ's, so this week, I recorded it for posterity and for you.

 

 

 

Illinois Overhauls Education for Children in Juvenile Detention

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Six years ago, before she arrived on the job, Superintendent Sophia Jones-Redmond’s district, Illinois #428, was failing on all counts. The schools were plagued by violence, abysmal graduation rates, inadequate teaching, and was failing to provide special education services or mental health counseling to its students. Her district isn’t large; the six schools she manages educated a total of 390 kids in 2016. Ninety-six percent of her students are male, 78 percent are black or Hispanic, and 100 percent have been convicted of a felony.

Like many other U.S. school districts, #428 needed to change. Unlike other districts, however, #428 had no choice.

School district #428 is comprised of Illinois’ six juvenile detention facilities, and in 2012, the ACLU sued the district on behalf of 1,000 juveniles for what Jones-Redmond (who was not then on staff) acknowledges was, “…atrocious behavior. We were not educating kids, we were confining kids up and beyond thirty days in a cell. […] There were kids were not attending school for three straight weeks. They were kicking it. You know who else was kicking it? The staff.”

As a result of the suit, the federal government ordered Illinois to comply with consent decrees and overhaul just about every aspect of education in Illinois’ juvenile detention facilities.

“Everything about IDJJ got flipped up, and it was amazing” said Jones-Redmond during the panel, “Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline” at the 2018 SXSWEDU conference in Austin.

The consent decree outlined five guiding principles to shape reform in district #428: appropriate class size, the goal of rehabilitation, plans for reintegration, a safe and respectful environment, and strict reporting requirements to promote transparency and accountability.

The first thing Illinois did was divert all non-violent offenders out of juvenile detention facilities and into community-based programs. This immediately reduced the incarcerated population by half, but left the felons—the most violent, disruptive, and troubled youth—in the classroom.

Once the general detention population was reduced, #428 had to hire teachers and lower its student-teacher ratio in the classroom. Jones-Redmond described the process during her panel session:

In the past we would have upwards of twenty youth to one teacher. Everybody, just come in and you know, sit down, and you all can just play cards; just be quiet. Well, the consent decree said no, you will have to have maximum, one teacher for every ten children in the general education environment and if the youth has a special education need, you will have to provide one teacher to every six kids.

Next, district #428 implemented a blended learning model in which students are able work individually, at their own level and pace, under the guidance and supervision of teachers but with the additional support of virtual classrooms and instructional videos.

The students in Jones-Redmond’s district needed more than just curriculum and effective teaching strategies in order to succeed, however. Sixty percent of youth in the district receive individual mental health services, and all juveniles have access to substance abuse treatment, psychiatric services, medical interventions, group therapy sessions and family therapy.

Educators received training in trauma-informed teaching, every school in the district hired a counselor, a special needs coordinator, and a licensed, on-call substitute teacher.

Thanks to the consent decree’s reporting requirement, it’s possible to see the progress school district #428 has made in the past couple of years. Despite cutting the juvenile population from 697 to 390 through the misdemeanor diversion program, the district increased the number of diplomas they awarded by 15 percent. In 2016, the six schools in the district #428 awarded 40 eighth grade diplomas, 143 high school diplomas, and 68 General Equivalency Degrees (GEDs).

Jones-Redmond says these degrees are about a lot more than curriculum or graduation rates. “We are in the business of saving lives. That’s what we do.”

As she concluded her overview of the data on school district #428’s successes, Jones-Redmond recounted the story of a boy who was so angry that he was being forced to go to school, he contacted the ombudsman. ‘Nobody is going to make me go to school,’ he stated in his formal complaint. Rather than punish this kid for refusing to attend, Jones-Redmond decided to travel the five hours from her office to the juvenile detention facility in order to meet with him.

We wrassled for 45 minutes and came to an agreement that he was going to go to school, and he was going to give it a try. But what I did was build a relationship at that moment with him. […] What if I gave up, and said you know what, you don’t have to go to school, just keep playing cards and watching Judge Judy and the news shows. But you know what? We don’t give up.

Unfortunately, most states do. According to Dr. Lynette Tannis of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who spoke on the same SXSWEDU panel as Jones-Redmond, only 8 percent of states maintain a program for incarcerated youth that’s comparable to the programs in the state’s community schools, and kids with special needs tend to fare even worse. When researchers asked these kids about their classroom experiences, only 46 percent reported they were receiving the services detailed in their Individualized Educational Programs, or IEPs.

The boy Jones-Redmond met with, who agreed to give school a try, went on to become the keynote speaker at his graduation. As she told the story of this boy and the time she spent with him, Jones-Redmond smiled with obvious pride in his accomplishments.

Change is possible, Redmond-Jones insists, even for the most challenging students in the most underperforming districts.

Educating and advocating for these kids can be a hard sell, but she’s all in. “We have youth that have shot and killed people, but you know what? They are still our kids, and they deserve an opportunity.”

 

Minimum Highway, Maximum Donuts

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Long time no blog. Oh, and long time no videos. Sorry about that. I'm on the road a lot right now, but I promise to get to the new one, "How Do I Get My Kid to Shower," up this week. I kid you not, I get this question on a regular basis. 

I just got back from Seattle, where I spoke at Microsoft and a couple of schools. Hurricane Toby messed with my return flight despite the fact that a Toby is less of a fearsome storm and more of a nice guy you send your good friend on a blind date with. 

Thanks to Toby, we (I was with Finn, my 14yo) were stuck in the Pacific Northwest for an extra three days, so I rented a car and we embarked upon an adventure.

We'd visited and eaten all the Seattle stuff, including hot, house-made donut holes at Lola, so we changed the GPS settings in the car to "minimum highway, maximum donut," and got out of town. First destination, Mt. Rainier. Finn's science teacher, Mr. P, suggested we make the trip. They are studying plate tectonics in school, so we set out to get up close and personal. 

Mt. Rainier
Type
: Stratovolcano
Elevation: 14,411 ft.
Tectonic Plate: Subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate and North American plate
Glaciers: 26
Donuts: None

Sure, I knew about the active volcano part, but what I did not know, is that Mt. Rainier is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. It's so dangerous, it's on the "Decade Volcano" list, one of ten volcanoes so appallingly, imminently dangerous they merit close study and monitoring. 

It did not erupt while we were there, but it was close. Thanks for the tip, Mr. P. 

On to Portland (back roads, Voodoo Doughnut). We painted Portland red (read: we went to Powell's Books, ate dinner with our friend Asha, and went to bed early), then headed west, through Tillamook State Forest (one of the wettest places in the U.S.), then puttered around the Oregon coast. If we saw a sign for it or noted a little interesting cove on the map, we went.

Recommendation for good marionberry cobbler? We sought it out (it was delicious).

Octopus Tree? You'd better believe it. 

Eventually, we made our way up the 101 to Astoria and its sea lion-strewn docks. Astoria may hate the annual occupation by sea lions, but we loved it. I know they probably have super fishy breath, but I don't care. 

On our final day, we went over the huge bridge at the mouth of the Columbia River, and wound our way through coastal Washington toward Tacoma (Rt. 101, Legendary Donuts) and the airport.

Along the way, I received a couple of bleep-worthy tweets from high school students. I was confused, as I have not written anything about increasing homework loads or supporting year-round school recently. After the swearing, however, came the pictures. 

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While Finn refuses to believe it, the hashtag confirms it. I'm a meme.

I asked one of the kids lobbing tweets at me what was up, and he informed me that one of my articles appeared on the SAT as the writing prompt.

Teenage Jess hates adult Jess right now, but adult Jess thinks this is one of the coolest things that's ever happened to her. 

I get to be home for an entire week while my college kid is on break. I'm thrilled, and the animals seemed kind of excited to see me, too. 

L-R, Lucie, Walter, and Gunther.

L-R, Lucie, Walter, and Gunther.

Watch for new videos (here's the link to the Gift of Failure FAQ playlist at YouTube) and check out my schedule below  to see if I will be in your town soon!

March 28BeBold, Bedford, NH (topic: preventing childhood addiction)
April 3Silver Creek Middle School, Rockville, MD
April 4Sheridan School, Washington, D.C.
April 5Congressional School, Falls Church, VA
April 18-19Canyon Ranch, Tucson, AZ (private)
April 24Harding Township Schools, New Vernon, NJ
April 28National Association of Junior Auxiliary Annual Education Conference, Mobile, AL
May 1Huntington Middle School, San Marino, CA
May 2-4Mom2.0, Pasadena, CA (registration required)
May 9Frameworks of Tampa Bay, Tampa, FL (private)
July 1-3Canyon Ranch, Lenox, MA (private)
July 11College of Southern Idaho, Twin Falls, ID
September 27Crofton House School, Vancouver, Canada
October 23The River Center, Peterborough, NH

Episode 3: Should I Let My Kid Quit?

Three weeks in, and this video thing is really fun. Not only am knocking down your fantastic reader questions left and right, I'm getting tons of new ones.

Oh, wait. This was supposed to reduce my reader questions. Ah, well. Keep 'em coming. I love it. 

Episode 1, "How to Parent and Teacher Perfectionist Kids" is really about helping kids value the learning more than the grade, the process more than the product. 

Episode 2, "How to Motivate Kids Who Coast" is about more than giving our kids a kick in the pants so they live up to their potential. It's about modeling intellectual and emotional bravery so our kids will believe us when we tell them that we really do care more about their learning than their grades. 

Episode 3, fresh off the digital presses, is "Should I Let My Kid Quit?" I talk about those music lessons and swimming practices and basketball games your kids claim they don't want to do anymore. Should we allow kids to quit even when they (and you) have years and years invested?  

I hope you find the information helpful, and thanks for watching! If you have a question, feel free to submit it via the form here