Wiped Out

This piece first ran in our local paper, the Valley News, on Finn's first day of school at Lyme Elementary. Yesterday was Finn's first day of eighth grade, his final first day at our little village school, so here's my love letter to his school, our town, and its traditions.

As a parent and a teacher, September has always represented the promise inherent in handfuls of freshly sharpened pencils and new beginnings. I adore the first day of school, I can’t wait for the arrival of my tanned, happy students, and oh - that first day of class, when anything is possible.

But this year holds special promise for me, as Finnegan, my youngest child, will step up on to the big yellow #2 bus and ride off into his new life as a student at Lyme Elementary School. It’s been a long time coming. I wrote about this day in a letter to my parents years ago, after attending Lyme Elementary School’s holiday concert. Ben, my older son, was in third grade, and therefore officially part of the night’s performance, but four-year-old Finnegan stole the show and set the stage for his future as a part of the Lyme community.

Dear Mom and Dad,

We attended the holiday concert at the Lyme Elementary School last night. Benjamin stood on the risers, dutifully mouthing holiday songs with the rest of the third graders. Meanwhile, down on the gymnasium floor, Finnegan was engaged in his own little performance. He was manically twirling to a beat of his own, tongue lolling, arms all akimbo, all in pursuit of a glance, a smile, any flicker of interest from the object of his affection, the golden-haired Ellie from his preschool class.

I’d like to say I enjoyed both performances equally, but poor Benjamin’s holiday songs were all but ignored by everyone within twenty feet of Finnegan’s preschool mating ritual. It went on for twenty minutes or so. There were elaborate pauses, dramatic exhalations, jazz hands, and then, finally, mercifully, Ellie giggled. Finn froze, awaiting his prize. Ellie whispered to her mother, and a triumphant Finnegan was invited to sit with her on her mother’s lap for the remainder of the concert. He practically glowed with pride. People in the stands around us exhaled with relief, smiled, and whispered quiet congratulations for our son’s hard-won victory.

Nothing, not even the middle school band’s memorable rendition of the Surfari’s “Wipe Out,” could surpass Finn’s moment of transcendent joy in that crowded gymnasium.

However, my favorite event to grace this room, the moment I look forward to every year, is the Lyme Elementary School First Day Assembly.

Students, tanned and shining with excitement, race about in front of the school while parents clutch coffee, visibly relieved by the arrival of new the school year. The whole town mills about, swapping stories and catching up. At exactly 8:10, Principal Jeff Valence ceremoniously rings the old school bell and students congregate near their new teachers, each holding up signs decorated with numbers indicating their respective grade. Older students fall into groups easily, while the younger ones stick to their parent’s legs and nervously search about for familiar faces. Then, starting with the kindergarten, each class processes down the sidewalk and through the school’s front doors. Most years, the kindergarteners make it into the school under their own power, but every once in a while, the line of tiny children is punctuated by a mom or dad, clutching their weepy child to a moist shoulder.

This procession moves in to the gym, where Jeff introduces the teachers and offers up words of inspiration to the students and parents. He might even introduce a kindergartener’s love-tattered stuffed animal to the crowd in order to set a particularly insecure child at ease. Finally, he steps back from the podium and orchestrates the moment we have all been waiting for. We all know it’s coming, we’ve seen it many times, but it’s always the best part of the year. All of the new eighth graders stand at the front of the gym with the kindergarteners in a line in front of them. The eighth graders, who just moments ago seemed so young and vulnerable, morph into hulking, capable giants alongside the tiny kindergarteners.

And then, solemnly and sincerely, each eighth grader pledges to mentor and guide the kindergartners as they make their way through this first school year. This exchange has taken place for so long that the parents of the oldest children can remember when their towering giants were the weeping babies. What’s most striking is the seriousness with which this pledge is undertaken by the teenagers. It’s tempting to think of this moment as playacting, a sentimental drama cooked up by the school for the benefit of the parents, but it’s not. It’s a real moment, a real vow. The big kids really do look out for the little ones, and it shapes the relationships and day-to-day workings of the school.

I am in awe of this moment, and I can’t wait for Finnegan to be a part of it.

Years later, Ellie’s love for Finn has long since faded, but he is about to enter that gymnasium once again, where so many wonderful things will happen to him. School concerts, middle school dances, town meetings. He will play dodge ball, dance his first slow dance, and someday, vote in that room. As I send Finnegan off on his first day of school, I am so very grateful. For it is that gymnasium, those teachers, and the people of Lyme, who will bear witness to all my son’s future stumbles and soft landings.

And Now For Something Completely Different

This is going to be quick, as I have a monster deadline for a newspaper today, and another for my agent by the end of next week. 

I could not let the summer wind down without recommending some of my favorite professional development books of the year. From what I can see on Twitter, most teachers are reading some fine choices, and there will be lots of people teaching like pirates, becoming the math teacher they wish they'd had, teaching with mathematical mindsets, and thinking with an innovator's mindset, and that's great. I heartily recommend all of these books (I linked to all of them and you should totally buy them. Dave Burgess, Tracy ZagerJo Boaler, and George Couros are fantastic authors, teachers, and people). 

I went in a different direction this summer, and spent time reading professional development books that challenged me in different ways. I wanted to stretch myself, to get a little pissed off, feel defensive and have to work through it, and come out the other side a better teacher. To that end, here are my favorite professional development books of the year, with summaries and links below:

First, and in no particular order, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris. A fantastic, important read, and a great place to start your professional development. The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality recently released the report "Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls' Childhood," and these are BOTH worth your time. Read them together to understand what's happening to black girls in our culture generally, and in our classrooms specifically. 

My drug rehab students are a disobedient lot, so I'm always looking for ways to view that behavior as ANYTHING but a challenge to me and my teaching. Ira Chaleff's Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You're Told to Do Is Wrong helped. A lot. I really enjoyed it, and it's a quick read. Plus, I'm frustrated with what's going on in politics, and it helped me feel better about my own thoughts on that front, too. 

Kristen Green's Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle is one of my favorite books of the past five years AND a brilliant look at education and race relations in America. Love, love, love this book. Not just for PD. 

Eric Jensen's Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind (and Teaching with Poverty in Mind) are both great resources for teachers looking to expand their toolkit to include poor kids. Tons of background on what poverty does to kids on a cognitive, physical, and emotional level, and how that affects their learning, and what we, as their teachers, can do to help them learn. Great stuff. 

And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City Students by Miles Corwin made me think, kept me captivated for 400 pages, and I cried. More than once. A fantastic book about smart kids in really difficult circumstances.

Yes, I know. These summaries are getting shorter, but PEOPLE, I AM ON A DEADLINE. 

Finally, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, by Annette Lareau is simply a classic. It should be on the professional development bookshelf in every school. It's not new, but it's essential reading. It's not easy, it's dense, but it's a great read, so put on your reading glasses (isn't it time to admit they are not optional? Just me? Huh.) and get ready to learn something. 

Happy reading! Seriously, I have to get to work. 


I'll Be Watching You

    Every move you make, Ben. Every. Move. You. Make.

    Every move you make, Ben. Every. Move. You. Make.

Dear Jess, 

Thank you so much for coming out and speaking with our children and parents. I loved your talk-it was funny and meaningful all at the same time-I also loved your book, so thank you. 

I’m writing to ask a question about something you brought up to the kids and us, but it wasn’t really in the book. It was brought up about extrinsic motivators; which I understand to be bribes, money for grades, etc, but I don’t understand how checking their emails, phones, text, tracking were brought up negatively in that same discussion? And of course that’s one thing my son took away from your talk. I just don’t understand how those things are extrinsic motivators, it you could elaborate I would truly appreciate it.




A great question, one that’s answered in a couple of places sprinkled throughout The Gift of Failure (pp. 30-32, 160, 236-7 for a few references), but here’s a refresher course:

Extrinsic motivators can take many forms. They can be the ones we perceive as positives, like bribes and rewards. Money, ice cream, stickers, any kind of “if you do this, I will give you that” motivators. They can also be perceived as negatives, like surveillance, grounding, the “unless you do this, I will impose that” motivators. 

The specific extrinsic motivators you asked about—checking texts, emails, monitoring where kids are all the time via an app, checking grades on a portal—these are all extrinsic motivators. They are attempts to shape behavior by checking up on kids. As I mentioned at the talk, extrinsic motivators may work for a little while, they may work for tasks that require short-term focus on a simple task, but for tasks or endeavors that require long-term focus, prioritizing goals, creativity, and more complex management of executive functions such as time management, they undermine motivation. 

Think of it this way. Imagine you have worked for one boss for years, and she or he trusts you. You have control of how you do your job, when you complete certain tasks, and how, because the boss trusts that you are competent and will get things done. Your work is YOUR work. Then, you get a new boss. The new boss seems nice enough, and seems to have best interests of the organization in mind, but her first request is that you pass all work by her before hitting send  or closing the task. She trusts you, she says, she just wants to make sure you are doing your job well. 

Now, do you feel trusted? Do you feel motivated the same way you did under the old boss? I know I would not. I would feel resentful, as if I’m not trusted, and frankly, a bit disrespected. 

When we check up on kids constantly by reading their emails, checking their texts, logging in to check that they are doing their homework on time, we expect them to screw things up. We may SAY we trust them, that we are “just checking” for our own peace of mind, so we can sleep at night, so we can make sure they are not starting down the wrong road...we say all these things, but what they hear is, "I don't trust you." 

Older kids (and I’m assuming your kid is older as he has a phone) are going through a process of separating themselves from their parents, becoming their own people and shaping who they will be apart from us. In order to do that, they need a certain amount of autonomy, room to stretch, take risks, try things out, and grow. There’s research that reveals kids who are more controlled by their parents lie to their parents more. If we don't give them that room, they will create it, even through deceit. 

Now, every parent is different, and for some parents of some kids, it might be appropriate to check emails here and there or keep an eye on texts or peek into social media feeds. I get that. However, just because the technology exists, just because we can monitor their movement, purchases, words, grades, and distance from home does not mean we have to do it. 

Be judicious. For most kids, trust begets trustworthy behavior. Even my students, who are drug and alcohol addicted kids, some of whom have spent time in juvenile detention for serious crimes, respond to the words, “I trust you” positively, and by elevating their behavior to be worthy of that trust. Not all, but most. 

When I’m asked in interviews how I was parented, assuming that the way I was treated by my parents when I was growing up has some bearing on how I parent now, I always say, “They trusted me to make good decisions.” That was such a gift, one I worked hard to live up to and deserve.

I hope I have answered your question, and again, I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to get to your question! Thanks for attending my talk, and my best to your son! 


From Karla

Today’s letter is from Karla, who has given me permission to use her name and her photos. I will shorten her note a bit, as she is clearly very proud of her very capable triplets and had a lot to say about all the things they can do around the house!   

I am a Mother of triplets (two girls and one boy), turning 8 in April / elementary 1st grade at school. Me? Was WAS desperate, hopeless, exhausted (STILL EXHAUSTED), I AM FULL OF HOPE, PROUD AND JOY. As for today.

Her kids cook, and cook a lot.

One is a master at doing quesadillas, tacos con frijoles y queso, huevo revuelto, huevo estrellado, licuado de plátano…today he scrub his dirty socks because he was shoeless (descalzo?). I really asked my husband if he helped, because they were really well scrubbed when I load the washer. He said he didn’t. 

Besides cooking and washing, Karla’s kids have NAILED the morning routine:     

Some days the rush hour in the morning goes like this: Mariana is doing the tortillas, Eugenio spread the beans and add picadillo and roll the tacos, Sofia put them in wax paper, then in a brown bag, then in each school bag. It is a production line that makes me SO PROUD. 

But all is not perfect in Karla's home. 

We are failing (almost terribly) at homework. Terribly. School teachers, coordinators, and even the school principal set meetings with me, regarding the kids are not doing their homework. I am a bit in conflict because MOST of the homework is “for the parents” and the other ones are for “the parents to sit with the kids.” But the pride I feel, and the pride they feel for themselves, is a lot more worth it for me that when they finish the homework.
I really like a lot the school, and the staff. I only hate homework for the mom (when mom is super hyper busy with daily life).

Dear Karla, 

First of all, you should be so proud of your triplets. They are clearly brave, adventurous, and resourceful children. They seem to be excelling in the areas they feel most comfortable with, such as cooking and cleaning, and it seems much of that is due to the fact that you help them feel competent doing things around the house. 

Now, it's one thing to feel competent at home, under the gaze of an autonomy-supportive parent, and quite another to feel competent at school, or at sports practice, or at band practice. In order to help them feel brave, adventurous and resourceful where homework is concerned,  I'd sit down with them for a talk in which you: 

  1. Make your expectations for homework clear;
  2. Explain what the consequences will be when expectations are not met, and; 
  3. Allow your kids to describe what their homework routine would look like in a perfect world.

In our house, our expectations are that homework gets done to the best of the child's ability, and that it ends up in the hands of the appropriate teacher. If those expectations are not met, our children are responsible for meeting with the teacher to talk about strategies that might work to solve the problem. One of our kids likes to do homework immediately after school, but the other likes to do his own thing first and do homework later, after dinner. The important thing is that they can envision how, where, and when they will do their homework, and that you allow them to do it that way (within reason, of course!).

Now, for the part about their homework being for the parent rather than the child. That's a big problem, and I'm sorry to say you are in good company. Many teachers assign homework and projects that can't be completed by the child alone, and this is so unfair to parents and their children. It burdens parents and keeps kids from being able to feel competent around homework. Research on the utility of homework is pretty clear: homework for very young children is of limited - if any - academic benefit. Teachers who insist on assigning homework to young children often cite executive function benefits (time management, organization, that kind of thing) as their rationale. If teachers of young children expect homework to teach kids time management and organization, then homework should be the child's job, and the child's job alone.

If you want to tackle this topic with your children's teachers, ask them about their goals for your children's homework and further, about your role in that homework process. If the teachers claim you do not need to be a part of the homework, take a good look at how much you are contributing because you feel you should, as opposed to the degree to which your children really need you to help. 

When you talk expectations with your kids, explain that homework is their job, but that you will always be around to help if they get stuck. When they sit down (or lie down, or kneel...little kids often need to move in order to focus!) to do homework, find your own task to do nearby so they can see that you are occupied with your work, too. Then, if they get stuck, encourage them to take a breath, look at the directions again, or explain to you what they think their teacher wants them to do. 

Sometimes all a kid needs is to voice their frustration in order to get back on track. Reassure them that you are confident in their ability to focus, think, and find the answer, and then go back to your own task while they learn to rely on themselves. 

It sounds like your kids are doing great, and I have a feeling that once you are clear on teachers' expectations around your involvement in homework, and your kids are clear on your expectations for homework completion, you will all have a chance to show just how brave, adventurous, and resourceful you can all be around homework.

Thank you for your letter, and keep me posted!


A Question A Day

If you have been listening along over at #AmWriting with Jess & KJ, the podcast I host with my friend, former boss, and New York Times writer K.J. Dell'Antonia, you heard that I get a fair number of questions from readers and the lovely people who attend my speaking events. I try to answer a question a day, in the order I receive them, via email. I was pretty proud of all that work, and said as much to K.J. during a recent podcast. To my dismay, K.J. failed to pat me on the head for being a good little writer and went on to scold me for not making some of that content available here, for the benefit of other parents and teachers.

She's right, of course. I hate that about her. 

From here on out, I will answer those questions here, while editing for clarity and brevity, and taking great care to preserve the letter writer's anonymity. 

So keep 'em coming, and I promise to keep on answering! Now, on to today's question. 

Dear Ms. Lahey, 

My tween has pretty severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and left to his own devices will miss most of his homework, forget to turn in what he does do. I have been helping him a lot, but after recent meetings with his school counselor and teachers, we decided to back off and see how he would do with some more support in school. Unfortunately, he is now missing numerous assignments and we are concerned about how well he’ll do on his upcoming tests. I am at a loss with what to do. Do you have any suggestions? 


Dear C, 

One of the most common questions I get after my speaking gigs is, "Yes, yes, all this autonomy-supportive parenting stuff is fine for most kids, but my kid has ADD [or ADHD, or NVLD...] and needs more support than the average student. How can I best help my child while supporting his autonomy and helping him feel confident?"

Every child is different, and yes, kids with learning or developmental delays, or gaps in their executive function skills do need extra support. However, we all tend to underestimate our kids' abilities, and I think we should all err on the side of overestimating our kids rather than underestimating them. 

If I were you, I'd ask your son's teachers to hold him fully accountable for the homework that's not being turned in. Those consequences should not be unrelated penalties, such as taking away electronics, or grounding, or that sort of thing. Rather, the consequences should be the sort of repercussions that would naturally flow from not handing in his work. In our house, that means that the kid has to arrange and conduct a student-led conference with the parent and teacher, in which everyone, but mainly the child, comes up with a strategy for getting homework done in a way that works for him and for his teachers. 

Now, regarding his ADD: when I asked psychotherapist and author Katie Hurley to comment on learned helplessness for the New York Times article "When Children Say 'I Can't, But They Can, and Adults Know It," she specifically addressed the fact that parents of kids with learning disabilities can go overboard in their attempts to shield kids from frustration and failure. From the article:

Ms. Hurley says that she sees learned incompetence in her clients who have recently been told they have learning disabilities, and this can be a real challenge for their teachers. “Their parents go to great lengths to ‘help’ their kids and let them off the hook for age-appropriate chores, tasks and responsibilities because they want to protect them,” she said. “The urge to shield and rescue can be strong, but it’s important to empower children with learning disabilities so they can internalize the fact that they can overcome challenges.”

Until our children can do for themselves, until they have fully developed frontal lobes and fully functioning executive function skills, our job as parents and teachers is to support that development while giving them opportunities to learn from their mistakes. To that end, support, encourage, offer up strategies, and focus on the process of learning to do better. 

Because one day, when you least expect it, they will. 



Ready, Set, Go.

No, I didn’t get much sleep.

I got into bed at a reasonable hour, and tried, I really did. But as the news turned dire, I sat downstairs, in the dark, eating granola and obsessively refreshing my Twitter feed.

Yes, I cried.

Around 3:00 A.M., when I understood that what was happening was really happening, and that refreshing my feed wasn’t going to change anything, I cried, and finally fell asleep.

No, I don’t know what you should say to your children.

I had enough to process with my own children. They needed me—and my explanation—in different ways, at different times, for they are two very different people.

Finn, 13, decided he’d go to bed early and find out about the result in the morning. He admitted he needed to feel “extra cozy,” so we put the heated mattress pad on his bed, swapped the plain cotton sheets out for flannel, and I kissed him goodnight.

When he emerged from his room in the morning, I told him, and he got very quiet. I let him have his space as he went through his morning routine. When he left the house for the bus, I reminded him not to let anyone push his buttons.

He knew what I meant; another child on the school bus has been angling for a fight over political differences for a while now. As in many small towns, the differences that divide our nation have been playing out on a smaller scale, trickling down from parents to their children. As a result, we have had a lot of talks about how Finn can stand up for himself, his family, and his beliefs without fanning the flames of discord or violence. 

Ben, 17, stayed up to watch the election with his friends, texting us all the while about his anxiety over the Congressional and Senate races. He arrived at his first class to find that he and his friends had all dressed in blue, without having discussed it ahead of time, and continued to text us throughout his day as he processed each new layer of the situation.

It took me the whole day, but by bedtime, I'd found my words. As I said goodnight, I reminded them of five things:

  1. Injustice exists on a scale you can’t fully comprehend because you were born male, white, and straight, into a family with financial security.
  2. We don’t have to love everyone around us, we don’t even have to respect everyone around us, but we do have to make the attempt to climb into their skin and walk around in it, if just for moment. 
  3. Informed, reasoned debate will always prevail over shouting in the long run. 
  4. That run can feel very long sometimes. 
  5. Hate makes us sick, and weak, and we don’t have time for that; there’s a lot of work to be done.

One Writer, Many Desks

A few weeks ago, on the #AmWriting with Jess & KJ podcast, I moaned and groaned about how difficult it is for me to write when I'm traveling for speaking gigs. Between my topsy-turvy sleep schedule, the weird juju of hotel rooms, and the inevitable travel brain drain, my writing really stalled out last year. I managed to write my New York Times "Parent-Teacher Conference" column  thanks to my editor's inflexible deadlines, and I read a lot of background research on planes, but that was about it. 

This year, I will do better. 

The Gift of Failure paperback edition was released on August 23, so I am back out on the road after a blissful, restorative summer at home. 

This week, I'm in San Antonio at the invitation of The DoSeum to give talk about improving the quality of education in San Antonio. I got in at sunset, so I took a walk along the river and rode over to dinner at Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderia with my Uber driver, Sigfredo. He warned me about the touristy kitsch of Mi Tierra, so I was prepared for the spectacle (and the roving musicians). I'm not really sure what's going on over there decor-wise, but I can attest that their mole rocks the house. 

I arrived back at my hotel fueled up and ready to write. 

I've been working on a couple of different projects this summer, including articles I'd put on my mental back burner, chapter summaries for my next book, and a YA novel I started before this whole Gift of Failure adventure began. I lost traction on all of that last year, and won't let that happen again. 

To that end, I introduce "One Writer, Many Desks," an attempt to hold myself accountable and keep the words flowing while continuing to tour for Gift of Failure. My 2016-17 speaking schedule is booked solid, and I'll be visiting nearly fifty schools, nonprofits, and corporations in twenty different states.

I will chronicle my efforts to maintain a regular writing routine in the midst of a chaotic and busy travel schedule, and promise to share any tips and tricks I learn along the way both here and in the "Best Practices" segment of  #AmWriting with Jess & KJ

Date: September 22, 2016
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Words: 1877
Best Practice: "Just open the file every day. Just that." (K.J. Dell'Antonia)

Upcoming Desks

September 23DoSeum, San Antonio, TX

October 4-5LifeManagement Center, Inc, Charleston, SC*

October 6-7Charlotte Country Day School, Charlotte, NC*

October 14Virginia Association of Independent Schools, Richmond, VA*

October 15James River Writers Conference, Richmond, VA

October 17Rowland Hall/St. Mark's School, Salt Lake City, UT*

October 20Shady Hill School, Cambridge, MA

October 21: Private event

October 24Berwick Academy, South Berwick, ME*

October 27: Lake Forest Country Day, Lake Forest, IL*

November 1Nashoba Brooks School, Concord, MA

November 2Winchester Public Schools, Winchester, MA*

November 3Heard in Rye, Rye, NY.*

November 7Grosse Pointe Academy, Grosse Pointe, MI*

November 9Second Growth: The Children's Fund of the Upper Valley, Hanover, NH* 

November 17The Peck School, Morristown, NJ

November 29Oak Hill School, Nashville, TN*




January 9Forsyth Country Day School, Lewisville, NC

January 11Corona Del Mar High School, Newport Beach, CA*

January 31Emerson Public Schools, Emerson, NJ

February 1Ridgewood Public Schools, Ridgewood, NJ*

February 2Montclair Kimberly Academy, Montclair, NJ*

February 22Laurence School, Valley Glen, CA*

February 22Westside Neighborhood School, Los Angeles, CA*

February 23-24Chaminade College Preparatory, West Hills, CA*

February 28East Moriches Union Free School District, East Moriches, NY*

March 1Avenues: The World School, New York, NY*

March 7Longmeadow Public Schools, Longmeadow, MA*

March 11American Montessori Society Annual Conference, San Diego, CA*

March 12-13LearnFest, Louisville, KY*

March 14Zionsville Performing Arts Center, Zionsville, IN*

April 3Downingtown Area School District, PA*

April 4: Cole T. Ballay "Carpe Diem" Foundation, Germantown, PA*

April 5Lancaster Country Day School, Lancaster, PA*

April 6Greens Farms Academy, Greens Farms, CT

April 25: Issaquah School District, Issaquah, WA*

May 10-12Mom 2.0, Orlando, FL

* indicates a community read/on-site sale and signing of The Gift of Failure