Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Developing Empathy in Boys

I am thrilled to announce and promote a new after-school curriculum for boys, the Young Tritons’ Running Club.  Just like our girls, our young boys struggle with forming a healthy self-image and identity.  However, we too often ignore this process with boys.  
Boys get bombarded with messages that narrow what it means to be male in our society.  Our movies, television shows, music and marketing tell us what it means to be male.  What if deep inside they actually wish to be something not included in our society’s definition of masculinity?  Can a boy growing up in modern America feel as safe and comfortable exploring dance as football?  If he would rather paint than tinker with a car, is he masculine?  Is it okay for him to cry when hurt, sad, or thrilled?  Can he eat kale or like the color pink without having his male-ness questioned?  Is playing with Legos as acceptable as learning to sew?  What if he does like football, Legos, and automotive work?  What happens to a young boy when the way he sees himself and the way our culture defines him are in conflict?  What happens to a young boy when he does like all things deemed masculine, but it leads to a lack of caring, openness, and comfort with his own feelings and concerns?    

The Young Tritons’ Running Club is an after-school program that meets twice weekly for six weeks and focuses on helping boys develop a greater sense of empathy while preparing to run a 5k.  We chose empathy as our initial goal because it is from empathy that valuing others’ experiences stems.  When boys are empathetic they bully one another less and develop a broader understanding of others.  Empathy is the foundation from which we allow others to be their authentic selves – beginning literally with ourselves.

If you are male and an elementary school teacher, have an elementary school-age son, and/or might want to coach twice weekly for six weeks, please consider the Young Tritons’ Running Club.  A webpage will be down the road, but in the meantime you can contact our older sister program, The Mini-Mermaid Running Club at

Further resources:

Monday, August 10, 2015

Happy New (School) Years

As a new school year seems to be breathing down my neck, I cannot help but reflect on the last 12 months.  To me the real New Years is actually August, as so many families embark on new beginnings.  I try to make it a time to re-group and re-imagine what my classroom and my teaching could be.  Since last August I feel as though much has changed for me and the country. 

Let me start by saying that I heard Bob Bain speak at the Advanced Placement World History Reading in Salt Lake City, and he was excellent.  He spoke about an idea about which I was unfamiliar.  History teachers come in two varieties – truffle hunters and parachutists.  The idea comes from Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.  The truffle hunters are buried in the details while the parachutists are taking a big picture approach to see patterns and trends.  We need both in our disciplines – historians and teachers.  But I am beyond any doubt a parachutist.  In fact, as a student the truffle hunters drove me crazy.  I deeply believe that history needs to teach us about the world we live in and will live in, therefore we need an understanding of patterns, trends and themes.  It’s that approach that made much of this past year a challenge.

The 2014-2015 school year began with Ferguson dominating the news.  In a world history class in an elite private school in Silicon Valley how was I to discuss these issues.  Did discussion of these issues have a place in such an environment?  Could we effectively discuss Ferguson in such a way that we discussed race, authority and privilege in American history and today? Were high school freshmen and sophomores able to do that?  Would AP students stand for it with a test breathing down their necks?  In the fall I decided to avoid it all together.  I am not happy about that, nor did I feel like this teachable moment was the appropriate one for my context.  Little did I know how the next 12 months would unfold across this country.  Acquittals, beatings, murders, mass shootings inside churches and theaters, arguments over symbols and rights and challenges to how or if we can self-identify.

This summer we have seen the 2016 Presidential Race begin.  A crowd of Republicans, a few Democrats and a media circus is upon us.  Much of it has developed since school was out in early June.  The parachutist in me thinks the real story here is not the candidates at all but the way cable news, a 24-hour news cycle, for-profit news media and social media have re-shaped politics, public discourse and thought in the US and the world.  Is it possible to deeply cover issues anymore?  Is it even desirable?  Have we really become so polarized that it seems like everyone is either an Ayn Rand-inspired individualist with little regard for their fellow human or a Socialist with no regard for the realities of a global economy?  Is it possible for us to have public dialogue based upon rational thought and factual information and not emotional fear-pedaling?  

This past year also saw increased coverage of teen stress and depression, helicopter parenting, college admissions insanity, college debt and an economy that doesn’t seem to be doing any favors for our youth.  How do we prepare all our students for an uncertain future?  They will inevitably have multiple careers and will see their world change in ways we cannot imagine.  Flexible thinking, creativity, openness to diversity of all kinds, an ability to learn – all of this will be vital to their success and happiness.  How can schools best develop this?  Does an emphasis on grades and test scores really do it?  Does admission to an elite university really do it?  Does school as we have known it for the last couple centuries really do it?

Meanwhile, there’s a silver lining in all the events of this past year.  As a nation we are talking.  We are discussing historical symbols.  We are delving deeper into the history to uncover and discuss deeper truths – being better truffle hunters.  We are seeing more and more Americans acquiring the rights most Americans have always had.  We are re-evaluating ideas we have taken for granted and reconsidering the paths forward.  We have an opportunity to bring this country closer and closer to fulfilling the promises in our founding documents and founding fathers.  Do you have the courage to keep it up?

So I have some pledges for the school year ahead.  I am pledging to use those teachable moments that arise in world events.  I am pledging to teach my students how to dig into facts and research and question what authorities and the media might tell them.  I am pledging to be sure my classroom is a space where each student feels valid and safe being whoever they are and want to be.  I am pledging to make my classroom a place where we can all grapple with the challenges of the future so that my students may solve the problems that will face us. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Class Dismissed, Homeschooling Explored

Last week I had the pleasure of screening the documentary, Class Dismissed.  I didn’t know much about it, just that it explored education reform.  That was reason enough for me to call for a dinner and a movie.  Once we arrived I became a little concerned.  The theater was filled with families – not the normal documentary crowd on a weekday night. It turns out the movie is not just about education reform, but specifically about homeschooling as an answer.  It seems that the local homeschooling community is a tight-knit bunch and they showed up in force to support this film.

Taken in conjunction with Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere, we have three very interesting and somewhat contrasting looks at what is wrong with American education today, but three different solutions.  Class Dismissed introduces us to a few issues that some people have with school as we know it – a focus on grades and test scores at the expense of authentic learning, an inflexibility with the variety of children and their learning styles and interests, and modes of instruction and curriculum suited for a by-gone industrial era.  The film introduces us to John Holt, a critic of mainstream education from the 1970s. Listening to old interviews with him, I found many of his complaints are the same as mine, a generation later. While I would like to see schools change, Holt’s solution was to withdraw from “schooling” and home-school.    
I am guilty of many assumptions about home schooling.  Kids will lack social skills.  Colleges will not know what to do with them, if they can even get admitted.  Instruction, if any, will lack depth and challenge.  Kids will not know how to work hard because parents will go easy and instruction will look like play time.  Parents lack the content knowledge to appropriately instruct kids at higher levels.  Class Dismissed took each of these concerns and dismantled each and every one rather convincingly. 

Following a Los Angeles family through their homeschooling process, the film introduces us to a few models for homeschooling, honestly exploring potential failures of each and acknowledging that there is no perfect model (and isn’t that just the point?).  By following one family for two years, we also get to see that some models work for a time but that as kids mature, some models become ineffective.  

In the end I must confess, I am now much more open to the possibility of home schooling.  However, it certainly is not a solution for the masses.  I continue to struggle with how most families could manage this in the current economy.  How many families can make ends meet on one income? Let’s face it, home schooling is a full time job that does not provide any income. 
Homeschooling does have something to teach the rest of us, though.  When we try to figure out individualization, learning styles, exploratory learning, constructivism and other “outside the box” ideas, we should open our minds and see what the home schooling community is up to.  They are pooling resources, experimenting, and exploring – and they have something useful to share.

If you are concerned about the state of education and looking at solutions, either as a parent or an educator, do yourself a favor and see Class Dismissed.  You will be provoked.