Living and Learning Butts Up

While I don’t think the good old days were all that “good,” I do think there is something to be learned from them. Our kids today have everything, and yet they often are missing a major component essential to life: joy.

I remember when I was six my grandma had a car with an 8-track and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I felt like the big man because I had a TV with not one dial, but two, and could get the best cartoons by dialing that bottom one to channel 44. Then came tapes, boom boxes, walkmans…finally, the personal computer. Reminiscent of The Graduate, my Career Decisions teacher in high school said, “Kids, computers are the future!” We just rolled our eyes and laughed. In college I remember hearing something about the internet; to me, it just sounded way too big brother, it creeped me out.

And this is just in the last 30 years. When I think of my grandparents, no indoor plumbing let alone a microwave, one room school houses with one pencil to last all year, playing with homemade dolls and gathering kids to play stick ball in the street (with literally, a stick)—it’s almost charming to look back on these days of such simplicity with great nostalgia. After kids ran home from school, they ran to the play yard where things like debating where the foul ball line was could be an afternoon’s discussion. These kids lived life, and they lived it well.

Of course these were also the days when kids like my grandpa, for whom English was not his first language, were told they would likely end up in prison because they certainly wouldn’t make anything of themselves in society. Because he was an Italian with relatively dark skin, he was called names by adults that would be considered outrageous today. At least he got to cohabitate in society with others, however; his darker skin counterparts were sequestered to the outer limits of town, facing much harsher punishment simply for being born with darker skin than he was.

Sitting in quietly in rows and obeying your teacher, facing a smack upside the head if they didn’t, kids were expected to by loyal, respectful and, essentially, seen and not heard. For these days, I am anything but nostalgic. How they found a way to live with such societal hardships is amazing to me.

And yet, in years past there was an essence to young people that was full and rich and just exciting to be around. The world was evolving around them and everything was to be seen as opportunity. Many young people were engaged and involved and motivated. At least that’s how the story goes. In contrast, the story of today’s youth is one of apathy, non-participation, and boredom. With all of the things they have at their fingertips, we hear no excitement from them at all. Or do we? I wonder, are we looking for the right signs? Are we looking at all kids? Are we judging them by current or past standards? And most of all, what are we—the elders, the guides, the coaches, the parents, the teachers—what are we doing to role model and inspire greatness?


I thought about this debatable lack of zest for life in our youth this morning as I walked my dog. Mario does nothing halfway; everything is done with nothing less than exuberance.  He runs everywhere and walks nowhere. He jumps and dances and practically wags himself in half when he sees people he loves. Be it a bug or bird or squirrel, if Mario is on the hunt he is full force: leaping into the air and pouncing on to the ground, nose in the rocks or the storm drain or the hole in the ground, butt up in the air.

Ducks are the same way. They wiggle and waddle and flap; they quack loudly, put their beaks in the air and then dive into the water after their morning breakfast. They do so with great enthusiasm, and like Mario, enthusiastically butts up, as if nothing else is more important in the world.

Cats too. We have two girls: Lucy and Indiana. Lucy is a tiny cat with heaps of ridiculously soft gray fur that is almost silver in the sunlight; she is young and playful and quick to love. Indiana is almost opposite in every way; she is old, cantankerous, fickle, and much loyalty and devotion must be proven before she’ll consider coming your way. Nonetheless, when Lucy and Indiana are happy, the joy is evident. They roll on their backs to expose their tummies and show off their long and (not so) lean bodies, they stretch and rub their faces on anything that holds still, they see those birds and bugs just like Mario, as prey. As they study them, silent and still and contemplative, they crouch heads down, butts up, distracted by nothing at all.

There’s a theme here, this butts up routine. It comes to these creatures in their everyday activities of life; nothing is new, same bugs, same birds, same storm drains, same ponds, and yet each and every time whatever it is, it is met with joy and enthusiasm. It reminds me of my children, most especially my youngest son.

Like Mario, Tommy meets life with great gusto. He too never walks anywhere, it’s full speed or not at all. When he learned to crawl he even did that fast, pounding his knees and slapping his hands on the hard floor to sap every bit of joy out of his crawling experience. When he was learning to walk, like most kids he was very intolerant of it at first. He saw no point in struggling to walk when he could crawl fast; besides, if he took too long the cat he was chasing would get away and he’d have no opportunity to body slam it, (God bless our departed Zazu) grabbing and giggling and giving it a huge kiss.

Now he’s four, learning to write and draw and color in the lines. Everything he does that he loves, he does with his tongue out, his brow crinkled in concentration, and his butt up in the air, leaning onto the table with his feet on the chair and his elbows propping him in front of his work.

Most kids are like this as young children, so what changes the older they get? The cliché answers include: hormones, attitude, rebellion, and of course the catch alls like apathy and disinterest and disengagement. When and why do kids stop going “butts up?”

When we give up on them, that’s when.

I realized this while watching some of my colleagues in our math department teach some years back. Almost any math class at my school has their favorite descriptor, “butts up math,” happening at some point of every day. In Math! When I took math it was nothing like this at all, yet there, it’s the norm. What’s the trick? I took this question away with me as I went back to my classroom, pondering how it is I can create “butts up government” and history and psychology and women’s studies. If they can do it with math, surely I can do it with social studies.

That’s when I realized I had kind of given up on my kids. I was judging them by old standards, teaching them with old methods, expecting that somehow all kids would get on board with their studies simply because of my exceptional personality. Truth be told, they never acted up because they knew I respected them and loved them and they felt the same about me, but the inspiration of academics was only happening for the kids who loved social studies; the others were just respectfully exercising patience for the bell to ring.

And yet in math, a subject most kids I know hate, at my school most kids I know love. Their teachers are amazing, as am I if I do say so myself, their content is easily accessible to some and very difficult to others, as is mine, so what is the difference?

My first answer was relevance. Most of what we are told to teach kids in school has very little relevance to either who they are and/or who they want to become. We have to break out of decades long expectations of what is important to teach and find a way to teach topics that are relevant. When standards can’t be changed, they must be massaged and updated to meet the needs and interests of the kids. When that is done to its fullest potential, there is one more piece to the puzzle: organization of material and delivery.

What I started to do was look at every lesson as an opportunity for reorganization. For example in government, instead of lecturing how a campaign works, I created a problem-based activity that put them at the center of a campaign, recreating the experience itself. In addition to reading about how a bill becomes a law, we created a simulation of the two houses and bills passing back and forth. The result: butts up government, twice in two weeks, an hour and a half without breaks each. For me and for them, this was a huge success.

I’m clear about the logistical limits on activities like this, most notably two: it takes an immense amount of time to plan, set up, and break down and, in the time it takes to do a simulation, I could have disseminated ten times the content by more traditional means. It brings me back to the almost daily struggle between breadth and depth of content, between topics and activities kids love, and what I have time and am told by the state to do.

With test scores and political pressures so readily in the faces of educators in recent years, the propensity to give up, burdened by overwhelming expectations is strong; many of us find it easier to give up the fight for the game of blame, the state, the parents, society, whatever is in reach. Because so much of our society is fixated on the sound bite solution and tied to the “what has always been,” the propensity of them to blame the kids themselves is even stronger.

Even with my own children, their draw to the TV and their sports video games is so seductive that they often don’t have any idea what to do with themselves when their time limit with those things has been reached. Is it their job to monitor themselves? To inspire themselves? To create butts up opportunities for themselves? Absolutely not.

Kids of earlier generations were creative and resourceful not because of the year in which they were born, but because of the opportunities for creativity and resourcefulness they were given. Our job is not to sit back and judge our kids for their lack of zest for life; our job is to inspire that in them. Our job is to create opportunities not for them to be obedient and quiet and seen and not heard, but to live and love and thrive, just like Mario and Indiana and Lucy and the ducks by my house and my young son, Tom. Our job is to lose our own apathy, reengage ourselves, participate in our communities and role model what we expect from our kids. The time of kids doing something just because we expect them to is long over.

The time now, is to find your own joy, your own high level of engagement, your own attention to what is relevant and inspiring. It’s catching you know; finding yours will help them find theirs. And then, the story will be told not of American apathy, but of American butts high in the air as they engage in finding real solutions for the real problems of today.

Has it Really Been 20 Years?

I attended my 20-year high school reunion last weekend; as a good friend said, it really was more like a family reunion than anything else—a tribute to the special kind of group we were, a group we still are.

I never doubted the fact that I wanted to attend this reunion; high school was an amazing time for me and it was because of those people and that experience that I found my ability to develop relationships, navigate the unfamiliar, lead a team, revel in the real love that exists between the lines of groups and affiliations—the place where we came together in community if for no other reason than we shared a school, a school that for many of us was more of a home than our own.

In my post-reunion euphoria I find myself in a place that asks, am I old enough to just have attended my 20-year class reunion? And if I am—and the lingering hangover two days later clearly says, yes indeed I am–doesn’t that mean I’m also old enough to let go of teenage insecurities?

I am a strong woman with a career and a home and a family so why is it that in a moment’s notice I can be reduced to fourteen years old again, even—maybe especially—at the prospect of spending an evening amongst a group of people I literally love like family? I’m not a teenager anymore, why do I still expect to look line one? Why do I still hesitate to go into a room alone, like maybe no one will talk to me?  Did I ever really fit in? More to the point, do I now?

Twenty years ago or 48 hours ago, the questions seem ridiculous. In a family, we all fit; we all have a place; we all have a seat at the table that is our lives and I wasn’t in that room ten minutes before I remembered that. The memories of miniature golf, slumber parties, late-night work nights, graduation parties…they bind us in a way that the passing of time cannot touch.

In high school we’re all a little nuts; I could embarrass myself in a heartbeat thinking about some of the things I said or ways I acted in the name of pretending to be fearless. What’s great about reunions, though, is that all of that nonsense is gone; what’s left is just the us we spent so much time trying to protect—the us that our real friends knew was there the whole time.

In some cases we fell into laughter like no time at all had passed; in the majority of cases, however, a simple greeting and hug was all that passed between us, and that really was all we needed. I’m still here, you’re still here, we spent hours together in classrooms and absolutely none since then but we’re still deeply connected by the place that was our home.

I don’t have answers as to why teenage insecurity still has its way with me sometimes—that’s something on which I’ll have to reflect in the days to come. For now, I write this piece for two reasons: one, to thank my high school family for reminding me that insecurity is only a state of mind, not a state of being; and two, to give a virtual high-five to every one else there that night who showed up, even if their fourteen-year-old-selves made them doubt whether or not they should.

Judging by the dance floor alone, clearly we made one fantastic choice.

 Copyright 2011 • • All Rights Reserved

Fixing Schools from the Ground Up

 I am a part-time high school teacher who should be going home right now to pick my own kids from school; trouble is, the school where I work is on lockdown because of a potentially violent police chase in the neighborhood. Given this fact, I have an unusual chunk of time to reflect on my morning, my communities, and my vocation. What strikes me instantly is the recent surge of interest about public education—most of it centered on the idea that to fix education in this country we need to fire bad teachers. I wonder, though, how can even a school full of exceptional teachers be the sole solution to a problem that starts way before the bell, and continues long afterward?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes to mind: at the base, the two fundamental set of needs are the physiological ones (shelter, food, water) and the needs of security–particularly, “The basic need for…a family and a society that protects against hunger and violence.” As I sit here on lockdown with police sirens screaming around me, I wonder, could I ever really be enough to keep my students from this community—a community, by the way, where I myself was raised–focused on learning in school?

If the majority of my students do not have their physiological needs and/or their needs for security met by their families, how can I be held responsible for whether they fail or succeed in school? Fancy psychological theories aside, who repairs a second story window when the first floor has no windows at all? Who strengthens the framing and the roof when the foundation is literally crumbling under their feet? It’s an attempt in futility and no matter the time or energy or money you pour into it, one good storm and the whole house comes tumbling down.

Do I think bad teachers should be fired? Absolutely. Teachers should be present and engaged and active and above all put their students’ needs as their priority in the classroom; any one who doesn’t do that should be gone. I don’t take it personally when people think that part of the problem in schools are teachers who have been allowed to stay in their jobs even though they are completely ineffective; in fact I would wholeheartedly agree that it is just that: part of the problem.

We exist in a system and a society that values teachers below every half-way decent CEO in this country; we live in a state where, to pass the budget, funding for education was cut—the very state that has the 8th strongest economy in the entire world is now 49th in the nation for per pupil spending. You want good teachers? Then you have to rely on more than their compassion and desire to do right by the students to attract them.

This doesn’t just mean pay them better; it means set them up for success. Give them the tools they need to function, staff the classrooms to a reasonable student-teacher ratio; give them administrators and school boards who understand education because they’ve been teachers themselves, not just because they have a K-12 (or even K-26) education. Let me tell you this, if we treated our teachers like Apple treats its employees, you might even be able to pay them less and still they’d perform like superstars.

And if they don’t? Fire them. Not because of test scores (because if that was the barometer, who would teach Special Education students and English language learners?), but fire them because they are not doing everything in their power to help students learn. Create a fair and just system to do so, and then hold everyone accountable—not just teachers, everyone: the principals, the district officials, and the school boards. All of us.

But wait, is that all of us? Are the members of the educational system the only ones responsible for educating children? Are the members of the educational system the one and only indication of which schools, and therefore which students, will succeed?

The answer, remarkable to some I know, is absolutely not.

If my child has trouble with his homework, that’s my job to help him. If my child is struggling with another student in his class, that’s my job to give him the skills to deal with it and then to follow up to make sure his teacher knows and supports him accordingly. I do not expect to call my son’s teacher at 9pm to have her help him with his math nor do I expect my son’s teacher to know at every moment what is happening in the minds and hearts of the 30 students—wait, that’s 36 students—in her room. I am my child’s mother. The buck stops with his father and me, not his teacher.

There is not one parent at my sons’ school who feels differently than I do. There is more parental involvement there than I have ever seen anywhere in my life. Teachers at his school couldn’t be less than great because, if they were, every one would know about it. Many families have only one parent working outside the home, but even the families that do not, or the families with single parents, or the families headed by grandmothers, we all see ourselves as one community working toward the common goal of excellence for our children. You know the other thing? My sons’ school has the among the highest test scores in the state. This is no coincidence.

How come some of the charter schools, even ones in desperately poor areas who serve the most at-risk youth in our nation, work so well? Not because there isn’t a teacher’s union, but because the parent(s) or guardian(s) have to sign a contract that they will be involved; they will volunteer at the school, they will help with the homework, they will not allow the TV to be used on school nights—in effect, they have to PARENT their children. Couple that with the innovation and excitement that goes along with a high quality school of any kind and you have yourself one fantastic education for your child.

We cannot in good conscience (nor in good science) blame what’s happening on the second floor and ignore what’s happening with the foundation. A high quality school is a complete team effort by all stakeholders; it is not a place where, if we just get rid of “bad” teachers, all glory will be restored to American education.

John Legend calls education “…the civil rights issue of our time,” and I agree it is. Trouble is, the success of the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s wasn’t based on scapegoating and removing one group of people and expecting the rest to fall into place. It was about the community coming together to address the whole scope of complex issues in a meaningful way.

I applaud the start of a very difficult conversation just as I applaud the efforts to confront a system that is in desperate need of repair. Unless we plan to abandon the lure of “easy” answers and really tackle the complexity of the situation, however, we’re doomed to have one gorgeous second floor that inevitably will come crashing down around us.

This is a community problem that requires community intervention. If we don’t do it, we have to hold ourselves just as accountable as every one else.

Copyright 2011 • • All Rights Reserved

Thank You

 It was any normal Sunday afternoon at the zoo: the sun shone brilliantly, the birds chirped relentlessly, and the animals basked in the glory of people’s admiration. Usually my husband and sons and I go on our own, but this time we had the boys’ Godparents and their two children with us—an unusual occurrence given the challenge of scheduling around four children. After visiting the giraffes we were moving on to the sun bears when I discovered my five-year-old son was gone.

“Where’s Tommy?” I shouted to my husband. I watched him do the same spin-around survey of the area and I read something in his face I’ve never seen before: fear. Not that my husband is some kind of tough guy, but this moment was different; our child was missing.

Without words my sons’ Godmother took her kids and my older son to the side of the path, I went to the camels, my husband went to the tigers, and the boys’ Godfather went to the exit. It was likely only a few minutes we were separated but in that time I had the most profoundly sacred experience of my life.

“Please God, please watch over my baby. Please keep him safe, please keep him safe.” I repeated this mantra quietly, but audibly, and people around me started searching too. I was running and my face was stained with tears but inside I was in this deeply quiet place, where all I could hear were my own words. “Please God, please watch over my baby. Please keep him safe, please keep him safe.”

I went as far up as I thought he could make it in the brief time I had my eyes off him, and then started the run back, still praying and still calm, to the scene of his disappearance.  As I turned the corner and came down the hill I saw Julie shouting and waving frantically but it took me a moment to pull myself out of my soul enough to make out the words, “They found him! Nicole, they found him!”

I thought I’d collapse in that very spot, desperate in my gratitude.

Instead, I sped up, as did the tears. As soon as she saw I had heard her, she turned the other direction and shouted the same thing to my husband. Interestingly, he sped up too only the intensity of his fear had not yet released; he had to see our son for himself before he could let go.

He and I arrived back at our makeshift home base at the same moment Vince arrived with our most distraught little boy. He fell forward toward me, arms outstretched as if he was still a baby crying to be held by his mommy. I took him and brought him to the ground, holding him in a way only the arms of relief can hold.

Quickly we composed ourselves, as not to scare Tommy further. He ran to my husband and held his hand, something he would do almost until he was buckled into his seatbelt an hour later. He said he was walking to the rides and he thought we were with him. Vince found him crying but safe, with a very kind woman who was holding his hand and waiting for someone to find him.

The boys walked ahead and I turned to Julie.

“I thought I lost him, Julie,” I cried. And then, like the always do, the tears came for real. Tears of the what-might-have-happened, tears of thank-god-it-didn’t.

“I know,” she replied, “I know.” She hugged me quickly and we walked on.

In making the short trip from the sun bears to the children’s rides, three deep and abiding lessons washed over me:

-Never underestimate the power of a village. Without the boys’ Godparents that day our job would have been more difficult, our older son would have been more panicked, and our younger son may not have fared so well. For so many years my husband and I insisted on a fierce independence and pioneer spirit when it came to child rearing; thank goodness on that day we could rely on our dear friends to help, even without the time or words to ask.

-Never underestimate the kindness of strangers. As I searched for my son, even as I retreated deep inside to stay calm, others were helping me, supporting me, empathizing with the fear I was experiencing. The ultimate example of this, of course, is the kind woman who waited with my son. It is not only a gift but also a resource that we are so deeply connected in experience and humanity.

-Never underestimate the power of self, especially when paired with prayer. I’m likely not one many would trust in an emergency. I tend to freak out quickly and over things that really don’t matter. In this moment, however, a moment that could have had the most dire of consequences, I was calm and collected and focused—that is, at least until the emergency was over.  I don’t know if I could have remained that way for more than the few minutes I had to endure the unknown, but this experience showed me the depths of my emotional resources and, perhaps most importantly, that I’m never alone.

As I watched my son on the car ride, spinning around and around on a road going nowhere, wrestling the steering wheel like turning it made any difference at all, head back in laughter as his dad pretended to tickle him every time his car “drove” past us, I put my hand on my heart and said simply and profoundly, “Thank you.”

Copyright 2011 • • All Rights Reserved