The content of this blog will cover my thoughts, experiences, and reflections in the areas of education, parenting, and leadership. The posts will consist of global and inclusive topics that certainly have application to what we do at WES but will also provide insights and opinions to other relevant and useful resources. I will periodically invite outside voices to post on this blog too. Please feel free to post comments and reflections to each post that resonates with you. Reader posts will be moderated.
"How can I help?" is not a question I often ask. When I'm attempting to assist someone, I am more likely to dive into the problem and offer a solution or a way to solve it—"Have you thought of x?" or "Have you tried y?" In our roles as colleagues, spouses, parents, and teachers we often try to be helpful by solving the problem at hand. However, we may soon learn that by offering a myriad of solutions or approaches to solve the problem, we instead may fuel a person's anger, anxiety, or frustration.
This conundrum is addressed in a book I recently read titled "Wait, What? And Life's Other Essential Questions" by James E. Ryan who is currently the president of The University of Virginia. In his book, Ryan puts forward five essential life questions. One of the questions Ryan recommends people ask is "How can I help?" He explains that the wording of the question is very important because it assumes that the person in need is capable and that the person offering the assistance is a partner (and not a superior). Asking this question allows for the person to control the support they want while maintaining their self-worth. Often, they may not even want a solution—they may just want to be listened to and have the time and space to articulate the possible ways to resolve their challenge.
The applications of this concept to our interactions with children are plenty. Whether at home or at school children are constantly trying new things and incorporating the tools, strategies, and feedback they learn throughout the day in these different circumstances. Asking children how you can help is a great way to nudge them to identify and articulate their hurdles and to begin to list the ways in which they may solve the problem themselves. Also, this question signals to children that we trust them setting their own course and that we are here to partner with them throughout the journey.
Parenting is hard. So when we try something that works, we should share. This week I thought I would share a successful parenting experience that occurred in my family this weekend in this spirit of sharing and giving parents another tool in the "parenting toolbox."
I brought my seven-year-old twins to WES with me on Saturday as I had some work to do. I told them beforehand that they could play in the gym while I worked in my office. We brought a basketball, a soccer ball, and a football as both boys enjoy these sports very much. When we arrived at school I turned the lights on in the gym and thought to myself how lucky these two were as they have a big beautiful gym all to themselves–something my siblings and I would have relished as children. As I began my work, Jace and Trey came to my office and looked blankly at me; it had been seven minutes. When I asked them what was up, they replied, "We don't know what to do." Baffled and bewildered, I swallowed the words that wanted to escape my mouth, and I racked my brain for ideas of how to get them back into the gym to play.
I had an idea. I gave each of them a piece of paper and a pencil and told them to have a seat at the table and to write down twenty things they could do with a gym and various balls. Fifteen minutes later they were finished with their lists, and I asked them to compare their lists and identify which activities they wrote down that were the same or at least similar. They had 12 similar activities including dodgeball, handball, obstacle course race, and a human version of LEGO Marvel. After a brief conversation about a few of the activities and how to play them, they went back to the gym with their lists in hand. About an hour later, I went down to check on them and found them happy and engaged. The simple act of having them take some time to thoughtfully think about what they wanted to do increased their engagement and creativity.
This concept is not new, and I am certainly not a pioneer. Teachers use a similar concept in their classrooms called Play Planning. According to "Tools of the Mind," Play Planning is when children purposefully plan their play before actually playing. In the classroom it usually occurs before center time or recess and often involves imaginary or make-believe play. This purposeful act of planning helps children develop their organizational and collaborative skills as well as their self-control. It also gives children power and ownership over their decisions which then builds their confidence too. So if you ever find yourself in a situation where an activity is not keeping your children's attention for very long, perhaps hit the pause button and ask them to think through what their play might look like. You may be surprised by how creative the ideas can get!
I attended a party not so long ago and, as normally occurs, I entered into a conversation about education. During the conversation, the gentleman with whom I was speaking made a very common statement, “We need to do a better job of preparing our children for the real world.” As the gentleman continued, I looked over his shoulder at my three sons and wondered in which world they were living if they indeed were not living in the real one.
Now I certainly realize that the gentleman was conveying the conventional idea that some portion of our young men and women entering today’s workforce are ill-prepared to demonstrate and manage the various skills, work-ethics, and values needed to succeed. I am not sure that I agree with that sentiment; however, that is not the point of this particular blog entry. Instead, I would like to explore why expressing this view out loud and in front of children may do more harm than good.
Recently, my eldest son and his classmates prepared for four months for their sixth-grade musical. They auditioned, they memorized lines, they learned choreography, they gave up weekends, they disagreed with each other, they argued, they solved problems, they overcame fears, and in the end, they put on two fantastic productions of their musical. This was very real to them. This was their “real world.”
Even if you took away all of those wonderful lessons they learned through the process, this experience for them was beautiful and memorable and should be given the importance as something very, very real. I believe the words we choose to use are important and that both children and adults are affected by them. So when we consistently refer to the years after college or high school as the “real world” we are certainly making a dispiriting statement about all those years and experiences leading up to the “real world” years.
I think that through our actions and our words, we need to show our children that what they do today matters–not just as preparation for tomorrow–but it matters because the experiences are real, no matter one’s age.
Over the past few years, I’ve listened to adults label and generalize today’s children as people who are overly dependent on technology and are not developing the social skills of previous generations because of this. I too have had some concerns about the overuse of technology, but my concerns are not limited to Generation Z, and they are not generalized to all children.
I thought about this while I was on a recent study trip with our Grade 8 students. We went to Port Isobel Island, Virginia for three days and two nights to learn about and study the Chesapeake Bay. The students had absolutely no access to technology throughout the entire trip, and interestingly enough, they never mentioned it. Now our hosts, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, had activities scheduled from sun up to sun down, so the students did not have much downtime. The downtime they did have was spent outdoors playing football, playing a variation of tag, fishing, etc. No one sulked and no one complained.
I realize that this trip is an anomaly, but I think it speaks to possibilities. It is possible for children to socially function at high levels without the use of technology. It is possible for students to have an absolute blast without the use of technology. And, it is possible to tell children that no, they will not have their phones or computers for three days and everything will be fine.
Towards the end of the trip, I asked many of the students to share with me their favorite Thanksgiving memories. They shared simple things, like helping grandma make pierogies or playing charades and monopoly with family members. Not one child mentioned that their favorite memory was playing video games or texting with friends.
When I think about the Chesapeake Bay Study Trip and I think about most families’ Thanksgivings, one thing they have in common is that the adults are extremely present and interactive with the children. I know that we are very busy and we can’t, nor should we, schedule every minute of our children’s lives. But, if we studied this phenomenon, I wonder if we would see a strong connection between adults’ active engagement with children and children’s decrease of screen time. I believe that children, despite some of their protestations, really do want to spend time with adults and would be happy to put down their devices to do so.
I thought my first blog would be an opportune time to share, My Why – why I choose to work with children, why access and equity are driving forces for me, and why, as an educational leader, my decisions are always student-centered.
I am a native Philadelphian who grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in the northeastern part of the city in the 1970s and 80s. I am the youngest of nine children and the first in my family to attend college. My parents’ priorities were to house, feed, and cloth us, and when possible, limit the inevitable sibling squabbles that erupted on a daily basis. Overall, education was considered an extravagance and not much of a priority in my family, especially higher education. Whenever college was brought up, my father would share his very practical thinking on the subject: Why would you pay money for four years in order to not make money for four years?
My family, and most of the people in the neighborhood in which I lived, were Irish or Italian and had very limited interactions and understanding of other races, ethnicities, and cultures. In this part of Philadelphia, grandparents lived down the street from their grandchildren, cousins were neighbors, and everyone knew everyone. In a positive way, the neighborhood as a whole looked out for each child. Childhood shenanigans were kept to a minimum and dinner was always just around the corner. But I learned soon enough that this insularity had its drawbacks too.
One of the most memorable moments of life is what I eventually learned about our neighborhood dry cleaner and my community. As a child, one of my chores was to take and pick up my parents’ clothes from the dry cleaner. The language used to refer to these business owners was, at that time, a common racial slur for people of Chinese origin. The ignorance of naming the only Asian-owned business in the neighborhood a derogatory term was only worsened by the fact that the owners weren’t even Chinese, they were Korean. When I realized in high school, yes, high school, that this word meant something other than the “dry cleaner,” I knew this was likely to be but just one example of a litany of demonstrated behaviors and attitudes showcasing the limited culture and understanding of the neighborhood and times in which I lived.
It was not until I finished my undergrad degree and moved to the DC area that I truly realized how poorly prepared I was to understand, appreciate, and respect others – all others. This is when I developed my purpose for educating. I wanted to ensure that the children I served would not experience the same ignorance that I had.
I believe if whole neighborhoods can adopt negative stereotypes, that we can, through education and communication, counter those stereotypes to create enlightened communities that value open-mindedness, diversity, and acceptance. My daily motivation, MyWhy, has been and remains ensuring that the students I serve have the opportunities, knowledge, and skills to not only demonstrate acceptance and understanding, but to lead others along that path.
Photos: At last year's opening Chapel and my family on the first day of school.