For Parents—A Dad (also a School Head) Wondering About Grades

Parents can get a bad rap because we come across as obsessed with our children’s grades, while neglecting a far more appropriate concern with our children’s learning and critical skill building. Perhaps we are simply misguided as to how to best express our interest in what is happening at school and its relationship with the value a school is delivering for our child. No matter our intent, it washes away in the eyes of the folks who empty our refrigerators and refuse to greet us and look away from their phones at the same time when we limit our questions about school to grades. A number of conversations are likely to follow such lines of questioning—none of which are likely to recommend us to the Parenting Council (which evaluates a parent’s every move, of course). In short, we tell our kids it is not all about the grades and then we make it seem as if it is indeed all about the grades. Teenagers in particular have a finely tuned talent for smelling out duplicity. We end up sounding like parents we didn’t want to become, and our kids end up confused about what the real purpose of their education might be (HINT: it is not about grades in and of themselves—rather grades are the highly imperfect way we try to gauge the learning a school seeks to provide).

With all that in mind, I have an idea about a smarter path, one that might allow us to communicate our real interest in a way that allows us to be good partners with both our child and the school. First, the Change: move the conversation with your child about an important evaluation before the evaluation rather than having it only after the fact. Instead of just asking, “How did you do?” or “What did you make?” after an assessment, parents get to ask smarter questions in advance of an assessment, such as:

  • Did you do your work all along with your best effort?
  • Do you feel prepared?
  • When you struggled, how did you seek help if you needed it?
  • How did you prepare?
  • Are you planning on changing your approach next time?

Second, the Commitment: let your kids know you are making a change and explain why. Make them partners in the shift in your approach to discussing academic work. Don’t be a mystery to your kids. Try this approach long enough to see whether it works well for your family. Third, the Best Part: you will get to express your high expectations in the context of how your child is going about doing his or her work instead of simply through the lens of the grade itself. It also allows us far better perspective on the meaning of the grade when it is returned, thus putting us in position to be the educational partner our child needs. This is important: not all As or Bs or Cs or Ds or even Fs are alike, and if you know more in advance of the assessment’s return, you will be best aligned to be parents your child needs. For instance, the conversation with your child is different after the assessment is returned depending on answers to questions you may have asked before the assessment like, “when you struggled, how did you seek help?”

Students want expectations—high ones. However, our high expectations too often have been the wrong ones based more on the grade itself than the learning it represents. By moving our conversations in front of an evaluation, we hack into a potentially unhealthy cycle that hyper-inflates the meaning of an individual grade and diminishes the emphasis on learning. The change I suggest is likely to result in a healthier conversation with your child that will bear fruit in both learning and the academic reflection of it.

While I hope the idea that I just named is helpful to some (particularly perhaps students in grades six through ten), it is a small step compared with the moment of reckoning overdue for traditional assessment models in secondary education. A far more significant hack into the grade obsessed culture we have made over the last century plus is increasingly necessary. I focused my wondering in today’s blog narrowly on the relationship between parent and child. What if we thought bigger? Wider?

A number of people and entities are asking exactly that question. Tired of feeling like helpless inheritors of a flawed approach to assessment where what we seek to evaluate and what we actually evaluate are not always well-matched, the idea of finding a better way may not be as far out of reach as we may have thought. At my school, we have become members of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a group of schools across the country whose vision is reflected in this statement: “the MTC hopes to change the relationship between preparation for college and college admissions for the betterment of students.” While I do not know where this conversation will lead (and we are not making precipitous moves to leave our current transcript and approach to assessment behind), I am excited for our school to be at the table for this fascinating conversation. If there is a better way, I want us to find it and be bold enough to pursue it. Our kids deserve nothing less.

[Here is a more complete idea of the MTC: “The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) is a collective of high schools organized around the development and dissemination of an alternative model of assessment, crediting and transcript generation. This model calls for students to demonstrate a mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence that is then assessed against an institutionally specific standard of mastery.” For more go HERE.]

The Adult’s Challenge after the Tragedy in Orlando

From CNN.COM June 6, 2016
From CNN.COM June 6, 2016

Last November I wrote a piece the morning after the Paris terrorist attack. (I have copied it below). Much of what I wrote seems sadly relevant to the Orlando attack at the Pulse Night Club where there were forty-nine victim mortalities and even more injuries, many critical. This latest attack is just that…the latest attack.  Even though it has its own very specific context—in Orlando, at a Gay Nightclub, a single attacker—it seems to be not only identified by its specific details and scale, but by the fact that it is the most recent. There is a growing resignation and accompanying corrosive angst that the next incident of mass murder is inevitable and not that far in the future. That combination—resignation and angst—does not serve us well. It diminishes us. As parents and as adults in the lives of young people we should rise to the challenge of being the thoughtful people our children most need us to be in this moment of disquieting uncertainty at home and abroad. As our nation and the world seems to be pulling at its seams, we need to pull young people to us and into conversation.

My work is as an educator, specifically a school head, and my worry today regards the anxiety we pass to our children even without an awareness that we are doing so. Rather than having conversation with young people about what has occurred in Orlando or in Charleston or in Paris or San Bernardino, we too often move on without the reflection such moments should prompt.

“I wonder if this makes us vulnerable to a sort of national depression, borne from under-sharing what we should share, ironically in a time when oversharing the mundane and unnecessarily intimate is increasingly normative.”

Generally, there are two mistakes that families are likely to make with children when something as truly terrible as the Pulse Nightclub attack occurs. First, the news media shares such graphic imagery that we pull our children out of the way of it and thus do nothing to share with them at all. Each time we do this, the weight of our perceived loss of control over national and world events gets a bit heavier and consequently, the young among us carry an increasing share of the weight as well. Second, and perhaps even worse, we give our children too much access to graphic media, and we do not create avenues for them to process what they see and hear.  Either mistake we are likely to make–providing too little or too much access to media regarding such tragedy– leads to the same problem, that is, without discussion, there is nothing to break the tension created by what has happened. I wonder if this makes us vulnerable to a sort of national depression, borne from under-sharing what we should share, ironically in a time when oversharing the mundane and unnecessarily intimate is increasingly normative. We fail to talk about what is important, and talk incessantly about the things that are not.

For those who may be looking for additional resources for parents and/or teachers, please check out the following:

FROM my November 14, 2015 Post “Parenting in the Wake of the Paris Terrorist Attacks”As our thoughts have been drawn today to France and to Paris in the wake of the tragedy of the terrorist attacks yesterday, I feel a bit ill-equipped as a parent. My daughter is in sixth grade–old enough to have some understanding of the scope of the event, of the larger global context, and of the anxiety such attacks produce in the free world.

However, the graphic nature of the news reports makes me uncomfortable allowing her to watch much on TV or on through her iPhone or computer. In the advent of HD, and of uncut, live-feeds, I worry about both parenting that would allow us to let her see too much AND that would push us to let her see too little.

My instinct is to make sure that:

  • we reassure children that that they are safe.
  • what we watch and read, we watch and read together.
  • we limit exposure to media, particularly repetition of dramatic and graphic video.
  • we discuss what we watch and read without the TV or device running concurrently all the time.
  • we do things together away from media that represent a maintaining of our routines and connectedness to each other. This afternoon, we are going hiking.
  • we don’t oversimplify, minimize, or exaggerate the situation for her.
  • when we don’t know an answer to a question from our child, we don’t pretend we do. Instead we seek an answer together.

Some questions I have:

  • where can parents find appropriate resources to support our kids in moments where global uncertainty is in ascendency?
  • what signs of anxiety should we be aware of in our children in such moments?
  • where are the media sources that, while maintaining the highest standards of journalism, produce content consistently appropriate for younger audiences?

In the end, it is our loving connection to our children that provides them comfort. They need to voice their questions, worries, and opinions in a safe environment.

[I wrote about the 2005 terrorist attacks in London in a post entitled, 21 July 2005: Cambridge, King’s Cross, The British Library, Tavistock Square, The British Museum, and the Long Cab Ride“]

Christmas Thunder and a Type One Diagnosis

Whether radar early morning on Christmas Day 2015 in Memphis Tennessee
i-Phone screen shot of weather radar early morning on Christmas Day 2015 in Memphis, Tennessee

It has not been normal December weather. Last night, coming out of church, Eleanor and I spotted the full moon, and as we looked up waiting for my wife Katie to join us, it felt like a comfortable September evening. For a brief moment it WAS a September evening. This feeling, only a flash, was fleeting as September quickly became a time in the long distant past–a month before my daughter’s Type One Diabetes diagnosis.

I am thankful for many things. After a Fall full of challenges, my list of appreciation has gotten longer. It is a list that now includes LeBonheur Children’s Hospital, The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and most poignantly, all the people who have raised their hands and opened their arms to be helpful to us and to our daughter as we adjust to a world of checking blood glucose, delivering insulin shots, recording numbers in an ever-thickening notebook, counting carbs and dividing them by forty. Eleanor has been in what is called the Honeymoon Period–worst kind of honeymoon ever–when her pancreas tries to do its old job and is only capable of inconsistency in insulin creation. As a result, she has been on a roller-coaster of blood glucose lows and a few highs. She has eaten a life-time supply of Skittles, fifteen at a time.

Another part of our new ritual as parents is getting up at 2:00 a.m., strapping on a small headlamp, and going into Eleanor’s room to do an overnight blood glucose check. Katie has taken the lion’s share of these checks, while I have done the weekends when I can sleep in the next morning a bit beyond my normal workday alarm time. 2:00 a.m. is a weird time when I don’t want to wake up enough to be too alert to go back to sleep and I don’t want to be too asleep on my feet as I need my wits about me so I can prick her finger and get a reading. The 2:00 a.m. check brings me back to the weather. A wicked storm arrived, pulling Katie and me halfway awake by 1:30.

The sound led me to snippet dreams of Atlantic surf–the constant rumble, punctuated by waves crashing and driving to shore.  The ebbing and flowing thunder, the growl of the rain were strange visitors for December and certainly for Christmas morning. I felt as if we had mysteriously landed in the other hemisphere where such weather might make some sense.  When I went into Eleanor’s room, she only awakened enough to give me her hand (such a thin thing her hand, warm from having been wing-tucked under her side). You might be tempted to think her hand, soft and livid, was a metaphor for her own delicacy. Not so. Not a bit.  She didn’t even flinch at the prick–in the daytime she can be laughing and talking at the same time she does the does the check herself. I was never as tough as my daughter. 106–a good number.

The storm held on for hours. I fell into and out of sleep and thus into and out of this storm. I was comfortable and warm, reconciled to a spotty night’s rest. Rotten and loud as it was, this unusual weather was not all curse. Neither, I think, is my daughter’s diagnosis. Trust me, we are not thankful that Type One has come into our child’s life and made clear it is here to stay. I hate it for her. Everyday I hate it for her. I hate it when she has to sit out of swim practice, or covertly check her blood while sitting in a classroom or church pew, or shed angry tears when her long acting insulin dose burns and burns. There is, I think, a blessing here, however: nothing has made it more clear to me that we are, the three of us, all part of each other, stronger because of each other. Her diabetes makes the connection between us physical, tied together through blood and daily, increasingly mundane, rites. Her diabetes is hers, but it is also ours.

Eleanor gets four shots a day–one with each meal, another long acting insulin shot at bed-time. Eleanor gives the lunch and dinner shot to herself in her legs. Katie gives her the morning shot in her left arm, and I give her the night-time shot in her right. Katie and I each have an arm of our daughter, but make no mistake, she is walking on her own two legs. 

The weather looks dicey for a few more days. Who knows if real Winter weather will ever reunite with its appropriate season around here. Eleanor is across the street at a friend’s house, playing with make-up and dreaming of putting her new wakeboard into heavy use next summer. She just texted that she is low–65. In another 15 minutes, she’ll check again.

Above our mantle Christmas 2015
Above our mantle Christmas 2015

Parenting in the Wake of the Paris Terrorist Attacks

IMG_1976

As our thoughts have been drawn today to France and to Paris in the wake of the tragedy of the terrorist attacks yesterday, I feel a bit ill-equipped as a parent. My daughter is in sixth grade–old enough to have some understanding of the scope of the event, of the larger global context, and of the anxiety such attacks produce in the free world.

However, the graphic nature of the news reports makes me uncomfortable allowing her to watch much on TV or on through her iPhone or computer. In the advent of HD, and of uncut, live-feeds, I worry about both parenting that would allow us to let her see too much AND that would push us to let her see too little.

My instinct is to make sure that:

  • we reassure children that that they are safe.
  • what we watch and read, we watch and read together.
  • we limit exposure to media, particularly repetition of dramatic and graphic video.
  • we discuss what we watch and read without the TV or device running concurrently all the time.
  • we do things together away from media that represent a maintaining of our routines and connectedness to each other. This afternoon, we are going hiking.
  • we don’t oversimplify, minimize, or exaggerate the situation for her.
  • when we don’t know an answer to a question from our child, we don’t pretend we do. Instead we seek an answer together.

Some questions I have:

  • where can parents find appropriate resources to support our kids in moments where global uncertainty is in ascendency?
  • what signs of anxiety should we be aware of in our children in such moments?
  • where are the media sources that, while maintaining the highest standards of journalism, produce content consistently appropriate for younger audiences?

In the end, it is our loving connection to our children that provides them comfort. They need to voice their questions, worries, and opinions in a safe environment.