Education, Parenting


ParkBlocksElephantPortlandLike most classroom educators, I started teaching before I had children of my own.  Those first few years are interesting to look back on for two reasons.  First, I was only a few years older than my students and I felt (and acted) like an older brother to them.  I offered advice rather than giving orders, and I immersed myself in the culture of prepubescence.

The second reason that I chuckle when I think about those years is that I also believed that I understood parenting.  I thought that I could tell which parents were good at raising children, and which were not.  I privately kept a tally of the kids whose issues in school clearly stemmed from lack of sufficient parenting.  I had a personal Hall of Fame for those parents whose children’s proficiency and maturity demonstrated their own excellence.

What a difference a couple of kids makes, right?  As my own children have grown closer in age to the middle schoolers I teach, I have become more and more aware of the natural range of personalities/skills/challenges that kids can have–many of which have little or nothing to do with the way we raise them.  Kids have unique quirks that make siblings different from each other even when they are brought up in the same household.

I also treat students differently now, acknowledging that firm guidelines (well, firmer) are appreciated and needed for all students.  I still provide choice, but every sandbox I offer has a boundary.  Every hands-on exploration in class begins with a clear safety message.  I have much more of a “parent” mindset than an “older brother” one.

And, perhaps because I teach only middle school boys, this mindset has me practicing fatherhood in new ways.  Most of my students have active dads at home, so I am not playing the part of primary male role model.  My impact on their lives is much more complex and nuanced.

I make them laugh.  I make them think about the world around them.  I make them ask questions.  I give them opportunities to explore things with their hands and their minds that many have never seen before.  The technology I am lucky enough to have in my classroom exposes them to some of the tools of the modern workplace.  My Science Olympiad course provides engineering and tinkering experience.

I let them fail and then help them pick up the pieces.  I answer their questions, but just as often, I ask them more questions.  I try to take them out of their comfort zones, while making them responsible for their own success.  I frequently reflect on their learning and try to get them to do the same.

The learning that I guide is far less important than what these boys get on a daily basis at home.  Being a father means being one of your son’s first and best teachers.  But, what a decade of parenting and teaching has taught me is that raising a child does require the proverbial village and fatherhood can not be a one-man job.


Our Reverence for Dedication


While tracked out from my year-round middle school, I work part-time for an educational field trip company. Although I get to visit places like Philadelphia, New York, and North Carolina’s Outer Banks, most often I spend my breaks with groups in our nation’s capital: Washington, DC.

Because I have seen many of the attractions and locations so many times that I’ve lost count, I find myself drawn in to observing the people who surround me at each place. People-watching can be a fun hobby in any situation, but I’ve noticed a common trait among visitors to one site that is most fascinating.

Many people from all over the country include Arlington National Cemetery as part of their plans, specifically to observe the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is a solemn ritual that brings crowds throughout the day. If you are not familiar with it, the Tomb recognizes the sacrifice of all American soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors who lost their lives without being identified. The Tomb is guarded twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year by a lone member of the US Army’s Third Infantry Regiment. This solitary guard famously paces 21 steps back and forth across a rubber mat in a robotic dance of vigilance. A small number of people are almost always there watching this ritual.

But once an hour, or more often at certain times of the year, the silent process is interrupted by a perfectly orchestrated procedure in which the ranking officer directs the on-duty guard to handoff his duties to the next one. It is a simple, yet captivating, process.

And, that is what I find so curious. Why are we are drawn so strongly to witness this ritual? What is it about another person’s extreme level of dedication and commitment that interests us?

I have a theory. I think that it’s a combination of admiration for those who commit to something that we choose not and a simultaneous desire to replicate it that drive us to watch. We want to render a similar level of persistence and sacrifice, but many adults realize that we can not. As a result, we are mesmerized by the simple spectacle of watching others do what we are unable or unwilling to do.

What application do think that this phenomenon has for education? Can we engage our students with impressive feats of dedication? Maybe not. Can we pull them in with opportunities to serve their community and become “tomb guards” in other ways? I think so.

The challenge is not to motivate our students to provide dedicated service to their community. The challenge is to find ways to pass along the orders and give them a shift at the tomb.

What do you think will be the twenty-one paces for your students?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


Manhood vs. Adulthood

As I wrote earlier this month, I am in the midst of a big transition to become the middle school science teacher at a new all-boys public school next school year.  One big part of my preparation is an effort to learn everything I can about single-sex education.  As a result, I’ve been reading “Boys Adrift” by a recognized expert in the field, Dr. Leonard Sax.  At some point, I will post a more detailed review of the book, but I have been struck by one particular chapter and I want to share why.

For most of the book, Dr. Sax explains what he sees as the causes for a growing lack of motivation among boys and young men in this country.  I may be naïve, but I think that he exaggerates the seriousness of this issue, especially because it is primarily affecting the most privileged among us: middle-class white boys.  As a seasoned educator, I don’t think that this problem deserves nearly as much of our attention as does the achievement gap between socioeconomic and racial groups, or the plague of standardized testing.

In one of the final chapters, however, Sax explores what he calls the “revenge of the forsaken gods”.  He makes the very convincing point that there is a clear and important difference between adulthood and manhood.  Manhood is a set of expectations for responsible male behavior and, according to the author, it must be passed along by other men.

This section really struck a chord with me.  In my preparation for this new position I have focused almost entirely on the academic concerns–reinforcing literacy skills, integrating more experiential education–but I never stopped to think about the opportunity for a specific type of character education.

Our new faculty looks to have a much higher percentage of male teachers than the average for public middle schools, and that fact provides just the resource we need to develop not just young men, but young gentlemen.  I look forward to developing a school vision that includes a common set of expectations and a consistent way to teach and reinforce the skills of successful manhood.  How exciting would it be if our boys saw positive role models all around them and received constant reminders about how to behave responsibly?

Sax brings this point home when he writes,

“Manhood isn’t something that simply happens to boys as they get older.  It’s an achievement–something a boy accomplishes, something that can easily go awry.”

Now, I find myself looking forward to this new opportunity for an entirely new reason: to pass along the virtues and values of manhood.

I hope that I’m up to the challenge.



photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc


Boys are Different

Last month I made the decision to follow my principal to startup a new school.  I’ve spent my entire eleven-year career at one amazing year-round middle school, so this will obviously be a huge change.  There are bound to be significant challenges and rewarding surprises, which is just the right fodder for blog posts.  As a result, you should expect to see lots more about the change in this space over the next year.

One of the most interesting challenges that comes with this new school is that it represents a bit of an experiment by our superintendent.  The new school will be a single-sex leadership academy dedicated to educating sixth- through twelfth-grade boys in an environment that promotes scholarship and service.

Although the single-sex environment wasn’t the biggest factor that affected my decision, it is the one that I find myself thinking about the most right now.  I’ve taken to carrying around a small red notebook in which I jot down ideas related to the new school.  When I think of a club or extra-curricular activity that would appeal to the boys in this new school, I write it down.  When an idea for how I might teach science in a new way for this unique setting occurs to me, I write it down.  I’ve found this sort of “analog capture” method to work well for this particular task since I never know when I’ll think of something I need to remember later.

As part of my preparation for the new position, I’ve been reading Leonard Sax’s “Boys Adrift“.  Dr. Sax has written this boy-specific follow-up to “Why Gender Matters” to build on the idea that boys and girls learn differently.  He uses the book to make a provocative point: many American boys are becoming isolated and neglected by a series of factors that include ADHD medications and video game playing.

While my optimistic side cringes at the depressing tone of much of the book, the good doctor also provides some advice.  He announces early on that he sees this tome as a clarion call to educators and parents about the growing problem of lost motivation.  I find his warning to be a bit overstated, but not so much that it can be ignored.

We are dropping the ball when it comes to educating adolescent boys.  But, focusing on intelligent unmotivated boys while simultaneously closing the achievement gap between boys from wealthy and poor homes, and pushing 21st century learning is a significant challenge.  Some may say that this is just the “wheel of priorities” spinning again and that if you wait long enough the focus will be elsewhere.

This may be true, but the bigger issue is that we must continue to innovate in the way we educate boys and girls.  It is essential that we create more unique learning environments so that each child can find a successful educational experience.

What do you think of single-sex education?  Is it unnecessary or long overdue?