theorangeinkblot

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Archive for the category “Education”

My Children May Not Be “Gifted” but They are Truly Gifts. I am so okay with that.

Yesterday, while waiting for an oil change at my car dealership I overheard a cell phone conversation between the mom of a second grader and her school’s principal. The mom was inquiring as to why her daughter, who is “very, very smart”, was not asked to be part of the Advanced Academic Program (AAP) which starts in 3rd grade.  After all, the mom said multiple times, her daughter is very, very smart.

The mom was quite worked up on the phone.  The standardized test (that all second graders are required to take), she said, did not accurately represent her daughter’s abilities- and now- because of this test, she was going to miss out on this important opportunity. I couldn’t hear what the principal was saying in response, but I didn’t envy her position.  My father, a former teacher and elementary school administrator, told me that he used to find himself on the receiving end of these phone calls quite often and that they were never fun.

On the other hand, to some degree, I can emphasize with the mom.  It is possible that she is right about her very, very smart daughter.  Standardized test scores do not tell the whole story.  I know several kids who did not score high enough to automatically place into the AAP program but were encouraged by their teachers to go and have done very well.

We live in a very competitive area and there is far more emphasis placed on the AAP program (mostly by a select group of very vocal parents and their very vocal children) than there needs to be.  I have been pulled aside in the school hallways and been the recipient of phone calls from moms that I would call acquaintances so they can ask what my children scored on the test, and what percentile they placed in.   Several times, I have had parents approach me assuming (for whatever reason) that my children had been accepted and wanting to know if I was going to send them.  There is definitely a perceived association of higher status among some parents whose children are part of the AAP program.

You can tell who those parents-mostly moms- are fairly easily because they are the ones that find a way to work into every conversation you have with them that their child is gifted.  They are the ones who wear their child’s test score like a designer purse.  What’s the point in owning a designer purse if people never see it hanging from your arm?  This small, but loud, group of moms need for everyone to know their child is among the smartest.

I, myself, finally found a way to answer these moms when they pry about my own child’s (above average but not gifted) test scores.  I say that my daughter did very well and that we are very proud of her.  This true statement tends to leave the mom not knowing quite what to say next because I have not given them the specific answer they are looking for and they still lack the information they need to compare my child to theirs- which is really what they want to do, anyway.

Early this week, a boy stood up in my daughter’s second grade class and shared that he was going into the AAP program (which due to space issues is at a neighboring school) for third grade next year.  Other kids joined in that they were also going, because (in their words) they are “smart.”  The teacher, shut down the conversation without discussion saying that she was sure their parents did not want them discussing this.  It was inevitable that some kids ended up going home and inquiring to their parents if they were not “smart” because they were not invited into the AAP program.

Honestly, I’ve heard worse.  A few years back there was a mom at our school who told her son he was going into third and a half grade because of how advanced he was.  The son shared that little gem with everyone at the bus stop.  I’ve also heard of parents who have kids in the AAP program who they say are miserable because of how much work they are expected to do.  It’s her son’s own fault for being unhappy, one of these moms was heard saying, he is simply too lazy.

My children are smart.  I don’t need for them to take standardized tests for me to know this.  I think there was a point where I cared about the test scores and what other people thought about them.  That changed when I really took the time to think about all the reasons my very bright children would not benefit from a more competitive, faster paced, homework intensive academic experience, even if it was filled with all sorts of enriching opportunities that they might not get at their current school.  My children would be miserable.  That is more than enough reason for me to not worry about what other kids are doing or how their test scores compared.  After all, if I have no intention of sending them even if they score high enough, then who cares how they score.

I am also well aware that my children’s level of education, success, and happiness that will be achieved in the future are in no way related to whether or not they participate in the AAP program in elementary school (or even middle or high school for that matter).

In fact, while I do tell my kids that they are smart, I don’t spend a lot of time harping on it.  I emphasize how hard they work; how kind they are; how much joy they bring to our family; how privileged I am to be their mom.  I want them to do well in school but I never want them to define themselves by the grades they receive or the scores they get on some standardized test.  I wanted to tell the mom at the car dealership not to worry so much- that her very, very smart daughter was going to be just fine without the AAP program.  Maybe she is even better off without it.

It’s Not About You

To my daughter’s teacher,

I was very upset after our meeting yesterday.  I tried not to show it because I don’t want to undermine your authority in front of my daughter, but I was, and remain, very upset.  This is the third time I have come to you this year sharing with you that my eleven year old daughter, who struggles with anxiety and depression, is not getting the emotional support she needs in your classroom.  It is the third time I have come to you and it is the third time I have been met with defensiveness, excuses, and what feels like a complete lack of empathy on your part.

When I say my daughter needs more emotional support it means I need you to provide an environment that is nurturing and safe.  An environment in which she does not feel judged or punished for behavior that is often outside of her control.  My daughter has an emotional disability.  She will sometimes have outbursts, tantrums, or cry when she is feeling frustrated.  She may stamp her feet or exhibit other behaviors that seem inappropriate for a sixth grader.  Yesterday, at our meeting I watched you firmly point your finger into the table and tell her that stamping her feet in your classroom is not okay.  That her behavior is not appropriate for a sixth grader.  Your response did not feel safe or nurturing. It felt punitive.

My daughter is not a typical sixth grader.  Her brain works differently than that of a typical sixth grader.  Why do you think it is realistic to to expect her to act like a typical sixth grader.  My daughter is bright and capable but often lacks the emotional maturity to take a step back from her anxiety and frustration to choose an appropriate behavior to deal with those feelings.  Perhaps, in your role as teacher, instead of slamming your finger into the table and telling her how inappropriate her behavior is, you could instead validate that she is feeling anxious and frustrated and help guide her to a more appropriate response.  You say that my daughter knows the resources that are available to her and only has to ask to be able to use them.  I am telling you that she sometimes lacks the capacity to ask and needs additional support and help to find her way.

I feel like we would not be having this conversation if my child had a physical disability like the student you had last year who was visually impaired.  I’m sure you had to make some adjustments to the way you taught and presented material to compensate for the student not being able to see.  I’m sure you didn’t call that student up to the front of the class and ask her to point out the blue line indicating the Mississippi River on a U.S. map.  I’m guessing you made adjustments to your expectations and had no problems modifying assignments for that student so that her disability could be accommodated.  I am guessing that if her parents came to you frustrated about something that had happened during their daughter’s school day that you didn’t tell them that you have 22 other kids in your class to worry about like you repeatedly told me at our meeting yesterday.

My daughter’s disability is not that different from a physical disability.  Her disability sometimes requires that you provide additional support, flexibility, and modification of assignments or a change in your teaching or disciplinary style to meet her needs.  She is not trying to be difficult or get away with not doing work.  She is easily overwhelmed and has trouble asking for what she needs so while she learns how to do that I’m asking you to meet her part way and proactively provide her with a little more structure and support even when it’s not obvious to you that she’s struggling because sometimes her disability is invisible.

You said it’s hard for you to not take it personally when my daughter announces as she approaches the classroom in the morning that she does not want to shake your hand, as you ask each student to do each day.  I’m asking you to try to not take it personally.  It’s not about you.  It is about what my daughter needs to do to feel like she has some control over her day.

I watched you argue back and forth with my daughter yesterday about how many feet she was from your classroom door when she said she didn’t want to shake your hand.  Why does it matter?  Is it so important for you to be right? What I am trying to help you understand is that my child is trying to advocate for herself and tell you that she is uncomfortable shaking your hand.  She is still learning the most appropriate way to do that and you have an opportunity to help her with that goal.  Arguing with her about whether or not she yelled it from ten feet down the hallway or at the classroom door does not move her forward in that area.

I keep coming back to my daughter needing to feel more emotionally supported in your classroom.  Here’s what she really needs from you.  She needs for you to wake up tomorrow morning and imagine what it would feel like to start your day feeling completely terrified that something awful is going to happen to your wife and baby while you are at work.  Imagine that you believed in your heart of hearts that in order for them to be safe you had to stay home but because you have to provide for your family, staying home is not an option.  Imagine that it takes so much energy and courage every morning just to get in your car and drive to work that by the time you get there you are completely exhausted on top of still being terrified.  Now imagine that you go to one of your colleagues and confide in them how you are feeling and your colleague tells you that you are not acting like a teacher should act and that you need to just pull it together which makes you feel even worse.  Imagine that at some point during the day you sneak a minute to call your wife because you need to feel reassured that she is okay.  Imagine that people tell you that if you just tried harder you could stop these behaviors. Imagine that you just don’t know how you will make it through another minute of feeling this way.  Imagine that this is only a small part of the anxiety you feel every day.

Now imagine you have to handle all of this emotional turmoil as an eleven year old who does not have the emotional maturity to deal with all of these feelings, even on medication.  How would you want your teacher to talk to you if you were my daughter?  Would you want your teacher to pound his finger into the table and tell you that you are not acting like a normal eleven year old?  My daughter is not a “normal” eleven year old and that’s what we need  you to understand.  She needs you to be empathetic and kind and to help provide the structure and guidance she needs on the days that she simply cannot get there herself.

I know your job is hard.  I know you have 23 students who all require your attention.  I know that you cannot stop everything and only focus on my child.  I am not asking you to do that.  I am asking you to think about the words you use when you speak to her because she is using those words to judge whether or not you are a safe person for her.  I am asking you to put yourself in her shoes and imagine how you would want your teacher to respond to you.  I am asking you to put your ego aside, let your defenses down and consider how you can best support my child.  It’s not about you.

Defining Success when it Comes to our Children

Kids around the country are headed back to school and it won’t be long before they bring home their first graded assignment or progress report.  As a parent, it is difficult to not to set expectations or benchmarks for our children to reach in school.  We all want our kids to do well, work hard, and be successful.   Sometimes though, I worry about the things that parents say to their children when they don’t meet the goals or expectations we have set for them.

This past June, the mom of a 5th grader at my daughters’ school told me she was disappointed in her daughter for receiving a “low” math grade.  On a grading scale from 1 to 4 with 4 being the highest, her daughter had received a 3.  I asked the mom why she was disappointed and she answered that because math was her daughter’s best subject she expected her to get 4’s.  On top of that, upon seeing the report card, she said to her daughter, “I’m not mad at you, but I am disappointed in you.”

This is not the first parent I have heard say this to their child and it makes me cringe every time.   Sometimes it is about grades, sometimes it is about sports or something else that their child is involved with.  The comment might take the form of, “if my child had just put a little more effort into what they were doing, they could have made varsity.”  I want to ask these parents, how exactly has your child disappointed you?  Is it because it was enough for your child to be having fun and enjoying the experience of playing on a team without feeling the need to be the best?  By not immediately understanding the material that was presented to them in class?  By not putting 100% of their effort into everything they do every single day?   Because they are not perfect?

In my opinion, we send our kids a very dangerous message when we tell them that by not meeting our expectations of them that they have disappointed us.  We may think that we are motivating them to do better or pushing them to reach their “full” potential.  I fear that instead we are telling them that our being NOT disappointed in them is dependent on them reaching expectations that are fully unrealistic.  That their worth is dependent on us being able to brag to our neighbor at the bus stop that our child received the highest of grades.  That our love for them is in any way conditional.  I don’t want my children to feel that just because they are good at something it means that they have to be perfect at it.

Through these comments we also teach them that it is not enough to learn for learning’s sake-  That playing just because it is fun is not reason enough.  

I think that as parents we need to ask ourselves-  What kind of child am I trying to raise?  Is it my goal to raise a child who always gets A’s in the subject areas she is strongest in?  A child who makes the travel soccer team?   A child who needs to be constantly striving for perfection?  A child who is doing things only to please her parents?

This summer, my daughter signed up for a drawing class.  By the third class in she had decided that she really wasn’t enjoying it.  At all.  There were only three classes remaining.  I thought about telling her that she had to stick it out because she shouldn’t be a quitter, that she should finish what she started, that she had made a commitment and she should always honor her commitments.  I felt disappointed that the class hadn’t worked out because I had hoped it would be a really positive experience for her.  But on the car ride home, when she asked me if I was mad at her or disappointed in her that she had dropped out of the class I told her no.  I told her I was proud of her.  I was proud of her for trying something new and then recognizing that it was not a good fit.  I was proud of her for vocalizing that she wanted to remove herself from an environment that was not positive for her.  This was not a failed art class.  This was a successful setting of boundaries- of not being willing to be unhappy simply for the sake of feeling like she had to do her best.

How many of us stick with things that make us miserable because we feel like we have a responsibility to do so.  How many of us stay at jobs that we hate longer than we should; in relationships that are unhealthy because we made a commitment.  How many of us wish that we had the courage to just walk away from things in our life that our making us unhappy.  

There are plenty of things that we have no control over.  Obviously, my kids have to go to school.  I want them to do well.  But more than I want them to do well, I want them to be happy.  I want them to not spend time worrying about whether or not they are disappointing me but to take notice of the things they are really interested in so they can discover what they feel passionate about.  It’s entirely possible that what they like the best will not be what they get the highest grades in and I don’t want them to believe for one second that they cannot pursue passions because they have not met certain standards or that they have to excel in an area simply because it comes easily to them.  

I want my children to set their own goals and choose their own definition of success.  My goal for them is only that they be happy and well adjusted.  I want them to feel loved unconditionally and to know that the grades they receive on a test or a report card are in no way a definition of who they are as a person.  I want them to be proud of themselves based on the expectations and goals that they set for themselves- not because they have met a standard I have set for them.

Independent Thinking: It’s like Pilates for your brain.

“It’s not our differences that divide us.  It’s our judgments about each other that do.”

                                             -Margaret J. Wheatley*

Like I said in my previous post (though you don’t need to read it to understand this one), the way I think about the world was sparked by my participation in The Appalachian Semester program (a semester long domestic study program for college students at a small private college in Southeastern Kentucky).   So before I get into my world view, there is one more Kentucky story I need to tell you.

It became apparent very quickly, that belonging to a church was a very important part of life in Southeastern Kentucky.  I got asked on several occasions by students who attended the college that I was visiting which church I belonged to back home which inevitably led to a discussion about my being Jewish.  This generally got one of two reactions.

Reaction 1: You mean don’t have electricity or drive cars or anything? (Actually, that’s Amish.  I’m Jewish.)

Reaction 2: But if you’re not a Christian and you haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your savior then you can’t go to Heaven.

Reaction 1 usually became Reaction 2 once I explained what Jewish meant.  Reaction 2 was followed by a very enthusiastic invitation to attend whichever church the individual belonged to.  Maybe they were awarded extra points per person ‘saved,’ as some of the college students I met were very concerned about the future of my soul.

Growing up, I had heard that there were people out there who believed that because I was not a Christian, I was doomed to spend eternity in Hell.   I had made the assumption that anyone who thought that, must be coming from a place of hate- you didn’t relegate to Hell people that you love.  Now, here I stood, face to face, with “the people” I had been warned about.  But I didn’t hear hatred in their voices.  I didn’t see hatred in their eyes.  That’s not to say that there aren’t people walking around with hate in their hearts.  It just wasn’t my experience.  In fact, except for one negative interaction with a woman from a group called ‘The Christian Crusaders’ I found that people were genuinely concerned about me and scared for me.  They wanted me to feel the same comfort and security that they felt through their relationship with Christ.  They were coming, at least in part, from a place of love, and in part, I think, a place of fear.

Being able to understand the intent behind their belief system allowed me to remove judgment from my side of the aisle and see them as individuals.  Despite my disagreeing with their religious beliefs, we shared many similarities. These were college students, just like me; active, service- oriented community members.  They worried about their grades, and were trying to figure out what they wanted to be when they “grew up.”   Our commonalities seemed to outweigh our differences.

This experience got me thinking.   How do we know what we truly believe?  If we just take the belief system we were raised with (be it political or religious) and carry it into adulthood without questioning it, is it really our belief system?  I had extremely strong opinions when I was in high school and college and I was pretty vocal about them.  It wasn’t until I took myself out of my comfort zone that I realized that some of those very strong opinions weren’t my opinions at all.  They were my parents’ opinions.  It had never really occurred to me before then to question what my parents had taught me, but beginning that semester in Kentucky, and for years afterwards, as I experienced life for myself I began to realize that I didn’t believe everything my parents believed.

“Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com”

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Should people take their belief systems out for a test drive?  If so, how does one go about doing that?   When we are young, we are tested constantly by our peers who try to get us to go against “the establishment.”  Whether through peer pressure, or games of Truth or Dare, kids are constantly pushing each other and themselves to test boundaries and see what they can accomplish.  As an example, sit down and watch snowboarding or BMX biking the next time it is on TV.   These young athletes invent all sorts of moves that seem to defy the laws of physics, and they do it by pushing past previously set boundaries to see what is possible.

As we get into adulthood it seems that we are pushed (by our peers and ourselves) to conform to the establishment, instead of against it.  People who operate outside the “norm” are considered “radicals” or “extremists.”  The OWS protesters are “hippies” and Michelle Bachmann is “crazy.”  In my opinion, people who push the boundaries serve a very important purpose in our society.  They force us to actually think about what we believe.  By sparking dialogue they get us to actually talk about the issues that are important to us.  They make us think about where we stand.  The problem comes in when we don’t take the time to understand why we believe what we think we believe, and how we can better communicate that piece to those who stand across the aisle.

As adults, we have the option of surrounding ourselves with like-minded people.  Instead of   encouraging each other to explore alternative points of view, we rile each other up and feel even more justified in our belief system than before.  We also end up feeling more “right” thereby making the other side completely “wrong” in our minds eye.  That works great for politicians trying to gather support from their base, but it completely disregards the valuable life experiences that we have all had that are at the roots of our belief systems.

If our system of values does, in fact, originate in our childhoods, then it makes perfect sense that our belief systems are different.  We live in an extremely diverse country with many different cultures, religions, and geographic topographies.  Just based on geography alone- whether you were raised in the mountains, near an ocean, or in the desert, changes the things that you value.  Once you throw religion, ethnic background, and socio-economic circumstances into the mix- it’s amazing that any of us have anything in common at all.  We are never all going to believe the same thing.  People have tried throughout history to make us all the same- The Crusades, The Holocaust, the recent genocides in Darfur and around the world.  It has never worked, and it will never work.

My belief in God is fluid.  I believe in something that cannot so easily be defined.  But even if we all believed that we were all created in God’s image that does not mean that God intended for us to all be carbon copies of each other.  If you believe that God created a wide diversity of plants and animals, and widely varying geography, and temporal climates, then why is it so hard to believe that he also purposely created an amazingly diverse population of people with a wide variety of abilities, talents, beliefs, and opinions?

I was born Jewish in New York.  But what if I had been born Muslim in Michigan or Buddhist in China?  In some ways, the initial set of beliefs that we get are random.  We are born at the starting line and given some general rules to live by while we figure the whole thing out for ourselves.  But I don’t believe that we are required or expected to die living by the same exact rules that we start with.  To me, that would mean that we didn’t learn anything along the way.

So how do we put our belief system to the test?  By actually putting ourselves in positions where we have to think about something that is not in our area of expertise.  Here is an example of how I try to test my own boundaries:

A friend of mine is a very active member of her evangelical church.  A few months back she posted on Facebook an audio track of a sermon her clergy member had given during services.  She asked people to listen to it as she felt strongly that there was a very important message about misconceptions that people have about Christians.  I wasn’t sure, being Jewish, that there was a whole lot I could learn from an evangelical preacher, but I decided to give it a listen.  The preacher was saying that there are folks out there who call themselves Christian but perhaps do not act in such a way that personifies true Christian beliefs (for example, people who resort to violence, or who are hypocritical in their actions).  He said that some people might look at those people and generalize about all Christians.   Christians, he said, (and I am summarizing, not quoting) do not want to be represented by the lowest common denominator.  And it was frustrating to him that these were the “Christians” garnering the most media attention.

I thought about this for a while and decided that I agree with him.  I agree so strongly that I’m taking it a step further.  NOBODY wants to be represented by the lowest common denominator.  Whether you are one of the millions of peaceful Muslims being poorly represented by a much smaller group of violent Muslims, or a Jew who does not want to be represented by a small group of ultra-Orthodox who hurl insults at children as they walk to school, we are all individuals who deserve to be judged based on our individual merits and if we are not privy to each other’s individual merits then we should just withhold judgment altogether.   It turns out I did have something to gain by listening to an evangelical preacher after all.

Change is hard and can be scary.  For some people, change only comes as a result of a life altering experience- serious illness or injury, or a great loss, for example.  For most people, I think change is a slow and gradual process brought on by our interactions in the world.  I believe that the greater our interactions and willingness to step outside our little boxes, so grows our capacity for change and our capacity for human understanding.  Perhaps if we approached each other with curiosity instead of with fear and anger, we could find a place where we could have a real conversation.

I think there is a danger in becoming complacent.  On a National level, we have reached a point where we have stopped listening to each other all together.  People seem to want to be heard- they are taking their issues very public- to Facebook, blogs, television, and campaign trails. But despite all the noise we are making, we are not hearing each other very well.

There are personal implications as well.  How many times have we sat at our desk at work, or lay awake at night staring at the ceiling and thought, “I’m in a rut” or “I thought my life would be different than this.”  We might even project our discontent onto other people thinking that our boss, coworkers, spouse, or children are to blame.  Maybe we are feeling that way because we have stopped listening to our own little voice.  We are tired and burnt out and busy doing a hundred different things- many of them things that we maybe don’t want to be doing at all.

So, faithful readers, I am issuing you a challenge- a truth or dare opportunity- if you choose to accept it.  I dare you to step out of your comfort zone and try something new for 30 days.  It can be anything.   Read a newspaper that you find to be biased against your typical point of view and see if you learn anything.  Try a new exercise program.  Visit a house of worship different from your own.  When you start to get that “I’m not so sure about this” feeling, just go with it.  Let your brain actually think about it instead of going straight to that place of anger or resistance.  Try something new for a month and see if it changes your thought process at all.

And just to prove to you that I wouldn’t ask you to do something that I’m not willing to do myself, I have already started.  I have always been curious about the vegetarian lifestyle and have decided to go both vegetarian and dairy free for 30 days.  (Today is day four.)  I want to see if the experience changes the way I think about what I put in my body, or where my food is coming from.  I am already learning (I’m sure you’ll be reading all about it in a future blog) and life is a little more interesting than it was four days ago.

If you decide to take me up on my challenge, I would love to hear about it.  If you think that everything I’ve written is a bunch of malarkey, that’s okay too.  My belief system does not have to be your belief system, nor is it a threat to your belief system.  If you have taken even one thing from what I have written (like I did from the evangelical sermon) then I would encourage you to share this post and get some real conversation rolling.  Thanks for reading!

*Quotation is from Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future Berrett-Koehler Publishers; First Edition (January 9, 2002)

Part 2B: How I ended up following in my parents footsteps and pursuing a career in education, despite having a fool proof plan to go to law school and blah blah blah

This entry is a continuation of two other entries.  If you have not read the other entries, you can find them here:

http://wp.me/p1ZHOE-1O

http://wp.me/p1ZHOE-2P

Stepping Outside the Box

To say that I had stepped outside my comfort zone upon my arrival to the small college in Southeast Kentucky that would be my home for four months would be a gross understatement.  I had come from an urban campus of 5,000 undergraduates- 25% of whom were Jewish and many of whom were from Long Island.  I now found myself on a rural campus of about 800 undergraduates, presumably the only Jew for 200 miles.

My home campus had co-ed dorms and some co-ed bathrooms, 24 hour visitation, and while technically a dry campus, there was plenty of drinking going on behind closed doors.  The college at which the Appalachian Semester Program was based was located in a dry county, with an all female and an all male dorm.  There were strict visitation hours and if someone of the opposite sex was in your room, the door had to remain open and a 60 watt light bulb had to be turned on at all time.  (Under those conditions, I think the only thing turned on was the light bulb, which was probably the point.)

There were 12 of us participating in the Appalachian Semester Program (ASP) that semester from schools throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Mid-West.  Some of us felt more at home than others.  Despite feeling like a fish out of water, I did the best I could to gain as much as I could from this semester long, once in a formal education experience.

And what an experience it was.  Under the tutelage of our trusty professor who doubled as our tour guide, we explored Appalachia (in a 12 passenger van) from corner to corner.  We traveled North to Cincinnati for a conference on Urban Appalachia.  We ventured South to Knoxville, TN and visited the Highlander Center, Great Smokey Mountain National Park, and the TVA Dam.

In Southeastern KY, our group visited a coal mine, a snake handling church, community organizations, farms, schools, and local festivals.  We even crashed (sort of) a family reunion and were welcomed with open arms by our hosts.  I learned to quilt, weave, and log roll.  I even took a clog dancing class.  I could write an entire book covering all of the amazing places we saw, and the fascinating people we met.  It was the ultimate in experiential education.

The experience that had the greatest impact on me was my internship.  We had the choice of several internship sites.  My roommate (a social work major at her regular school) interned with the local social services office and got to accompany social workers on home visits.  Another in my cohort shadowed a mid-wife as she provided prenatal care, and performed home deliveries back in “the hollers.”

The internship that caught my interest (much to my own surprise) was being a classroom helper in a 2-3 grade combined classroom at the local, public elementary school.  We had visited the school one day to hear the father of a girl in that classroom talk about his experience as a coal miner.  In addition to describing his job, he talked about the difference between the unionized and non-unionized coal mines; the importance of health insurance (since so many coal miners have respiratory issues at some point); and getting caught in a mine collapse that he was lucky to be rescued from.  He talked about his hopes for his daughter’s future – that he wanted her to have the choice to go to college and be able to make her own decisions about what she wanted to be when she grew up.

We also spent some time that day interacting with the kids, some of whom came from extremely poor and underprivileged families.  They were a curious, energetic bunch, and couldn’t get enough of the attention that we were dishing out.  Maybe it was their hopeful, innocent faces.  Maybe it was their need for extra resources and hands in the classroom.  I’m not sure what it was, precisely.  All I knew was that despite not really feeling all that drawn to children in the past, and despite having no interest in pursuing a career in education those kids had stolen my heart.  I was where I needed to be.

I still think about those kids (who must now be in their early to mid twenties).  I think about Joe, the little boy who I tutored in math, who was just so grateful for the one on one time.  I think about Heather, one of five siblings who were living in separate foster homes.  A couple in Oklahoma had agreed to adopt all five kids and then, for reasons I am unaware of, backed out at the list minute leaving Heather and her siblings devastated.

I remember one little girl who got sick during the school day and had to lay on a cot in the back of the room because her house had no phone and there was no way to let her parents know she was ill.  I remember a couple of the 2nd and 3rd grade girls becoming Aunts that year, because their 14-year-old sisters had just had babies.  I remember Hannah, the daughter of the coal miner, who wrote me a letter after I’d gone, telling me she had named her puppy after me.

Mostly, I remember their teacher, Linda, who was doing an amazing job (with limited resources) of giving these kids a chance to choose their own destinies.  She told me that many of the kids would never leave the state, or possibly even the county and she wanted them to understand that “Kentucky is not the center of the universe.”  She wanted them to be proud of where they were from, but also be aware of the wonders that the world had to offer.  Linda’s classroom was filled with books that provided her students a window to the world.  She felt strongly that for a child to have a chance to change their circumstances, they needed to see that other options existed.

Linda taught me as much as she taught those kids.  I learned that if Kentucky was not the center of the universe, than neither was New York or DC or even the United States as a whole.  I was also learning that a career in education and a career in justice were more closely linked than I had ever thought- that how a system of education is implemented has the ability to level the playing field, propel kids ahead, or leave them in the dust.

Through the ASP, I was witnessing an America that I had only read about in the newspaper and text books.  I was seeing the impact of poverty on education and geographical access to various kind of resources in Kentucky, but knew that these are issues that are prevalent throughout the U.S.  I was learning that book learning is helpful, but there is no substitute for learning through experience.  I had come into this “domestic study program” after three years of college thinking I had at least some answers but found I really had no answers at all, only questions.

This left me wiser in some ways, but I was in no way closer to deciding what I wanted to do with my life.  I still didn’t want to be a teacher.  Honestly, after spending so much time with those kids, I didn’t think my heart could take the emotional toll of getting so attached to so many children.  But I do understand better now why so many of my friends have become teachers, and have come to truly respect the impact they have on so many young lives.

Before I left Kentucky, I went to talk to the Career Services director at the school I was visiting.  She helped me to isolate the values that I wanted to focus on in my career.  I was originally attracted to a career in the field of justice because I have always felt that people should be held accountable for their actions and behaviors.  What I loved best about my Resident Assistant position back at AU was the one on one counseling I got to do, and planning programs that introduced students to new ideas or made them think outside the box.  And I knew that taking myself out of my own comfort zone had raised my level of awareness, and consciousness about the world around me, even if I had sometimes felt a little uncomfortable in the process.

The Career Services Director told me about her graduate degree in College Student Personnel Services.  She liked working with college students because they were old enough to be able to articulate what they wanted or believed, but they also flexible enough to consider new ideas.  College students are learning about being accountable for their decisions and behavior, and many of them find themselves outside of their comfort zone when they leave home for the first time to pursue their degree. She thought it would be a good fit for me too and encouraged me to look into some programs.

I started my own research and the following fall found myself enrolled in the Higher Education Administration Masters program at Michigan State University, which led to my first professional job as a Residence Hall Director (I could write a book about that experience too), and then six great years as an Academic Adviser.  So I ended up working in education after all – higher education.  I even taught a couple of college classes, though teaching is definitely not my passion.  Ironically, the ultimate teaching job, parenthood, has taken me out of the work force for a little while, but I hope, that once I return I can jump back in to my career in higher education.

My time in Appalachia combined with my Graduate School studies helped me to define the values and belief system by which I choose to live my life. For the three of you out there that want to hear about that belief system, you are in luck!  In Part 3 (the final installment of this blog topic, I promise) find out why we are really not all that different from each other,  why we are all a little like those little Russian nesting dolls, and why grown ups should play more truth and dare.

Part 2A: How I ended up following in my parents footsteps and pursuing a career in education despite my foolproof plan to go to law school and eventually become a judge.

 

 

In sitting down to write Part 2 of ‘The Story of how I WAS NOT going to follow in my parents footsteps by pursuing a career in education, and instead go to law school to eventually become a judge’ I realized that this is a longer story than I had originally anticipated.  So, I have divided Part 2 into two parts.  If you have not read Part 1, I would recommend reading that first. http://wp.me/p1ZHOE-1O

Part 2A- The Journey Begins…

I didn’t last very long at the job at the law library.  The would-be ‘moon colonizer’ turned into a bit of a stalker and I ended up calling a friend or a Public Safety officer to walk me home on more than one occasion.  I had also become a little self-conscious about my “good for carrying babies” hips.  Surely, I had better things to do with my Friday nights.

For example, I had a whole new career path to map out (Okay, so maybe I wasn’t doing that on Friday nights, per say.).  I had come to American University to major in American Studies, in order to pursue a career in the American legal system.  (Just call me your all American girl.)  Now I was second guessing at least one part of that equation.  What to do?

You may not believe me but employers are not fighting over American Studies graduates.  Most of the folks that I know who majored in American Studies became teachers or went on to graduate school (most often law school).  Despite this, I did not want to change my major.  Perhaps to make up for the poor job prospects after graduation, American Studies majors got to take really cool classes.  While my friends were taking Microeconomics, World Politics, and Statistics, I was taking:

  • Contemporary American Culture – Television (my final paper was about ‘The Animaniacs.’)
  • Food & Culture (In this class we sampled everything from bagels and lox to kimchi)
  • American Decades- The 1980’s (One of our assignments was to visit two shopping malls- one geared towards higher income shoppers and one geared towards lower income shoppers and compare and contrast.)

I also took a class called “Southern Traditions”.  We spent part of the class talking about Appalachia (particularly Kentucky, Tennessee, and Western North Carolina) – a region for which I had no first-hand knowledge.  I had never even been to “the South” (I was pretty sure that vacations to Disney World did not count.)  It occurred to me while taking this class that I actually had very little first-hand knowledge of any U.S. region outside the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic where I had grown up.

Between my fairly liberal NY upbringing, and my AU student experience, I thought I had seen just about everything.  My residence hall had a co-ed bathroom on our all girls floor as to not inconvenience overnight guests of the opposite sex , on its best day our “dry” campus was pretty damp, and my constitutional law professor walked into class one day and opened his lecture by saying, “While I was driving into campus today, I was thinking about pornography.”  (He was thinking about it as it relates to freedom of speech, but still.)

There were all kinds of policies governing student behavior on the books at AU, but for the most part, I would say that students preferred to govern themselves (or let anarchy prevail).  Through my RA job I gained insight into the hidden talents of my fellow classmates such as closet “gardening”, chemical explosives, reptile care, misappropriation of University funds, and home improvement (i.e. how to remove ceiling tiles in order to hide various (prohibited) items in the ceiling.).

So while I was not leading a totally sheltered life, I did realize, through my class work, that I had not seen as much as I thought I had.  Some of my friends were studying abroad  as part of their International Studies major.  What I needed was a domestic study program that would let me go beyond the text books and class lectures and really experience another part of America.  But did such a thing exist?

With help from my faculty advisor, I discovered ‘The Appalachian Semester Program’- a domestic study program at a small college in Southeastern Kentucky.  Program participants lived on campus and took classes in sociology, economics, and political science all pertaining to the Appalachian region.  Each student also participated in a local internship, and chose a research topic to pursue while there.  I got permission to use the Appalachian Semester program credits toward graduation and made plans to spend the first semester of my senior year away from everything and everyone I knew.

So what happens when a nice Jewish girl from Long Island, NY finds herself in rural, conservative, Southeastern Kentucky?  Stay tuned for Part 2B and find out how The Appalachian Semester program raised my level of consciousness, expanded my world view,  and (finally) led me to follow in my parents footsteps and pursue a career in the field of education (not to mention learn to quilt, weave, clog dance, and log roll).

The story of how I WAS NOT going to follow in my parents footsteps by pursuing a career in education, and instead go to law school to eventually become a judge, Part 1

Both of my parents had long careers in the field of education. Both started as elementary school teachers. My dad eventually went on to be an elementary school principal, and my mom was a community educator, health advocate, and taught adult education classes. As early as second grade, I remember people asking me if I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up, just like my parents. And I remember, that my answer was no, I was going to be a judge so that I could put “the bad people” in jail. I’m sure that throughout my childhood I considered other career paths. In seventh grade, we got to choose an occupational area to explore and I chose careers working with animals. One field trip was to an animal hospital where we got to observe a male dog being neutered. That pretty much put the kabash on that idea.

But by the time I was in high school, I was fairly confident that a legal career was in my future. Even if it wasn’t, I WAS NOT going to pursue a career in an education related field. When I went off to college, I chose ‘American Studies’ as my major. The combination of history, literature, and sociology seemed like good preparation for law school and I really liked my classes.

Then, my sophomore year, I got a part time job at my University’s law school library. That’s when my plan began to unravel. The job was a virtual snoozefest. My very important job was to replace the paper and toner in the photocopiers, alphabetize and refile microfiche, and reshelve very heavy law books. I also very efficiently referred students upstairs to the information desk when they mistook me for someone who knew anything. But the job itself did not disuade me from my path. It was the law students.

I worked Friday nights from 7pm to midnight, and every Friday night I saw the same students poring over the same law books. NONE of them looked happy to be there. A couple of the men, to my misfortune, did take a liking to me. Without fail, one or the other would make his way over to my work area, lean on the counter, and try to convince me I should go out with them. Being that these were lawyers in training, you would think that they would be somewhat persuasive- Not so much.

One of them told me that I looked like “good wife material” and that I had “good hips for carrying babies.” Just what every 19 year old woman wants to hear. But he was a total catch compared to the other guy who excitedly filled me in on his “secret” plans to purchase a rocket ship so he could colonize the moon- and did I want to join him?. I’m sorry, I think I have to wash my hair that day.

Then, there were the law students who would get mad at me when I couldn’t answer their legal research questions. “Is there anything you do know?” they would ask me. You mean it’s not enough that I look like good wife material?? Try asking that person upstairs at the information desk- you know, the REFERENCE LIBRARIAN.

It was enough to make me not want to spend any more time in a law library or with law students, even as their peer. Thus ended my legal career aspirations. Ironically enough, I did end up marrying a lawyer- one without a secret plan to colonize the moon. And what does one do with a degree in American Studies once they have decided to not go to law school? For that answer you will just have to wait for Part 2 of this blog entry: The story of how I ended up following in my parents footsteps and pursuing a career in education despite my foolproof plan to go to law school and eventually become a judge.

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