Monday, October 13, 2014

Columbus Day – Talking to Kids About the Explorer

First appeared on Blogcritics.

columb 3 My son came home from school on the Friday before Columbus Day – no doubt like kids in many places in America – carrying a little art project about Columbus and having a story to tell about the explorer. As he told me what he had learned, which basically followed the longtime tale that I heard as a kid, I felt compelled to talk to him about it, but I wanted to handle it carefully because I know he is young and certain things would not be appropriate to say at this time.

Columbus Day follows a tradition that has gone on for a long time now, as it has been officially recognized since 1892 when President Benjamin Harrison marked the day to be celebrated on the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Bahamas. It became a federal holiday in 1934 thanks to Italian-Americans pressing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make it official. In 1970 President Richard Nixon approved the day being celebrated on the second Monday of October.

Over the years since some states have notably changed the day to be one of observance for Native Americans, or as in the case of Hawaii it is known as Discovers’ Day. There is a trend to look at Columbus as not some great explorer but rather a plunderer, an enslaver, and a murderer. That is not a story you want to tell a five-year-old, but then there is the opposing view that glorifies Columbus as brave adventurer on a mission to spread Christianity and European civilization. That is difficult, however, for Native Americans who can make the case for having developed an advanced culture of their own, not needing Colombus’s religion or civilization.

So as you stare into the innocent face of your child, what can you say about Columbus that will not dampen his or her enthusiasm about what was learned in school but still touch upon some of the truth you know? Well, for one thing, I explained that Columbus came from the same city in Italy as my father’s ancestors. My son liked the word “Genoa” very much and kept repeating it. I also said that Columbus was very brave to take small ships out on a vast ocean, and that there is great truth in the notion that his “discovery” changed the world forever.

columb 1I also went on to tell him about the Native Americans whom Columbus mistakenly called “Indians.” I explained that this was their land, that they welcomed Columbus but didn’t expect him to take what was theirs. I gave him an example: what if some strangers came to our house and we welcomed them, but then they decided to not only stay but also to push us out of the house? He said, “That wouldn’t be fair.” And, of course, that is more than true.

We then looked at a couple of things online, and I showed him some pictures of Columbus, like this one of him landing in the “New World.” I tried to explain that the Native Americans had lived here for thousands of years before Columbus came, and that they were friendly until they realized that Columbus wanted gold and more gold, that some of their people were taken as slaves, and that they were taught a religion that they never wanted or needed. This, of course, would lead to battles between both sides, and some people would say that the “Indians” were bad, but many people would consider the situation and think the men that kept coming after Columbus were the bad ones.

We left it at that and went on to other games to play and stories to read. I treaded carefully because I didn’t want him going back to school and disputing anything that his teacher had said. I did feel obligated to tell him a little something more because I want to be honest with my children, and I always consider parents as their children’s first teachers, so it is my obligation to set him straight not only now  for the rest of his life.

As adults we can have conflicted feelings about Columbus ourselves, and why not? We can see him as either a daring explorer who set out like a 15th century Captain Kirk to go “where no man had gone before,” or we can see him as an inept navigator who grossly underestimated the size of the earth and the distance across the ocean. Columbus did want to spread Christianity and felt it was his call to do so, but he also sought gold as tribute and brutally enslaved Native Americans (though some would argue that he exclusively did this with the Carib tribes that were cannibals and brutal in their own right).

columb 2So do we look at Columbus as the guy who gallantly went before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and wooed them with an orange (or apple depending on the story) to prove the world was round? Or should we see him as the precursor of the explorers to follow that would rampage across the Americas, murdering, spreading disease, and plundering the wealth they found? Was he so totally incompetent that he insisted on calling the natives he encountered “Indians,” even though he must have surely known that he had never reached the shores of India; or did he know what he was doing – setting the stage for more extensive colonization of this new land and acquiring wealth and fame in the process?

One thing I have done to get to know more is reading a collection of Columbus’s journals. Surprisingly, Columbus was quite a fine writer; very florid and descriptive language captures the time and place so very well, so assiduously, that I had trouble stopping myself from reading. It is hard to argue that Columbus did not think he was doing the right thing as I read his own words, especially as he starts out the journal with the words “In the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is clear that he felt he was on a divine mission of some kind, but we also know that some of the worst atrocities in history have been done in the “service” of religion.

So talking to our kids about Columbus and other figures in history can be daunting, but there is also an obligation we have to make sure they know different stories than what they are taught, no matter how inconvenient it may be to tell them. Depending on their ages, kids can handle more than we think, and it’s about getting the conversation started at the appropriate level. We are always our children’s first teachers, and we owe them more than standard history lessons – we owe them the truth.

  Photo credits:,  

Sunday, October 5, 2014

NFL Means ‘No Football Leagues’ For My Kids

First appeared on Blogcritics.

foot 1My 15 year old nephew broke his leg playing football this weekend. Now, even before this happened, I was planning to write this article based on my worries about my own kids playing the game. His injury just confirms my worst fears about a game I love to watch but do not want to see my children – or any kids in my family – play.

This worry of mine goes back to my getting hurt playing football when I was a teenager. I can remember the play as if it happened an hour ago. All the surroundings are vivid in my mind – the blazing red and orange leaves falling from the trees, the cool autumn wind blowing over the field, and the ball leaving the quarterback’s hand heading in my direction. I never caught the ball because the guy who tackled me crushed his helmet into my lower back, knocking my legs out from under me. I remember lying there on the grass, staring up at the cruel blue sky and seeing a dark bird that seemed like a vulture checking me out.

All these years later my back still hurts – a car accident seven years ago reinjured the same area of my back to make things worse. Now I see my nephew lying in a hospital bed with a cast covering his foot and going all the way up to his groin, and I figure that he will now have to deal with rehabbing it, and hopefully it won’t hinder him for the rest of his life as my back has. But I am also hoping he got a message loud and clear – no more football.

Football has been getting a bad rap these days with NFL players behaving like criminals. We all know their names and their alleged misdeeds (no need to rehash that here), and no matter how much we fans of the game want to spin it, we are a long, long way from the feel good days of Mean Joe Green sharing his Coca-Cola with a young fan in a TV commercial. There have just been too many incidents, and the stench goes all the way up to the top – Commissioner Roger Goodell is sitting on top of one messy heap of trouble.

foot 2But none of that has to do with why I say “NFL” for my kids – “No Football Leagues.” A lot of it has to do with my own injury, and injuries to friends and relatives over the years. Then what inspired me to want to write the story was the tale of a teenage Long Island football player who died after being injured in a game.

When I see the picture of young Tom Cutinella, I think of my family members and my own kids and I know that I don’t want them near the gridiron now or in the future. Tom’s picture has been in all the newspapers and on TV, but my nephew’s photo has just circulated among the family. They were just two teenagers who got hurt playing football, but despite his horrendous injury my nephew got lucky – it could be much worse.

foot 3My kids both play soccer now, and I am under no illusions that they cannot get hurt in that game either (anyone watching the recent World Cup matches knows how those players get hurt too), but the nature of the game is not shock and awe; it does not have a grind-into-the-ground philosophy. Just watch any National Football League game and you are going to see aggression that is worthy of the battlefield, and how often do we need to see NFL players getting carried off the field on stretchers to know that this is not the best game for men to play let alone children?

I recently read an article in which a youth league football coach is complaining about parents being afraid to let their kids play football these days. He says that if steps aren’t taken, youth football could “disappear.” Well, I don’t know about other parents but I know I am definitely worried and, if you look at a picture of this guy’s players, they are wearing protective helmets that make them look like astronauts. I don’t care about all the protective measures taken, football is an inherently violent game that is very dangerous, and my kids will not be part of that.

Yes, other sports hold dangers as well – I won’t be going out to get my son a hockey stick anytime soon – but football is a game built on crushing the opponent. I was watching my Jets only earlier today, and my son said, “Dad, I hate football. I only want to play soccer.”

As they say, “Out of the mouths of babes,” so I took the remote and turned the TV off. We went outside and kicked the ball around (boy, does my back hurt when I do this, but I don’t let him know that). I didn’t need to watch the Jets lose another game anyway.

  Photo credits: ny daily news, ny post

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Snow Days Do Not Have to Be No School Days

First appeared on Blogcritics.

snow 1 - CopyThe new school year is in full swing. Students have settled into their classes, teachers have gotten to know their students by now, and the routine has been established for a great school year. Each day does get a little cooler, and we have just turned the page on summer and entered fall. Teachers and administrators are happy the weather is amenable for learning; however, in the back of their minds is the four-letter word that most educators dread – snow! 

When we have a particularly bad winter, snow can disrupt the academic flow for days or even weeks. This leaves many school districts reeling with not only how to connect the educational dots once kids return to class but also the need to make up instructional days. This can either mean taking away from traditional vacation times such as Winter Break or Spring Break or adding days to the school calendar in June; the prospect of which disrupts teachers and families’ vacation plans and causes anxiety for all.

In Pennsylvania students, teachers, and administrators can rest a little easier this year thanks to a new Flexible Instructional Days Program that should become popular in other areas where heavy snowfall can be a factor. According to the posting on the Pennsylvania Department of Education web site, Flexible Instructional Days allow schools the opportunity to “use non-traditional educational delivery methods on regularly scheduled school days” in situations such as snow days when the brick and mortar school will be closed.
snow 2

You may question why no one has thought of this sooner (schools in Ohio and Michigan started using a similar program last year), but the idea that school will be open even though the building is closed is a brilliant way to maintain the flow of instruction and prevent the loss of educational calendar days. The method of doing this is simple – “to use digital technology when students are prevented from physically being in the classroom.” 

Obviously, there are some things that need to be worked out such as the students having an available device at home that will be connected to the school network. School-issued iPads are very simple solutions, but there are also have to be plans in place to deal with an extended power outage in a specific area. The e-learning school day will be somewhat different at home, but I imagine that teachers and students will have to sign-in as a form of attendance being taken, and a semblance of a school day will be in place as class schedules will be accomplished electronically. Teachers will get an opportunity to maintain their lesson planning and students will continue the learning process.

Having long been a proponent of more e-learning in schools, I believe that this is a good practice that can eventually be implemented on a more consistent basis even when school buildings are open for business. The blended learning concept (or flipping the classroom if you prefer) is one I have long advocated as the way to go in terms of providing students a truly rigorous and deep education as prescribed by the The Common Core State Standards.

In this educational milieu students get a lesson to review at their own pace at home (that can even be individualized to differentiate instruction as necessary). When they go back to school the next day the teacher can not only go more deeply into the homework assignment, but also raise the level of discourse to something that would not be possible if the students had to receive the same online lesson in class, which very often means a descent into the dreaded lecturing format as a means of delivery of information.

As it stands, Pennsylvania’s schools have a solid plan in place for the upcoming winter that all the weather prognosticators (as well as the venerable Farmer’s Almanac) are predicting will be a brutally cold and snowy one. This means that when bad weather closes a school, kids won’t be lounging around the house all day watching TV or listening to their iPods, and schools will not be losing instructional days that disrupt school calendars and everyone’s personal lives.
snow 3

It is incumbent upon schools to start meeting the instructional needs of their students in the 21st century anyway, and that includes embracing e-learning as not some new fad but the future reality. An investment in devices that will bring the classroom into the home and connect the home to the school are necessary and compelling for snow days and every other day of the school year, so school districts should begin implementing that immediately.

E-learning is here to stay, and the flexible instructional days concept is an idea whose time has come, and hopefully other states will get with the program before their students are all stuck at home watching the snowfall with the prospect of being in school until the middle of July dancing in their heads. As far as I know, no student, teacher, or administrator wants that.

  Photo credits: education week,,  

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Another Important Scottish Referendum – Royal and Ancient Golf Club Votes To Allow Women Members

First appeared on Blogcritics.

golf 2 With all the fuss about the people of Scotland voting to determine whether they would separate from the United Kingdom – and as we all know the Scots decided to stay in the fold – there was an equally important casting of ballots in that country; the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews voted overwhelmingly to allow female membership for the first time.

The name alone sounds prestigious enough (the club has been in existence for 260 years), but a female has never been allowed on the links in all these years. Perhaps members got thinking after the idea of Scottish independence was shot down for reasons that seem salient – the ties that bind Scots and the rest of the U.K. seem more tenacious than any bad blood from the William Wallace days of old (if you have seen Mel Gibson’s bloody film Braveheart you’ll understand those feelings). Whatever the motivation, 85% of the voting members voted to allow female golfers on the course that overlooks the Old Course of St. Andrews.

When I think of these male-only clubs (and there are many of them that have persisted even into this century), I always picture darkened wood-paneled rooms dimly lit by green bankers lamps, the smoke of cigars and the smell of old whiskey permeating the air. The old timers and even younger members gather around tables and talk of things we regular folks probably cannot imagine – and all of this in the sanctity of a male-only environment where I suppose men can be men (I have no idea what that really means). I guess the rationale is that they can relax in their swimming pools and saunas and massage rooms knowing that they can talk like men without females around to possibly object to their chauvinistic world view or colorful language. 

golf 3Maybe I am wrong, and perhaps these male-only clubs consist of men who just like to get together without women – or perhaps get away from women for some reason. I am not sure why this ever got started in the first place, and I am certain someone with more knowledge than I have will come back and explain why male-only clubs were started in the past. I suppose it has to do with the antiquated notion that there are fraternal opportunities for men, that in the ancient times women were seen as inferior, and that there was no place in this world for women to be equally considered as employees let alone members of an elite club.

golf 1Unfortunately, this makes me think of a Three Stooges mentality, where guys who know very little about golf (or anything else for that matter), like to get together with like-minded males to protect their reputations from the rest of the world, especially the female population. Now, I do understand getting together with my male friends from childhood once in a while. We go out to eat, shoot some pool, and share memories. It’s fun because we do that once every few months; however, I cannot imagine doing that consistently.

Some of you may remember The Little Rascals (also known as Our Gang). In a particular episode Spanky and Alfala designed the He-Man Woman Haters Club with similar intentions I would suppose as the adult version male-only clubs. Spanky watches Alfalfa take a “sacred” oath as a Woman-Hater, but later on he discovers that Alfalfa is sweet on Darla, whom he keeps seeing on the side. Perhaps all it took at R&A was a modern Alfalfa to see the light and open the door for the voting to take place.

golf 4So now the likes of Lorena Ochoa and other female golfers (professionals or not) will be able to be members at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. R&A spokesperson Peter Dawson said, “The membership has also acted to fast-track a significant initial number of women to become members in the coming months.” I am sure that presence of female members should brighten up things considerably in those old hallways and out on the links.

Of course, there will be different kinds of conversations now, new opportunities for members male and female to make professional and personal connections, and a general notion that they have shut the door on the past – the “ancient” maybe gone forever now – and they will all hoist some of the locally distilled beverages that the world loves and interact as equals in the bar and on the beautiful green golf course. Scotland had two important referendums this week – one keeps things as it always has been and the other embraces change as inevitable.

So while the U.K. remains intact (and Scotch whiskey prices will not rise dramatically as had been feared), the folks at Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews will never be the same. Cheers to the people of Scotland and the members of R&A for making the right call on both counts.

  Photo credits: getty images,,, 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

NFL Looks Like The Titanic – Women and Children First Rule Needs To Be In Place

First appeared on Blogcritics.

Let me start by saying that I have been a football fan all my life, specifically a NY Jets fan. I have braved the coldest days I’ve ever known, sometimes sitting on an ice-encrusted seat, to watch Gang Green play back in the days of old Shea Stadium. I wistfully remember the Joe Namath era, he the one New York sports star glittering brighter than Broadway itself. Sadly, Broadway Joe is a memory now and seems to have come from a time of innocence, but maybe it is because I was so young and didn’t know anything but wanting my team to win.
nfl 3Flash forward to our current era, and the National Football League has become something that has morphed into a miasma of drugs, murder, and mayhem. I think it’s time to face the facts – the NFL is like the Titanic, Commissioner Roger Goodell its incredulous Captain Smith, and it is sinking fast now. Ship NFL has hit an iceberg that is more pernicious than the one the great ocean liner struck in 1912 – it consists of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, and Aaron Hernandez, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. That should tell you how devastating this situation is for the good captain, who still believes he can bring the ship into port.

I hate to break the news to Goodell, but the ship is sinking super-fast now and unfortunately, just as on the Titanic, he doesn’t have enough lifeboats for all on board. So now we must invoke the age-old rule of the sea – women and children first. If Goodell doesn’t uphold that tradition, if he doesn’t seek to protect women and children from his crew consisting of many miscreants, then he is not just inept but he is as guilty as they are.

nfl 2The great sportswriter Mike Lupica writes about how Goodell wants to protect the shield, meaning the iconic NFL logo and the entire lumbering mess that it represents. We do not have players who have just gone wild; they are involved in distinctly dangerous and criminal activities, so much so that it seems the league has sought to obfuscate (no matter how much Goodell denies it) or downplay incidents. How else can we explain the original two-game suspension Ray Rice received for cold-cocking his petite then fiancée Janay Palmer (now his wife)?

We can go on and on about NFL players and their sometimes criminal and other times basically loathsome behavior. We can list the names of guys who are gifted athletes and stars of the game but are in jail, have served time, or should have been incarcerated. How many more of them are out there that we do not know about because team management or the league itself found ways to get them out of trouble? We don’t know the answers but we can only imagine that the tip of the iceberg, the stuff we do see, is abhorrent enough to shake our allegiance to team and sport; however, we all know that the tip of the iceberg didn’t sink the Titanic; it was the concealed bulk below the water that did it in.

So what is Goodell supposed to do now? He is faced with the sinking ship, not enough lifeboats, and the reality that something must be done. By first and foremost declaring women and children first, Goodell could go out (if he is indeed fired or resigns) as standing for decency and the rule of law. Goodell should establish his priority for women and children’s safety by making it the number one rule for every player, coach, owner, and employee of the NFL – if you hurt a woman or a child you are banned from the NFL for life. This rule must be established and irrevocable. Whether players behaving criminally like it or not, with this rule they will never step on a field to play the game again.

The obvious dilemma for Goodell is that he sees the writing on the wall. He knows that potentially he will lose many players over the years because of such a rule, that the most lucrative professional sport in the world will perhaps sink not just from the iceberg hit but from the inherently poor quality of its construction. We fans have to face the fact too – NFL games are brutal, violent, and the stuff of simulated war zones. It is hard to ask people to play such a game and not expect them to be damaged, to be altered in the way they view the world.

We can also talk about the danger to players in such an environment. The issue of concussions has devastated former players (including causing some to commit suicide), and it took Captain Goodell a long time to deal with that mess too (as Captain Smith of the Titanic apparently ignored iceberg warnings). The league eventually admitted that the game is dangerous to play and tried to take steps to prevent concussions. This still does not stop the barbaric nature of the sport; it is the stuff that Roman emperors once dreamt of in the games at the Coliseum. As long as the roaring crowd approves of the brutality, everything is okay, right?

I think the veneer is lifting now. How many women need to be battered? How many children need to be? How many guns have to go off in nightclubs? How many people have to die before the NFL comes to its senses?
nfl 1Some people may feel like it’s too late, and maybe it is. Maybe the NFL does sink like Titanic, and everyone turns to soccer, starts appropriately calling it football, and we allow that wreck to drop to the bottom of the sea. If that happens Goodell can look in the mirror and know whom to blame, but there are plenty of other accessories to the sinking of the sport.

For now we need to hear Goodell invoke “women and children first” immediately. This will put those who violate the rule out of football forever. It may not save the sinking ship, but at least the right people will get into the lifeboats. How Goodell will be remembered as the captain? As the man who saved women and children or allowed them to sink along with the ship? It’s his call but the clock is ticking and the ship keeps sinking. We can only hope that he will do the right thing before another woman gets hit or a child gets hurt. It’s your call, Captain Goodell.

Photo credits: getty images,,

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Education Express Should Be Full STEAM Ahead

First appeared on Blogcritics.

As a new school year begins, it is time to get back to work in classrooms all across America. In many schools, this will mean cracking open textbooks, listening to lectures, and learning ostensibly the same way you and I learned and our parents and grandparents did years ago.

While many of us still believe that we got a solid education, there are things happening now which have changed the learning environment considerably. Many classrooms have SMART Boards or SMART Tables; there are hand-held devices being used by students and teachers, and there is connectivity to the world that could never have been dreamt of before. With so much readily available content and tools at our fingertips, there must be gravitation away from chalk and blackboard, away from books and lecture, towards a new educational environment, and many schools and their teachers are already going there.

steam -claremont graduate universityThere are some very exciting ideas out there, some revolutionary in scope that can change the face of education, and some state and district leaders are starting to take notice of them. We have heard a good deal about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in schools, and that has gained traction in recent years as something to bolster student learning in those key areas. If the Common Core State Standards are meant to get kids ready for college and the workforce, STEM seems to be one of the best ways to go to embrace that.

There is an even better alternative currently getting attention across the country known as STEAM. The equation often used is STEM + Arts = STEAM. The concept is taking all the great ideas that have gone into STEM education and adding a strong presence of the arts to manifest an even higher threshold for accomplishment. STEAM is a framework for teaching across curriculum, allowing students to call on different individual strengths to accomplish tasks of varying complexity that would have never been possible in a regular classroom environment.

Georgette Yakman, a founding researcher for STEAM, says that it is “Learning that is representative of the whole world.” By fusing the arts (social, manual, physical, and fine arts) with STEM we are allowing students to get in touch with a wide array of options to accomplish a task. She explains how Science is the study of the natural world; Technology is all that industry has produced up to now; Engineering is the design and creation of things, and Math is the “basic language” that allows us to measure and calculate. By adding Art to the mix, we bring in an aesthetic sensibility that not only helps realize the vision of what we are learning but also enables an appreciation of the beauty and craft that has made everything come together.

steam pyramid - steameduIn every class you have diversity of learning styles, so it very possible if you have 24 students in a room that they are each hearing something differently, the fundamental reason why lecturing is not the best teaching practice. Also, if a student is sitting in a desk copying notes or diagrams from the board, he or she is merely transferring information, hardly a good way to encourage understanding and retention. That is why kids forget what they have been taught year after year and need to be taught it again – they never really learned it.

STEAM allows for an array of experiences that involve students in meaningful, hands-on ways. We keep hearing that CCSS push for classrooms to be student centered, moving the teacher away from being the “sage on the stage” and more of an observer, facilitator, and guide. In a STEAM world the students are taking charge of their assignments and using their diverse skills to get the job done. Let’s say a teacher has asked students to design and plan to build something, and one group decides to build a suspension bridge. In a STEM classroom, that could involve students in that group using their diverse skills to advance the assignment. One student could determine how the nature of the location of the structure will affect their efforts (science), another what tools, machines, and materials will be used (technology), another how the bridge will be designed (engineering), and another what the height, length, and width will be (math). In a STEAM class they will go one step further – the students will then work together to actually build a scale version of that bridge.
Tailleur-de-pierre_mainThe essence of STEAM has been around for a long time. French photographer Charles Nègre (1820–1880) seemed eager to embrace the as of yet unnamed framework when he wrote, “Where science ends, art begins.” He was fascinated with photography as an art, capturing other aspects of creativity and work combined in the pictures he took. He understood that art and all kinds of creativity took effort in and of itself to accomplish, but it was also representative of other work that needs to done to better the world.

The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) has been a major advocate of STEAM, and educators across the country are starting to hop aboard the STEAM express. The philosophy behind STEAM is very simple – the very things that make STEM programs attractive and their graduates ideal future employees are only enhanced by the injection of the arts into the mix. Innovation and creativity associated with the arts are “essential qualities” that will make those students highly valued employees in the future. They will not just think outside of the box, they will design and build a new one.

STEAM programs are slowly catching on and being implemented around the country. As STEAM programs continue to multiply, expect to see and hear more about them (only a few years ago the general public had never heard the words “Common Core”). Do a little research and see why STEAM is one of the best ways to go if we want to engage children, make the classroom experience truly hands-on and meaningful, and prepare students to think, learn, and retain skills necessary to succeed in the real world. With a solid foundation such as the STEAM program provides, who knows how far our students can go.

Perhaps one day when you are riding on a plane that can fly you from New York to Sydney in three hours or taking that long awaited vacation to Mars on a luxury spaceship, your vehicle will have been designed by scientists and engineers who had a STEAM education. Isn’t that what we want for our children – to reach for the stars and beyond?

  Photo credits: Claremont graduate university,,

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day – Honoring All Kinds of Work

First appeared on Blogcritics.

Labor Day always falls on the first Monday of September, and much to the dismay of school children everywhere, this traditional “end of summer” holiday also means that school is about to begin. Yes, in some places children are already back in school, but here in New York Labor Day means one final day off before getting back to those classrooms the kids gleefully fled back in June.

labor 4 wikipedia.orgBeside horrifying school kids everywhere, Labor Day cultivates different reactions from adults as well. While it may be one last day to sit back, throw some shrimp on the barbie, and enjoy a day of leisure, many people work on Labor Day. Roughly 45% of American workers are laboring on Labor Day. Having just come back from the small local coffee shop, I can attest to those people being up early to make sure I got a hot cup of joe.

In my family, we always have to laugh when remembering my paternal grandfather’s opinion of work – he hated it. Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and sharing a small tenement apartment with eight brothers and sisters, Pop had to quit 3rd grade to start working after his longshoreman father died from a heart attack on the dock. He had to help his mother support his younger siblings, and he never stopped working after that, so it’s not surprising after working for many years of his life and finally retiring, Pop had enough of laboring.

Work is seen as a necessary evil for some and a necessity of life for others. There are many people like my grandfather, forced into labor by circumstances beyond their control, and they must work to live. For them work can involve pressure and stress that can be overwhelming. Still, that does not diminish the work they do and the services they provide. We never know the story of that person we see performing his or her job, but we should appreciate it nonetheless as a contribution to society

Then there are those fortunate individuals who live to work. They happily go to work each day, believe their work matters, and see their jobs as one of the best things in their lives. They are the lucky ones to be sure, but no matter how enjoyable their work is it is still also a contribution to the greater good.

So whatever you are doing this Labor Day – enjoying one last cookout, getting to the beach for a swim, hiking in the wilderness, taking advantage of big department store sales, or even getting on the bus to go to work – it is important to know why we have this holiday. Sadly, many people have no idea why we celebrate holidays on our calendar, and Labor Day is no exception.

According to the the United States Department of Labor, the day “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

labor 3 harvard.eduNow that we have that official explanation out of the way, it is necessary to honor all types of workers – union and non-union. Whether the person is handing you a cup of coffee, mopping the lobby of the hotel where you are staying, using a jackhammer in the street as you walk by, standing in front of a classroom teaching your children, or sweltering on the tarmac making sure that your plane takes off safely, all work has value and is important in and of itself.

It is too simplistic to categorize work as easy or difficult. A truck driver who has to unload hundred pound bags of flour all day may see the newspaper editor’s job as an easy one, and the guy washing windows on a skyscraper may look down and see all the people walking on the street below and relish his bird’s eye view. This is all about perspective, about the inherent worth of work in all its diverse possibilities and venues.

As I write this article indoors because of inclement weather (instead of taking my laptop down to the beach as planned), I am “working” on Labor Day. If you don’t think writing is work, think about this quotation from one of my favorite writers, the great Pete Hamill – "Writing is the hardest work in the world not involving heavy lifting." Whether you believe it or not, there is truth in his words that anyone who has had to write something and stared at the blinking cursor on a blank screen can identify with.

labor 1

I hope you can enjoy your Labor Day no matter how you are spending it, but at some point stop and watch someone who is working and be thankful for what they do, even if it is the person grilling your burgers at the family barbecue. Thank him or her for the effort, and make it a habit that your practice regularly. By thanking anyone performing a service for you (and giving a gratuity when appropriate), you will be honoring the work that they do and the spirit of Labor Day every day of the year.

  Photo credits:,,