Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Common Core Wars: A New Hope – Making Education Personal

First appeared on Blogcritics.

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Today's student's needs are neglected
I came across a great article in Connected Principals (a blog written by school administrators to discuss best practices in education) by John C. Marschhausen, superintendent of Hilliard City schools in Ohio. As I read the piece I took deep breaths of joy, enthused by the veracity of his words regarding education and assessments. After what has been like a long and cold winter of discontent and despair regarding the direction of education in this country, Marschhausen seemed right on target about the most important thing in our schools – the student!

He notes a salient fact: “Our federal and state policy makers expect all children to perform at a specific level.” The problem with that kind of thinking should be obvious. He astutely points out a crucial truth – “children aren’t widgets” (the gadget kind and not the software kind). They are in no way typical or representative of one another. The way Marschausen uses the term means that they do not fit into the molds that big testing companies and state education departments obscenely manufacture for profit rather than academic success. Children are “unique” and “gifted” but not always able to register as such in prescribed levels that result in designating them "below average" on standardized testing or state assessments.

The problem with standardized testing and state assessments has been glaringly obvious for years – they test students as if they are all the same student. When parents read about “Overall State Percentile Ranks” or performance levels, they are seeing numbers that are specifically about their children; however, this is always in relation to all the other children who have taken the test. The pattern here is obfuscation of the child’s own particular talents and strengths with a peculiar emphasis on weaknesses.

While testing giant companies and their minions who cooperate in state education departments will tell you this is “good” for the children, I believe many parents would join me in vehemently disagreeing. As an instructor and teacher at many different levels in my career, I learned the power of not using the red pen. The red pen philosophy is catastrophic to developing students as learners, writers, thinkers, and creators. Red pen always is negative in connotation and is a disaster for students’ self-esteem and development. To this day when I speak to adults who shiver when they think of English class, it is mostly due to red pen syndrome. Teachers thought that they were doing their jobs, but they were actually doing damage that could (and in many cases did) last a lifetime.
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The old one-room school house.

When Marschhausen calls for a personalized kind of education, I believe it is a rebuke of that old red pen philosophy. His concept is not new, but it is like an idea that sort of went out the door with the one-room school house. In those days thirty kids in the room could span grades K-8, and it was the teacher’s duty to reach each one of them on his or her level. This was not cookie-cutter teaching, but required effort, time, and compassion for each student had to be taught as an individual.

Well, today’s schools do not have children from so many grades thrown together in one classroom, but in a class of twenty-five it is folly to believe that every child thinks the same, learns the same, and will perform the same. The truth is that we have so many learning centers and after school programs because the children are not getting the individualized attention they need during the school day. This is not the teacher’s fault, because he or she is saddled with a bloated curriculum and Common Core State Standards that are indicating that every child is or should be the same or should be striving to be the same.

Proponents of CCSS love to tout the “rigor and relevance” of their program and how children will be college and work ready, but that is like putting the cart before the horse. Instead of worrying about getting a third grader ready for the workforce, we should be concerned about teaching him or her what is needed in third grade. Furthermore, how about teaching each student and pacing lessons based on how that student learns and needs to be taught?

The explosion of “special needs” students is clearly connected to a system that believes in the cow dung that it is shoveling. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top did less to improve instruction and more to press districts into doing cartwheels and spinning plates better than any acts on the old Ed Sullivan Show to acquire federal money. Of course, every child can learn is the popular mantra of this way of thinking as well as each child must pass the assessments as a requirement. All of this is done with complete disregard for the student’s needs and talents.

Having been a teacher and administrator for many years, I was struck by the sterility of the system and its components. There was no room for growth in the true sense because everyone was saddled with the notion that planted seeds do not need to be nurtured; they needed to be tested to death. In this scenario we have a no-win situation for students, and their teachers are forced to teach to the test even though they themselves have not been adequately prepared in the new standards. Oh, and by the way, teachers, your performance review will be based on how well the students did on those assessments that you were never trained properly to proctor in the first place.

I am a parent as well as an educator, and I see the unique gifts and talents of my own children, and I know often those things at which they excel may not ever be assessed in school. Sadly, some children never take an art or music class; therefore, our budding Beethovens or Picassos are left to fiddle or doodle while Rome burns all around them. The sad truth is that schools do not promote or assist fecundity of talent because of that academic sterility based on the over-testing model that continues to overwhelm them.

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Teachers will be key factors in the education revolution. 
What is really needed in this country is a sort of academic revolution, and in that movement there needs to be a joining of parents, teachers, and administrators who bang the drum for a new day in education. We are all sick of our kids being tested and tested into oblivion, and the money wasted on administration of testing, preparing teachers for testing, and grading these tests could be put to much better use in the classrooms.

I have been in schools where SMART Boards and SMART Tables have been procured through funding, only to see them used incorrectly or not at all. I have witnessed kids watching movies on SMART Boards instead of them being used for instruction, and the horror stories I have seen could go on. The point here is that a SMART Board in the room doesn’t mean that our kids are getting any smarter. In fact, the use of technology is a wonderful thing but it needs to be utilized effectively, consistently, and meaningfully.

So, what can we do? We need to push our representatives (local, state, and federal) to start envisioning a different kind of classroom. We need to find a way to limit or eliminate standardized and state testing that does nothing but waste precious classroom time. We have to pull out the good parts of the CCSS – and there are indeed worthwhile elements – and weave them into a new sort of paradigm that will take education away from the testing companies and put it back into the hands of the teachers.

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Report cards must
change to meet
students' needs.
We also need to look at in-class assessments as well. Not every child can pass the end of chapter test. Why is that? Because each child learns at different speeds, and there should be alternate assessments (such as a child proving knowledge of the concepts through creating a project or giving a presentation). At the end of a semester or at the end of the year, a whole new report card system is also in order. Instead of offering “A” or “C” to a student in each subject, let there be a narrative that the teachers will write describing the child’s particular strengths and weakness. Just as with red pen syndrome, low report cards grades do nothing to further education and only rattle the child and upset parents.

Why not have something of an IEP (an Individualized Education Program that as of now is restricted to students with special needs) for all students? Each student will come into Kindergarten and become the focus of observation, reflection, and evaluation. While children will still be learning their alphabet and numbers, teachers can start crafting a plan for each one based on strengths and weaknesses.

Children who are artistic can be moved in one direction, those very strong academically or those who are musical in another. This can and should continue through the grade levels, with a unique program establish for each child. Ideally, by the time they get to high school students will know if they want a vocation, to pursue academics, or major in fine arts. High schools will then become different institutions, specialized for various students who have the same proclivities. The IEP should still hold throughout those years, and then a student will graduate knowing either which college he or she wishes to attend or that an alternate course of action such as apprenticeships, internships, or beginning a career is in order.

I can attest to the fact that so many students go to college or university with no idea why they are there. Why is this? Because students have had it drummed into their heads since they are small children that “You have to go to college” but are given no guidance before or after they get there. What if our new IEP type of education system will we help guide all students to the right path? Someone who wants to go into his father’s auto repair business doesn’t need four years at NYU. The student who wants to dance in the New York City Ballet or sing at Carnegie Hall shouldn’t be stuck for years in classrooms. Only a new way of thinking will get us to looking at education from Kindergarten through the college years differently, and it is necessary and compelling that this happen as soon as possible.

As of now by the time children get to high school, many of them are convinced they cannot succeed. This is because the current education system only sees them as numbers, ranked on a percentile chart, and it’s either sink or swim if you don’t learn the way everyone is supposed to learn. A new way of thinking is that each child is going to learn the way he or she is best suited to learn and be taught subjects that matter and are of interest to him or her. Does this take a lot of work and effort on the part of schools and parents? Absolutely! But the benefits will be apparent almost immediately and in the end they will last a lifetime.

  Photo credits: goldengazette.com, Technorati.com, telegraph.co.uk., touretown.com, 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pope Francis Asks for Forgiveness for Priests Who Abused Children - But What About Justice?

First appeared on Blogcritics.

pope 2As Christians enter Holy Week, the most solemn and yet wonderful time of year on their calendar, there is always a sense of waiting followed by great joy. Easter, much more than Christmas, is the most important holiday, the one that confirms their faith through reenacting the passion of Christ leading up to what they believe is his rising from the dead. During this special time, hearts open wide and there is a great sense of community and unity for Christians.

Pope Francis, as leader of Catholics numbering approximately 1.2 billion worldwide, is cognizant of the significance of this time and its meaning, and because of this he sent a personal and rather heartfelt message to the world. He asked for forgiveness for Catholic clergy who committed sexual abuse. On Vatican radio the Pope said, "I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests, (quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests) to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children."

The Pope promised in his talk “sanctions that must be imposed” (on those who committed these horrific acts) and even mentioned “sanctioning bishops” who may have contributed to the situation by either turning a blind eye or shuffling the priests off to assignments in other places.

pope 1As a Catholic who has been greatly discouraged by the scandals involving priests abusing children, I feel this is a welcome step; however, it is certainly more a “first step” than a solution. We can think about “sanctions” and wonder what they will entail. Do sanctions remove the offending priests from places with any contact with children? Or will there be more severe penalties?

To his credit Francis did appoint “an eight-member committee -- a mix of clergy and laypeople, including a sexual abuse survivor -- to advise the church on how to protect children, punish abusers and train church staff.” Obviously, the crucial thing is protecting the children in every way possible, and training is an excellent and necessary component for everyone who works or volunteers for the church; however, the punishment part is the thing that the Vatican still hasn’t approached in a realistic and essential way.

Anyone who saw the film Doubt understands that priests who are accused of abuse are usually reprimanded behind closed doors (very tightly closed ones). The parish only learns of the priest’s departure “for another assignment” and that is supposed to end that. Unfortunately, weeks or months later that priest will once again be “reassigned,” and that in itself continues a pattern that enables more children and their families to suffer. 

Over the years I have spoken to children and their families who have experienced this unthinkable behavior from a man that they trusted. One of the most common things is that they want to be certain that another child and family does not suffer as they have, but the most salient thing I have heard is that they want “justice.”

They don’t want internal “sanctions” and things of that nature; they want the priest to be defrocked to remove him from ever being in a position to harm others. They also demand that the offending priests be turned over to the authorities and charged for their crimes. Those are the things that I have heard from real families, and the Vatican should be listening to them more than appointing committees. It doesn’t take any committee to know that the punishment should be jail time.

pope 3We Christians believe in “forgiveness,” and the Pope asks us to pray and forgive these monsters as we enter Holy Week. Good Christians will think “What would Jesus do?” and they know he would forgive the sinner, and perhaps we should all pray for them and forgive them, but that does not mean forgetting – now or ever.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is depicted as exhausted after a long day of preaching. A group of children come along and want to visit with him, but the disciples try to keep them away. Upon seeing the children, Jesus says, “Let the children come to me.” In this and other passages Jesus displays his love and appreciation of their innocence. He calls for adults to be like children, and through the scripture we are inspired to be as Jesus was with the children – loving, caring, and protective.

We can accept forgiveness for these abusers, but justice still must be served, and that includes removing these men from the priesthood, identifying them for the authorities, and assisting in the cases in order to convict and sentence them. If the church cooperates in this fashion, then talk of “sanctions” won’t be seen as window dressing as some people see it know. It will be known that the church is truly committed to protecting children in a necessary and compelling way.

I think Pope Francis means well, that he wants to right the many wrongs, but even as leader of the church he has constraints that restrict his actions. Meanwhile, priests that have committed these acts are still free. This is a very difficult thing for families of victims to accept. Pope Francis has taken a first step, but he has miles to go before he can even think that his job is done.

 Photo credits: getty images, wikimedia, soul shepherding.org

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Smoke and Mirrors - A Short Story By Victor Lana

First appeared on Blogcritics.

smoke & mirrors“The sun is shining and the sky is blue clear to Jesus,” my wife's mother Wanda said as we drove to the church on the day of her husband's funeral. I looked back at her and noticed the grimace of lipstick painted on her face like she had applied it in the dark.

We had flown down to Georgia the day before and spent a long hot night in the old house where Doreen grew up. Now, in the unrelenting heat of the graveyard Wanda looked up from under her black veil and watched dark birds in the trees. 

Herb Stafford's flag-draped coffin was lowered into the ground on that sunny hillside, and the two peroxide blonde women cried their tears almost in synchronicity. They both had almost identically slender figures, which was not surprising since Wanda had been an athletic instructor at the county gym since before Doreen was born.

We got into the car, the women sitting in the backseat, and I drove Herb's ancient Olds 88 back to the house. They didn't talk or even do anymore sniffling. Wanda looked out the window and Doreen kept patting her hand.

Herb was an affable but sickly fellow. We had only visited Georgia a few times since we had been married, but I would always play golf with his son Bo while Herb watched us from the motorized cart sipping some kind of “tonic” from a flask. “Golf is an equalizer,” Herb would call from the cart.

“Don't I know it, Pop,” Bo would say smiling in a goofy way.

Bo was not home for the funeral; he was away in Singapore “on business” and couldn't fly back for it. After all the time Doreen and I were married, I still had no idea what her brother did for a living.

Wanda sipped black coffee from a mug with a beach scene painted on it. She lit a cigarette, sat down, crossed those still lovely sixty year old legs, and shook her head. “Herb and I were going to move to Hawaii. That was his dream and what he always wanted.”

Doreen said, “I didn't know that, Mamma.”

Wanda turned to look out the window. “Anyway, that was his dream, my poor Herb.”

Doreen crossed her legs – long and lovely like her mother's – and lit a cigarette. In our nine years together, two dating and seven married, I had never seen Doreen smoking. She blew some smoke out of her mouth sideways like a veteran puffer. “Mamma, you could still have his dream. You should go.”

“Oh, that's the silliest thing, Dor. I mean, I can’t go alone like that?”

“Why not?” Doreen squealed, her eyebrows getting those little kinks in them like when we argued or our four year old Billy spilled his juice.

Later that day I went for a walk in the pale long dusk. The lush green branches of the trees along the road shook against the vibrant violet sky. The dark birds from the cemetery seemed to be following me, alighting in branches and then flying up ahead as I went along. When I returned to the house about an hour later, it was dark and Doreen sat in the glow of the porch lamp on the old swing.

“Sit down, Ray,” Doreen said, a cigarette dangling from her mouth.

“Since when did you take up smoking?” I asked as I sat on the swing.

“I used to smoke, but you were always complaining about smokers when I met you, so I just didn't do it around you. By the time we got married, I had quit.” She threw the cigarette off into the darkness and lit another one. “Ray, I want a divorce.”

I felt totally numb; I could only manage “What?” in a low mumble.

“I don't love you anymore, and life is too damn short.” She got up, walked to the porch railing, and looked off into the darkness. The crickets were buzzing in the night and frogs down by the pond were bellowing under the moon. “I'm moving to Hawaii with Mamma.”

“What about Billy?”

“You're always saying ‘He's my pride and joy’ and all that, so why don't you take care of him for a spell and see if you can be proud and happy with him?”


I took the first flight home the next morning and picked up Billy at my mother's apartment in Queens. Mom turned from the steaming pot on the stove, pressing her squat fingers against her apron with bright lemons and the word “Sicilia” sewn on it. “Sonny, where is your wife?”

“Hey, Daddy,” Billy squealed as he ran into the kitchen and hugged my legs at the knees.

I leaned down, kissed Billy on the forehead, and looked up at my mother. “Not now, Mom.”

She wound the end of her apron in her still strong hands and turned away from me to stir her sauce. “I always warned you about that one.”

Billy and I returned to our house on the south shore of Long Island and played together all day and ate dinner. He only asked about his mommy once when he went to bed. I told him that she had to take care of Grandma Wanda for a while, and he seemed to understand.

I sat on the porch drinking a beer and watching the ocean. I still had no idea why golf was an equalizer, and I didn’t know what “sky is blue clear to Jesus” meant either. There were so many things I didn’t know or understand about Doreen and her family. One day Billy will want to know their story, but I didn’t even know where to begin, and how would I ever explain why his mother went to Hawaii?

I sat there all night drinking, listening to the crash of waves, and watching the moon shatter the sea like a pale hammer on black glass.

Photo credit: preparingyourfamily.com

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Baseball’s Indisputable Truth – Hank Aaron’s Home Run Record Is the Real One

First appeared on Blogcritcs.

hank 2Henry Louis Aaron. The name alone demands respect, though he was popularly called “Hank” during his Major League Baseball career. He was also affectionately known as Hammering Hank, and well he should have been as he slugged 755 career home runs. These homers stand as a milestone that is glaring in its purity, clear in its integrity, and Mr. Aaron rightly has his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame, where he will be forever remembered as one of the greatest baseball players who ever played the game.

In short, Hank Aaron holds MLB’s all-time homer record; another guy named Barry Bonds has higher numbers but his achievement will be forever questioned with an asterisk, tainted by the juice he pumped into his body to make him morph into a bloated caricature of himself. There is no denying that Bonds hit those home runs – all 762 of them, but it is how he came to hit them that is the problem here. Knowing that many of those homers were hit while he was juicing negates their authenticity, even if he is still left holding the title with an asterisk for all-time most homers.

hank 1When you look at Hank Aaron’s record , you marvel at the consistency, the power, and the total ball player that he was on the field and at the plate. Finishing with a lifetime .305 batting average, Aaron also holds the records for most RBI (2297) and Total Bases (6856). With lifetime numbers that include a .374 On Base percentage and .555 Slugging Percentage, you get the picture of Aaron’s total impact as a player. There is also the average of 69 walks per season as opposed to just 68 strikeouts (unthinkable in this era of the strikeout). This helps create a portrait of a patient, deliberate, intelligent hitter who knew his craft well.

On April 8, 2014, the 40th anniversary of hitting home run number 715 that put him ahead of legendary Babe Ruth as baseball’s all-time homer king, Aaron was honored at Atlanta’s Turner Field before the season opening game pitting the Atlanta Braves against the New York Mets. It is fitting that Aaron is a humble man, nothing like the bombastic men who came before him and after him. Ruth was like a rock star, a huge man with an even larger appetite. Bonds somehow became a physically “big” man from the steroid use and had an ego to match.

Perhaps that is why fans gravitate back to Aaron – for his simplicity, his decency, and his pristine legacy. Aaron speaks today as eloquently as ever, and when he said, “I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth, I just want them to remember me,” you immediately understood that Aaron not only respected baseball history but was proud to have made such a significant contribution. One always got the feeling with Bonds that it was not just about numbers but more all about him. He would create his legacy, no matter what it took, and he was going to be the king of the hill no matter what it took to climb to the top and that was that.

Now, all these years later I recall watching the game on TV, a young kid who was excited to be watching history. There was such a feeling of anticipation, knowing Aaron had played the first three games away in Cincinnati to start the season without hitting a homer. Most everyone felt like this was going to happen on this night, and I wanted to be a part of it. Watching it again I recall the moment, seeing Al Dowling of the LA Dodgers serve up the pitch. Dowling wore the number "44" too, and you will hear the announcer mentioning an “omen.” I don’t recall that now; I don’t recall anything but seeing that ball go out and the crowd cheer. Aaron was the newly crowned homer king.

hank 3All these years we all salute Mr. Henry Louis Aaron, the undisputed baseball homer king. As for Bonds, many years from now he will be an anomaly, something that is spoken of in hushed tones and with sadness. Perhaps we can never erase those tainted homers that he hit into San Francisco Bay from the record books, but we sure can overlook them and honor the man who did it the right way.

Hank Aaron’s 755 is the real homer record and everyone knows that except the one guy who still can’t handle the truth. Now we can savor that homer as part of the rich history of MLB. Like all families and organizations, there are always dark moments – and the steroid era cast a shadow for a number of years that was pernicious and tenacious. But looking at moments like this one makes us think of baseball how it ought to be – then, now, and always.

Photo credits: AP, Wikipedia, Britannica.com 

Friday, April 4, 2014

How I Never Met Your Mother – Thinking About TV Shows That I’ve Never Seen

First appeared on Blogcritics.

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There has been so much buzz recently concerning the series finale of How I Met Your Mother. I have heard people everywhere talking about it, and now there are those poor souls who are angry about the ending. Many of them are signing a petition to change it. Well, as a fan of Lost I can feel their pain, but only vicariously, for I have never seen an episode of HIMYM and have no desire to see it either. 

how 2Over the years I have always heard about these "great" shows that I was supposed to be watching. HIMYM is one of them, and others include The West Wing, St. Elsewhere, Chicago’s Hope, ER, and The Wire. There were also all the sitcoms I have never watched like HIMYM, and the fervent fans of these half-hour comedies also act like I have to see them or my life is missing something important.

The problem for me is that watching a show is an investment in time, of which I don’t seem to always have a good deal. I just finished watching the season finale of The Walking Dead, and I am gearing up for the last season of Mad Men. I have seen every episode of both series and am not about to give up now, but there is that investment there. I have put in the time, and it’s sort of like a relationship – I am not about to let it go, at least without making the effort on my part.

how 3I keep hearing about the show Game of Thrones and how loyal its fans are. Well, obviously they have their investment, as I do mine. Another one everyone’s talking about is Once Upon a Time, and the buzz seems great. It is just that beginning a new series is taking a chance, kind of like a first date, and we know how most of those go. I had tried watching AMC’s Low Winter Sun, and it was just as unbearable as a bad first date. Then I’m kicking myself afterwards thinking, “Like, why did I even bother?”

I am sure there are so many shows out there that have a loyal following. I keep hearing about Mike and Molly and Two and a Half Men, but have never seen one episode of either one. Mostly I gave up on sitcoms after Seinfeld, so I have never seen 2 Broke Girls or any other show that people talk about. I don’t feel deprived or like I am missing something, although perhaps I am. It is just that my TV time is precious.

When I’m with my kids, I am watching their shows, so I can tell you all about Spongebob Squarepants and Octonauts, as well as everything my daughter used to watch like Hannah Montana, That’s So Raven, iCarly, and Shake It Up. One could argue that these shows are “sitcoms,” but I don’t see them as carrying the same weight as Friends or The Cosby Show (yes, that is how long I have been away from sitcoms). 

Still, I am invested in the shows I like and have watched for years like Mad Men and The Walking Dead. I also invested my time in The Sopranos, The Shield, Breaking Bad, and 24, and the thought of Kiefer Sutherland coming back as Jack Bauer has me feeling as giddy as a teenage girl watching a One Direction performance. I seriously can’t wait for that.

Yet, getting back to HIMYM and the series finale, which I had been hearing about for weeks, I am not sure how supposedly loyal fans are going to think that writing a petition to the show’s producers will get a new ending. We Lost fans were foaming at the mouth with the end of that series, but we all calmed down eventually.

Actually, once a series is over and the dust settles, sometimes fans get to see the logic of a series finale. I understand why Breaking BadLost, 24, and even The Sopranos had their own distinctive – and very controversial – endings. So I hope the HIMYM fans get over the way the show ended. Judging from my own experience, I don’t think they have any other choice.

how 1So I never watched HIMYM, and I don’t feel bad about it. Obviously, all those fans who did meet her ended up not being happy about it, so did they all invest nine seasons into a losing proposition? Or will they one day be at peace as you have to be after a relationship ends. We don’t like it; we never do because we all know breaking up is hard to do.

 I am happy with my investment in my limited TV schedule. I will invest in new shows only if I feel I will want to stick around for the long haul. If I miss an opportunity, say as I did with not watching Heroes or Homeland, I don’t kick myself for not getting in on the fun and missing out on something. That is a risk I take, like not calling the girl for the first date because I didn’t think there would be a second one – talk about how I never met your mother!

  Photo credits: vanity fair, collider.com, themovieblog.com, aceshowbiz.com

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Baseball’s Opening Day - New Drug Policy Described As Toughest Ever

  ball 2

First appeared on Blogcritics.

ball 1Major League Baseball loves to invoke tradition, and for many baseball fans there is nothing quite like Opening Day. There’s the memory of those past ones when your father took you to the park. There’s the bright green of the grass, the hopefully blue sky (I can remember a few with rain and even snow), and the unforgettable aromas of hotdogs and pungent mustard.

I remember those Opening Days past fondly, with my Dad sitting there with a scorecard (to this day I have no idea how to “score” a game as he did). I would get the Cracker Jacks (with the much sought after little plastic prize inside), eventually a hotdog slathered in mustard, and a cup of soda that tasted better than any drink I ever had in my life. The crowd roared, Tom Seaver took the mound, and I was in baseball heaven wearing my Mets cap and thinking we would never lose a game all season.

Alas, being a Mets fan is all about reality and the inevitable losses that come with that. This year is no exception for this fan who bleeds orange and blue, but all over baseball there are fans going to parks for Opening Day, especially kids with the same hopes and dreams I once had. Besides the fact that only a few teams are going to go the distance this year, there is word about the new drug policy that will be the toughest ever. MLB really means it this time. Really!

So you have to wonder about the specter of this hanging over the players, knowing that there are going to be much more stringent penalties and consequences that extend into the postseason. How does that sit with a guy like Ryan Braun, the once golden boy of MLB who faces a season of humiliation and anguish? Not only do we have to wonder how his now juiceless body will perform on the field, but there is the psychology that goes much deeper. He is marked now, perhaps for life, though fans are often forgiving over time (think Pete Rose).

The idea of greater penalties is of course necessary, and longer suspensions are also welcome as the MLB Players Association is now in agreement with MLB about the details, with the official announcement forthcoming. So, as Opening Day comes to America, there is also an awareness by the fans that business is no longer as usual. The blind eye once turned to Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa and their ilk is now wide open and watching closer than Big Brother. There is testing, there are consequences, and the inglorious hall of shame that awaits users.

Kids and their parents want a clean sport. Most players also want one, and the crowd reaction to guys like Braun and Nelson Cruz and other abusers is going to be a clear marker of disapproval. If we can take any comfort on Opening Day 2014, it is that the sport is cleaner and going to get squeaky clean soon enough. If the suspected ramifications are true  (first-time offense-80 game suspension; second offense-162-game suspension; third offense-lifetime suspension) players are going to think twice about rubbing that “crème” on their limbs, taking suspicious cough medicines, or popping pills any stronger than a baby aspirin.

A more efficient carbon isotope testing will be implemented to detect synthetic testosterone. In short, players are going to be monitored more closely and tested frequently, and failure will bring harsh penalties. Players will not only know that they could be jeopardizing a season but maybe a career, and that should get them all thinking and abiding by the rules.

So, go to the ballpark on Opening Day and enjoy the game. Bring the kiddies and bring the wife (as the old Mets song used to tell us), and think that the game is getting back to basics and the way it ought to be played - drug free. This is the best message the MLB can send to the fans, especially the kids who deserve a clean game and players they can look up to and admire again.

Photo credits: AP, USA Today

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Homework Monster – Scary for You and Bad for Your Kid’s Health Too

First appeared on Blogcritics.

HW 1 When I was a kid, the “homework rule” was fairly straightforward – my parents wanted me to be done before dinner, which gave me some leeway when I came home from school. Usually I had a quick snack or maybe watched a little TV, but then I went to my room and got to work. When I was done I’d bring my books to the kitchen. Mom looked them over briefly and then signed each assignment. This was the beginning and end of her involvement. If I got something wrong or skipped something on my homework pad, she wouldn’t have known the difference, and it was I who would then suffer the consequences when the teacher dealt with me the next day.

Today it is a different world when it comes to homework. What used to be just something we did ourselves as kids has now morphed into a green-eyed monster (apologies to Shakespeare) which doth mock the meat it feeds upon (namely you and your kids). This Homework Monster becomes increasing more fearsome as your kids get older and you become the substitute teacher on the spot. When the subject is either unfamiliar or difficult for you, it is hard to tell your child that you don’t understand it either and a very stressful situation can result for all.

In the past homework always “counted” in some vague way, but even the teacher might have not been able to tell us how. She or he would put a check on top of the paper and that was about it. To this day I am not sure how checks added up toward my grade, but if I was missing homework I knew it had to be made up in order to get that check or else. I never discovered the “or else” part because I always did it.

These days homework has become such an integral part of the equation, with teachers explaining percentages toward a final grade. Students bring home either a number grade on homework or letter grades, and this adds particular weight to these assignments. Having children in middle school and Kindergarten, I am amazed as to how much homework both have. Perhaps I should qualify that – truthfully, I am not shocked by the quantity but more by how long it takes for them to complete the work each night.

In Kindergarten there is no choice but for the parent to sit down and do the work with the child. This is a given; however, in the seven years since my daughter was in Kindergarten, the playing field has changed considerably. Now there are book reports in Kindergarten and more academic homework that challenges the child (and thus the parent). If you get home late from work and are just sitting down to do the homework near bedtime, the issue becomes exacerbated by the normal sleepiness of a five-year-old at that time.

As for my middle school kid, there are literally hours of homework. She is very independent, but sometimes hits a road bump or two. There is no question that there seems to be a heavy volume of work that needs to be done; however, when kids are in middle school they are also involved in extracurricular activities as is mine. Dance classes, piano lessons, swimming, soccer, Girl Scouts, and gymnastics all need to be fit into the schedule, and after an hour or two of one of these activities, sitting down to homework is not the easiest thing to accomplish.

In “Is Homework Making Your Child Sick?” CNN contributor Amanda Enayati takes a sensible look at the too much homework complaint of many parents. She examines the one side, where a parent complains about feeling like “a drill sergeant,” and the other one where some parents felt there was not enough homework. 

Enayati reveals some startling truths regarding children’s health and homework overload. She cites the work of Denise Pope, co-author of a study in The Journal of Experimental Education, that examined a sample of 4,317 students in high performing schools who averaged 3 hours of homework per night. While these students did well academically, it came at a price - “academic stress, physical health problems, and a lack of balance in their lives.” 56% of the students in the survey said that they felt homework negatively impacted their lives and their health.

It seems incongruous that some parents, even when their children have sufficient homework, demand more work from teachers and also go out and buy additional workbooks and materials to push their children even more. As an educator I have seen this happen often enough, particularly in the lower grades where smaller amounts of homework are usually given. I have even overheard parents saying something like, “If you don’t get an “A” on this test, I’m sending you to Kumon.” Now, I have nothing against after school study programs such as this because they may help some struggling children, but using that as “incentive” seems more like a threat that can cause children great stress.

Every school and district has its own guidelines for homework, but in my experience usually you start with ten or fifteen minutes of homework in Kindergarten and then have that go up incrementally through the grades. By the time a student reaches 8th grade it is not unusual for that student to have about 90 minutes of homework per night, but that should also include reading and studying. If students need three hours or more to complete the written portion of their homework, we can rightfully question how they are expected then to study for tests and read content or even do some reading for pleasure.
  HW 3Of course, I have heard some parents say that my child doesn’t have to participate in all the extracurricular activities. This year we have actually cut back on some things because my daughter needs more time for her schoolwork, but I can see how it can become emotionally and physically draining. I worry all the time about her getting enough sleep, but sometimes the pressure of a test the next day makes that impossible. There are times when I am tempted to say, “If you get a B it’s almost as good as an A” but I know that in the real academic world that is far from true; however, if her health is at stake that is another matter entirely.

We as parents should aim for some sort of middle ground. Of course, we understand that homework is an essential component as reinforcement to the day’s teaching, but I cannot tell you how many times as a school principal that I heard the same complaint from parents: “My child says that the homework was not even taught in class yet.” You know how they say where there is smoke there is fire, so when I heard this enough times I knew there was something going on and had to get involved.

My own children are under a little bit of pressure knowing that I am an educator. There is also pressure that I put on myself for I want them to succeed and feel tempted to intervene, but it is sort of a Spider Man dilemma to be sure (with great power comes great responsibility). So while I really would like to “edit” my daughter’s essays when I see glaring mistakes, I stop myself from doing so. Instead, I may say something like, “Are you sure your punctuation is correct?” or “Have you checked the spelling carefully?” This sends up a red flag that I hope will help her find the errors on her own.

  HW 4Still, there is another philosophy - allowing our kids to sink or swim on their own just as most of us did years ago. We parents have to forget about facing off against the Homework Monster and let our children do their homework (and the emphasis is on “do”) themselves. This “sink or swim” philosophy can work if we are brave enough, but we are reticent to let this happen because we love our kids and want them to succeed. We are also reliving our own childhoods (and sometimes negative academic experiences) as we see them struggling or bringing home a bad grade. We want to keep them from the pain we may have had, but maybe a poor grade here and there is the inspiration necessary to get them to work harder on their own.

While I do support the concept of homework and believe it is important, I would think that parents, students, teachers, and administrators should all want homework to be meaningful in context of what is being taught. If it is out of line with what is being taught – a sort of read the chapter yourself and answer the questions kind of thing as I have sometimes heard – then something is wrong with that picture. Some teachers have even admitted to me (off the record, of course) that parents complained so much about wanting more homework that they just threw all this extra work at the kids. That practice can never be acceptable to anyone no matter what the motivation.

Most parents and teachers want the best for their kids, and the best is an appropriate amount of homework that is reinforcement and not overkill. There also needs to be realization that children have other lives outside of school and need time for sports, the arts, and good old relaxation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a kid coming home and having a snack after school and maybe even watching a little TV before starting his or her homework. I did that every day after school, and it all turned out okay in the end. Most of all we adults need to be sure that our children do well in school, but never at the expense of their emotional or physical health. Teachers and administrators should work with parents and never be openly opposed to each other in any school related matters, for the children are always aware of these kinds of things and it is detrimental to their overall progress.

  HW 2Homework is nothing to get crazy over; it is just a small part of a bigger academic picture, and a well-rounded person is what we want each child to become, not someone overcome by despair by the thought of getting homework done for the next day. If kids are getting literally sick from the Homework Monster, then we have to seriously consider ways to stop it in its tracks before it does irreparable damage.

Most of all we have to allow children time to be kids, for enjoying other activities and creative playtime while they are young enough to engage in it. We all want our kids to do well in school, but success is only something to celebrate if it comes the right way. Kids need to be healthy enough to appreciate these most wonderful years of their lives, and we parents along with our schools have an obligation to make sure that this is a reality for all students.

  Photo credits: isertope.com; wikipedia; dorkdiaries.com; sausd.com