And We’re Off…

The 2016-2017 school year has officially begun. The students are present, the bells are ringing, and the emails are finding their way to my inbox.

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Every year I require my students to read books independently outside of what I assign them to read. I pick our class novels and other literature that we study; they pick their books for independent reading. This is where students get to read more high-interest books that will hopefully turn them into life-long readers.

Even teaching honors students, many of them still don’t like to read. Every year I wrestle with the independent reading requirement and work to find the magic recipe that will make it less of a struggle. I’ve had years where students had to read a certain number of pages, years where they earned points based on the quality and length of book they selected, and years where students had to read one book a month. There were years where students had to complete projects for their books, years where they did a combination of projects and presentations, and last year, where they simply had to conference with me about their books.

I actually liked conferencing with my students. It was nice to have face-to-face, one-on-one conversations with them about books. The problem is that I had to have ten conferences per student throughout the year. I had over 120 freshmen honors students last year. Go ahead, do the math. These book talks would not take more than five minutes, but that’s still 6000 minutes or 100 hours outside of class time talking about the books they read. Granted, not all of my students read their ten books, but I still spent hours upon hours in conferences. Add in the fact that high school students often wait till the very last minute and what I would get the week of a deadline was a line of students snaking out of my classroom door beginning at seven in the morning, all through my half-hour “duty-free” lunch, and again after school.

This year, I was given a fifth section of honors English and I knew that there would be no way I could strictly conference. I also know that research supports that assignment tied to independent reading are counter-intuitive to instilling a genuine love for reading, but if I just “trust” that they will read, we both know what will happen.

Last year’s students said that a book a month (ten for the year) was too much. The result: drop the requirement to two books per quarter (eight for the year) and give them four ways to “prove” they’ve read the books.

The first is still the conference with me. Like I said, I enjoyed talking to my students about books. Not only did I get to know them better and build relationships, but I also got some great book recommendations for myself and to share with the rest of my classes. Yet by making them only conference with me on two of the eight books for the year, I should only be putting in about 28 hours of my time outside of class.

Another thing they will do is present two of their books to the class. They get to create any type of presentation they want—a video, a Prezi, a PowerPoint, or even a book trailer. They can read passages from their book or simply convince their audience why they should or should not read the book.

Twice they will need to write a letter to me or a friend sharing their thoughts on their book. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

And then twice, I have asked my students to talk about their book with their mom or dad. (GASP!) I know, I know…I am requiring teenagers to speak to their parents. Since I am not there to witness these conversations, I have asked both student and parents to write a brief response about their discussion. I suggested a half-page of writing.

Then I sent home the requirements along with a slip of paper for parents to sign saying that they were informed of the independent reading expectation in my class, and I went home to bed thinking I had it all figured out.

What I hadn’t planned on was defending the purpose behind asking parents to write a response.

Educators are asked, heck-evaluated even-on how we build partnerships with families. We have school statements that affirm things like: we believe parents are an integral part in their child’s education. We are asked to find ways to involve parents in our classrooms, something that becomes harder and harder to do at the high school level.

Visit an elementary school on Back-to-School night and see the halls swarming with parents; visit a high school and you may get as many as five parents in a class of 35 who actually show up. Parents love to volunteer in elementary classrooms. In sixteen years of teaching, I’ve never once had a parent offer to volunteer in my class. When I have an assignment that involves parents in what we are doing in my class, I see it as a win-win.

When we study Romeo and Juliet, I ask my students to interview their parents on “the perfect mate.” It’s always an animated class discussion when students compare the type of partner their parents would choose for them versus the kind of partner they would choose for themselves. I envisioned a similar outcome for this assignment.

Just the other night, I sat at my own daughter’s Back-to-School night and listened as her teacher said, “I don’t know how you all feel about this, but the third grade teachers have decided not to give homework packets this year.” That’s not to say that the kids don’t have homework. They are expected to read nightly and they will do math practice on the computer, but the third grade teachers won’t be sending home the traditional homework folders that my daughter grew accustomed to in first and second grade. They came home on Monday and went back on Thursday and every night she completed a worksheet or two.

Sitting there I thought: Oh, ok…How do I feel about this? And then I immediately thought, I trust my daughter’s teacher to know what’s going to be the best approach to educating my child. Because that’s her job. My job is to be the parent, and her job is to teach my kid. If she, and all the other teachers of that grade, think this is best, then it probably is. I will support her however I can. If that means buying extra Kleenex for the class, I will. If that means helping my daughter memorize her multiplication tables this year, I will. And if that means that I simply trust in the decisions she is making in the classroom, I will.

You see, we teachers really do plan and reflect and revise in an effort to get it a little bit more right each year.

I can only hope that the parents of my students will also trust me as their child’s teacher. But I also secretly hope that they will participate in these book talks with their children and have really nice conversations, ones that don’t center around emptying the dishwasher or feeding the dogs, ones that don’t involve discipline or disappointment, ones where maybe they gain an insight into their children that they didn’t have before. Because these kids grow up and change so fast.

Lately, the eight-year old version of my daughter has a totally different mind than the one I knew a few months ago. I’m awestruck each time I talk to her these days. And these days, she still wants to talk to me. When she’s fourteen or fifteen, I don’t know if that will still be the case. So when she is, if her teacher makes her talk to me, the only thing I might communicate is my sincerest thanks.

 

 

 

 

Co-Parenting for the Married Couple

I originally started thinking about writing something about dads back around Father’s Day. Of course that’s cliché, and I never got around to finishing it in time, yet here we are, going back to school. So while other blogs are posting new lunchbox ideas and debating whether or not to replace one’s backpack each year, I’m finally ready to publish this post on fathers. And I’m ok with that, because this Monday morning, I left my house before 7 A.M. to get to my first day at school, and my husband was the one who took the first day of school pictures with our children, tucked notes inside their lunches, walked them into their classrooms, and exhaled along with the other moms on the playground as they turned and walked away to continue their day without kids for the first time in months.

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Just to be clear, my husband is not one of those stay-at-home dads either. He has a full-time career just like me, but he also is a full-time dad. There are times you will see him at the birthday party and times when you will see me. There are times when I rush from work to attend the music concert at school and times when he chaperones the class field trip. We don’t exactly Ro-Sham-Bo who stays home with the kids when one of them is sick, but we might as well. You see, in our home, co-parenting is not a term associated with divorce.

So what’s the big deal then? There isn’t one really, except when I consider how different it is from what I grew up with. And because of that, I sometimes have to stop and catch my breath and offer up a moment of thanks.

This is my moment of thanks.

I’ll never forget the afternoon that I walked in the house after a tiresome day at work, and as the living room came into view, there was my husband sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the floor, with needle and thread, mending a princess gown; Disney music was streaming from Pandora and my daughters were dancing around dressed in tutus and tiaras. How could I not smile at the sight?

I love my own father very much and have always felt a profound sense of loyalty to him. However, he and my mother divorced when I was fairly young and the time I spent with my father was limited. While I would sit on his lap and give him bear hugs, I would never climb into his bed or nap alongside of him the way that my daughters do with their dad. I felt that this was probably the by-product of divorce, but there were other ways that our relationship fell short.

My father is not the person I went to when I needed advice. I never cried to him after a bad break-up. He wasn’t the person who taught me to drive a stick-shift or took pictures with me when I was dressed up for prom. He didn’t sit down and tutor me on my math homework or take me on tours of college campuses, helping me to decide the next steps in life.

In their short lives, my husband has already done so much more parenting for our daughters than my own father did with me.

I’ve heard my mom and step-dad comment that today’s generation of fathers are so much more “hands-on” than dads of the past. To begin with, they change diapers. But apparently, it extends way beyond a clean Pampers. And it makes me think: perhaps my relationship with my dad wasn’t dictated by divorce, rather by a generational divide in gender roles.

Regardless, I spent a large part of my formative years yearning for a relationship that didn’t exist, and now as a parent myself, I am thankful, every day, for my spouse: as both a husband and a father.

For while it’s true that times and family dynamics have changed, I can’t imagine ever doing this parenting thing alone.

When we were pregnant with our second daughter, I decided to embrace my inner hippie and go the cloth diaper route. I purchased a single diaper and showed it to my husband. I explained to him how it all worked, and then I told him: If we do this, we are going to have to do laundry all the time and I can’t be the only one doing it. If we do this, I need your help.

He agreed, and he didn’t let me down. To this day, I have cloth diapering down as a parenting win in our book, but it would never have worked without him.

My husband is there, in the middle of the night, helping to clean up the vomit. He reads bedtime stories, builds forts, and does flips on the trampoline. He stays up till two in the morning on Christmas Eve putting together Barbie’s Dream House long after I’ve lost my patience with the minuscule faucets and cutlery. He is the man we call on to kill spiders (ok, that one is mostly me). He offers comfort when our children cry and is often the source of their laughter. He is all of the things I sometimes ached for in a dad.

And yet, where for many years I felt abandoned by my father, my husband has stayed by my side. This is not to say that we have not had problems, but we work to keep our relationship intact, both for us and for our kids.

As children of divorce, neither one of us ever wants that life for our own daughters. As individuals, we also selfishly want our own happiness. We need to continue to find happiness in each other, in our relationship, and in our lives. Again, not easy, but necessary.

As I seek happiness in my life, I am constantly amazed at how supportive my husband is of me. I could come home and tell him I want to shoot rainbows out of my butt, and he would say “I think you should try.” Whether it was doing a triathlon, getting my National Boards, starting this blog, or something as simple as choosing cloth diapers for our baby, my husband is the Nike slogan to my aspirations.

I, on the other hand, am the Devil’s advocate. For every invention or idea my husband proposes, I reason with logic and counter with what-ifs.

If opposites attract like yin and yang, then he is the yeah and I am the yeah, but…

Last school year, when my students gave presentations, this one boy shared his belief that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. He said that it was his grandmother who taught him this, and he told this story about believing that he could fly and jumping on his grandma’s bed, trying to see if he could levitate for just a minute. Everyone chuckled at his anecdote, and I thought how lucky he was to have her unwavering support of him even in something as impractical as taking flight…but I also worried how this kind of support could have resulted in him trying to fly off the roof of the garage and ending up in the emergency room.

There it was again, that nagging little nay-sayer that lives inside of me.

Truthfully though, while my husband has always encouraged me, I have never suggested anything really outrageous. I’m not coming home saying we donate all our clothing and move to a nudist colony.

My mother used to tell me, when I questioned why she and my dad got divorced, that people change, and they can either change together, or change apart, and that she and my father did the latter. As a kid, it sort of made sense, but I didn’t really understand. As a married adult, I do.

Like yin and yang, it is not about balance, but imbalance. When two sides are in perfect harmony, they cease to move. Our equity lies in our imbalance, where there is ebb and flow. We are evolving, but we are doing it within the circumference of our marriage.

Perhaps my husband is the father who buys the official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle. And maybe I am the mom who warns, “you’ll shoot your eye out.” But you know what? Our children are lucky to have both. Just as I am lucky to have him, my co-pilot, my co-captain, my co-parent.