Monday, November 30, 2009

Another perfect moment and I can't wait until next week to tell it

Last night I sent an email to Scott's teacher Rob to see if he wanted any help from me today. It wasn't the most sincere offer, since I was going to be helping out at Connor's school too, and it's the first day they're back at school after a week long break, y'know?

So it wasn't the most perfect moment when I found the reply, "Sure."

Sigh. So that meant dropping Scott, driving 10 minutes back to the dojo to open, writing for about a half hour, then driving back to the school.

Rob had an activity in mind. First, he passed out the master list for each child--the results of the goal-setting conference just prior to the Thanksgiving break. There is an "Independence" goal, a "Community" goal, and a "Fluency" goal. The fluency goals seem to correspond with the traditional academic-type skills, such as mathematics. First the kids were asked to recopy their fluency goal from Rob's master sheet onto their own worksheet.

I walked around the room and saw all kinds of fluency goals. Some children wanted to work on their math with a goal of getting to do middle-school math. Some wanted to publish stories. Some wanted to improve their typing.

Once the copying into their own handwriting was done, Rob numbered the children 'ones' and 'twos' and had the 'ones' sit on the table facing out while the 'twos' stood and faced them. They were to take about 30 seconds and share their goal with each other, with two tasks in mind. They were to notice if the other person's goal was similar to theirs, and write it down in a space they had on their worksheet. They were also to let the other person know if they thought they might have skills that would help the other person meet their objective. There was a place on the worksheet for that too. Then the 'twos' were to move on to the next sitting person. One sitting girl raised her hand: "How will I know if there's someone who's sitting who can help me or has a similar goal?" "Good question. The sitting people will have a chance later to talk to each other, as will the standing."

Rob carefully structured the process, telling them when it was time for the standing children to move on. Presently everyone had spoken to each other. A number of names had appeared on their worksheets--people with similar goals; people who had skills who could help others meet their goals. When it was time for the sitting group and the standing group to share amongst themselves Rob told them they would have to be self-directed. He pulled back and let the kids structure this themselves. It was very orderly, and fairly quiet.

As they were doing this Rob was writing on the board. He had them close their eyes and imagine themselves beginning work on the goal on their page. He wanted them to picture what this process would look it would sound...what it would feel like. When it was time for them to open their eyes he had them write it down on the worksheet--how it would look, sound, feel. I walked around the room looking at what children were writing and drawing. One boy's writing I couldn't quite read and so I asked him. He'd written, "I feel frustrated".

Rob picked right up on this. He said, "As some of you are imagining working on your goals you may find you feel sad, or mad. When that happens, see if you can imagine what you might do to help those feelings. Maybe that might mean imagining yourself in a quiet place. Maybe it means going to one of the people whose names you have on the list as resources. And if you don't have a name under resources, I want you to put one. Mine. R-O-B. I'm a resource for you too."

I remembered back when we went to Scott's IEP meeting. I'd worried because I saw how intensively this classroom is based on reading: when the kids come in there are instructions on the board for them to read and follow. I'd worried that Scott was being left behind, left out. I was afraid that there might be a nice lofty goal that the younger children ask the older ones for help, that doesn't happen in practice. I was afraid the older children might scorn the younger for not knowing what to do. I feared Scott wouldn't understand the algorithm Rob had diagrammed on the board for getting help. I was afraid he'd be adrift. I'd confided this fear, and Rob had reassured me that this was a skill that took time to develop, identifying resources and using them, and that he did not leave this skill up to chance.

Today I saw that Rob was true to his word. Every step today was laying down a fundamental of learning, of learning-to-learn. The goals from conferencing weren't just an abstraction, they were anchored not just in today's tasks, but also in the mind's eye. Not only was each child being asked to focus on what they'd already stated was a goal of theirs, with their parents, but they were learning how to find resources to help them accomplish them.

I am so damned impressed.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Perfect moments Monday--Building a paper jet engine

Scott's latest obsession is acid, and what he calls, "stomach acid". He wants to know if stomach acid can 'eat' metal, indeed if it could 'eat' a person! He asked if we could go online and find any video of something being dissolved in acid.

It was more difficult than one would think. I had trouble coming up with narrowly defined-enough search terms. I found lots of definitions of 'acid' that were too complicated for me to understand, let alone explain to him: things about substances that give up an extra hydrogen, or raise the pH of a substance. And I found way too much stuff about LSD. But our search wasn't in vain. Presently we found on youtube a series called "Do Try This At Home". Mr. G has a series of science experiments that can be done with ordinary household items.

Scott wanted to try some immediately, but I was making a dish ahead for Thanksgiving. The computer is in the kitchen, but I got so busy with my task that I didn't notice him for a while. When I looked up again he'd gotten a piece of paper, a scissors, and a lighter. ("Hey! Where did you find that?!" "In Dad's office.") They were laid out just the way Mr. G had them in the video. He was absorbed in following along the step-by-step instructions on the screen. He would let the video run, pause it, and fold the paper. It appeared he'd gotten to a fairly advanced stage of folding when he got stuck. I was so impressed with this I decided to help him.

He wanted to start again, and so went and got another piece of paper. I flattened out the one he'd had and used it. He really had finished about 90% of it, and the part where he'd gotten stuck was tricky for me too. It was kind of hard to see, but there was a place where two flaps were tucked into two pockets made by a certain sequence of folds.

By golly, we inflated the little dirigibles and filled them with fumes from the lighter, then lit them and pop! They shot across the room! Way cool.

The perfection for me is in seeing his curiosity, his initiative, his patience and perseverance in pursuing this project. "I'm a scientist, Mom!"

Definitely a Little Professor.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Addendum to Thankful (breastfeeding ment)

I was appreciating the comments in response in my post below, and I had a bit more clarity about the dilemma I faced then.

At 12 weeks my baby was showing incredible heart. He was clinging by his little fingernails--barely holding on going 9 hour stretches without nursing, to be relieved when I came to pick him up. Then he'd nurse through the night. This was his solution, and it must have cost him in plenty of discomfort, yet he did not give in and take the bottle.

Those who said I should withhold nursing and present only a bottle seemed oblivious to his courage. He must have already been at the brink; anyone who would expect his mother to be the one to shred his last bit of resistance and sweep him over the edge had no idea what a betrayal this would be.

I think there are many unseen moments of courage around us each day--people who are expected to do the impossible and are casually despised when they cannot. I think about the courage it takes for people who work three jobs and find themselves dismissed as 'lazy' when they use food stamps in a check-out. It's so easy to gloss over what it takes for someone to do as they do. Sometimes it's all too easy to be heartless and to not even realize it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thankful (breastfeeding mentioned)

Pam, of Portland's LaLeche League, this is for you.

Connor, my oldest, was 10 weeks old and I was beginning to panic. In two weeks I was going to have to return to work, and he was not taking a bottle.

I'd waited to introduce the bottle until he was about 6 weeks old, heeding the advice about nipple confusion. I'd followed the tips of taking a walk and having Gary give him a bottle in my absence. The theory was that if I was anywhere near he'd be able to smell my presence and the bottle would be rejected.

Gary tried, my MIL tried, my friend Monica tried, a whole host of friends tried. Walking past the house I could hear him wailing.

I threw prevailing wisdom to the winds and tried myself. Nope.

At 11 weeks I felt compelled to confess to the woman I'd lined up for day care. She was understanding; said her own child had refused the bottle.

I'd cut my work schedule way back. I arranged it so I would work a two day stretch, have three days off, then work four in a row, then back to two days. This meant working every other weekend when Gary could be the caregiver. Therefore, Connor would only be in daycare two days a week.

I think I believed a miracle would occur and he'd be feeding from a bottle before he was 12 weeks old.

He didn't.

My first day back at work he woke in a particularly smiley mood. It just about killed me when I turned him over to Petra. When I called a few hours later my heart sank to hear his cries in the background. She said she was trying to work with him. I called an hour later and she said that wrapped in my shirt he'd taken a full bottle. I rejoiced and relaxed.

He never took a bottle again.

At week 8 Petra told me she couldn't take it any more. Honestly, I couldn't either. He was going 9 hours without food, sometimes longer if he didn't happen to be hungry just before I took him to her house.

I went to my bosses and told them I had a problem. I told them I'd lost my day care and why, and said that while he wasn't feeding from a bottle I'd probably lose any other day care as well. I asked for another month, maybe two, off until he was old enough that he could take my milk from a cup. They said they could not give me any more time. They implied that if I withheld nursing long enough he'd "figure it out."

This left me two options. Force him to take a bottle by withholding nursing long enough, or quit my job. I'd worked for this group for 17 years.

Just as my parents had not lived in a cultural context that made it possible to co-sleep with their infant, or feed on demand, it seemed inconceivable to me to give up thousands of dollars of income because my baby wouldn't accept anything but my breast. At the time I was the sole source of income and insurance benefits for our family, because Gary was in business for himself. His business was supporting itself, but I was paying the mortgage, and the bills. Losing my income meant living out of our savings, and it meant forfeiting the matching benefit my company would pay into my retirement: the contract stated I had to be working until December 30 to receive the match. It was late November, so I was missing the match by about 6 weeks.

There was nothing in my experience that would make that course of action make sense, but neither could I withhold from my baby what he loved so much. He was already going without eating for nine hours straight, and then when I come for him I'm to deny him? I was anguished, and talked to my Laleche leader, Pam.

She mused, "It's funny how there's all kind of support for taking out a loan for a house, or for a car, but we never think of taking a loan for a baby."

Those simple words provided the perspective I needed. I knew that my baby was not going to have to be the one to give because he was the weakest link in the chain. What was important was to honor his very impressive will, not overpower it. I went in to work the next day and gave notice.

It still makes me weak in the knees to think of how close I came to doing what would have broken my child's heart, and would have done great damage to my vulnerable conception of myself as a mother.

I'll be forever thankful for those chance words at just the right time that gave me the support I needed to make the right choice.

Thank you, Pam.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Karl and Ellie

Six months after its release, I finally saw the movie "Up". It was part of a 10-picture series that our local theater runs as a benefit for our schools. The boys and Gary had seen it closer to its release date, and confidently predicted I'd like it.

"Will I cry?"

"Yeah, probably."

I was crying in the first 10 minutes. So quickly, and deftly, the movie's makers sketched in the essential details: a shy, retiring, idealistic boy with a longing for adventure finding his kindred spirit in a girl who appears to be his opposite: effusive, expansive, enthusiastic. She saw something in him she liked and didn't hesitate in declaring it. Her dream was adventure, to plant her clubhouse at the brink of Paradise Falls in Venezuela. The sunshine of her love warms him and he blooms. At the church where they marry, volumes are implied by who comes. Her side of the sanctuary is filled with lively, vital, joyous souls; his side is largely vacant, with a few dour, dressed-in-black, severe looking people.

The most touching part of this movie is the way their love is communicated as they age, as is the poignancy when she dies and leaves him alone. You feel the loss keenly; the vacancy in this man's soul as he continues to live after the center of his life is gone.

His love for her inspires a big adventure--to fulfill her dream. And it is that quest which brings him in alignment with the possibility of more love, and a fullness he'd not imagined was possible for himself. The movie left me sobbing, because it is the most beautiful film I've ever seen.

Gary wants to show this film at Christmas. We're doing Christmas at my house again this year. My parents are driving up with my brother, my niece will fly up from Southern California, my father-in-law will drive down from the foothills of the Washington Cascades (with his unruly Vizsla hound Katie to be terrorized by my demonic cat), and my MIL who lives locally, will be here.

I'd hoped to not have to go through another hosting holiday of pretending. Two years ago the prospect filled me with despair. This year is different, because I know it is the last.

"Up" is a curious choice of a family Christmas movie, in a way. Gary's parents are divorced and have been since he was 8. Gary's dad has since been married three times. His last marriage, which was in the same year as Gary's and mine, ended within that year. Katie-the-hound is the legacy of that; she is the object of his affections now. Gary's mother never remarried, or as far as I know, even had any romantic relationships with a man. My parents have been married for over 50 years. I suspect what has held their marriage together is my father's super-ego sense of duty: you stay married because you're supposed to. You love because you're supposed to, through will-power. I can't tolerate the presence of them together for very long; there is such tension, disappointment, latent hostility radiating from them. The love portrayed in this film is very different from will-power love. The love in this film warms everyone around. It's a very simple love, and its light reveals the holes in the fabric of Gary's and my marriage.

I can use it as a parable, as a tangible. One knows authenticity when one sees it. If my sons aren't consciously asking themselves, I'm sure they feel the contrast between the warmth created between this couple, and the atmosphere between their parents. It can be a jumping off point: We have failed to create this. We have failed at developing what it takes to create this, and it is time to stop pretending. It is a failure within us (and creates a toxic atmosphere. You deserve so much better--I probably won’t say this last bit because it implies they are somehow responsible. I want to avoid that.).

Gary walked by me last night, after we'd been home a while, to say, "You deserve to have that kind of love." I said, "So do you."

Was it an unidealized love? Some might point out that you never were shown them quarreling. Isn't that idealized?

A long time ago I read Harville Hendrix's book, "Getting the Love You Want". He posed the theory of the Imago in relationships. Growing up has left injuries, and the issues that we need to heal draw us to the person who can call them forth for healing. That's where the spark of attraction lies. The introvert is beguiled by the extrovert's ability to express himself, the ease with which he makes decisions. The introvert calls to the extrovert's latent deep, reflective side. At the beginning they seem perfectly complementary, perfect for each other. It is later that disillusionment sets in, and the introvert wonders what she ever saw in the loud-mouthed shallow person she's married to. The introvert seems moody, distant, judgmental to the extrovert. When we are at first bewitched by attraction, magical thinking makes us forget that 'complementary' may involve opposition. Opposition threatens unity.

The potential for true growth, both individual, and as a couple, lies in reconciling this conflict.

If we can't have perfect unity we might attempt to cheat in order to get it We might cheat by attempting to deny our own desires, or by denying the Other's. We try to force unity by closing our eyes to any feelings that seem to threaten unity. And this is not sustainable.

We can't expect to have perfect, unbroken unity. It doesn't happen in this world. But the next best thing I think is actually better than unbroken unity. And that is the mechanism of repair, the glue of reconciliation.

Mrs. Spit wrote a beautiful post some weeks ago about loss, about loss breaking us, and about healing. She spoke of holding a fragile glass in her hand, of seeing where the colors run together, tracing the seams. Her post is called, Art Glass. The glass, the globe, she was describing, is grief, the more beautiful for its "fault lines". Can relationship, and conflict also be the stuff of Art Glass--unity-shattered a kind of loss, but the healing generating a beauty that far surpasses unblemished wholeness?

Perhaps this is what Karl and Ellie had, and this is what kept the light shining within their cracked and imperfect, unidealized love. The movie's makers didn't show us the how, but we can assume they had conflict because of their very different backgrounds. And the love that radiated from them didn't have any taint of unwilling surrender--peace-at-any-price.

Gary and I have never found a way to reconcile our styles. I see now that marriage to him was the logical outcome of where I came from. I came from a family where unity was prized, which meant that any feelings that ran against that unity were seen as threatening and were expected to be suppressed. Failure to self-suppress would result in someone else suppressing them, through shame, or punishment. Family unity was even more important than Telling the Truth.
The glass is not permitted to break, because there is no faith in healing. That would make sense, since the skills for healing were never developed.

Marrying Gary merely perpetuated that pattern.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Perfect Moment Monday--Ho Ho Ho (with apologies to Bob Dylan fans)

Lori's Perfect Moments Monday post had me laughing vicariously, and then reminded me of my own Perfect Moment.


Years ago, when Gary and I had been married a few years but hadn't had kids yet we went on a ski trip to the Tetons. One of our compatriots, Rich, had family who had a cabin outside of Driggs, Idaho. His cousin Peter was living there and so we invaded for about a week. We'd ski hard during the day and come home to eat, drink, and listen to music. Peter was a huge Bob Dylan, as well as Van Morrison fan.

I don't remember who Dylan was paired with in the piece Peter put on for our listening experience. It may have been Tom Petty. It may have been Van Morrison. It may have been a duo; perhaps a trio. It was some unusual combination of vocal superstars, and some were already singing when abruptly Dylan's voice chimed in. It was so jarring, and so out of the character the other voices had established that it struck me as funny and I was doubled over with laughter. I don't know if I kicked off the general hysteria, or if it struck the others as funny too, but we were all laughing. Except Peter. He said, "I'll never forgive you for that", to me.

Fast-forward to the present:

Earlier in the week I'd heard a review of Bob Dylan's Christmas album, and it came up at dinner. The review had included a few cuts from the album and I too wondered if this was done farcically, or as a serious effort. I mean, Bob Dylan singing Christmas hymns ala Andy Williams? Seemed pretty cheesy to me. Gary was sure it was a serious effort. "Come on, Gary! Pa Rum Pa Pum Pum? ??"

The boys demanded that I look for it on Youtube and play it. I couldn't find it on Youtube, but I did find a sampling on AmazonUK. The first piece I played was "Do You Hear What I Hear?" As Dylan's voice faded into white noise on the high note, we totally lost it. We surrendered to laughter, tears rolling down our cheeks, feet stomping the floor. The boys were up and dancing, flinging themselves into the furniture. There was joy to be had at each of the 12 offerings, but was it what Dylan intended?

(By the way, I think the best of the songs was "Must Be Santa", mainly because of the inspired accordian playing by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo.)

Ho Ho Ho, Ha Ha Ha indeed.

Peter, if you're reading this, I realize I'll never be redeemed.

But it was indeed a perfect, priceless moment

Friday, November 13, 2009

Transitions, or word made flesh

One of the features of temperament is the ease with which one negotiates transitions.

I suppose progress can be defined as a sort of transition, or series of them.

I often find it interesting, and satisfying, to look back over the course of a week or month or more and see events that had appeared to be isolated at the time reveal a progression.

I've often noticed a beautiful symbiosis between my own inner growth and my quest to observe, define, and meet Scott's needs. It is no accident that when I returned to therapy with Sharon nearly 3 years ago after a 14 years' long absence, that it was with a dream about Scott. Periodically I've had to defend therapy to Gary, and the most compelling evidence in its favor has always been in front of me. I only saw it after we had the IEP meeting.

Years ago I had a dream. In it I'd planted seeds, and kept digging them up to see if they were sprouting roots yet.

Everything I have done in therapy, every insight I've received, has been what has enabled me to get Scott to where he most needs to be. Traditional education gauges progress by periodically pulling up the seeds and measuring the length of the root. Many seeds are hardy enough to tolerate this. My Scott is not. He requires lots of undisturbed time, and secret places for his learning to form. As do I.

I've been struck before by the correlation between meeting Scott's needs, and my own. It occurred to me to wonder if that was not true for Connor as well. Almost in answer academic issues begin to arise for him.

There is a transition he is being 'asked' to make; in fact, he's expected to have made it already. Rather than have assignments given to him, he is expected to take responsibility for them, reach out for them, pull them toward him. If he has performed poorly on a test, he is expected to seek out the instructor to find out what he did wrong, and to initiate its correction. He's expected to take responsibility for coordinating, planning, pacing himself in performing multiple tasks, over a stretch of time, and he is expected to keep track of this. The basis for all of this is writing in his planner, which he is very reluctant to do.

I notice there is a peculiar barrier that maybe other people aren't cognizant of. I sense a resistance between the world of idea, and transforming it into the world of action. It's a birth of sorts, making concepts manifest. It's like a wall for me, and I wonder if it's something similar he's up against but unable to articulate.

Tuesday night Gary and I went to see Margaret, the new practitioner we're going to have follow Scott's adhd. She has been focusing on our marriage, as it is the ground in which she'll be treating Scott. The first two times we saw her and the subject of divorce came up Gary shut down completely. I could feel his spirit withdraw. Tuesday night for the first time he engaged. She wants to see us again, just the two of us, one more time before she sees Scott again. She wants us each to bring a "bucket list" of things to do before we die, a sketch of what our lives will look like after divorce, and for me, a plan for employment.

It's big that Gary has transitioned from keeping his head in the sand and avoiding the subject, to signaling his willingness to be a cooperative partner in making this as gentle for the boys as possible.

I felt overwhelmed. I have a hard time with bucket lists, and trying to imagine various scenarios and what life will be like within each of them. I understand now that this is a similar reluctance that Connor is experiencing within new expectations at school. Divorce has been in the world of idea for me for years now, and in the world of intention for less than a year. I am experiencing the resistance I usually experience in taking something to the next level.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Qualified Warm-and-Fuzzy; update to Let-Him-Fail


On Thursday I sent an email to Connor's principal asking:

Is it reasonable to ask that a teacher let me know before 8 weeks into a term that he is failing a subject

Is it reasonable to request that teachers post their assignments and test dates so I can help my child meet his obligations

Is "sink or swim", or "let him fail" an appropriate approach at this age where he's not intrinsically motivated by the topic and doesn't care if he fails?

That afternoon Connor got off his bus without an assignment he was supposed to have brought home the day before. "Get in the car, we're going to the school to get it." Wailing and gnashing of teeth.

When we walked into the building Ben, the principal, was at the top of the steps preparing to leave. But he seemed delighted to see us and spontaneously invited us into his office for "a chat". Connor went to get the assignment from his teacher while Ben and I got started.

He began to respond to my questions in the email, saying that "contractually, teachers are only required to report at midterm". He quickly added that he thought this was "lame." Before we could get to the substance of my questions Connor returned, and the rest of the conversation was between the two of them.

I like Ben. I think he gets kids, boys at least. I think his manner is respectful, and he is a person who can exude a "yes" vibe, even with a "no" message. I appreciated what he was telling Connor, even if Connor, with a 12-year-old's perspective, could not. Ben understood that much of what he was saying to Connor about choices he's making now affecting his future is lost on him. I liked the way he said it though.

When we left the school I felt better, but not entirely at ease. As I tried to pinpoint my disquiet I realized I'd come away without direct answers to my original three questions.

Subj; Thanks Ben


The Future is definitely too precious to be trusted to the young! It is so hard to talk to a child from adult perspective, and knowing how child-perspective is receiving it ("blah blah blah"), but having to say it anyway. What a gulf.


I get the sense that "let him fail" isn't quite your philosophy?

Thank you again.



The future has to be trusted to the young. We just have to give them a whole lot of support before they take off and spread their wings. The hard part for me is knowing how many blah blah conversations it takes to turn into genuine understanding. It is so different for each kid, and that is great., but it can be tremendously frustrating when they don't see the answer that is right there in front of them. You guys are doing the right thing by keeping him going in the right direction. The alternative is uglier than the discomfort caused by pushing them.

Let them fall is not in my bag of tricks. I am for supporting them in being successful, while balancing that with gradual release of responsibility. Turning more and more over to Connor is the right thing to do, the question is how much support he needs before he takes over the show completely.

Thanks for working so hard to make Connor successful.


I was still bothered...does the "contractual agreement" mean that the answer to my first two questions is no, even if he said the "contractual agreement" is "lame?"

Subj: Recap
To: Ben Principal

I was thinking a little more about our conversation on Thursday, and just wanted to recap it a bit to make sure I'm understanding a few points correctly.

I think we're in agreement that time management is an emerging skill in middle school that is not fully in Connor's mastery yet. In addition to learning math, science, Spanish, he is learning how to keep track of his obligations and pace himself appropriately to do that. He is learning a process, as well as content.

I think the type of thinking this requires doesn't come naturally to him and he'd rather avoid it. I can sympathize, because organization is not my strength either...I can easily get muddled, overwhelmed, and lose track of things.

He's better at this skill than last year, but still requires assistance in managing it. I'm willing to give him that assistance (I don't particularly like it, because, as I said, it's a weakness of mine, but he needs to be properly supported as he develops this skill he'll need for the rest of his life).

To give him that assistance I've had to ask for the assistance of the teachers. I'm very aware that they have a lot of demands on their time, and I've had a feeling that they may feel my requests are excessive. This is why I asked you if it was reasonable to ask if they post their assignments and tests. Otherwise, I feel like I'm dealing with a moving target, if I don't have a clear idea of what Connor needs to do. You and I were just beginning to touch on this subject when Connor came in and the conversation shifted. But what I thought I heard you say is that contractually, the teachers are only required to report on a child's progress (or lack) at midterm. That tells me that it is not contractually “reasonable” to ask for more than this, or to ask you to ask them. Only being required to report at midterm leaves a pretty big gap and I’d hope that a teacher would want to let a parent know there’s a problem well before their contract mandates them to. This wasn’t the case with Ms. Spanish Teacher, or with Mr. Humanities Teacher last year.

My hope is that bolstered by this talk with you, I can work on the Connor end of things. He really is responsive to talks like this, and hopefully we have some momentum. It seems the key element is getting him to record his assignments in his planner. If I can get him to consistently do that piece that’ll help me with having solid knowledge of what he needs to do. And at least tools like Engrade give me a heads-up sooner if things aren’t going well. Hopefully I can build a strategy around this that will resolve this so I don’t need to come back to you.




I agree that Connor seems to be struggling with the organizational aspect of managing his homework without assistance. I think you have taken a good angle in making him check in with you. I think that holding a high standard for him is a good idea, and he will eventually either get it from practicing, or stop fighting it. I am not sure which is the case for Connor, but it is probably a touch of both, as it sounds like the routine is well established both at home and at school, but has not taken on significance to him without extrinsic motivation. In the end he will benefit from having to tackle this issue now, as it is a whole lot harder to have to deal with it in high school or college.

I understand your feelings on being in the dark about student performance. The contract states some base requirements. We have tried hard to go way above that to help communication with parents about grades. I get that you feel that communication did not work for you in the past. It is well within your right to request from a teacher an update on homework and performance in class. I think that at times it can seem like enabling behavior to put it on the teachers. I don't get that impression from what you are saying, just that you need to be on the same page so that you can make sure that Connor is following through on his end. We will try to do our best to support your efforts to help Connor.

I will be checking in with him weekly. I think that knowing we are all looking over his shoulder to make sure he is being successful will help increase his level of work completion. I would put some of this back on Connor. I would let him know what your expectations are and work with him to see what would feel for him like constructive support. He may come up with nothing new, but at least he would feel like you are listening to him. It is a tricky balance with kids his age, as they think a whole lot less of the importance of good study habits than they need to.



I get that you feel that communication did not work for you in the past. It is well within your right to request from a teacher an update on homework and performance in class.

I do not feel that communication did not work for me in the past, it didn't.

I think that I understand now that the odd feeling that we're talking past each other means an indirect answer to my immediate questions. No, I am not reasonable in expecting that a teacher initiate discussion with me if my child isn't doing the work. I can ask for updates periodically, and so that is what I will need to do. Next week is parent-teacher conferences, and I'll see if we can agree on a process for doing this.

In effect, no, it is not reasonable to ask that the teachers post their tests and assignments consistently. They believe they shouldn't have to and that the child should just write it down in their planner each day. I can see the reasoning behind that, a sort of 'tough love' philosophy. So that makes my job a little harder, but I can work around it. Connor was failing Spanish before his teacher signed up with Engrade. Now that she's posting his performance I won't be surprised again. Besides posting performance results, oft-times there are hints of pending assignments. This isn't as solid an information base as teachers posting homework, but it's a source.

Most important is going to be focusing on Connor writing down his assignments each day in class. I've told him that this piece is the responsibility that is solely within his control, and I will be checking his planner each day. I will help him with figuring out what to do with that information--planning, coordinating, and pacing himself toward its accomplishment.

So hopefully we can work around the teacher reluctance with the tools we have. Hopefully I'll have a cooperative, if not altogether willing or enthusiastic partner in Connor.

And I'm glad that let him fail is not in Ben's "bag of tricks".

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Let him fail? or, lest I get too complacent about Connor

One of the challenges of having my kids in school is that it requires a certain overarching organizational skill that I don't have. Since Connor has started middle school last year, my limitations in this area have been painfully evident.

Middle school requires much more initiative in taking responsibility than Connor exhibits at this point. His obligations go beyond doing the work, to tracking the work. This involves recording assignments and making a plan for pacing himself and prioritizing. Sometimes his weakness involves understanding what needs to be done. Sometimes it means he fails to record the assignment. Sometimes it means he fails to bring home progress notes and worksheets.

This has meant that I've needed to exert myself to get a meta-sense of what his assignments are so that I can backstop him. This also means I need help from the teachers, and I'm finding there's a curious reluctance.

I can't blame their reluctance I guess. I'm reluctant myself. As I said organization is not my strength and sometimes I feel bedeviled by trying to parse out the details of his obligations. And I'm not clear if it is reasonable that I ask that the teachers stay current with their blogs and posting their assignments. I've gotten the impression that they believe the child should be responsible for recording what they need to do in their planners and the blog is only a last resort (which means they may or may not post). However, I've noticed that Connor seems to do best in the classes where the teachers stay current and consistent in posting on the blogs.

This year is definitely better than last. He understands better what he needs to do. Technology helps as well. This year there's an internet innovation called Engrade where teachers record the results of his efforts. So I have a more real-time gauge of how he's doing. Last year in his social studies I had a miserable time with a teacher who didn't post his assignments or tests, didn't send home progress notes, and I was surprised by a failing grade at mid term. Then a lot of time was lost in his not responding to me about what Connor needed to do to bring this up. I was adamant this not happen again this year, since the same middle school team is in place. Engrade has helped me stay up-to-date with this particular classroom, and this particular teacher (who still doesn't post on the provided calendar the homework assignments and the dates of tests/quizzes).

Spanish was another problematic course last year, and so I introduced myself to his new Spanish teacher at Back to School Night in late September. She assured me that Connor had been focused and attentive in class. Then last week he brought home an access code that told me she was now recording on Engrade. I looked her up and saw that he's failing Spanish. It's 8 weeks into the trimester and I'm only finding out now.

Upon contacting her I find that he's continuing to be focused in class, but he's not turning in his homework. No, she won't accept his missing assignments. The best he can do is start doing the homework now. Even if he does perfectly from here on in he's probably going to get a low grade this trimester.

I checked her blog. There were no current assignments posted for the past 3 weeks. I emailed her and told her if she doesn't accept late assignments, could she let me know on the front end what his assignments are so that I can help him stay on track in doing them?

Unfortunately, I will not be able to tell you "on the front end" what his assignments are. Connor must take responsibility for his own homework completion. This includes writing his assignments in his agenda and completing them on time. This is basic organization that must be learned before he moves on to high school and college. We would be cheating Connor if we let you be his assistant - he must learn to do it for himself.

When I look at this and consider the implications this seems to be influenced by a philosophy of responsibility that doesn't leave many options. She seems to be a mouthpiece of this, saying, there is a basic organizational skill that Connor should be doing. He's not doing it. If I help him with it, or if you help him with it, he'll never learn it, even though he obviously hasn't learned it yet. If you help him you are enabling him by keeping him from experiencing the consequences of his lack of responsibility. He should fail, and experience the consequences of his failure. Then he'll be motivated to take responsibility next time.

This is an overt articulation of what I've sensed before as teacher reluctance when I notice that they haven't posted an assignment. But what if a child isn't intrinsically motivated by a love of the Spanish language to do well? What if he's only taking it because it's required? What if he doesn't care if he fails? If he fails because he doesn't care, does that motivate him to care and succeed next time? Is it appropriate parenting to let him hitch-hike on my caring, particularly if he's responsive when I know the assignments and influence him to do them? Or is it better to parent by punishing failure retrospectively? Does that motivate him to do better?

I sent the principal an email with three basic questions:

Is it reasonable for me to expect that a teacher inform me sooner if Connor is not doing his work?

Is it reasonable for me to request that the teachers post their assignments and tests so that I can backstop Conrad in keeping track of what his obligations are?

Is it appropriate to let him experience the consequences of his failure to organize—a failed grade in Spanish (and Humanities)? Certainly it would make life easier for me if I didn’t have to help him track this. Is there value in letting him fail in this sink or swim approach, at this age?

Any comments from you middle school parents or educators out there?