Advice for My Son: Purpose


You won’t see purpose when you are young.

Much of life will be boring for you.

Much of life will be annoying.

Much of life will seem like it has no point.

I expect that before you are eighteen (and perhaps after) you will want to be playing Playstation 2 or Capture the Flag or doing anything else besides:

  • going to church
  • listening to your teachers lecture in school
  • talking with adults
  • sitting next to the kid you don’t know
  • attending family reunions
  • going to the opera, ballet, a play, a musical, or any other theatrical event
  • making a habit of visiting the doctor, the dermatologist, and the dentist once a year
  • eating your vegetables
  • reading
  • listening to the news

There are many activities that you must do as a child that you will find that you do not want to do. Some of these activities you will still not want to do when you are an adult. However, when you are an adult, you will at least be able to see the purpose and the value in them. Truly, some wisdom can only come from experience, exposure, and age.  I do not think you can be wise as a child except in how much you accept that fact.

And so, I write to you now, when you are one and a half and your strongest objection forms as a tantrum when you do not want to get into the carseat. Please remember–when you are a little bit older, and I am dragging you to church, to Uncle Palmer’s house, to visit your grandmother, to see a play, when I am forcing you to sit at the table the whole time during a family dinner– that these things are valuable. You just might not be able to see it yet.

And you will be glad you’ve done them. But only when you’re a little bit older.

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So What?

This morning I led a mindfulness class with a group of juniors. I love leading these classes because I gain just as much as participants do from the centering, stretching, breathing, and re-prioritizing exercises. We all need reminders about how to live mindfully.

One exercise I do to help align priorities is the “So What?” Game. Here is how it goes:

Leader: “So, Faith, tell me why you’re working so hard in school right now.”

Faith: “So I can get into a good college.”

Leader: “So what?”

Faith: “So that I can get a good job.”

Leader: “So what?”

Faith: “So that I can make a lot of money.”

Leader: “So what?”

Faith: Blank stare. Thinking time. Awkward pause. Then, “So that my family can be happy and healthy.”

Leader: “Faith, you can be happy and healthy right now.”

The progression that Faith just took is typical of what many, if not almost all, of my students would say. Faith’s final answer is pretty good. Being happy and healthy.  After the money answer, I’ve heard a range of other replies  running the gamut from, “so that I can do whatever I want” to “so I can please my parents” to “so that I can live the same lifestyle I live now” to “I don’t know.”

But here is what I’ve been thinking lately: wherever our students end up at the end of this “so what” game will be the driving force for their lives. No one I’ve asked so far has ever come up with “so that I can glorify God” or “so I can better help my neighbor” or “so I can change the world for the better.” Yet, as a parent, these three reasons along with living a “happy and healthy life” represent what I hope for my life and what I hope for my son’s life.  I’m curious about what kind of world we will be building if the driving force for our children revolves around making money.

Now, before you start calling me a “hippy” or assume that I’m bashing our educational system or believe that I’m heralding the 99%, let me reassure you.  Yes, it is important for students to get into a good college. But, I’d argue it is more important for them to get into the right college than the best college.

Yes, it is important to make a living off which you and your family can thrive. But I’d argue that when it comes to money, no matter how much you have, you’ll always want more.

Yes, people who have resources above the average leverage power in ways that can change the world. BUT, they only do change the world if their goal or purpose in life is more than getting rich.

So, parents and teachers, what is your “So What?” What do you hope drives your children? Your students?

What are some of the other reasons you want your child or your students to be in school? A few I can name:

School is a place to build life-long friendships and connections. Where you learn to interact with others.  School is a place where you discover a subject about which you are passionate. Where you learn the power of engaging deeply and the joy of knowledge. School is a place where you can learn to face challenges, overcome them with hard work and help, and feel the success of a difficult job well done.  School is a place to grow as a person, discover your identity, and build your character. School is a place where you can make mistakes and learn that mistakes aren’t the end of the world–they’re the beginning of an opportunity for growing.

Parents, teachers, please emphasize some of these other reasons with your children. Emphasize the so what? Because it seems like the message, the only message, our kids are hearing right now is that the reason they’re working in school is to make a lot of money once they graduate from a good college.

That is what I heard from my 6th graders when I asked them the open ended question, “why is school important?” It is what I heard from my 8th graders when I asked them about the purpose of what they’re doing in my Journalism class. It is what I’ve heard from 11th graders when I lead the mindfulness class this morning. I bet, if you go home and ask your child, “why do you go to school? Why should you work hard in school?” I know what their answer will be. Is that the answer, or the only answer, you’d wish for your child? For yourself?

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What Do Kids WANT to Study?

Facing a homeroom of fourteen boys the other day, I posed the question:

What would you want to study if you could make up your own class?

Here is a list of some of what they came up with:


Marine Biology

Saturday Night Live and Improv

Survival Class

Baseball hitting

Interestingly, all of these classes have real-life connection, immediately putting learning into context. Learning becomes relevant and practicable.

One problem with the “silos” in education is that subject-style learning tends to take learning out of real life context.

What we know about people is that they will learn anything if it helps them do something they want to do. Perhaps we need to re-think the way we categorize our learning, moving away from subjects and towards themes.

Think about the math you can learn in a programming class… or the science in a scuba diving marine biology course. Imagine the high level communication, literary, and public speaking skills a student would learn in an improv class that put on a “Saturday Night Live” type show for the school each week. The Survival Course could touch on every single subject matter– the math behind building a fort, the joy of reading alone, the biology of plants that are safe to eat, the chemistry of cleaning water. I could go on! Even the baseball hitting class provides awesome opportunities for Physical Education, Math skills with respect to angles and arcs, Physics in velocity, History of the sport of baseball and it’s cultural impacts globally and nationally, English in debating the steroid controversy… gosh! I wish I taught these classes!


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The First Day of Spring (CrossPost)

I am cross-posting here a blog entry that I wrote for my Environmental Writing Course today. If you have the time or inclination, please visit our class blog! 


Walking last night with my husband and son, my ears perked up to the sound of birds singing, chirping, warbling: sounds I had been missing since the long winter came down. With my ears engaged, my other senses started to perk up, too. My nose scented the freshness of daffodils popping up in yellow, social clumps. And, who doesn’t recognize the stench of the assaulting bradford pear? I peeled off my sweatshirt, enjoying the crispness of a transitional-season evening, and realized, pleased with the turn of events, that it was 6 pm and still light outside.

The light enabled me to take a closer look around. Small, tiny blooms, popped up everywhere. Redbuds and cherry trees and daffodils– the early, loud, exuberant first heralds of the Springtime–had awakened the more reluctant winter sleepers. Small, hard buds on the dogwood trees, azalea blossoms- still shut tight in their shells-starting to peek through the foliage, and blueberry bushes covered with the seeds of their future blossoms.

Spring is here! I wondered if my students had noticed, so today, the first day of Spring, we headed outdoors to photograph “Signs of Spring.” The following pictures show what they found. (all photo credits to my students who are writers on this blog.)

babbstaleyEllaerikVishanLeoKelsey and JulietrumanjderriknofilterSpringWeselmanAshleyArainshope zoeLaurenBisabellamicaylaLaralara,catherineTvickcatherine

To put this post into the context of climate change and our class, I recently received this email newsletter, prompting me to “Be a Citizen Scientist,”

Have you noticed your favorite flower (or most despised weed) sprouting a little earlier than it used to? Heard frogs calling sooner in the spring over the past few years? These trends could be linked to climate change, and scientists want your help in tracking them. The USA-National Phenology Network (USA-NPN), a group of government, academic, and citizen scientists, has started a new national program that will rely on volunteers to report their observations of flowering, fruiting, and other seasonal events that will help scientists get a more accurate picture of our changing planet.

So I started to wonder, how has my area changed in the last 20, 40, 100 years? Do we even have the data? The The USA-National Phenology Network program mentioned in the email above is soliciting volunteers to help track bloom times of plants. This type of study is called phenology, or “the study of recurring plant and animal life cycle events.”  I’ve decided to participate in the study by becoming an observer in the nature around me.  All I have to do is go outside 10 minutes a week and record what I see. What better way to enjoy Spring than to become a mindful observer of the nature right outside my door?

As someone who loves the environment, I will tell you that I lost heart a few days ago. When we polled our 8th grade Environmental Writing class about whether they would consider themselves to be “environmentalists,” a large percent of them indicated that they did not identify as environmentalists.  Part of me can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons our students don’t consider themselves to be environmentalists is that they’re not in touch with the outdoors. By 8th grade the majority of their classes take place inside, and after school they’re so scheduled with resume-building extra-curriculars and hours of homework, when would they have time to enjoy, appreciate, and build a love of nature?

So students, take this as a challenge. Get outside for at least 1 hour every day. Plant a garden. Whistle back to birds. Follow a trail of ants. Roll in the grass. Watch the clouds. Stomp in a rain puddle. Pluck a blackberry. You may find yourself to be an environmentalist after all. And I bet you’ll enjoy this Spring more than any other.


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School Should Be Like Yoga Class: The How

So my friend CajunCart, a beautiful writer and thinker and teacher (with her own blog), challenged me with this question after my last post about formative assessment and yoga:

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 9.05.45 AM

So, I responded that I’d write a post to address this question. I think there are lots of ways that teachers can do this, but I’ll just list below a few ideas I have.

One general idea to stick with, however, is that students should be the ones doing throughout most of the class and the teacher should be floating and helping throughout most of the class. If the teacher is talking/doing more than the students are–or if the student’s main job is to take notes (assuming note-taking is not the main learning goal, which, if it is, then note taking the whole time would be perfect!), then it will be much harder to implement a classroom with formative assessment.

In English, I actually have experience with this idea. I taught my 8th grade class in a much more traditional way last year when it came to assigning writing and “teaching” writing.

However, in my writing workshop class, my students are cranking out some amazing writing in the style that we might call “research paper.” Yet, these essays, on a public blog linked above, are not drudgery for the students or the teachers. Nor, by the way, are these essays terrible– which is what most other middle school research papers turn out to be. Here is why:

1) The students choose the subject of their writing. It must be tangentially related to the topic of our course, but other than that, they’re free to bring their own interests in. See post here about climate change and the olympics. Wow. Yes, a middle schooler wrote that. No, we did not give her a lib guide.

2) The students write on their own time, but then they bring a draft in for conference before they post to the blog. It is during these conferences (held for us in OH), that most of the really good writing learning gets done. (Note: If I were to use conferences outside of office hours, I would schedule time with students as they’re writing in my class. I would also refrain from scheduling papers to be turned in all on the same day. I’d make staggered deadlines for writing or I’d have the kids set their deadlines within a 1-2 week period so that I could give more individual feedback without the time crunch.)

3) Our students write in class almost every day for about a fourth of the class. It is, after all, a writing course. It makes sense that a good chunk of the time the kids would be, well, writing. We don’t always give feedback on this writing. In fact, we don’t give specific feedback on most of it, but we walk around the room and look over the shoulders of the students as they’re working, and every now and then we stop or comment on what they’ve said in these journal times.

The students get to practice, practice, practice. Moreover, we don’t give grades on the papers we conference over, so the pressure in conferences is zero. Yes, ultimately, at the marking period we grade their writing, but we’re lucky that our class is on a pass/fail reporting system so we can focus more on the learning the rest of the time and less on trying to “get enough grades in for the marking period.” A frightfully common problem for many teachers.

Assuming you teach in 55 minute classes (my suggestions would change entirely if you have longer blocks), a yoga-style math class might look like a mini-lesson at the beginning of the class (5 mins or less) and then 50 minutes of students working individually or in groups on the concept with the teacher floating around and helping. If you can work some real world application in, even better!

In Science, it looks like labs. Labs, Labs and more labs.

In Language it looks like the students in conversation in small groups in their specific language for the whole class while the teacher floats around, popping in to conversations and helping out. Or like Skype.

In PE it looks like yoga. :) They’ve mastered this art.

In History, where delving into historical content and facts often makes up a large portion of the class, it might mean focusing on driving questions like “How does geography impact history?” and then having students do research on their own or delve into a project of some sort in order to figure that out. Students will get the content when that is what they need to “get” in order to achieve a different goal. Rarely are students motivated by content alone, but give them a problem to solve, and by golly, they’ll ask you a million questions about the content.

I’d love to continue the conversation about different ways of achieving this type of classroom. All I know is that the more I teach like this, the more my students get better at what they’re learning.

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Formative Assessment and Yoga

I’ve been doing yoga for ten years. I’ve practiced in many types of yoga classes- ashtanga, vinyassa, hot, power, yoga-at-church classes, yoga for relaxation, yoga videos, prenatal yoga- and currently I’m taking a class at my school that is for faculty and staff. The hardest part for me in yoga (and in life) is staying present in the moment. So, instead of focusing on my breathing during my class on Tuesday, my mind was wandering. Despite the fact that this lack of focus led to incredible balance issues in Warrior 3, I mentally stumbled upon the topic for this blog post: formative assessment.

For those of you non-yogis, let me describe a typical yoga class to you. From start to finish, the students are doing. The teacher tells students the moves to follow, and the students practice those moves. As the teacher walks around the class and observes what his or her students are doing, the teacher will make comments about how to improve the poses. Most of the time, the teacher makes general comments that everyone can use:

“While you’re in plank, push your weight through your heels, push your finger pads down, tuck your tail and tighten your stomach.”

These suggestions, corrections made in real time, have an immediate impact on the practice. I don’t know whether they’re directed specifically at me, but if I do them, my pose is better.

Other times, the teacher will walk around and speak specifically to one student, making specific corrections for that person who needs that individualized instruction.

Every now and then, the teacher will even scaffold the practice further by moving an student’s arm into a better position, or help press them further into a forward fold to help that student modify their practice and go further than they could go on their own.

So what does this have to do with formative assessment? Well, the class is built around formative assessment. I have never faced a “summative” yoga assessment, yet I learn a significant amount each class.

First, the feedback is in real time. I don’t go to class, do yoga, and then 3 weeks later get notes back from my teacher about how I did. I get feedback immediately, as I’m doing the pose.

Second, the feedback can be specific to each student or the whole class can use it. Because the feedback is in real time and comes in short bursts, the teacher has more time to spend individually with students.

Third, there is no angst attached to the formative assessment feedback we get. If a teacher walks over to correct another student, I don’t feel sorry for that poor-fool-who-isn’t-doing-the-pose-right. No! I’m actually a little jealous that they’re getting feedback that I’m not. I wonder to myself, “what’s the teacher showing that person? How can I improve?” I actually WANT feedback during my practice. I’m never scared of it.

Fourth, a teacher can easily level his or her instructions and challenges to the class. Frequently you hear teachers say, “now if you want to modify this pose and make it easier, do x, but if you feel good in the pose and want to challenge yourself, do y.” Students can choose what to do based on their ability. If the teacher looks around and everyone is struggling with a particular concept, he can give instructions to everyone that will help bring them up to level.

Now, imagine a yoga class that functions the way we traditionally approach classroom teaching. It might go something like this:

The teacher stands at the whiteboard with notes about different yoga poses. “Today, students, we’re going to talk about downward facing dog. The first thing you must know about adho muka svanasana, or downward dog, is that your heels must be facing downwards….” Students would sit in desks, taking notes about what the teacher said without ever actually practicing the pose itself.

downward facing dog

Then, students would be assigned homework, where, at home without any guidance – except from maybe a parent who tried yoga 20 years ago- they would try out the pose. They might take a picture of themselves in downward facing dog, and turn that in to the teacher who would grade it and return it a few days later.

On Friday, there would be a test. Everyone would be doing downward facing dog, but no one would be allowed to look at anyone else’s pose since that would be cheating. Then, the teacher would grade each pose individually in writing, and give the notes back to the student to review. Since grading is a laborious process, it might take a week or more to get the feedback on the pose back to the student.

Since the student’s ability to continue on to the next yoga class depends on whether or not he or she makes a C or above, the first and only thing she worries about on the test feedback is whether or not she made an A,B,C or F.

I probably would never practice yoga if class was like that.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a place for summative assessment, even in yoga. If I were applying to be a yoga teacher or to attend a particularly rigorous yoga studio, it would make sense that I should pass a summative assessment to get in.

However, just like in learning, the formative assessment is the more powerful tool for helping students learn (and enjoy what they’re learning!). I hope to teach using formative assessment more–I guess that means I need to structure my classes more like yoga class.


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Bringing Up Bebe: Just Another Support for Free Range Kids

As a mom-to-be and current teacher, I’m always curious about best practices for children’s development. What should I keep doing, stop doing, or start doing to help my students (and now my future son) grow into productive, happy adults? Ultimately, I think the goal of any teacher or parent is that we help our students and children find the way to be able to live and thrive without our help.

My friend, Clarkbeast– parent, blogger, out-door enthusiast and teacher extraordinaire- and I frequently bemoan the ways that we see our culture stifling children’s self-reliance instead of bolstering it. One element we both agree that needs to be more purposefully present in children’s lives as a way to foster self-reliance is unstructured playtime. So much of what we’ve read, from Free Range Kids to Last Child in the Woods, exposes the importance of unstructured play, yet we live in a world where it is not unnatural for most children’s days to be scheduled from 6 am to 8 pm- filled with school, homework, and extra-curricular activities.  Adults seem to worry that if children are not busy doing something, then they’re either going to be behind the rest of the kids when it comes to applying to college, or they’ll be getting into trouble. Clarkbeast recently shared this article with me, The Politics of Play, which I think can help quell the fears of helicopter-prone parents. One particularly moving quote stuck out for me:

The true opposite of obedience is not disobedience but independence. The true opposite of order is not disorder but freedom. Most profoundly, the true opposite of control is not chaos but self-control.

We fear the chaos, and so we try to control too much, when really, we should be helping our children practice being self-controlled.

My mom-to-be reading list so far has been comprised by books that friends have recommended to me, and many of them reiterate this same idea.

From Babywise by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam:

Most parents with an infant in the home tend not to think about this, yet, some monitored alone time provides critical opportunities for learning. By “alone” we do not mean leaving baby out of sight, but rather providing opportunities for him to investigate his world without being constantly entertained. (114)

And my most recent read, an enjoyable anthropologically-lensed narrative about an American raising her children in France, Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman, revealed some of the major differences between French parenting and American parenting.

First, the “cadre.” The idea of the cadre is that French parents give their children a stiff framework outside of which they may not stray, but inside of which they enjoy enormous freedom.  The cadre is a delicate balance- deciding early on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior, and then allowing children to find their own way within that framework. As a teacher, I like this idea. I try not to be too nit-picky about everything, but I let my students know what my expectations are (both for their behavior and for their learning) and then hold them accountable to those expectations.  In American culture, I see parents and teachers both struggling with the balance a “cadre” requires. We tend to sway either towards the strict side, where every minor infraction deserves a punishment and yelling, or where children are given too much freedom early on–becoming little kings of their homes or classrooms–not willing to listen to any adult.

Second, according to Druckerman, in France the life of parents is not subordinate to the life of their child(ren). A mother is expected to be more than just a mother– she is encouraged to be a woman, a wife, a friend, and also a mother–preferably in that order:

In France, there’s an expression for mothers who spend all their free time schlepping their kids around: maman-taxi. This isn’t a compliment…. “You have to leave kids alone, they need to be a bit bored at home, they most have time to play.” (143)

In America, there seems to be this assumption that in order to be a good mother, you must subsume all of your needs for the whims and needs of your child. It’s expected that you will lose your figure, ignore your husband, lose touch with your friends, quit your job, and follow your child around at the playground praising his every step, in order to be a good mother. Frankly, that kind of expected sacrifice makes me wonder, why would any woman want to become a mother? The best model we can give our kids about self-reliance is to show how we are self-reliant and can take care of ourselves.

Third, the French trust in the child’s ability to understand social norms and to learn to cope with frustration from a very early age. In America, we expect that toddlers will be finicky eaters, incapable of sitting still at a restaurant or enjoying a dinner with the family. The French, however, seem to approach parenting with the idea that their children can understand social rules from a young age and that they can adapt to them:

The practical implications of believing that a baby or toddler understands what you say and can act on it are considerable. It means you can teach him to sleep through the night early on, to not barge into your room every morning, to sit properly at the table, to eat only at mealtimes, and to not interrupt his parents. You can expect him to accommodate–at least a little bit–what his parents need, too. (94)

I think that if we model and teach these expectations to our children early on, we can help them build their self-reliance. We don’t try to control the child, we teach the child to control himself.

It’s clear that giving kids a degree of independence, and stressing a kind of inner resilience and self-reliance, is a big part of French parenting. The French call this autonomie (autonomy). They generally aim to give children as much autonomy as they can handle. This includes physical autonomy, like the class trips. It also includes emotional separation, like letting them build their own self-esteem that doesn’t depend on praise from parents and other adults. (244)

I hope that when my son arrives, I will be able to remember the point of parenting: to make my child able to live without me as early as possible. The more my child can do for himself, the more I will empower him to live well in this world. Of course, I can help him build his self-reliance in a loving way, staying mindful of his needs, and praising him when he really does good work. But hopefully you’ll never see me on the playground, following my child with a camera, crazed-look in my eyes as I exclaim a running praise-filled narrative of my son’s every step: “You’re walking! Your’e climbing! You are such a good stepper! Wow! Look at you on those Monkey bars!”

Rather, I hope you see my son playing at the park, either by himself or with some friends, and me watching from a blanket in the shade where I’ve either got a book, a friend, or my husband keeping me company. It’s a play date for both of us: “Free Range” kids and “Free Range” parents. We’ll see what happens to these best of intentions…..

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