Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sweet Life

"What do you miss most about being 5 years old?"

Rainn Wilson asks this question on his website

I can only reason that at the heart of this question must be that whatever we answer, why can't we have that back as an adult? 

There is that joke about the adult and the kid in the candy store.  The kid wants all of the candy, but doesn't have the money.  The adult says sarcastically, "The sad thing is kid, when you have all the money, you don't want all the candy."

What do you miss most about being 5 years old?  What's stopping you from being that way again?

Sunday, May 9, 2010


This weekend our family went to the WPA convention at UW-Oshkosh.  (WPA-Wisconsin Parents' Association, is a homeschooling group.)  Last year I went with a friend and left Tony and the kiddos at home.  This year, the four of us went as a family.

WPA kind of feels like camp to me.  You know how at a summer camp, you can 'let your hair down' and just be yourself?  Here we are, with hundreds of other homeschoolers, at camp.  There is a common understanding that is woven through our interactions.  You see many adopted children, many smiling faces, many multigenerational groups, teenagers hugging their parents in public, a lot of babies in slings, and a ton of laughter and energy (except maybe in line at the used book sale at 6:45 AM, pre-coffee).

My first year at the convention, the thing that made the biggest impression on me, outside of all of the workshops, was how the children said 'hello' to the adults when passing by.  No big deal right?  But it is.  Again this year, this simple act of greeting by someone younger than me that I did not know made such an impact.  Whether it was a 4 year old, or a teen, when walking by, children make eye contact with you as an adult and say, 'hello!'.  Wild.

As someone who works with teens, this is not all that common.  When I say hello to teens in the Y, they look surprised that I would even greet them, let alone "see" them, if I am not yelling at them for something.  Quite often, we as adults, prefer to look the other way when walking past a group of teenagers.  And for some reason, the social fabric of the teen world would get them days if not months of teasing if they broke that unwritten code of "Don't look, don't talk" to an adult passerby, or even a new peer...We miss out on so many possible friendships, mentorships, interactions because of fear on both sides of the sidewalk.  I would say the same is true for younger children.  We may not be fearful of them as we are of teens, but more often, as a society we just don't give them credit for being their own individuals.  A darker side of that is we might be fearful to say hello to children because we are strangers, and I sadly get that. 

Dominic, Sophia and I went to a workshop called, "What parents get out of homeschooling".  We walked in late, and joined a circle of about ten people, nine of whom were adults.  A girl of about six colored on the floor in the middle of the circle.   I think a misconception that is out there about homeschooled kids is a lack of social skills.  I can't imagine a greater falsehood.  We were in this room for about eight minutes before my children, age seven and nine, shared in the previously all adult discussion.  Sophia turned to a mom that she had never met and said, "If you are worried about your children and socialization, don't because..." and she went on to explain her own reasoning on the subject.  I think what spoke even louder than her words was what she was doing.  She felt as if she had a place in this discussion.  Dominic later offered  his take on how homeschooling, "just makes sense".  Now, you might think that they are parroting what they hear me say, but I promise you, these were their own conclusions. 

They are not alone in this ability to share in public.   Children are on an equal footing with their thoughts and opinions as adults.  I feel honored to have friends of all ages.  My friend Abbie, age 11, frequently asks me questions about how I am doing, what my thoughts are on certain things, or she will share what she thinks about the world at large.  I get to be greeted with hugs from my friend Paris, age 13, and words like, "It is so great to see you!", and I feel the same way.  These are not just my friends' children, but my friends as well.  A young man named Dylan, age 12, was so excited to share what he knew about Tae Kwon Do with both my children and me when we first met in the dorm hallway.  He spoke equally to me and to my kids.  This just warms my heart to see his confidence, and also to be trusted enough to know that I would care about his feelings and ideas.

This isn't the putting the kids on a pedestal that we see as problematic in our society, but at our 'camp' they are given credit for being sentient beings with thoughts and opinions of their own.  When I leave the convention, I take a piece of that with me back to our reality.  You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.  There are a lot of people out there that yearn for the friendships of people on all sides of the proverbial hallway. 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Real Education

I graduated from the School of Education at UW-Madison.  Looking back, so much of my own education on education was purely theoretical. When we talked about the psychology of teens, the last teen I had any experience with was myself!  We were lectured about how lecturing was not the most effective means of relaying information...ANYway...

One of my professors, who taught "History of American Education", started out the semester by questioning the true point of public education.  I distinctly remember thinking, 'duh, to educate you!', but as he brought up reasons like to create a cohesive society, to create a workforce, to keep kids off of the streets, I found myself really, for the first time, turning a more critical eye to our schools, and that eye has not blinked since.

I loved school.  Always did.  Now don't get me wrong, when my mom tried to wake me up for high school, I wasn't always eager to go, but I never remember disliking the experience as a whole.   I think the best teachers either really liked school, and remember why, or despised it, and know what they don't wish to repeat.

Now, I get to live in three distinct worlds of education.  Our family homeschools, my husband teaches at a public high school,  and I teach at a technical college.  All three of these worlds forever bring the question of "what is the purpose of a meaningful education?" to the forefront for me.  It's  not as easy as it seems.  I believe in public schooling  and the amazing professionals that try to keep the fires burning in the bellies of children wanting to learn.  I see the magic of homeschooling, and how the world is our children's classroom.  I see adults returning to school to finally get that high school diploma after working for thirty years, only to be let go because of a factory moving overseas.

Is school merely a series of hoops that one has to jump through?  Like the guy that comes to the Student Success Center at MPTC day after day to do his math, does he need to figure out how to find the area of an isoceles triangle to deem himself  'educated', to finally get that carrot of a GED?  As an adult, he can truly ask the age old question, "When will I ever need to know this?" and after 30 years of adult life, he knows for a fact he doesn't need to know it.  Is it just the struggle in and of itself that we accredit? 

I remember complaining to my father about my own geometry class and asking "When am I ever...?", and my dad's response was something to the effect of it will show me how I deal with a difficult situation, and how I overcome adversity.  'How do I do something that I really don't want to do'.  It makes sense when justifying the need for geometry to someone, but is that the entire organized schooling experience?  Are we teaching how to cram, regurgitate, and then move on?  To put collective 'noses to the grindstone through the struggle'?

I really don't remember very much information from my 15+ years of  schooling.  I do remember doing the projects, the speeches, or reading the books, but not the hours and hours I spent passively sitting in classes.  That is my learning style; I have to DO something to remember it.  I am, by nature, an active learner.  You know the old "teach a man to fish" thing; I have to fish MYSELF.  I think most people are like that.  Most of the history that I taught in high school, I learned while preparing to teach it.  Learning is a verb. I need my learning to have a purpose and an action.

My husband Tony is an amazing high school social studies teacher.  He just won a huge award from his school district for making such a profound impact in the lives of his students.  You know why?  He trusts them to have the innate desire to learn.  He gives students credit for their intelligence.  Tony teaches a class called "War and Peace", a senior semester elective.  He inherited the class with one section of about 10 students, and turned it into one of the most popular classes in the school with 6 sections of 30, sometimes literally running out of desks.  What is the difference?  He has conversations with his students, integrating what they are learning with what is going on in the ever expanding daily curriculum of global affairs.  He challenges them to think without an expected outcome of a specific fill-in-the-blank answer. 
Some of his students, well-trained after 11+ years of schooling, are uncomfortable with this unknown quantity. "Where are the worksheets? What can we do for extra credit?"  He challenges them to think outside the box and outside of themselves.  

One day the kiddos and I were shopping in town when a young man approached us.  "Mrs. Zappia?  Are you Mr. Zappia's wife?"  I will happily claim that man any day. 
"I have to tell you, your husband was my absolute favorite teacher in high school.  He treated all of us with such respect.  (isn't that sad?)  Because of your husband's class, I talked to my grandfather for the first time about his experiences in Vietnam.  (Tony's final exam is to interview a war veteran)  I didn't know how to approach it before, but because of Mr. Zappia's class, my grandpa and I had the most amazing conversation, and we both cried.  I thank your husband for giving me a real education." 
Needless to say, after wiping away tears of my own in that shopping aisle, I thought, now there is an 'educational outcome' that is immeasurable and bigger than any grade. 

How we can replicate that experience ad infinitum is the next question. 

Thanks for reading...