Why We Need to Stop Bad-Mouthing Community College

I was a senior in high school when I made the decision to attend a community college after graduation.

While many of my peers were applying to universities like Duke and Purdue, proudly wearing their college sweatshirts to school, I was interviewing for a second job and filling out scholarship applications.

I was among the top 10% of my graduating class, but I didn’t excel in any early-2000’s up-and-coming fields like computer science or medicine. I was a book nerd with zero athletic ability who participated in school plays and wrote newspaper articles.

My choice to attend a community college was purely financial. If I worked two jobs, I could pay the tuition and book fees without taking out any loans. I would continue to live at home with my parents and siblings and make the thirty-minute commute Monday through Friday.

According to a recent study, my decision was a wise one. Researchers found that students who transfer from community colleges to select universities are the most likely group to graduate.

I experienced many benefits from being a community college student. The classes were small and intimate. The building and equipment were modern. My teachers knew every student by name. If I missed a class, my instructors noticed and checked in with me.

Pixabay/Pexels

During my second year at the school, I met a teacher who changed my life. She asked me to stay after class one day after reading my essay on spending a week on a Navajo reservation and asked me if I’d ever thought about becoming a teacher.

That conversation set my plans into motion. I had chosen to major in creative writing, but under the care of my new mentor, changed paths. I was going to teach.

I had clarity, I had purpose, and I didn’t have a single dollar of debt.

Now, I certainly wasn’t wealthy. I worked every single weekday and weekend for years on end, alternating shifts at a bookstore and a daycare. There were many months I had less than $30 in my bank account after paying my school bill and car insurance.

I graduated with my associate’s degree in English from the community college and moved to a university where I earned a bachelor’s in English with a minor in speech communication. From there, I eased into graduate school, teaching my first classes, and graduating with a master’s in Teaching of Writing.

The university is where my community college experience came full circle.

I spent nine years teaching composition to college freshman and sophomores. I had been taught the importance of the teacher-student relationship from my community college experiences, and I made sure to learn my students’ faces and names.

I also made it a priority to get to class early and stay late, making myself available to students. Every day, I’d have a line of students waiting afterward. Some just wanted to show me a paragraph they’d revised in their paper or ask a question about the syllabus.

But then there were the others.

Students confessed that their parents had chosen their school and major for them, either to follow in mom or dad’s footsteps or because their future career would hopefully be lucrative. They were resentful and downtrodden.

Other students were hemorrhaging dollars on classes they were failing. It wasn’t that they were lazy or unintelligent. Rather, they weren’t adequately prepared for the jump from high school to college. The demands were too great, and the expectations were too high.

They weren’t properly trained for the marathon.

I had students crumbling under the pressure. One of my students, whom I knew was struggling with anxiety while taking eighteen hours of classes, had a panic attack so severe that I had to call an ambulance for her.

We forget that many college students are eighteen-year-olds caught between childhood and adulthood. Heck, their brains aren’t fully developed until age twenty-five, yet they’re supposed to know what they want to be when they grow up, commit to that, and not screw up. Oh yes, and magically know how to be a perfect college student.

Element5 Digital/Unsplash

I had heart-to-hearts with my students. I could empathize with their struggles. There were moments I straddled my role as a teacher and my heart as a mom. I gently asked some of my struggling students, “Have you considered transferring to a community college?”

Some snarled, “Like a junior college?” Others looked defeated and shared that their parents, who were funding their education, would never allow that. One student told me, “My dad would kill me if he knew I was failing my accounting classes.” But his dad would not grant him permission, or the dollars, to attend a “junior” college.

I knew that some of my students would be so much better off at a community college, excelling because they would be in a smaller, personal environment that offers students baby steps to success. But how could students combat the “joke” of community college, popularly mocked by the sitcom Community and longstanding stereotypes, and convince their parents?

I wish I could have talked to the students’ parents and share my thoughts. There is nothing wrong with a two-year degree. A technical job can yield a large payoff. On the other hand, if the university grad can find a job in their field after graduation, they aren’t necessarily rolling in the dough.

In the United States, there are more than 44,000,000 borrowers who together have 1.5 trillion in education debt. The average student has $30,000 in debt. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that’s a big chunk of change.

Money isn’t everything, though. I would also tell parents, if a student gets discouraged at the very beginning of their university career, plummeting into a pit of failure, it’s really hard to get out. For some students, attending a community college prior to transferring to a university makes sense, easing them into deeper waters.

Not all that glitters is gold. It’s time to give community colleges the credit they deserve.

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LGBTQ History Needs To Be Part Of Every School’s Curriculum

When we study history, we are studying past events. We are examining, celebrating, and sometimes cringing at significant happenings that shaped a location and the people living there. Sometimes an event or movement is so large that it has a butterfly effect; the impact ripples across nations and through cultures.

History shows us what works and what doesn’t. History foreshadows the present and helps us navigate the future. The people who made memorable history come in many genders, races, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, education levels, and sexual orientations. Yup, whether you like it or not, lots of LGBTQ folks have left beautiful marks on this world and their accomplishments, the LGBTQ history makers, need to be a part of every school’s curriculum.

Plenty of people don’t like it, though. Parents in Rocklin School District outside of Sacramento recently pulled 700 children out of classes because the new, narrowly passed curriculum was going to include the accomplishments of LGBTQ Americans.

SPOILER ALERT: Your kids have been learning about queer folks for a long time. There are plenty of closeted and unconfirmed LGBTQIA+ people already in your child’s text books. Sally Ride, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonardo Da Vinci, Steve Jobs—okay that last one wasn’t really unconfirmed, but you can thank a queer (Jobs’ business partner, Tim Cook) for giving you that smart phone in your and your kid’s pocket. Anyway, the protest was started because—gasp—we are showing our students that LGBTQ people deserve respect and credit too.

The school district has 12,000 students, so plenty of parents either didn’t care enough to keep their children away from said human decency or support Rocklin’s decision to have a thoughtful and inclusive curriculum, with lessons geared to start in second grade. Protesting parents thought that kids at that age would be confused about LGBTQ people and that 7- and 8-year-olds should not be exposed to “those” topics at such a young age.

First of all, I see you bigots. Stop sexualizing LGBTQ people. If people would see me and my queer friends as humans first and not sexual deviants and pedophiles, they would see that our lives are not that different or controversial. We really just want safe places to live, loving partners, and secure jobs—you know, equality. Some of us have big ideas and the motivation to go with them to make the world a better and more creative place. We have the determination to start revolutions and fight for what should be basic human needs. LGBTQ pioneers and innovators have been making the world better for everyone, including the bigots who pulled their kids—many who I promise you will eventually come out as a part of the LGBTQIA+ community—from class. They deserve to have their names be known.

And all students need to know them too. According to the Human Rights Campaign 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report, only 13% of youth report hearing positive messages about being LGBTQ in school. The report also revealed that only 26% of LGBTQ students always feel safe in the classroom. There is a direct relationship here, friends. It’s not just the negative messages that are born out of and perpetuate bigotry and bullying, it’s the lack of positive conversations about LGBTQ people and topics. We can’t educate allies and we can’t support LGBTQ folks if we avoid talking about them.

Also, it’s American history. Fucking teach it.

When kids are not exposed to all types of families and genders, they think heterosexual relationships and cisgender, binary genders are the norm. When kids are not allowed to bust gender stereotypes and play with gender expressions that best match exactly who they are, there is a very clear message sent that there are expectations on what it means to be masculine and feminine and who is allowed to hold onto those characteristics. And for the LGBTQ kids who do not fit this heteronormative narrative, they are told they are weird, different, and wrong.

Normalizing all kinds of people and the ways they love benefits those LGBTQ kids who feel unsafe. Representation makes a kid feel less alone—whether they are out or not—and helps build allies and a baseline of respect for what some kids are never exposed to because they live with bigoted parents. We all have gender, expression, and sexuality. We all have a need to be seen and celebrated, and the sooner we can encourage this at school, the better.

Illinois is trying to become the first state in the Midwest to pass a bill that would require schools to include LGBTQ topics and individuals into the curriculum. Mike Ziri, policy director at Equality Illinois said, “That could be contributions of folks like Harvey Milk, or Jane Addams. You know, it could be the history of the civil rights work at Stonewall in New York City in 1969. All of this rich history is omitted from curricula and from history.”

And Rachel Henry, Sacramento LGBT Community Center spokeswoman, added this: “There are several empirical studies that show textbook curriculum that is explicitly inclusive of the LGBTQ+ has dramatically positive effects on school climate for both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ students. Students of marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, have a right to see themselves reflected in the history that they study.”

We can’t be successful unless we are seen, and for queer kids there are few better ways to feel understood than in the pages of a textbook meant to teach the importance of LGBTQ people.

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How To Support Your Child’s Teacher Without Being A Helicopter Parent

Although the end of school year is fast approaching it’s never too late to learn some tips on how to support your child’s classroom teacher without being a “helicopter parent.” Especially, in today’s political climate when threats of education cuts, protests and looming strikes are dominating the news. As a teacher and a parent of three children (including two school-aged children), I want to remind folks that it’s never too late to offer support to your child’s teacher in a variety of ways.

1. Volunteer your time.

The majority of teachers LOVE extra help in the classroom. We can almost always use a set of extra hands especially in the younger grades. Volunteers on field trips, during presentations by an outside organization and during hands on activities which require extra assistance are almost always appreciated. We also love parents who come in “just because” and help us with our bulletin boards, art prep and even our photocopying. Each school board has different screening requirements for volunteers so check with your classroom teacher before you are due to volunteer.

2. Volunteer your skills.

Our parents come with a plethora of skills and for the most part we’d love to have your expertise in a certain area if we can make it work within our curriculum. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a children’s author, paramedic, bio chemist and a professional dancer come into my classroom and treat my students to mini presentations.

3. Volunteer your money.

If volunteering your time isn’t plausible, we are always in need of classroom resources and supplies. Classroom teachers are given a very small amount each year to set up their classrooms and with this money we are expected to buy all classroom supplies and essentials (pencils, notebooks, art supplies and even paper towels, and tissue). One parent I know sends her two school-aged children to school the first week with a box full of classroom essentials as a gift to their teacher: a brilliant idea!

4. Never jump to conclusions.

As a parent I know how easy it is to have our “parental claws” out when our little ones come home from school stating they were kept in at recess, or weren’t allowed to take a library book out that day. More often than not there is always a perfectly valid reason for the teacher’s decision (they missed the first 5 minutes of recess because they had to stay in to put their art materials away or the librarian was absent that day).  Take the time to reach out to the teacher in whichever way you and your child’s teacher communicate regularly and get their side of the story. Our little ones often make mountains out of mole hills.

5. Remember teachers are humans too with lives outside the classroom.

As much as we love our jobs and are often seen before and after school coaching school sports teams, running French club, making sets for the school musical, teachers do have lives outside the classroom. Teachers are humans that experience the same life path that we all do — our loved ones die, some of us will go off on maternity or paternity leave, most of us get sick more often than the average person. Being treated as you would want to be treated is a good thing to remember.

6. Small acts of kindness go a long way.

I remember being asked during a parent teacher interview I had with a student’s mother, “What can my son and I do to make your year go smoothly?” I was gobsmacked and it took me a good few minutes to come up with an answer because I’d never been asked that before. It also really makes a teacher’s day or week when a student brings you an apple or flowers from their garden, or a parent asks how your day went at school pick up. Even a simple “thank you” goes a long way.

7. Teach your child to appreciate and respect their teachers.

Now that I’m on the “other side of the fence” and get to pick my two children up from school this year, I’ve become privy to the parent conversations that happen at the school gates before and after the school bell goes. Most of the time the conversations are jovial enough but sometimes they can turn sour. And a lot of the time the “nit picking” about this teacher and that teacher is taking place in front of their children. How can you expect your child to appreciate and respect their teachers if they don’t hear you doing it? The best compliment I received from my son’s teacher was when she asked me the second week of school if my husband or I were teachers. When I responded yes and asked her if my son had told her, she said, “No, I can tell by the way he speaks to me, with respect and admiration,” What a compliment!

8. Take the onus for your child’s education.

As much as we ARE responsible for a lot of your child’s wonderful milestones in life (learning to read and write, learning appropriate social skills, behavioral skills), we cannot be expected to raise your children for you. Parents need to take responsibility for some of their child’s learning and actions. Simply, leaving it all up to the teacher is not only inequitable but completely impractical.

9. Stand up for teacher’s rights.

When the political climate turns sour towards teachers (which it always does when our contracts are due to expire) stay informed on what educators are actually fighting for. The majority of the time it’s NOT a pay rise but cuts that directly affect your children (increase in class sizes, cuts to special programs, etc.). Do your research and find out what political action you can take (attending certain marches, writing to your local representatives, voting for certain candidates who support education).

10. Remember that our common interest is the interest of your child.

As sad as it sounds, the reality is your child’s classroom teacher spends more time with your child than you do, so striving for a safe, inclusive classroom that supports quality education and supporting the educators that teach within it should be a shared goal to ensure that our common interests (your children) are the ones who benefit.

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Schools Need To Focus On This Instead Of Grades

My son came home from school beaming, a piece of paper clutched in his hands. “What is that, buddy?” I asked him, crouching down to his eye-level. He squealed, “I got an award!”

He had been working very hard at school to use his words to state his needs and respond to situations, and his award showed that his hard work had paid off. He had been called down to the principal’s office over the speaker, and his entire class knew why. He was earning a “Do the Right Thing Award.”

Parents everywhere can testify that connection in the form of positive reinforcement can do wonders for all children. And we’re not talking about every child getting a ribbon or a gold star. In fact, acknowledgement and connection are really damn simple.

In this video from Edutopia, created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation (yes, THE George Lucas), we can watch students’ reactions to school staff who take a few moments to acknowledge and uplift students with simple acts such as eye contact, encouraging words, and high-fives.

How are these so powerful? It comes down to science.

Dr. Pamela Cantor, seen in the video, shares, “When children have experiences of closeness and consistency and trust, oxytocin is released. And oxytocin has many, many positive effects on the development of the brain.”

Oxytocin is a hormone that serves many purposes, including acting as an anti-depressant and increasing attachment between humans. It’s also called the “love hormone” that simulates those warm-and-fuzzy feelings people can have toward one another.

The video goes on to demonstrate that if teachers and other school staff members take the time to establish positive, long-term relationships with students, the students are more likely to be successful academically. Students feel safe, included, and prioritized.

In essence, students who feel connected to educators are primed to learn. Relationships matter, and they not only matter, but they are downright magical when it comes to children’s educations.

I witnessed this for myself when I taught college English for nine years. Like the students in the video, I had students who struggled with everyday life. One student’s mom was gravely ill. Another student was a single mom of two kids, and she was working two jobs while attending college classes at night. These are just two of the many examples.

I took the time, as a teacher, to prioritize my students as people and make connections with them. I stayed after class or arrived early to make sure I was in the classroom to greet the students as they walked in. I helped a student register with disability support services so he could better learn. I assisted other students in signing up for counseling for their struggles with anxiety, depression, and participating in unhealthy relationships.

My students knew that I cared more about their well-being than the grade I wrote at the top of their essays. And because they knew I cared, they showed up to class (mostly on time), they participated, and they turned in their work which reflected our meetings in which I provided suggestions on how to improve on their writing.

I noticed that the students I connected with the most typically had better grades. It wasn’t because I favored those students, as I prided myself on being a fair teacher with strict policies. The difference was these students were actively engaged in their education, and it showed in the work they produced.

So when my own son came home with his certificate, I was in all-out celebratory mode. I know that success doesn’t come easily to all kids. But I do know that there were some kind, encouraging individuals who were pushing my son to be his best, including his principal, teachers, bus driver, and speech therapist.

The Beatles song “All You Need is Love” comes to mind. (You’re welcome for getting it stuck in your head for the day.) Connection is really so simple, yet it’s incredibly far-reaching and powerful.

Unfortunately, our teachers are under a lot of pressure and constraints. My teacher friends tell me that not only are their plates full, but they carry lots of plates at one time, much like a waiter who has hefty trays in each hand. They are overworked, underpaid, and often under-appreciated. Yet the work they do for our children is critically important.

But what the video shows us is that taking just a few seconds per student each day, to offer a word of encouragement or a high five and eye contact, can make the rest of the day productive, even enjoyable. And for some children, the connection they receive at school from a trusted adult may be the only connection they receive at all.

What if each morning students were greeted, as they were in the video? What dramatic changes would we see? Would kids more readily rise to academic success, having their basic needs met first rather than treated as an afterthought?

I think we all know the answer.

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We Need To End Trade School Stigma

During one of the classes I taught at the University of South Carolina, I had a great student we’ll call Tim. Tim aced my first year English class. He was fun and funny, a good writer and a smart kid. 

Several years later, I learned that Tim had decided to ditch his university education — which he had finished, by the way — and go to trade school. Today, Tim’s the best plumber I’ve ever had. I love that my former student comes over to unclog my drain, and I’m always proud to point out to my sons, “You know, I taught Tim,” I tell them. “Isn’t that awesome?”

I recommend him to all my friends.

I’m not being facetious. I’m as proud of Tim as I am of one of my other students, who recently got her MD.

When I was a kid, vocational school or trade school had a certain stigma. Because if you wanted to be “successful,” you had to go to college. That’s what our parents told us. That’s what our teachers told us. That’s what everyone told us, had told us since we were small.

According to The National Center for Education Statistics, “Between 2000 and 2016, total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased by 28 percent (from 13.2 million to 16.9 million students). By 2027, total undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase to 17.4 million students.”

That’s a hell of a lot of kids being told they need they need a college education to succeed in life.

Especially when the path to a surer job, better money, and a more stable job, according to The Atlantic, may come through trade school, or so-called vocational schools. As they say, “The manufacturing, infrastructure, and transportation fields are all expected to grow in the coming years—and many of those jobs likely won’t require a four-year degree.”

In other words, your kids don’t need to drop tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars to party at a four-year institution. They can attend a two-year trade school just after high school — or, in some cases, concurrently — and walk out into a stable job.

But there’s a problem, and it’s not with trade school. The way we view trade school — as something less ambitious than a four-year college — hasn’t changed much. Many parents still see these schools, which can offer great opportunities, as a Plan B. As one mother told The Atlantic, “Vocational schools where we grew up seemed to be reserved for people who weren’t making it in ‘real’ school, so we weren’t completely sure how we felt about our son attending one.”

Another parent, when she told an acquaintance that her 3.95 GPA-rocking son was attending vocational-technical school, the friend immediately asked, “Why? Is he having trouble with school?” She went on to say that, “I am finding as I talk about this that there is an attitude out there that the only reason you would go to a vo-tech is if there’s some kind of problem at a traditional school.”

In Europe, the Atlantic says, half of all high school students are steered into trade school. As a former professor at a state university, I’d say that percentage is about right. It isn’t because my students weren’t capable of succeeding at a university; they were. It isn’t because they weren’t engaged; they were. It’s because they didn’t know what the hell they wanted out of a university education.

They were there with no concrete idea of why they were seeking their degree, what they wanted to do with it. They were colleging just to college. Many of them would end up struggling to get hired at a living wage. They’d end up without stable jobs, drifting, besieged by student loans. Instead, if they had pursued a trade, they could be like Tim: working at a stable job that offered decent money.

These kids shouldn’t have been psych majors. They needed to be truck drivers, cabinet makers, video production designers, brick masons, electricians.

And then there’s the cost of student loans to factor in. The Atlantic says that only two-thirds of people think the education they got was worth the loans they now owe. Earning potential? It doesn’t always offset the cost of the degree. And, as The Atlantic notes, “Vocational and technical education tends to cost significantly less than a traditional four-year degree.” So you’re getting off significantly cheaper when your kid attends a vocational or technical school than when they party at a four-year institution. If students attend part-time in high school, the costs may even be minimal or perhaps nonexistent.

We need to end the stigma attached to trade schools — and to trades themselves. College isn’t the be-all and end-all measurement a successful life. Plenty of my friends are living in hovels, crippled by student loan debt, coddling their master’s or doctoral degrees. No kids, no house: no money.

Tim, and so many like him, aren’t living with mommy and daddy. They aren’t drowning in loan debt. They have stable jobs, jobs that pay well. Jobs that are recession-proof. They can provide for a family.

Isn’t that, in the end, the real American dream?

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We Need Counselors And Nurses More Than Armed Police In Schools

My kids aren’t in school yet, but it’s terrifying to think that many parents lie awake at night thinking of the increasing likelihood that their children will find themselves in an active shooter situation while they attend school. Yet at the same time, it’s sickening that school shootings happen so often now that, as a society, we seem almost desensitized to the absolute ridiculousness of that hideous reality.

I think we can all agree that we want school shootings to come to a swift end, but there’s a lack of consensus, and outright disagreement, on the best way to achieve this. As a result, different schools in different locations seem to be employing different strategies.

There are folks who stand behind the importance of having “good guys with guns” in place, so if something happens, there’s hope to take the culprit down.

While supporters of the “good guy with a gun” suggestion have the right intention, research has indicated this strategy is not necessarily effective. Likewise, one could suggest that there is an issue with the reactionary style of this solution. In other words, it does nothing to decrease the likelihood of a shooter; it aims to ensure that we have networks in place to reduce casualties.

Unfortunately, many individuals involved in the education system have jumped on the teachers with guns and increased police officer presence in school bandwagon. And what’s worse, this method has come at the expense of the only preventative measures we have in place — school-based mental health providers (SBMH providers) — like counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists.

And this is especially troubling considering that American adolescents are facing a mental health crisis.

First, there’s the problem efficacy of armed police in schools. Bottom line: police presence doesn’t equate to safety. In fact, according to Vox,  two civil rights groups say that if school safety is truly a concern, police should be removed from schools entirely.

“There is a considerable body of research showing that black and Latino students are more likely to be suspended, arrested, and disciplined in school,” P.R. Lockhart wrote in Vox. “Advocates argue that adding more police to this dynamic will only make things more difficult for students from marginalized groups — those from black and Latino communities, with LGBTQ identities, and with disabilities — who are already more likely to interact with police in their daily lives.

But second, armed police are coming at the expense of those persons and resources that actually will help, especially given that schools are seeing an increase in trauma and mental health challenges.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s data suggests that there has been a 70% increase in suicide rates for children ages 10 through 17 between 2006 and 2016. And research also shows that there has been a significant increase in mental health issues for teens and young adults in the past decade.

According to the data, approximately 72% of children will have experienced violence-related trauma by 18 years old.

While we all knew the state of mental health resources in schools was subpar, many of us were unaware circumstances were as dire as pointed out by a new report from the ACLU.

Here are some of the most staggering facts from the report:

– Six months after the Parkland school shooting, more than $1 billion was added to school security budgets by state legislatures, with funding for School Resource Officers (SROs) being one of the largest items.

– 47 states and D.C. don’t meet the recommended student-to-counselor ratio.

– 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.

The report also raised concerns about how an increased police presence in schools will impact children who are already at risk. For children of color, black children specifically, the school to prison pipeline — whereby minor early stage offenses filter disadvantaged youth into the criminal justice system and increase the likelihood they will end up incarcerated later in life — is already too real.

Once you’re labeled a “problem kid,” it’s almost impossible to lose that shift that image. But we aren’t acknowledging that kids are often “acting out” because they aren’t getting the help or support they need.

Additionally, one might wonder how an increased police presence could impact feelings of comfort and security for youth of color, considering that they are substantially more likely to have had negative interactions with police in the past.

I’ve witnessed firsthand how police presence in school impacts the school experience. I attended several schools with high levels of police/security guard presence. They had the power to write tickets on the spot and it was commonplace for large groups of students to be pepper-sprayed when fights or disturbances broke out. To make matters worse, it was my experience that some of the officers would make sexual comments toward female students and antagonizing comments toward males.

It caused me great anxiety to know that at any moment I could be sent directly to the office or written a ticket for having been perceived as unruly. These feelings were made worse by knowing they could not only antagonize us, but had the authority to punish us if we retaliated or responded negatively.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have any police officers in school. But we know they shouldn’t outnumber the support staff.

When a young student is having trouble with bullying, dealing with learning differences or mental health issues, or having problems at home, chances are they’re not going to run to the police officer. And for young children of color who have been socialized to fear the police, it’s even less likely.

I genuinely fear that a high presence of law enforcement in schools is just one of many ways we are moving further away from equity in the criminal justice system and closer to criminalizing typical adolescent behavior. I challenge you to find an adult who didn’t skip a class or play some kind of prank, which if witnessed by an authority figure could have led them to trouble.

It breaks my heart to know that millions of students around the United States have a better chance of getting a court date than they do of having a meeting with a guidance counselor.

Our children deserve better than this.

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Why We Need To Retire The Gifted And Talented Label

Once a week, back in the dark days of the 1980s, I was yanked from regular classes for special “Gifted and Talented” programs. We learned about the stock market. We slogged through pointless “Great Books” series. We were dragged on a myriad of field trips. The other children resented our special label and privileges. We were supposedly the kids who “got it,” the ones who would “go somewhere” and “do something.” 

Now I have three homeschooled sons. My nine-year-old has dysgraphia. He writes on a kindergarten level and can read like ninth grader. I’ve seen him spell “the” three different ways on the same piece of paper. My seven-year-old adores writing but can’t spell; he spent half an hour crying because he couldn’t properly figure out what comes two days after Wednesday. My five-year-old will catch up, reading-wise, to the seven-year-old in a few months. All of them can spout off esoteric scientific facts, but barely hang on math at grade-level.

They are not Gifted and Talented.

They are children with strengths and weaknesses.

We need to retire, once and for all, the Gifted and Talented label. It’s limiting. It’s divisive. It stratifies students into the intellectual “haves” and “have-nots” at a young age, and as Forbes points out, “gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds too often are not identified as gifted, which causes them to lose out on access to a variety of gifted-and-talented programs at their local schools that could accelerate their development and social and economic opportunities.”

To break it down: if you’re poor or a child of color, you’re less likely to be labeled Gifted and Talented (there were no Gifted and Talented kids of color, district-wide, in my program). As a result, these kids lose out on opportunities. And this perpetuates a cycle of poverty, both social — non-whites are dumber than whites — and economic — non-whites stay poorer, throughout their lifetimes, than whites.

Ouch.

Take my (white) middle son as an example. We started him on one math program. He did swimmingly until hitting a wall. He didn’t know his basic addition and subtraction facts. In school, he’d have fallen further and further behind as his classmates moved on; he’d have been shunted into the lowest math group. Instead, we changed programs and backtracked. Now he’s about to move up to the next grade level mid-year — because he could work at his own pace. With individualized learning programs possible in this brave new world of computers and tech, public schools can accomplish the same thing. Forbes talks about kids who do this: when able to relearn basic concepts, they flourish and even can become some of the best in their classes.

We are pushing some kids, ignoring others kids, labeling children without giving them a chance. They may have the opportunity to become Gifted and Talented. Instead, they blend into the rest of the herd.

Clearly this label isn’t working.

If you stick kids in a lower math or reading group, you’re telegraphing to the whole class that they’re lacking in some way. If you push them into a Gifted and Talented program, you’re labeling them as smarty-pants. Period. Everyone knows it. It changes their group perception. It changes their self-perception. While it might be true that not everyone deserves a medal for showing up, everyone deserves reward for their mastery in various areas and help in their areas they need it.

I love writing. But in high school, I missed key geometry and chemistry concepts. I wanted to be a doctor. That dream withered on the vine. Given a chance to learn at my own pace, I could have gone pre-med, like I wanted. I actually taught my own biology II class when the teacher was absent. I was good at math and enjoyed it. I was Gifted and Talented in some areas and terrible at others. Like most kids.

We need to bolster those areas in which kids excel and nurture the ones where kids need it. We have the individualized education plans to do it today.

We need to actively seek out those kids of color, those kids who live in poverty, and give them the same chances as the white boy living in the ‘burbs.

We need to level the playing field.

How much talent do we waste with a label like Gifted and Talented?

Sorry, you proud parents with Gifted and Talented kids. But the answer is this: we’re wasting a hell of a lot. We need to fix it. And the easiest way to harness that talent in every child is to toss the harmful label, develop individualized education (using programs like Mathseeds and Khan Academy), and run with them. It’s the digital age. Kids use laptops. To quote Winston in the original Ghostbusters movie: We have the tools and we have the talent.

We just need to harness them.

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Why Perfect Grades Don’t Matter As Much As People Think

We see it everywhere when report-card time rolls around. Pizza Hut used to do it. Local restaurants do it. Ice cream places do it. Bring in your report card, and we’ll give you free whatevers for every A you have! Or maybe when you were a kid, you earned a certain amount of money for every A you brought home.

Or perhaps, like me, you were the child for whom A’s were not rewarded, A’s were expected, and anything else was an abject failure. All A’s, all the time.

This is what our kids need, we’re told, in order to succeed. They need all A’s in middle school — a 4.0 or higher, earned by taking advanced credit classes — to get placed into the right classes in high school. In these classes, in turn, they have to score all A’s, and higher than a 4.0, which will lead them to a competitive college (the average weighted GPA of my alma mater is now a 4.68, which wasn’t even possible when I was a high school senior).

All A’s in college leads to either to a prestigious grad school, or to a high-flying job, where employers will demand to see your college and high school transcripts. All A’s, all the time. Forget the B (or C) students.

Anything less than the best is a failure.

Ask parents. Ask teachers of honors sections. Ask the kids themselves. The pressure to earn nothing but As is crushing.

Except it shouldn’t be. Because it turns out that the B students are really kicking ass.

This isn’t to say that A students aren’t successful (because they often are), just that A’s don’t automatically equal success. Inc. details what they call the “dirty little secret” that we might want to clue in all those stressed-out kids to. When West Point, the US Army’s ultra-prestigious military academy (which requires a Congressional recommendation for matriculation) did a study of its graduates, they were shocked to find that it wasn’t the A students becoming the 4-star generals. Instead, when it comes to “general officers in the U.S. Army–people who lead thousands of people and manage budgets in the billions of dollars–a disproportionately high number of them were B students.”

Wait. What?

That’s because the ability to lead doesn’t depend only on what Inc. calls “pure intellect.” Leadership depends, in a large part, on “soft skills.” These include “specifically interpersonal skills, the ability to manage and control your emotions, communication skills, leadership, adaptability, and problem solving.” It’s not that being an A student was bad. It’s that B students were more likely to have developed those soft skills needed to succeed.

Monster, the mammoth job site, says that soft skills help facilitate human connections. “Soft skills are key to building relationships, gaining visibility, and creating more opportunities for advancement,” Kathy Robinson, founder of Boston career-coaching firm TurningPoint, told Monster. They detail communication, teamwork, adaptability, problem-solving, critical observation, conflict resolution, and leadership as several soft skills that successful workers need to gain a good toehold in the business world.

While A students may be off cramming for tests, B-students are often learning these important soft skills critical to successful leadership. As Inc. says, “We all have friends who are super smart–but who almost might be too smart, which can make them hard to relate to.”

B students, on the other hand, learn to relate to other people. They learn to motivate them. They learn to work together as a member of a team. Because since they know they’re not the smartest person in the room, they have to coordinate their efforts with others in order to be successful.

And the B students who struggle learn the value of hard work much better than the A students for whom high grades come easily. I know that firsthand: Having earned A’s all my life, I entered graduate school unable to study, where I slammed into a wall that suddenly demanded hard work I simply didn’t know how to do. I sank. Kids who’ve always had to work harder than me, on the other hand, got along swimmingly.

In fact, in another article, Inc. specifically tells businesses not to be dazzled by impressive resumes. “As soon as I hear something like, ‘They worked for IBM,’ or ‘They went to Harvard,’ alarm bells start going off in my head because those are the wrong things to be looking at–at least as far as job qualifications go,” Inc. CEO Jim Schleckser wrote. He goes so far as to estimate that more than half of these hires actually fail.

Your A student suddenly hits the wall. Why? Because soft skills, like “quick decisions and taking action” are far more valuable than your kid’s intellectual prowess.

All kids need to work on their soft skills, regardless of where they are academically — and even if they are getting A’s.

What does this all mean?

It means that your kid needs to be independent.

It means that your kid needs to foster interpersonal skills with children of all ages and skill levels.

It means that your kids needs to practice kindness.

It means that helicopter parenting, where children are coddled, where children have all their problems solved for them, where they never learn what it means to fail: they’re actually being set up for eventual failure.

It means boredom is a good thing, because it forces creativity.

It means you shouldn’t push, and push, and push. It means that a real childhood, a childhood full of climbing trees, learning to negotiate group rules, solving problems with other kids: This is what will give your kid the soft skills needed to succeed in life. 

Push for kindness, communication, respect, and teamwork. Because in the end, that’s what your kid needs to become a real leader.

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6 Practical Tips For IEP Meetings

IEP meetings are important times to bring your child’s team members together to discuss progress and make changes when necessary. They can also be overwhelming, frustrating and stressful. Here are just a few of my tips that help lead to smooth meetings.

1. Document everything, and bring all the documents.

If you don’t already have a place that all documents from the school and independent providers go, get one now. Some people use a binder or folder for this purpose. Personally I scan everything into my computer and store it on Google Drive and then keep the paper copies in an accordion file folder. Whatever system you use, EVERYTHING should go into it and then be brought into the meeting. I have referenced e-mails from private therapist’s school visits in meetings and I was happy they were in my accordion folder (because, honestly, I have a terrible memory).

The other half of this tip is to document everything, and I mean EVERYTHING (sense a theme?). If a conversation can be done via e-mail instead of by phone, I do it by e-mail because I then have a copy to reference. Plus, the minute I get on the phone, my kids all “need” me inevitably. I’m not saying phone conversations don’t have a place, but often things are more clear in e-mail — plus you can go back to it later. I also send a summary e-mail to the administrators/ teachers at the IEP meetings afterwards. It’s just a couple sentence summary of what I thought happened and any action steps for myself or them.

2. Do everything you can ahead of time.

Last spring, the team sent me the draft goals for the next year and I really wanted to add a speech articulation goal. I’m a people pleaser and don’t like to “bother” people so I figured I’d bring it up at a meeting. My husband urged me to e-mail them now. I eventually did and it turned out the team had been considering an articulation goal (and had already done the testing for a baseline) but decided it was too many goals. They went ahead and wrote and sent over the goal.

In the meeting, the speech therapist thanked me for mentioning it ahead of time. She said it was easier to write the goal in her office than at a meeting. This had never really occurred to me but I now try to iron out any known issues before the meeting.

3. Bring someone else with you.

I think it’s always helpful at any major meeting (educational, health, or other) to have a second person. They may see different points or issues at the meeting and will help you remember what happened. Of course, chose your person wisely. Many people choose to bring an educational advocate or a spouse. I bring my mother-in-law. This is obviously not the choice for everyone, but my mother-in-law used to be a special education teacher and administrator, so she is good at making sure a goal is measurable and an accommodation is acceptable.

4. Speak special education language.

It’s important to be able to understand the terminology that will be used in the meeting and in the paperwork. A great place to start is by reviewing this Special Education Dictionary. You don’t need to memorize it but familiarizing yourself with the terms is useful. If there is any terminology I don’t understand, I jot it down and then ask when the person speaking ends.

5. Take care of yourself.

This one seems obvious enough, but I’m a “hot mess mom” so I’m frantically flat ironing my hair and then sneaking out before my twins schmutz my shirt. I have riffled through my car looking for my emergency almonds having forgotten to eat breakfast at pretty much every meeting and then there was the time I forgot to pee. The meeting was at 8:30 so it was a hustle out of the house.  The kids were up at some crazily early hour so I’d been chugging coffee for hours. I did my put on the heels and cute top and sneak out of the house and arrived at the meeting. I’m a compulsively early person so I was early. Really early, because when I get anxious I get earlier. So as I sat in my car digging for almonds I realized I really had to pee. I knew the receptionist at the school was going to give me grief about getting there early because she never lets me in before 8:29 and I really didn’t want to admit to being there at 8:10. The good part about being really early is I actually drove home, peed and drove back.  Moral of the story: eat breakfast, drink a sensible amount of coffee, don’t stress, be overly early — and definitely don’t forget to pee.

6. Know your rights.

You do not have to sign anything at the meeting.  If you’re sure it is correct, then sign it at the meeting but do not feel pressured to. You can take it home, discuss it with your family, ponder it in the shower, and then sign it.  A great resource for any questions about the legal side of the IEP process is WrightLaw and hiring an educational advocate (or attorney) is another option. My husband’s knee jerk reaction whenever the school worries me (they’ve never actually said no to anything) is that he wants to threaten to sue them. Why he has this reaction will need to be a different blog post, but I do not recommend telling a district this. However, it is still very important to know what rights you have just in case you need to use them.

What’s next?

Good luck at your IEP meeting!  Stay calm, don’t sign anything you aren’t comfortable with, and don’t forget to pee beforehand.

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This Is Why I Hate Common Core Math So Much

I was sitting next to my 9-year-old daughter at the kitchen table, her math book open, a pencil in my right hand, my left scratching my head, trying to reach back, way back … all the way back to when I was 9 and learned how to do this. To my left was my four-year-old on the floor, throwing a fit for a string cheese. Upstairs was my 11-year-old, in his room, supposedly working on his homework, but probably procrastinating with a freaking Rubik’s cube. Just another evening around these parts, I suppose.

I studied English in college. All of college. All 10 years of it. I’m not a fan of math, or science, or anything that uses a whole lot of numbers. To be honest, math is kind of a sore spot. I’ve never really gotten it, and once I finished with my last math class in college, I was pretty happy to put it all behind me. And then BAM, I had kids, and they came home with math they couldn’t figure out, and naturally they came to me for answers — and suddenly I was a man with two masters degrees feeling like he should be playing Banjo in the movie Deliverance. 

But then, to make it all worse, once I did finally get it — once I finally reached back into the core of my memory to pull out how to find a missing angle, or solve for X, or recall the order of operations — my daughter looked at me, my work, folded her arms and said, “That’s not how my teacher does it. If I do it that way, I won’t get any points.”

And each time she did that, I wanted to stick my head in a cold bucket of water.

I had to remind myself that none of this was my daughter’s fault. None of it. And it isn’t her teacher’s fault either. She’s a very nice lady who spends a considerable amount of time tirelessly educating my daughter, and many other children in our community. But this, right here, is the frustration with Common Core math.

Now I know that some of you might be thinking: “Math changed?” Well, kind of. In an effort to unify curriculums and better prepare children for college, schools began teaching “number sense” so that students can better understand the why of math problems instead of just the what and how. Under the Common Core approach, students are now taught multiple methods of solving problems (including the “old” carry-the-one way so many of us are familiar with), as well as other new multi-step approaches. It’s these new ways of doing math that seem strange and overly complicated, and are making parents want live at the bottom of the sea where I assume they don’t do math.

All of us, every freaking one of us, all the parents, learned math in elementary school. Many of us, probably the majority of us, complained about it. We learned it without calculators, and without Google, our parents leaning next to us, hands in their hair, trying to recall how it’s done, and once they did, they looked at us with triumph, and showed us how it was done. And how did we respond? Well, we didn’t fold our arms and say, “That’s now how my teacher does it? If I do it that way, I won’t get any points.” We were grateful to have such brilliant parents.

Then together, we finished the math lesson just in time to watch “ALF” on TV. Or walk down the street to get ice cream. We still had family time.

But now, there seems to be more of a catch. Not only do we have to try to remember how to do the math problems, we have to learn new ways of doing it, when we are already short on time, and long on distractions.

I’m a father of three. I work two jobs to make ends meet. My wife works full time too. And yet, each evening, I find myself searching through the math book, then hunting online, trying to learn some new ways to do math as if I’m back in the classroom.

I hate it. It’s maddening. It makes me tired. In so many ways, I want Common Core to go away because the homework battle each night is already bad enough without trying to learn new ways to do math.

I know that there are some parents and educators who see the value of Common Core. And to be honest, like most parents, I have accepted that it isn’t going away. We are stuck with it. I will also admit that my children have a much deeper understanding of math than I ever did at their age, so that’s awesome. There is value. I also understand my abilities, and I understand that I will not enjoy helping my children with math, regardless of Common Core.

But what bothers me the most is that if I’m going to be home, helping my children with math I thought I understood, but now apparently don’t because of this math change, there need to be better instructions for parents.

Simple as that.

Some lessons. Some tutorials. Something to make it easier on parents who are sitting next to their child each night, doing some of the serious heavy lifting.

In so many ways, this makes me feel like parents were left out of the equation, and it’s causing us all to skip out on valuable family time to relearn math online, so we can help our children until late in the evening. And that sucks.

I have found some great resources online. For example, zearn.org has some amazing tutorials for both parents and children. Also, most schools have access to their textbook materials on their school website so you can see exactly what the teacher is going off of. Khan Academy also has a wonderful free collection of videos that really help, and this video by VOX gives some additional context.

But I’ve had to search for those, and each time I did, it robbed us of family time.

That night I was helping Norah, my 9-year-old, we worked on math until almost 9 p.m. And once I’d gotten done relearning math, I will admit, she looked up at me with the same admiration I gave my parents when they helped me figure something out. But there was no reason we needed to be working on math all evening, and with some better help for parents, we might have been able to spend some time together as a family.

Because as frustrating as is is to learn new ways to do math, skipping out on family time is what angers me the most about Common Core.

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