Planting the Seeds for Greener Schools

Greenhouse.jpgWe laid the groundwork for an amazing playground for the kids of Tapestry Charter School and the surrounding community a few years ago. It was a ton of work but one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever been involved with. From the moment it was built you could always expect a  regularly cacophony of shrieks and laughter as the kids navigated and explored their incredible “play and learn” space, the first they had ever had in the Tapestry community.

GLS.jpgWhen I planned the playground I also envisioned a green learning structure, a free standing outdoor classroom for the students to use to learn about weather, sustainability, science, even art with paintable surfaces and an outdoor stage floor for performances. Then I took it even further and won a grant to be used for a greenhouse. What did we end up with? A green learning structure that was underutilized, a green roof that was planted and regularly died and a greenhouse that took time, energy, additional money and commitment to get off the ground. Nothing happened over night, but, after things fell into place, perseverance, a word that is such a strong part of Tapestry’s message, fell into place.

One parent could not make this project work. You have to build a network and that has happened at Tapestry through a strong Americorp volunteer base. This year we’ve had a volunteer who is particularly committed to wellness initiatives and sustainability and that is a big part of the reason this wonderful outdoor learning space has been further developed.

There will always be reasons for not pushing a new learning experience forward but in these days of Common Core and tired and stressed out students and teachers, shouldn’t we take a moment or two to reexamine current learning and  curriculum development structures and think of ways to invigorate and engage students on a new level? Tapestry is doing that and it’s something to pay attention to.

Parent Engagement: A Two-Way Street

imagesI’ve been on a hiatus from writing my blog lately,  a self-imposed exile from doing something that I really enjoy doing, writing and sharing information about health and wellness as it pertains to kids. The reason being? A malady that I came down with a couple of months ago. It left me tired to the bone, anxious, deflated, hopeless, and uncertain of the future. The clinical name for this malady is PVBO or Parent Volunteer Burn Out and I’ve had a pretty bad case of it. It’s only been over the past week or two that I’ve been able to peel myself off the couch and stop my endless re-reading  of”Waiting for Godot”. Parent Engagement is a difficult challenge that School Districts across the nation face. I hear the rumblings in our District on a regular basis. We’ve even got a District appointed Director of Community Engagement whose plate is full when it comes to reaching out to families in our communities. Families whose challenges of everyday life present a greater problem than worrying about the next PTA meeting, whether or not homework is done, or if a child is even on the bus in the morning. Many feel hopeless in their own situations so why would they think their efforts could improve the outcomes in our schools? On the other side of the spectrum you have the actively engaged parents who are ready to do anything to improve schools and they can be counted on for involvement on a number of different levels, joining committees, working on various initiatives, helping to raise money, advocating at Board meetings, etc. You name it and they do it because they believe in getting things done and that change is possible in their lifetimes or better yet in the time that their children are attending public schools.  There are probably a handful of these parents in any given community and they’re probably the last group that you would think would benefit from the acknowledgement that parent engagement is a two way street. Unfortunately it’s a costly mistake when dealing with volunteers and it has a precarious ability to drive a parent to that all-consuming malady, PVBO. I don’t have a one-stop solution to solving the issues that Districts face when dealing with parent engagement but I could try to offer a bit of support and advice. When dealing with our underprivileged and underserved families we need to do a better job of taking services to the affected neighborhoods, breaking down socioeconomic stigmas and language barriers, and learn to communicate effectively to get families the supports they need. As I mentioned earlier in this post, our District has appointed people who are doing just that but the needs are far greater than what a few can fulfill. With the PVBO’s we need to recognize that many are taking time away from paid work or other responsibilities and we need to consistently recognize their efforts. A simple return of a call or an email of acknowledgement would probably suffice for a lot of these parents. When hours of work have been done on  forward thinking initiatives that would benefit the whole school community we should respectfully and openly address why things are not moving forward. It is a poor reflection on any District to have a volunteer, a parent, a person on the “outside” muttering how it’s business as usual, nothing ever gets done and we seem to be stuck in a Beckett world just waiting for Godot.

Sex Ed for Kindergartners? The Dutch Model

Take a look at the following article about the Dutch and their approach to teaching sexuality in schools and in their communities in general. No surprise that their rates of teen pregnancy and STD’s are some of the lowest in the world. They present frank subject matter in a proper context from a young age and bring parents into the mix to inform and help in the sexual education of their children. What an incredible model to adopt.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/spring-fever/

Addressing Mental Health in our Schools

images-4A friend just brought this article to my attention. It is a really important read about new approaches to identifying and helping students with mental health issues by offering in school support. It also takes a look at influencing factors in students’ lives and what we as parents and educators can do to tackle these issues with a holistic approach to mental well-being.

http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/05/22/how-schools-can-help-nurture-students-mental-health/?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20150523

Pushing Our Kids to be Just Like Us

As a parent of an almost teen I have a lot to learn and a lot of mistakes that I’m sure I’ll make. In fact, I’ve already started to find myself caught up in a sea of confusion, tears, fragility, moodiness, and anxiety that we are both going to have to learn to navigate through.

Introvert vs Extrovert

What compounds this even more is that my daughter is an introvert and I am very much an extrovert. I’m more reactionary and have an outward approach to my surrounding environment.  I get to the point quickly, have vast amounts of energy, like to try lots of new things, and like being surrounded by large groups of people. A person like me can easily fatigue an introvert. My daughter on the other hand is more pensive, a quiet observer of the world.  She is sensitive and her focus comes from within. She is thoughtful and makes logical decisions about the friends and activities that best suit her personality. She is one of the truest friends you could ever find and because of this she is happy with just a few friends otherwise her energy would be depleted. As I’m sure you can imagine the dichotomy between these two personality types can result in a mountain of frustration between us as she anticipates the wrath of the mom overlord and I anticipate a fragile broken winged butterfly dropping to the ground in a heap of defeat.

Getting it Wrong

Over the years I have tried to get my daughter to be an extrovert. When she was little I joined playgroups and worked at getting her to have a full social circle. In grade school and told her not to be shy and that she should raise her hand in class so the teacher would think she was an active participant. In middle school I recommended that she join clubs and team sports. When my introverted husband interjected and said the orchestra that she played violin in was a good team sport I rolled my eyes in exasperation. In junior high I found myself suggesting to her that she might want to explore hanging out with the extroverted girls who are socially advanced and already into boys because she might expand her circle of friends and have more fun. Did I really say that?   I had clearly forgotten that I once was an introvert who cowered by my parents at the playground, never wanted to be called on in class and was considered socially naive by the more experienced girls when I entered into High School.

Characteristics

I know I shouldn’t completely blame myself for pushing the qualities of an extrovert on my daughter. The reality is that our society sets it up in a way  that we appear to give more value to these characteristics. From our early years of school through to our later years of life we are taught how important it is to be popular, a team player and a leader to become a successful, well-rounded person. We learn that if we embody these characteristics we will have a greater impact on the world. Take a look at the characteristics of an extrovert:

  • Are social – they need other people
  • Demonstrate high energy and noise
  • Communicate with excitement and enthusiasm with almost anyone in the vicinity
  • Draw energy from people; love parties
  • Are lonely and restless when not with people
  • Establish multiple fluid relationships
  • Engage in lots of activities and have many interest areas
  • Have many best friends and talk to them for long periods of time
  • Are interested in external events not internal ones
  • Prefer face-to-face verbal communication rather than written communication
  • Share personal information easily
  • Respond quickly

Conversely the characteristics of the introvert listed below are often misconstrued  as having negative connotations such as shy, socially awkward and an inability to easily adapt.

  • Are happy to be alone – they can be lonely in a crowd
  • Become drained around large groups of people; dislike attending parties
  • Need time alone to recharge
  • Are territorial- desire private space and time
  • Prefer to work on own rather than do group work
  • Act cautiously in meeting people
  • Are reserved, quiet and deliberate
  • Do not enjoy being the center of attention
  • Do not share private thoughts with just anyone
  • Form a few deep attachments
  • Think carefully before speaking (practice in my head before I speak)
  • See reflection as very important
  • Concentrate well and deeply
  • Become absorbed in thoughts and ideas
  • Limit their interests but explore deeply
  • Communicate best one-on-one
  • Get agitated and irritated without enough time alone or undisturbed
  • Select activities carefully and thoughtfully

Admittedly I’ve distorted these characteristics in the past as they pertain to my daughter and it’s taken me the better part of twelve years to realize it. The reality is that she’s a well-adjusted, active and intelligent person that reacts to her environment differently than I do. Studies show that introverts brains are actually  wired differently than extroverts. They have more gray matter in the frontal lobe of the brain that is linked to abstract thought than extroverts and they also produce less dopamine because they don’t need as much stimulation.

What I’ve realized is that there’s no one size fits all when it comes to personality traits, and it’s a disservice to an individual with unique qualities and characteristics to try to mold them into something they are not. The risk that we run if we take this approach is alienation, withdrawal and a loss of open communication, and that is one thing that I don’t want to loose as I navigate these sometimes choppy waters with my soon to be teen.

(Characteristics from: Hirsh & Kummerow, 1989; Keirsey & Bates, 1984; Lawrence, 1985; Myers & Myers, 1980.)

Focusing on the Positive in the Classroom? Who’d a Thunk.

imagesI read something really great in the paper today. A charter school in Western NY has received a $575,000 grant from the US Department of Education to change the way they approach student behavior in the classroom. The school is going to be using a model called “Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support”. Instead of focusing on negative, punitive methods,  a common theme in classrooms nation wide, they will  adopt methods of positivity, praise, and reward to improve student teacher relationships, and the classroom environment in general. In preparation the school has been training faculty and staff on rewards-based solutions for positive behavior.  The idea is that if  kids are praised for a job well done they will feel greater self worth and be more committed to contributing positively in the classroom. This approach is based on the fact that student behavior is influenced by many factors and that we need to look at the individual student as we work towards a very necessary shift towards the model of “Whole Child, Whole School, Whole Community”. A foundation of wellness. Doesn’t it just make sense?

http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/applied-technologies-charter-school-gets-575000-federal-grant-20150505

Changing School Food

A friend just shared this wonderful article with me about a woman in Detroit who did an incredible job of transforming school food. More out-of-the-box thinking is what we need if we’re going to change our current system. I know in our District that we’re too bogged down with Federal guidelines and state audits. How great would out be if we said good bye to the federally subsidized school lunch program and gained more control over the foods we offer our kids?

http://civileats.com/2015/04/06/how-one-visionary-changed-school-food-in-detroit/

Rethinking Discipline in Our Schools

Unknown-2I came across this article today about zero-tollerance policies in schools and their negative impact on students. It’s an important read as it discusses alternative approaches to disciplinary action in the form of “trauma-informed methods” to improve behavior. This goes back to the idea that kids are coming to school with a lot of issues based on socioeconomic background, and these issues are directly affecting behavior in the classroom. Punishing and suspending isn’t working it’s only adding to the problem. Out-of-the-box alternatives are what we need to focus on.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/zero-tolerance-fails-schools-teaching-students-cope-trauma/

I’m Sick of Smelling Like Peppermint

shutterstock_230559166I thought it was a good idea when I purchased my organic peppermint deodorant over the holidays. It was 11 bucks but well worth the purchase price to protect myself against the harmful aluminum in regular deodorants that can contribute to Alzheimer’s.  Now I’m done smelling like a Christmas tree and so is my daughter. Not to say that she’s abandoning hygiene. She’s  embracing it to an extreme! But this wasn’t so only a few short years ago. When my daughter was in the 7-10 age bracket she had a very different relationship with water. Hand washing, showers, teeth brushing, and general cleansing simply did not agree with her. It was like the commingling of nuts and raisins or peas and carrots. Some people feel that they just shouldn’t be mixed. So I had the arduous task of trying to instill an understanding of the importance of proper hygiene in my child. During those years that I fought my battle I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great if this was part of a health curriculum that was being taught on a regular basis to kids in school? Doesn’t it seem like it should be a basic right for our kids to receive this fundamental information? Sadly as a society we think differently. If your school district has a mandated health curriculum that is offered on a regular basis from grades K-12 you are lucky. I guess our district feels that that education should happen at home. But what about the kids who don’t have that level of parent engagement? In our district those kids are in the majority. That’s right. MAJORITY. An adopted health curriculum that follows a student from K-12 is a necessity. It should not be viewed as an option.

Last year for several days I worked with a group of dedicated teachers and administrators to adopt a health curriculum. I’ll be honest, the work was tedious and difficult but the end result was that we selected on a company that could provide our district with the necessary materials. That was half the battle. Next is getting our school board to agree with us that these materials are necessary to properly educate our kids and move us towards adopting the foundation of whole child, whole school, whole community. I for one will be at that meeting imploring the board to find the money to support this very important initiative.