Saturday, December 25, 2010

Four-legged education

It was absolutely inevitable that I would get around to writing about dogs.  Not necessarily my dog, although that is more than tempting, but about dogs in general. What was never clear was how that was going to come about. The inspiration came last week when I happened upon an article that described how much there is to be learned about educating our children from, none other than, the Dog Whisperer. For those that don't know, this mythical television personality, created by Cesar Millan, is aired on the National Geographic Channel. Presently trying to educate both my dog and my children (not sure in which order) the concept of a joint plan of attack was very appealing. Compounding my interest in this subject was my husband's announcement, that very evening, that he was planning on introducing dogs into the programming at his chronic care centers. Next week he planned on taking Georgia for a test run. The synchronicity impelled me to hit the keyboard.

Let's start with the lovely image of Georgia in a white coat with a stethoscope around her neck. Now wouldn't that just be adorable!!! But really, the concept runs a lot deeper.  In fact, I think my husband might very well be on to something (if it's not a lawsuit in the unusual situation that one of these dogs loses it and attacks a patient).  The concept of exposing chronic care patients to a living, breathing example of fidelity and love—life through example—seems quite clever. Anyone that loves dogs knows that there is absolutely nothing better than the look of total devotion one receives from their four-legged friend not to mention the literal warmth received from petting and hugging their furry body. What better medicine for the soul than to introduce this affection into places where people end up as a result of extended illness or advanced age. If modeling clay workshops offer mental stimulation and a pleasant pastime just think of the emotional happiness quotient that could be achieved by a few minutes here and there with the house doggy!

An abundance of recent literature devoted to dogs' souls and humanity, including fictional favorites The Art of Racing in the Rain (Garth Stein) as well as non-fiction ones like Marley and Me (John Grogan) and Merle's Door (Ted Kerasote), clearly indicate what dog devotees have known for a long time: Dog's are really quite human and if only for a pair of thumbs and a differently designed palette, their place in this world might have been quite different! Furthermore, these trusting and loving animals share much with our own children as they too come into the world eager to be appreciated and seeking clear guidance. It may not be far-fetched, therefore, to consider the techniques by which we train them as appropriate for use on our own offspring.

I am the first to admit to not knowing everything about parenting and, even more significantly, to being open to just about ANY suggestion—even if that means turning to a dog trainer. And not surprisingly the article I happened upon, ("Becoming the Alpha Dog in your own home" New York Times, November 2009), states that the Whisperer's techniques are being adopted by a fairly large population of parents with young children—all eagerly embracing his well-known "holy trinity" of exercise, discipline and affection. As one wrote, "We had intended to apply his advice toward our dogs but realized a lot of ideas can be used on our kids!" Millan's theory hinges on the concept that pet owners need to project their trademark "calm-assertive energy" and accordingly, become the alpha dogs. By extension, it's our role as parents, as it is that of the master, to set the tone. Our children will follow suit. As one enthusiastic adherent of this method affirmed, "When we present nervous, angry or scared energy in front of our kids, they pick up on those emotions".

Certainly, one cannot debate the overall concept that children, like dogs, thirst for discipline and direction.  I admit that I have definitely used command words, such as sit and eat, to guide my children on occasion; cutting out those extraneous please and could yous really saves quite a bit of time. But, this alpha dog business is a lot trickier; although both my husband and I strive for that status it doesn't always work out. The self-confidence and self-possession I have instilled in my children leaves them somewhat unaffected by our swaggering attempts to rule the roost.

Nevertheless, I don't want to discount Millan's techniques. The utilization of disciplinary techniques developed for canines on our children might enable the creation of better behaved and more attentive youngsters. And there is absolutely no question that their accepting nature has much to recommend. I loved the recent article in the Times by a high school senior who adopted his dog's nonchalant response to the news that he had been rejected from Yale. "Skimming through the condolences and pep-talky advice that made up the body of the message, I cleared my throat and said, 'Oh, how about that.' My dog Truman yawned and made a noncommittal woofing sound. I made a sandwich. He ate some kibble. Then we both took naps. I think we took the news pretty well."

Perhaps the best lesson learned from man's best friend are the benefits gained through simple kindness, gentleness of tone and an overall accepting nature. If both parents and their children could integrate these qualities and approaches into their interpersonal relations we might see a kinder, gentler next generation. I'm actually considering moving aside and letting Georgia take over.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

"To test, or not to test"

Almost every afternoon I find myself preparing one child, or another, for a test. Between the three of them I figure they have something in the range of 8-12 tests a month. Those numbers might be tenable to this weary parent if my children could prepare for these tests on their own, but the raw reality is that their success is directly related to my stepping in and helping out, whether by literally sitting with them or simply by reminding them to open a book! I must admit that I don't face this task alone. In fact, I benefit from the assistance of a fantastic private teacher without whom I could not cope. Despite having a decent knowledge of Hebrew there is simply no way that I can prepare my children on subjects ranging from geography, to bible, to citizenship. I passed the buck on this responsibility by the time my eldest was in 4th grade; the terminology was simply beyond me.

Nevertheless, I'm still faced with organizing this whole test circus. And it is a circus. Every week we look at their exam schedules, carefully printed out and posted on their individual bulletin boards, and exhale a collective groan. My exasperation comes not only from considering how much time I will need to spend reminding them to study and checking that they've done it, but additionally, dealing with the strained relationship that is the obvious result of all of this nudging. Perhaps worst of all, is the fact that I seriously wonder if this is all necessary. 
The debate concerning whether or not students should be given tests, or maybe better put, what these tests actually achieve, is endless. Educators are split on the subject and opinions change according to current fashion. There are those who staunchly believe one can measure a student's knowledge, effort and achievement only through testing and those who suggest that tests are unnecessary and in fact, measure very little. My own opinion, after 15 years teaching both primary, secondary and university level students, is that tests frequently fall short of really "testing" one's knowledge. Even more significantly, their over usage, especially within elementary school, frequently comes at the expense of the students' education. With so much time spent preparing students for tests, when do teachers actually have the time to teach!
I had the good fortune to attend an elementary school where there were simply no tests--none at all. And I can firmly state that it didn't make one iota of a difference. In fact the opposite, we actually had time to learn! Forty years down the road I still remember how we were taught through experience, action, cooperation and a lot of reading. The fact that we devoted all of our energy to learning material, instead of preparing to be tested on it, actually advanced our education.
I'm not suggesting the elimination of tests, but rather, their redesign. During my tenure as a university professor in Israel I continually sought better ways to measure the achievement of my students. Accordingly, over time I moved away from slide identifications and short, information-seeking questions determined to test raw knowledge and rote memory and replaced them with take-home exams, composed of two or three essays that demanded thought and in-depth analysis.
Continually frustrated with the emphasis on results within the Israeli educational system I frequently read up on what's happening within the same arena in my native America. Just last week I was surprised to learn that the new chief accountability officer of the New York City Department of Education, Brown graduate Shael Polakov-Suransky, actually considered tests to be a necessary measurement tool. The New York Times (Fernando Santos, December 13, 2010) cited him as stating that without them, “how do you know that the kids are learning?” This was unexpected in light of the fact that his professor at Brown, one of the country’s most prominent education-reform advocates, Theodore R. Sizer, had promoted the opinion that teaching and learning ought to be assessed through observation, projects and ways other than testing. Perhaps Polakov-Suransky's policy was a response to the use of assessment tests to measure progress that has been a central part of New York Mayor Bloomberg's education platform.
Nevertheless, with a significant nod toward his Brown education, Mr. Polakow-Suransky suggested that tests be redesigned to include essays and classroom projects that would insure a greater emphasis on writing and critical thinking. Within this framework even mathematically-oriented questions will involve a certain degree of written explanation, in some cases, through application to real life situations. Depth of thought process, creativity and writing skills will replace ones based on rote memory. For the record, this week the Israeli press (תומר ולמר,, December 15, 2010) reported a revolutionary change in the annual university entrance exams. Additional essay sections will replace those devoted to obtuse Hebrew vocabulary, emphasizing writing skills that reflect thought, organization and processing of information over the demonstration of raw, rote memory.
These policy changes suggest that the ailment is less the tests, per se, and more what they are designed to measure. Maybe I wouldn't groan so much if I actually thought that all of this preparation at home was contributing to the overall education of my children, instead of being at their expense. But these concerns will have to wait. I'm really quite busy. I have to prepare my daughter for a test on fractions while drilling her on how, precisely, the prophet Samuel went about crowning the first Israeli king, Saul—and this while constantly poking my head into my elder son's room to check if he has prepared for his forthcoming tests in Life Sciences and Grammar.  

Friday, December 10, 2010

Adding Fat to the Fire

It’s December 7th and I’m standing in front of the roaring fire at Hampton Court. This fireplace is part of the massive kitchen complex where all of the meals for the court of Henry VIII were prepared.  Over a meter high and four wide, this was the place where they cooked, in a typical year, 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 2,870 pigs, 33,000 chickens, 24,000 larks and 53 wild boars. The spits are right here to be seen and I’m ready to hop on one.  I’m staring into the flames and I’m thinking about the irony of how good this fire really feels. Minus degrees centigrade outside and I simply can’t get close enough. The man responsible for the fire keeps asking me to move back. I take one step back and then inch forward again when he looks the other way. But my thoughts move to the Carmel Forest in Israel, or what remains of it. How can fire be so welcome in one place and such a nightmare in another? When we left Israel a few days ago the fires were still raging out of control, people were leaving their homes and others had lost their lives. These beautiful flames of orange, red and blue were continuing to ravage everything in their path. And here I was, paralyzed by the cold and aching to touch them.

Before this all started I wanted to write an entire blog on butter. Yes, butter—or rather, the lack thereof.  I’d spent days before my planned annual Thanksgiving celebration scouring the shelves of various supermarkets in Israel—all in search of butter! “Where’s the butter?” I intoned to myself, mimicking that famous Wendy’s commercial from the ‘80s. But really, I wasn’t laughing. In fact, I was frantic. There was absolutely no way to make a tasty dinner without butter and there wasn’t a stick to be found. How could I make crust with—margarine? I mean, to this butter aficionado, all substitutes just taste BAD. Well, thank God (and I did) I discovered a stash of foreign-made butter in the market at Gan Shmuel. Leave it to the Kibbutzniks to look out for our better interests. I could relax. My meal was saved.

Now the obvious question is what does my frenzied search for butter have to do with the savage fire on the Carmel? Moreover, who would ever dare to talk about something so mundane and something so monumental in the same breath? Well, to be honest, the virtual simultaneity of these disasters, one personal, the other national, got me thinking. Digging around a bit on the internet, I discovered that both had something to do with—you guessed it—global warming. Now I normally wouldn’t attempt to write anything about global warming. I know virtually nothing about science, being more of an arts and literature type. But between having no butter and watching local neighborhoods burn down to the ground, this seemed like as good a time as any to jump into the fray.

Al Gore’s fascinating documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, (2006) was a frightening wake-up call for me. My attempts to reduce my share of global warming, clearly placing me among the virtuous, include driving a Prius, reading the newspaper online, lighting my house with “green” lights (though as far as I’m concerned they do no better than to “dim” the rooms) and, when possible, walking. Yet, despite global efforts, as well as my own meager ones, December in Israel began with temperatures reaching 30 degrees centigrade and my kids still going to school in shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops!! It was hard enough to swallow the fact that Hanukkah was already upon us, its usual correspondence with Christmas being absolutely nil; how could we kindle the lights during—gulp—summer?!  

Yet on December 2nd, the second night of Hanukkah, the arid conditions caused by the unusually warm winter our reckless treatment of the environment was causing, were accelerating the spread of the flames in the forest. There had been no rain for as long as anyone could remember. None at all—maybe something back in late October. Adding fat to the fire, both literally and figuratively, the slow-to-begin winter was to blame for the shortage of butter. Apparently cows produce less milk and butterfat when it's hot out. Israel isn't the only country affected. In fact, the unusually hot weather around the world has created a global butter shortage and significantly raised prices. (We may yet see an end to those butter sculpting contests so popular in the U.S.)  

I loved the chat I found online that suggested that farmers might be able to increase milk production by giving out gold stars or smiley stickers to the cows that yield the most milk. Not to panic anyone, but apparently the agricultural forecasters have warned that by next spring we’ll also be short on eggs. In fact the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture has just approved the import of 10 million eggs from Turkey! Can you imagine that? Several weeks before the blaze ironically melted the freeze of diplomatic ties between the two countries, officials were negotiating for something that in normal atmospheric conditions we should have been able to produce on our own!

Hanukkah is now over. Yet this year, as I lit the beautiful candles on our Menorah night after night and recited the Shehecheyanu, the prayer for special occasions that gives thanks to God, my mind leapt to the flames on the Carmel. The not incidental connection between this religious holiday, and the reality of how we daily contribute to the overheating of our environment, is worthy of our consideration. What has become of winter? Where is the rain? How can everything be so dry? What is happening to our planet, what can we do to save it, and, equally significant, what will the world be like without butter?  The admittedly pathetic, but not entirely tenuous, connection between these catastrophes, demands our attention. Lacking any real answers I've come to the conclusion that my personal efforts will best be assisted by a healthy dose of prayer. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Screen (Scream?) Time

I want to talk about screens--all kinds of screens. I recently wrote something about the fact that one's prosperity was measured by how many screens they had in the house. The second the ink had dried (or rather, the moment that last key had been tapped) I began to feel sick in the stomach. I started a mental inventory of my own home--counting televisions, computers, IPod Nanos, Nintendo DS's, IPod Touches, cell phones and our very newest edition, my Kindle. (I actually breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that former generation Shuffles had no screen.) This task took quite awhile and I'm not prepared to reveal the number I reached. I will admit that it led to a lot of soul-searching questions: How did I get here? What did it say about me, my family and modern times in general?

The media inundates us with updated research on the effect of the time we spend before a screen. The issue of how much we're all benefitting from modern innovation or, alternatively, how detrimental it might be to our society, is a hot one. Most germane to me, as a mother of three children, is the effect of all of this technology on developing minds—specifically the three under my roof. A recent article in the New York Times, "Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction," brought to my attention by a good friend who understands my general concerns, specifically addresses the effect of electronic multitasking on teenagers. It warns that the ability to do so many things at once: having a conversation with one person, speaking on the phone with another one, sending a text message, setting up an appointment, listening to music, checking one’s email and taking a picture, ostensibly useful things if taken one by one, has made us—surprise, surprise--jittery. Formerly calm individuals are skittering toward hyperactivity. I do not discount this theory. Beyond accounting for any given hour of my own day, taking care of so many things at once that I can't get to the end of a conversation without forgetting what I was talking about at the start, it offers an explanation for my own efforts within that modern behemoth of amateur athleticism: triathlon. Although I have always loved sports, exercising most every day of my life, my gradual turn from an invigorating fast walk to the almost daily flirtation with a serious build up of lactic acid (whether in the middle of the sea or along a biking trail miles from home) surely indicates the search for overload. 

No leap of imagination is needed to realize that my own frantic existence resembles that of modern-day teenagers. A recent discussion I had with a child psychologist who specializes in providing evaluations assessing attention deficiencies centered on how contemporary children have almost no chance of successfully negotiating the conditions within the traditional classroom. Used to being flooded with an extraordinary number of outside stimuli, they understandably go numb when seated before a single teacher standing in front of a white board. The teacher’s efforts to enliven the lecture with colorful markers and theatrical voice changes will only go so far in holding their attention. On the other hand, if this same teacher were to introduce a computer into the room and illustrate her topic with a lecture via Power Point, the kids might actually sit up and listen. Photographic images (or even cinematic ones), replacing rough sketches, and audio-animation, replacing a monotone drone, could far better bring just about any topic to life. Better yet, if you were able to bring a screen to every child, so that he could actually control this display himself, with the mouse, then presto—we could actually achieve-- Education! Of course the irony lies in the fact that technology more suited to a "wired" population, is simply replacing the original model for multitasking: sitting in a room with friends, listening to a teacher, looking at the board, thinking about what’s being said and taking notes! 

Our ability to upgrade our children's learning experience through the introduction of electronics into the classroom doesn't answer the concerns regarding its overall effect on their behavior. Attempting to analyze the effects of this modern monster on my own children, I considered the parallel evils of my generation. Matt Richtel's article sheds much light on this question by comparing the effect of watching television with that of playing video games. I eagerly followed this part of his article as it well pertained to the experience of late baby boomers such as me--and lo and behold, the research conducted proved that watching television was now considered a fairly benign activity. I had been vindicated! I no longer had to worry about those hours spent plastered in front of the television screen as a child. Early morning, late afternoon, throughout the weekend, I'd be found sitting on the floor of our Sun Room, planted directly in front of the set (later we figured that I needed glasses!) with a dish of cookies, a glass of milk, and whatever faithful dog happened to be with us at the time. I was drawn into the world of outer space, flying dogs and tropical paradises such as those represented in such children's classics as the Jetsons, Underdog and Gilligan's Island (the original). And lest we assume this to have been a passing fancy, I can attest to the fact that I entered adolescence debating whether modeling myself after the feisty Marsha Brady or the exotic Jeannie who popped out of the bottle would win me Keith Partridge.

Of course watching television back then didn't seem to be all that detrimental to my development. First of all, it was only one of the many activities in my life. I also read books, a lot of them, kept a journal (with a solid lock!) and wrote letters (actually put pen to paper) to my friends from camp. The variety of these activities somehow balanced that time spent glued to the screen. Additionally, it could be said that watching TV was a family activity. Every Saturday night we had a big steak dinner and gathered to watch All in the Family—laughing at Archie Bunker's boorish behavior--and then Mary Tyler Moore—our model for the giddy woman making it on her own. Television wasn't a bad thing! It actually brought us all together!

When my first born began to watch videos, seated in front of the screen with a pacifier in mouth, and a slightly glazed look in his eyes, I welcomed his entry into the colorful world of Sesame Street and Barney the dinosaur. I assured myself that at least he'd improve his English! How wonderful! Television is educational! And beyond being educational, it apparently does little to ruin a good night's sleep (a major seller for a parent with three kids). Richtel’s research on the different effect of television and computer time before bed clearly indicates that while an hour of television will not disturb one's sleep (albeit if you're watching the Exorcist or the Saw), playing video games before bed can severely disrupt sleep patterns. And obviously, once a teenager knows what kind of colorful, viscerally provocative world awaits him within the screen, there's far more incentive to cut that restless night's sleep short and get right to it early in the morning. Something so maligned (especially these days when there is almost nothing to watch) has, again, come out ahead!

So assuming that I had it all right, how did it go so wrong? A typical Saturday morning will find both of my boys behind closed doors (usually not the same ones) playing one game or another, my daughter on Facebook chatting with a friend (this is now considered social interaction) and myself huddled in front of the laptop in the kitchen. I confess great admiration for my husband who, at the very same time, is outside—in Nature--either battling our garden or playing golf. If he does wander in to seek a conversation, no one is available. The only form of communication between us is the occasional comment in a raised tone (it has to cross both distance and wood) that comes out more like a belch than a sentence. Although my sons and I can claim that having woken up early for an invigorating two hour bike ride we have earned the right to disconnect, I’m not convinced.

Obviously the unremitting development of media and technology has somehow spiraled out of control and the world of screens, within which we're all submerged, has created a generation of non-communicative, jumpy shut-ins!! The splitting of that one family screen that had played such a pivotal role in bringing us all together, into many smaller ones, and its assumption of interactive abilities (think: IPAD), has simply been the nail in the coffin of social interaction. With such a variety of innovative screens at our beck and call, an entire population can retreat to its own private corner, effectively halting all communication. In the context of this daily challenge to modern parenting, I actually celebrated when, just last week, I found my son watching a marathon of Spiderman movies on television. He had left his room! The television had saved him!