What We Have Here Is a Failure in Parent Communication

Last week, when announcing his incoming secretary of education, new New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy noted his intentions to “stop using PARCC tests.” The statement was hardly controversial. Across the Garden State, parents have spent the past three years voicing frustrations with the student assessment, reading from the talking points of Common Core and testing opponents.

So when the then governor-elect joined with parent advocates and the teachers unions in calling for the state to “create new, more effective and less class time-intrusive means for measuring student assessment,” it was no surprise that social media lit up in celebration.

Outside of Princeton, in my little Mayberry RFD, parents rejoiced. For days, Facebook has lit up with messages of parents bidding the state test adieu. They celebrated the end of PARCC. They applauded that their kids wouldn’t have to take the weeks-long tests this winter. They cheered going back to the good ol’ days. They thanked the incoming governor for finally taking action. And in doing so, their premature jubilation reveals our failures to adequately engage parents in the policy process and communicate with them on important issues.

So dear ol’ Eduflack spent the weekend being the proverbial skunk at the garden party. Pointing out that the governor’s works have to be translated into legislative action by the New Jersey state legislature. Noting that New Jersey must still administer annual assessments on almost all of its K-12 students, and that PARCC has to be replaced with something else. Highlighting that if the state doesn’t use PARCC or Smarter Balanced, then it would need to pay to develop a similar test that would have to be approved by the federal government. And making clear that, even if such actions were taken this spring, it would be years before our kids would be free from PARCC assessments in the classroom.

Yes, parents across the state and throughout the country are well intended. Yes, they are paying enough attention to the issues that they are able to share anti-testing talking points like the length of tests, the use of technology, and the absence of early childhood experts in test development. But we are doing a great disservice when we only share part of the process – and part of the solution – with families.

One can’t throw a rock in education policy discussions without hitting someone speaking of the importance of family involvement and parental voice in the discussion. Just as we like to declare the Simpson-eque, “what about the children?” in such discussion, so too do we ask where the parents are in the debate.

But too many are selective in how they want that parent voice present. We don’t want them involved in curricular discussions because that is the purview of the educators. We don’t want them to have too much power with regard to school choice, for that should be a decision of policymakers. We don’t want them involved in teacher evaluation, for they are unaware of the challenges and nuances of what happens in a school and classroom.

So we largely welcome parents twice a year to short parent-teacher conferences, we applaud when they show up for PTA meetings and school concerts, and we hope we won’t need to see them otherwise for disciplinary actions. We certainly don’t want them showing up on the school doorstep with their concerns regarding what is happening behind those doors.

Years ago, I was fortunate to collaborate with a group of tremendous researchers, scientists, educators, and parents on the book, Why Kids Can’t Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education. The book was designed to serve as a primer for parents to get involved in improving reading instruction in their kids’ classrooms. By focusing on what the research tells us, what is working in schools, what other parents have dealt with, and what tools can make a successful parent advocate, Why Kids Can’t Read was written to empower parents in their quest for a world-class education for their kids, for all kids.

In writing it, and since in dealing with my own struggles as a special education parent, it is clear we largely don’t want empowered parents in the schools. If we look back through history, there are only a handful of moments where education policy truly changed because of the power of parents. Instead, we prefer to keep parents at arm’s length, giving only the illusion of involvement.

If we are serious about parents as partners in the learning process, we need to figure out how to truly educate them on it. It is insufficient to equip them solely with the talking points found on social media, and then expect them to be active partners in improvement. Better, stronger educational opportunities for our children can only come when parents are better educated on the processes and policies themselves.

Otherwise, parents are simply the proverbial dog chasing the squirrel, reacting to the latest buzzwords and urban legends shared on social media with the same buzzwords and urban legends they heard the week or month before. And that’s no way to improve teaching and learning for our children.

Fatherhood is About More Than Putting the Ball in the Hoop

What does it say when you disrespect your sons’ coaches, whether they be at UCLA or the Lakers? What does it say when you minimize the severity of the charges against LiAngelo, and insinuate that skills with the basketball trump adherence to the law? What does it say when you constantly call out and attack the very professionals your sons idolize? What does it say when you don’t make your kids suffer the consequences of their actions? And what does it say when you quit and storm off the first time things don’t go your way or you don’t like the resolution of a problem?

In my latest Medium essay, I reflect on how being a good dad is all about modeling good behavior and how that is missing from the current LaVar Ball family saga

Men, We Can Do Better

With new allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault rolling in on a daily basis now, it is time for men to have a very real discussion on what is appropriate – and what is not – when it comes to our dealings with others.

This isn’t about being a better husband or father. We need to drop the qualifiers. Thus us about being a decent human being.

As I write on Medium:

Finally, if you have to ask if something is appropriate, it is a good bet it is not. If you have to defend your actions because so-and-so also did it, they what you did is indefensible. If you justify what you have done by stating that it isn’t as bad as what someone else did, you really have no justification for your actions.

Please give it a read. Sadly, these are the conversations we need to have these days.

Gender Lines on the … Alphabet?

Most parents have been warned of the dangers of “gender-specific” toys and what that means nowadays. It’s perfectly acceptable for little girls to play with soldiers or guns (as long as parents aren’t anti-violence, etc.) and it is equally acceptable for little boys to play with dolls and tea sets.

Just the other day, a friend of Eduflack shared a photo on Facebook of her five-year old son receiving an American Boy doll for his birthday. The child just couldn’t have been grinning any bigger than he was from scoring his dream present.

We say that there are no gender-specific colors either. It is perfectly fine for girls to prefer drab colors, just as it is for boys to own pinks and purples. (And I can proudly say that Eduflack has a significant number of pink, purple, and pastel articles of clothing, but owns almost nothing black, except for my kickboxing gear.)

One would hope we’ve gotten past the whole gender appropriate discussion when it comes to equipping our children with the attire, toys, and such one needs these days. But then Amazon has to go and ruin everything. For you see, in 2017, there is one set of ABCs for boys, and another set for girls.

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Seriously? We are more than halfway through 2017 and we still think boys learn the ABCs from airplanes and dump trucks while girls only garner it through lessons of butterflies and castles?

Setting aside, for a second, that folks are paying $10 a piece for an ABC book. Setting aside, for a moment, that twice as many people saw the need to review the boys’ ABCs than the girls’. Setting aside, for a bit, that it took two additional years to finally wrap up the ABCs that were appropriate for the “fairer” gender. Was all of this really necessary? Is there now a demand for a gender-fluid ABCs?

I miss the good ol’ days when it was all about making sure a child could read at grade level by the end of the third grade. It didn’t matter if they were reading words from a Babysitters Club book or the Hardy Boys.

Sigh. Double sigh. Sigh in both pink and camo.

 

Can You Teach a Superpower?

Last week, dear ol’ Eduflack wrote about the incredible learning experiences the Edu-family is getting from kickboxing. so this week, I’d like to turn the rostrum over to one of my Tiger Schulmann sisters, Amy Vondrak. 

Dr. Vondrak is a professor of English, an instigator of Utopia, and a TSMMA Yellow Belt (which means she outranks me and has physically kicked my butt on the mat.) Dr. Vondrak has captured a powerful perspective to the experience that just has to be shared whole cloth. So here goes …

 

A few nights ago at Tiger Schulmann’s Princeton, Sensei gave the advanced kickboxing class a scolding. About half the class had been late, which earned us quite a dressing down. The core message of his admonishment was the importance of self-discipline. In fact, the core of almost every one of Sensei’s talks is self-discipline. Now, even though (as he has often told us), “Sensei” means “born before,” I often feel just a bit odd about being the recipient of the wisdom of a man 20 years my junior. But actually, Sensei is right about a lot of things, and discipline is one of them.

During his scolding, I thought about my students, as I often do at martial arts. I’ve taught developmental composition at a community college for 13 years. Sensei teaches martial arts much like I teach writing: he takes complex series of moves and “scaffolds” them, taking them a step at a time. Learning a double-leg take down to side mount to triangle choke takes weeks as we work through each of the component parts of each move. And Sensei often tells us that if we don’t show up to class, on time and consistently, we are not likely to get any better at martial arts. I tell my students the same thing, but most of the time, they don’t listen.

I love my students. They have big dreams and so much potential. By and large, they are smart people who have been failed by an archaic educational system. But much of that potential gets lost because of the one thing they don’t have: self-discipline. They face huge challenges in life. They have jobs and kids and no money and crazy lives, so there are plenty of good reasons why it’s not so easy for them to get their work done and their butts in class. I’m not saying my students are lazy. Self-discipline is not a character trait, it’s a skill, one that they lack just as they lack writing skills. So they fail. Those of you who follow higher ed know that college students fail in great numbers. Then they feel even less able to take their place in the world, they feel even less powerful than they did when they walked into my class. That is not my mission as a teacher. My job is to show them their strength.

Along with Eduflack, I fought in the 42nd Challenge of Champions. I chose to fight up a division, literally fighting above my belt, and spent the late winter and spring trying to get mentally and physically prepared. The physical part was easier than the mental. It’s easier to face burpees than fears. But I did it: I got on the mat and I fought, as did many of my TSMMA Princeton teammates. Now, I’ve been going to the CoC as either a parent or spouse of a competitor for years, and this was my second time competing. Our family is very familiar with the emotional intensity of that day. But for some reason, this CoC showed me something I had not fully seen before: the way in which fighting lets us win our life battles. Of course, I know that martial arts is way more than a workout. Of course I’d been vaguely aware that for all of us on the mat, it’s not just about getting in shape. But this CoC gave me a glimpse into just how much we are fighting our demons, and winning. We may not be superheroes, but fighting makes us feel like when life starts shooting, we’ve got metal bracelets, a cool shield, and some amazing powers. In reality, our amazing superpower is self-discipline.

It is not easy to drag your tired self out to kickboxing on a Thursday night knowing that someone better than you is likely going to punch you in the face – sure, they’ll do it with respect and camraderie, but whatever, they’re still punching you in the face. And at the end of a few rounds of that, those burpees are waiting. But we do it. Again, and again, and again. Why? Discipline. And that discipline gives us tremendous power. We are less afraid of our demons and we are more powerful in our fight against them because our spines are stiffened with strong discipline. Bring it on bad guys, we got this.

My focus as a teacher has long been on content: how to read and write. Of course, I’ve tried for a long time to figure out how to teach grit, or growth mindset, or whatever trendy term is hot this week. But as many of the critics of those buzzwords will say, how do you teach grit? “Grit” always seems to be found in heroic stories of grand characters who beat enormous odds. In contrast, self-discipline is small and boring. Self-discipline is the accumulation of many daily acts, most of which may seem unimportant in the individual, but are massively important in the aggregate. But self-discipline is a skill which can be taught, which can be broken down into its component parts and taught a step at a time with lots of practice. So this summer I am cooking up a semester-long self-discipline project to roll out in the fall.

As a community college teacher, I’m not just trying to help students become better writers. Community college can be transformative, and it’s my job to help students feel empowered to change their lives. What I saw at the CoC was ordinary people fighting their demons with daily discipline, winning, and growing stronger because of it. This is what I want to share with my students as well – be disciplined, not just for your grade, but because your discipline will make you stronger than the world that tries every day to cut you down. Do your work. Fight for your grades. Fight for your degree. Because your fight, your discipline, gives you superpowers.


Dr. Amy Vondrak (r) with Megan Barndt.

A 40-Something Fat Guy, Learning Life Lessons in an MMA Ring 

Most guys of my age and my physical “stature” likely spend their sunny Sunday afternoons on a golf course. Or sitting in a baseball park or at a movie theater. Maybe they just spend the afternoon on the couch, recovering from a long week and preparing for a longer one.

Instead, I spent my last Sunday at a civic center in Central New Jersey. I was there to cheer on my daughter, competing in her first “Challenge of Champions,” a regional grappling and kickboxing tournament sponsored by Tiger Schulmann’s MMA. My mini-me has been training with Tiger Schulmann’s for two years now. On Sunday, she earned a silver in grappling for 9-10-year old girls, and a gold for kickboxing.

But I was also there for me. I’ve been training a few months longer than my daughter. As a result, I spent my Sunday strapping on my gear to kickbox against the old, fat, and unskilled bracket (those over 40, more than 200 pounds, and with white, blue, or yellow belts). Unlike my daughter, I left with no celebratory hardware. Instead, I walked away from my bouts with two fractured ribs, bones broken 30 seconds into my first fight, and that remained broken throughout my entire second bout.

 
Which begs the question, why in the world is a guy like me spending his Sunday getting kicked and punched to the point of breaking? Why do I spend much of my free time sparring with men half my age and with (at least) twice the skills and athletic prowess? Why do I suffer from broken toes, fractured tibia, and more bruises than I care to count, and respond by thinking of how I can do better and how I can avoid suffering the same injuries in the future? I should be pedaling a stationary bike or strolling around the neighborhood. Instead, I worry about the quickness of my left cross and the strength of my roundkicks.

Why?

I do it because it forces me to do something that doesn’t come easy to me. Not everything should come naturally. Not everything is covered by our personal skill sets or lives in our personal wheel houses. When we are challenged to break those comfort zones, we learn who we truly are as individuals.

I do it because it eliminates the word quit from my vocabulary. Parents know how often kids want to stop doing something because it might be a little challenging. If I’m not traveling for work, then I’m on the mat training. I don’t come up with excuses to skip, and my kids (both of whom train) similarly can’t offer excuses. 

I do it to be healthier. Yes, kickboxing is an incredible workout. I’m a man who once weighed more than 400 pounds. Today, I am in the best physical shape of my life. I’m stronger. I have far greater physical stamina. More importantly, I am healthier so my kids see the importance of a healthy lifestyle and staying physically active. If dad (and mom) can do it, then the kiddos can definitely do it.

I do it to clear my mind. It may sound silly, but the hour on the mat is the one hour in a given day when I don’t think about work or family or finances or any of the other thousand and one things that weigh on me most days. I need to focus on the task at hand. If my mind drifts to a work issue, I’ll take a blow to the body (or worse, to the head). So I need to stay focused on me and my opponent. All of those professionals who embrace the philosophy of “deep thinking” or who bemoan the impact of multi-tasking fully understand the benefit.

I do it because it is a pure meritocracy. No one cares what one does for a living. It doesn’t matter how much money one earns, how big one’s house is, or what car one drives. What matters is commitment, focus, and skill. It’s about the color belt around one’s waist and the number of days one trains. As a result, my community is one that we strive for in the 21st century. It is male and female. It is black, white, brown, and yellow. It is Christian and Jewish, Muslim and atheist. It is young and old. At the end of training, we are all just brothers and sisters, working toward similar goals.

And I do it because it provides a sense of family. It may sound incredibly corny, but our little Princeton school does indeed become a family. I care for many of the other kids there as I do for my own, watching them train and develop. We have a tight group of families that train, with both parents and all kids working. It provides a sense of belonging that it harder and harder to find these days. We help each other through training issues, through work issues, through family issues, and through personal issues. And we do it because we choose to, not because of a sense of obligation.

I have no grand aspirations. I recognize that Dana White is never going to come knocking on my door, because he has been looking for someone just like me to join the UFC. I know that, no matter how much time I put in, my skills will never be great. Sure, I know they will improve over time, and I want them to improve, but few will ever look at me and use the words “skilled fighter” without adding a “not a” before it. I’ll continue to work through the bumps and bruises and breaks, using them as motivation instead of reason for surrender.

I do so because it makes me a better, more complete individual and because it makes us a stronger, more capable family. I’m reminded of that when I see a group of people cheering their hearts out for my daughter as she took home the gold. I’m reminded of that when I see those members of my Tiger family who waited until the very last fights of our friends were fought late on Sunday evening. And I’m reminded of that when I see the resiliency, commitment, and respect my young children demonstrate on a daily basis because of it all.

At the end of the day, I am a writer, a father, an advocate, an agitator, a strategist, an innovator, and a fighter. And through all of the ups and downs all of those identifiers bring me in both my personal and professional lives, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

(Eduflack is a high blue belt training at Tiger Schulmann’s MMA in Princeton, NJ. A version of this piece also appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

Did Lego Just Diss #Teachers With its NASA Series?

As many have seen, earlier this month Lego announced a new series of its popular toys, this time honoring the Women of NASA. It’s an important collection, and a well deserved homage to the women behind the success of the space program. But it spotlighting five women, and not including Christa McAuliffe, did Lego show real disrespect for classroom teachers?

This is the question I explore this week for Hechinger Report, noting:

“McAuliffe was an educator who would do anything and everything to bring the joys of learning to her own students and her own classrooms. Following her own dreams, she showed a generation of students what was possible. And she likely inspired a generation of learners – both male and female – to follow their passions and to be inspired by both the good and the bad their experienced.

She is just as important to the storyline of NASA as Ride, Margaret Hamilton, and Mae Jemison. Some may say even more so, as McAuliffe’s role reinvigorated a generation that had grown complacent, just as it had at the time of Apollo 13.”

Give the full piece at Hechinger a read. Let me know what you think. McAuliffe and the Challenger disaster was an key moment in Eduflack’s childhood. It shouldn’t be glossed over just because it is a difficult topic to discuss with kids.