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.

A Coalition of the Willing

As the new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos possesses an incredible – and rare – opportunity to truly transform public education. Returning decisionmaking to states and localities. Empowering parents to get more involved in decisionmaking. New ways to better use existing federal dollars. The bully pulpit. All are valuable tools in reshaping the next generation of K-12 education.

If we have learned anything from education policy transformations, it is that the best of intents will fail if those idea come via fiat instead of through collaboration. How many times have we seen the latest and greatest of policies never fulfill their potential because educators, parents, or both weren’t part of the process that brought proposal to policy?

Real, lasting reform demands a coalition of the willing. It requires all corners to come together and buy into the goal – improving student learning and boosting student success – and work together to achieve it. And while it is impossible to have all sides agree on all details, at least if it is meaningful change, all sides are working as they best can to achieve, not undermine, that ultimate goal.

We can often forget that in education and education reform. The coalition of the willing is forgotten in the pursuit of being the smartest person in the room, and then assuming all will just follow. We fail to see that by not having teachers buy into the process, and instead have them see improvement as something happening to them, it becomes near impossible for them to embrace the change, own the change, and ultimately be responsible for the improved outcomes on the other side.

Sure, one can tinker in operational issues without having the teachers’ involvement, but it is impossible to have real impact on the teaching and learning in the classroom without having educators – and parents – at the table helping plot the course to a shared destination.

Despite all of the vitriol and all of the negativity directed at her in recent months, DeVos now has an opportunity to assemble that coalition of the willing. While many may be concerned by her laser-like focus on school choice, few can question DeVos’ lifelong commitment to provide better, stronger opportunities to kids, particularly for students in need. And few can question her embrace of parents in educational decisionmaking. That provides something to build on.

If we can all agree on that ultimate goal: a strong education for all kids – regardless of race, family income, or zip code – maybe, just maybe, we can agree to try to work together on how we get there.

The next move belongs to the new Education Secretary. She has the opportunity to reach out and bring together a coalition that, while unsure, is willing to try. DeVos has the chance to extend an olive branch and work with parents and teachers to plot that new course. And they have a chance to accept it.

In the process, DeVos has the ability to both empower teachers and better involve families. She has the ability to truly transform teaching and learning for all, instead of just tinkering around the edges.

The big question now is whether the EdSec will take that chance. It is incredibly easy to talk to one’s friends on agreed upon issues. Impact only comes by engaging with your perceived opponents to find some common ground to make the positive changes that could impact generations of learners.

 

Where is Fatherhood?

When it comes to fatherhood, where are we exactly? Where are we on work/life balance? Where are we on the different types of dads, including part-time ones? Where are we when it comes to traditional gender roles? Where are we?

A lot of questions, and all requiring long, complicated answers from sociologists, answers that likely result in far more additional questions than they do in conclusions. Yet it is a topic that we tried to tackle today at the Dad 2.0 Summit in San Diego.

I was fortunate to be joined in this discussion by Brian Heilman of Promundo, Eric Snow of WatchDOGS, and Jonathan Stern of fatherly. We were also incredibly lucky to have such a terrific crowd that offered thought-provoking questions and personal experiences to spur the conversation.

This was my first time out at Dad 2.0. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but was eager to hear how my own view of fatherhood fit in with some of these national discussions. From the get go, I was amazed by the energy, the passion, and the positivity of the 500 or so folks (can’t say men as there were a number of women in attendance this weekend as well). 

It was incredibly valuable to hear about WatchDOGS and its work to get fathers more involved in their kids’ schools. I’m always shocked when I hear about schools celebrating and throwing parties just because a dad was volunteering that day. It’s like a dad in a public school is akin to finding that rainbow unicorn.

My role, aside from serving as some comic relief, quickly came into sight for me. I am a father, yes. But I am a white father of Latino kids, seeking to make sure their heritage remains an important part of their lives. I am a working dad doing everything possible to share the responsibilities on the home front. I am a feminist dad, committed to ensuring my daughter (and my son) can do and be just about anything that she wants to do. And I am an activist dad, determined that as great as it is to talk and discuss many of the issues found at Dad 2.0, it is far more important to take action and have clear goals that demonstrate the progress a modern fatherhood movement can make.

Not surprisingly, I also think I am the only dad in a crowd of hundreds who goes with his daughter to the salon every month for pedicures, complete with full polish.

A big thank you to the sponsors who make events like this possible. It’s terrific to realize that products you use every day are supportive of some of the social issues you care about. So thanks in particular to Dove Men Care (@DoveMenCare, #RealStrength), Facebook (@Facebook, #FBDad), and Russell Athletic (#Dadlete).

Kudos to Dad 2.0 for putting together such an incredible event. This newbie is excited for what is to come. 

A Steady Hand for Trump EdSec

Last month, Eduflack wrote about his dream, that the next U.S. President would select a family advocate as the next Education Secretary. Now that the election dust has settled and we start to see the names being put forward as possible EdSecs in President-elect Trump’s administration, I become a realist. We may not get a parental engagement beacon as EdSec, but I can still hope for a new assistant secretary for family and community engagement, can’t I?

So it begs the question, who will become the next EdSec? The current parlor games have “sexy” candidates like Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz or former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee dominating headlines. School choice advocates like Betsy DeVos and Jeanne Allen are also frequently mentioned. Former state chiefs like Gerard Robinson (of VA and FL) and Tony Bennett (IN and FL) also gain mention. In fact, of all those who have been mentioned, only surgeon Ben Carson seems to have taken himself out of the running.

What do we make of all this? If we look to when Trump selected a vice president, most folks were willing to bet that either New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich were jockeying for the number two slot. It wasn’t until the final hours that some started seeing Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as a possibility.

We know that Donald Trump likes to be the big dog. That means an EdSec who dominates the spotlight (and the media coverage) is likely not what he is looking for. We know he believes in state and local control, so a DC power broker seems unlikely. And we know that education is not likely a top concern of the Trump administration, so ED needs a steady hand that understands policy, can work with the Hill, and can get things done without too much drama.

Or more simply, ED needs an adult who both understands how a bureaucracy like the Education Department operates, who knows how to get the most out of all the career employees embedded over on Maryland Avenue, yet understands how and why to continue to push decisions and actions to the states.

With all that, the Eduflack shortlist for EdSec includes:

Bill Evers – Evers is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He was assistant secretary of education for policy in the George W. Bush administration. Evers served on several academic standards commissions in California and is a former elected board of education member and charter school board member.

Bill Hansen – Currently the President and CEO of USA Funds, Hansen was the deputy secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration. He brings significant private sector education experience, while serving on state education commissions in Virginia. Hansen brings a mix of both K-12 and higher education experience.

Hanna Skandera – Skandera has severed as New Mexico’s Secretary of Education since 2010. She was previously Florida’s deputy commissioner of education, undersecretary of education in California, and as a senior policy advisor and deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education.

While I could keep going, listing a number of congressmen, governors, university presidents, and corporate executives, I couldn’t say any of them would be better choices than one of these three. Each are steeped in K-12 and higher education knowledge. Each understand the federal/state/local balance. And each is a workhorse, unlikely to upstage the boss on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Who am I missing?