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Monday, June 4, 2018

The Road Before Them


Parenting today has become more difficult than ever before.  American parents have lived in fear for their child’s safety since that first picture was printed on a milk carton. As a result, gone are the days when a parent would open the front door and say, “Go outside and play, just be home for dinner.” Do you remember that?  I do.  There were no cell phones for keeping in touch or GPS devices for tracking.  Off we went into our neighborhoods, vacant lots, parks, or malls.

We hung out with friends, we fought, we played made-up games and argued over the rules, always working together to come up with creative solutions to move the game forward.  We never turned to our parents to solve our problems or to settle our arguments; we negotiated those matters on our own. No adult intervention necessary.

Research suggests that because of the freedom we had growing up, which included the freedom to do some foolish things that necessitated taking responsibility for our actions, we became capable problem solvers and resilient individuals. L. Todd Rose, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of the autobiographical book, Square Peg, states that resilience “…is not, in fact, an inborn trait, … but rather the product of a complex system involving a positive feedback loop, in which a child becomes strong, at least in part due to other people’s belief in him.”  When our parents encouraged us to go out and play, they unintentionally let us know that they believed in our ability to be responsible, that we were capable of solving our own problems, and that we were smart enough to know what to do should an unexpected challenge occur.  They believed in us, but more importantly, we knew that they believed in us.

To quote Bob Dylan, “…the time’s they are a changin’”.

Julie Lythcott-Haims is the former dean of freshmen students for Stanford University. In her book How to Raise an Adult, she shares that in the late 1990’s, the first Millennial generation began going off to college and that she and her colleagues noticed a new phenomenon: parents, both virtually and literally, on the college campus.  More and more parents were seeking opportunities, making decisions, and problem solving for their sons and daughters. Things that college-aged students once successfully did for themselves.

I remember sleeping overnight in line on my college campus to register for classes. In those days, the best way to get the classes we wanted or needed was to spend the night in line so that we could register first thing in the morning while seats were still available.  Under the same circumstances, many of today’s parents would spend the night in line for their college-aged children.

Lythcott-Haims observed that there was a time in America when parents strove to prepare their children for the road before them.  Today, more and more parents strive to prepare the road for their children, sometimes going to extremes to make certain that there are no speed bumps or pot holes because of their fear of what may happen should their child encounter any obstacles in their path. In doing so, they are preventing their children from life experiences in which they will have the opportunity to learn and grow. As the great educational philosopher John Dewey stated, “Education is not a preparation for life, education is life itself.”   If we deny our children the opportunity to experience life, the good and the not so good, we are denying them a very significant part of their education, which is the wisdom that comes with life experience.

There is no perfect formula for child rearing, but we do know that when it comes to developing capable human beings, we must love our children enough to allow them to fall down, skin their knees, be disappointed, and yes, experience failure.  In doing so, we don’t need to lecture or scold them. A simple “I hope you do better next time” is all that is necessary when a child comes home complaining about having to retake Algebra in summer school due to a failed grade. 

As a lecturer once said during a presentation I attended, “the process of weaning is never easy, for the wean-e or the wean-or.”  But it’s necessary for the survival of our children.  Developing creative individuals, critical thinkers, problem solvers, and resilient human beings requires allowing our children to experience a certain degree of challenge, frustration, hardship, disappointment, and ultimately failure. 

Most children today are far more sophisticated then we were at their stage of life.  But few are as mature as we were at the same developmental level.  Maturation comes from experience, problem solving, and surviving challenges, disappointments and failures.  That’s why we often hear of extremely successful entrepreneurs speaking of the challenges they had growing up, or the school challenges they faced as a result of some type of learning difference.  They grew and matured as a result of successfully overcoming, and learning from, adversities in their lives.

I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t want the best for their child.  As a parent myself, I clearly understand the pain we suffer when we see our child struggle, experience disappointment, or fail.  I believe that we’d have happier and more resilient children if we returned to the days of striving to prepare our children for the road ahead instead of preparing the road for our child.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Helping Young Ones Feel Safe in These Uncertain Times

“Drop,” shouted my 5th grade teacher.  Immediately, all 34 of us dropped to our knees, under our desks, with our heads down and our hands over our heads.  This happened the first Friday of every month as a result of something called “The Cuban Missile Crisis.”  My teacher would admonish us if we failed to take the drill seriously.  At age 10, we found our teachers admonition to be frightening, even though we didn’t know much about the crises, or the Cold War, we did know that danger lurked if we failed to drop when told to do so.

In the words of Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changin’.”  Today, although drop drills are mostly a thing of the past (except in areas threatened by earthquakes), we have preschool children participating in “live shooter” drills.  A live shooter drill involves an adult unknown to the children, coming onto campus with a toy weapon and pretending to be there to shoot the children.  This developmentally inappropriate practice is more likely to cause young children to become incredibly anxious, with some showing symptoms of PTSD.  In addition to such drills, now we have a company called ProTecht, selling bulletproof blankets to shield small children from gunfire, while another company is now manufacturing bulletproof backpacks.  The times in fact have changed, as it appears that we’ve become so frightened as a society, that we are rushing to utilize Band-Aids as a way to avoid dealing with a much bigger issue.  America has become the most violent industrialized nation in the world.

As an educator, I can’t influence policy in schools other than my own, but I can encourage parents of young children to take a few simple steps to help their young ones feel safe and secure.  The most obvious and easiest thing to do is to simply turn off your televisions; don’t listen to the news on the radio when your children are around, and avoid discussing world affairs in their presence. 

Secondly, since young children feel safe when their environment is predictable, try to maintain the same household routine as always and the same daily schedule.

Thirdly, insist that children in the early childhood (birth – age 8) are not exposed to conversations about potential threats of violence, or threats to their well-being, while at school.   Discourage the use of “live shooter drills” and at the very least, if the school or daycare center won’t budge on this matter, ask to be given 24 hours warning of a pending drill, so you have the option of keeping your child home.

Early childhood is a time for play.  It’s that time in a child’s life when free exploration of the environment, overseen by nurturing adults is essential.  Young children need opportunities to enjoy fantasy play, run, climb, paint, sing, and laugh, without a care in the world.  Implementing drills that will only rob our keiki of their sense of security may cause irreputable harm to their psyches’.  Let’s stand up for our keiki and demand a more rational and more pragmatic approach to the problem of violence in our society.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Wisdom of the Elders Pillars of Peace Conference

In last weeks edition of MidWeek, the cover story highlighted the upcoming “Wisdom of the Elders Pillars of Peace” conference which will focus on peace, compassion and ethical leadership.

Coming to Hawaii to participate in the conversation are three very impressive “elders,” each of whom has much to say and offer as we try to find more equitable and peaceful solutions to worldwide issues ranging from starvation, inequality, war and global terrorism.

Hina Jilani (61 years young), is a Co-founder of Pakistan’s first all-female legal aid practice and has been active for decades in movements for peace, women’s equality and human rights.  Joining her are Archbishop Desmond Tutu (83 years young), a South African social rights activist and defender of human rights and Gro Harlem Brundtland (75 years young), the former Prime Minister of Norway, and international leader in the area of sustainable development and public health.  Together, they will lead a conversation for students, teachers, and members of the public this week from August 28 – Aug 31 at the Hawaii Convention Center.

Our world faces numerous challenges, which are magnified by a universal lack of trust, cultural misunderstandings, social and economic inequities, militarism, terrorism and fundamentalist dogmatism.  Who better to lead a conversation with a focus on peace, compassion and ethical leadership than the “Elders,” who have devoted their lives to bringing about peaceful and equitable solutions to the many challenges we face.

The Elders, as described by Mid-Week, “…use their collective wisdom, experience and influence to support peace building, address major causes of human suffering, and promote the shared interests of humanity.” 


Personally, I have learned a great deal from the elders in my life.  This week, I feel incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunity to learn from and reflect with three “Elders” who continually strive to bring about positive change.  Mahalo to the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Omidyar Ohana Fund for making the Pillars of Peace a reality for Hawaii.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Illumination

Webster's dictionary defines Illumination as: "light that comes into a room, that shines on something."  Reflecting on our incredible group of talented students at Assets, I like to think of our upcoming Illumination event as a celebration of our students who, without exception, light up our classrooms on a daily basis.

Each year, over 500 parents, friends, and colleagues attend Illumination, enjoying great food, great shopping, and great company, while generously contributing to our schools commitment to socio-economic diversity.  By doing so, they are honoring and respecting the idea of equal educational opportunity.  Year after year we recommit ourselves to providing a strong, researched based multi-sensory program to as wide a socio-economic spectrum as possible, knowing that by doing so we are supporting the unique individuality of our population of gifted, talented learners, who happen to learn differently.

The event is so much more than merely a means of raising tuition assistance, it benefits every student, every family, and everyone in our community in need of our unique expertise and resources.  The event is a celebration of who we are and the meaningful work that we do, and a celebration of our everyday heroes - our students.  The event is a reminder that, "Children Are Our Greatest Assets."

Whenever I walk around campus or observe in classrooms, I'm consistently taken aback by the combination of genius and creativity along with an endearing awkwardness among our students.  Most of whom have remarkable strengths that have gone unrecognized in other school settings. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to watch these fine, unique, individuals grow and learn as they come to recognize their strengths, as well as their personal challenges, in a way that allows them to become superb self advocates.

Our students illuminate our campus with their compassion, sensitivity, and respect for differences. They illuminate our campus with their poetry, photography, athleticism, creativity, and academic excellence in a wide variety of subjects. They illuminate our campus by being themselves in our accepting, non-judgmental setting.

I hope you will join me on March 7th at the Hawaii Convention Center in celebrating our amazing students by joining the fun at Illumination. You'll have a great time, while supporting a noble mission and helping well deserving, wonderful students.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lessons Learned as an Educator


For nearly 35 years I have had the honor of serving as head of school at two private schools, one in Los Angeles, the other in Honolulu. My time as an educator has provided me with experiences and insights that I hadn't anticipated at the beginning of my career. As I look back at my memories -- most fond and inspiring, others sad and some downright tragic -- I remain grateful for all the experiences, as each and every one inevitably lead to valuable lessons learned.
My first year as a head of school began just prior to my 27th birthday. I was hired to run a Los Angeles area progressive, private school with a star-studded parent body. Though I had a diverse and valuable experience earlier, I began my first year as school head incredibly naive. In hindsight, at 27, I was clearly too young to become a head of school. But during my 29-year tenure there, I learned to understand and appreciate just how much heart, soul, energy, and sacrifice teachers give every day. Over time, I began to comprehend and realize how much love parents felt for their children.
One of my greatest sources of pride as an administrator came from helping to create and maintain one of Los Angeles' most socio-economic and racially diverse, LGBT-friendly campuses among the many private and independent schools in the area. As our state senator noted, we were a "model of diversity." In addition to the children of Hollywood celebrities, 30% of our student population was represented by children living in foster care or in families with incomes below the poverty level.
Lesson #1: Wealth and fame do not automatically translate to happiness; poverty does not automatically translate to misery.
Looking back, there were at least half a dozen early deaths (young people that did not survive their 20s) resulting from drug over doses or suicides. Without exception, each of these tragedies was to a young person with affluent or famous parents. By most standards, they had everything: money, material possessions, privilege, opportunities to travel, and a solid private school education. Unfortunately, all of this was not enough to provide them with what they needed. On the other hand, I've seen young people from very meager means thrive and become successful with nothing more than their very basic needs being met. The difference is they felt unconditionally supported, had a strong sense of self, and were able to celebrate what they had, rather than obsess over what was missing.
Lesson #2: Happiness comes from having a strong sense of self (not to be mistaken with an overinflated sense of importance or ego).
A strong sense of self comes from experiencing success with interesting life challenges. It also requires an ability to be content with what is and not always wishing for something else. Happy people have a distinct ability to live in the moment, without agonizing about the past or worrying about the future. They have a gift for finding contentment in the most mundane aspects to their day-to-day existence.
A great example of everyday heroes finding contentment in what is can be found at a unique and distinctive school in Honolulu serving students with learning differences. Five years ago, I became head of this school, guiding bright, creative, outside-the-box thinkers to achieve their fullest potential in a student-centered and accepting atmosphere, with an individualized, integrated learning environment that instills confidence and resilience. I've been able to use my own experience as a dyslexic with ADHD to better understand these exceptional children who happen to learn differently. One of the keys to our students' success is that we allow them to focus on their strengths and interests.
Lesson #3: We get kids excited about learning by allowing them ample opportunities to learn what they truly want to learn.
A few years ago I heard Bill Gates speak at an education conference. Following his remarks, an audience member stood and asked Gates to describe what his high school teachers did that contributed to his success. He answered, "They stayed out of my way." Recognizing young Mr. Gates' enormous potential, his teachers allowed him to pursue subject matter that interested him. We all know the end result. The approach with Gates is good for all students. When children want to know something, they instinctively find a way to satisfy their own curiosity and learn. The great educational philosopher John Dewey believed that the school curriculum should grow out of the needs and interests of the learner. Gates' teachers had that figured out.
Lesson #4: Unconditional support, guidance, and acceptance from a significant adult are the keys to nurturing confidence, resilience, and ultimately success.
In my own life, and through all my years as an educator, one of the most important and powerful lessons I've learned is the immeasurable value of acceptance and unconditional support in a young person's life from a significant adult. This is a universal truth cutting across cultural differences, socio-economic classes, learning differences, and all challenges. One of the greatest determining factors of a child's success is if that child has an adult who believes in him or her. A parent, teacher, coach, or any other caring adult can make all the difference in a child's life by believing in that child and holding a vision of a bright future for that child. One must believe that there is a future before one is willing to work toward that future.
There are many more lessons I could add to the list and I certainly could elaborate more on those mentioned here. But that would require a book. In the meantime, over the next 35 years, I hope that I'll be able to continue to grow, to learn, to evolve, and to share with appreciation whatever lies ahead.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My Dyslexia


I was born dyslexic and I will always be dyslexic.  By the end of first grade, I was well aware of the fact that I was unable to read as well as my peers.  I didn't know why this was the case, but as a result, I developed feelings of inferiority that have haunted me for years.  

My life in school started out as mediocre and remained as such throughout my K-12 years and beyond.  I'll never forget meeting with my high school counselor and being told that I shouldn't bother taking the SAT because (as he put it), “it would be best if I would focus my attention on learning a trade that doesn't require college.”  Fortunately, my mother was there to build me back up saying, "everything will be OK, some people just need a little more time to realize their potential."  She helped me believe that someday I would make it to college.

School was a chore, but on the bright side, I excelled in sports.  They were my outlet and without them I truly would have been lost.  Because of sports, I always worked (and sometimes cheated) hard enough to maintain the "C" grade point average required for eligibility.

My biggest obstacle as a high school student was my attitude and lack of motivation.  I was angry and rebellious, always finding ways to rationalize my mediocre school performance on poor teaching.   I spent so much time in the Dean of Students office that in hindsight, I'm surprised I wasn't charged rent!  Over time, he became a mentor and friend. 

By 12th grade, I had three very significant advocates, my mother, my grandmother and my Dean.  All three, in their own way provided exactly what I needed at important stages in my life.  Their unconditional acceptance combined with a sincere belief in me are what got me through high school and into a local community college.

I spent my first two years in college on academic probation.  Not because the work was too hard, but because the work simply wasn't a priority.  By the end of my sophomore year, I managed to squeak out a 2.0 grade point average, just enough to transfer to the local state university.

In my junior year, my former high school Dean introduced me to a professor at the college I was attending.  This introduction turned out to be the single most important gift I had ever received.

Dr. Colwell, known as Maurice to his friends, was the most brilliant, charismatic, insightful and funny individual I had ever met.  We became close friends, discussing philosophy, education, mental illness, golf, baseball, movies, books and relationships.  Our friendship turned out to be more of a dialogue, a dialogue that lasted over 20 years (until Maurice passed away).  

While having lunch together during my senior year of college, Maurice brought up graduate school and the next thing I knew, I was enrolled in a master's program. Immediately after completing the program, I was offered a teaching position.  I accepted the position as an adjunct professor and continued teaching in the Department of Social & Philosophical Foundations of Education for over 30 years.  In looking back at my school experience, I'm often amazed that I went from academic probation to master's degree and college teaching in a span of five years.

My reason for sharing all this is because as Head of Assets School, I know there are parents dealing with the same anxieties my parents faced.  I know that we have students here at Assets who will make many of the same mistakes I made along the way, and I know that all of our students are bright, capable individuals deserving of the same level of unconditional support I had as a young person.

I will be "blogging" from time to time with the hope of discussing various issues relating to parenting, education and more, with the hope of striking a chord with others in a way that will allow for optimism, provide assurance and hopefully lend some practical guidance.