Thursday, September 24, 2009

Public Apologies as Teachable Moments

In an old 1970s song, Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” In the case of recent public meltdowns, most notably in the cases of singer Kanye West, U.S. Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC), and tennis star Serena Williams, getting the “sorry” part done doesn’t seem to be too difficult; however, one must ask the most salient question about this kind of despicable behavior that is usually followed by an apology: is it a teachable moment for our children?

Rep. Wilson is probably off most kids’ radar screens, but he still is a Congressman and his behavior occurred on national television. If he can interrupt the President’s address to Congress, why can’t a kid yell out something at a school assembly? Or in class? Rep. Wilson did make an apology to President Obama, but isn’t the damage already done?

Serena Williams is, as I believe all professional athletes should be, a role model for young people. She is specifically a role model for young girls who aspire to play tennis and be just like her. For her to react the way she did is inexcusable, even if she did come back the next day and submit a formal apology. What does this kind of thing actually teach kids?

Finally, a talented young fellow like Kanye West imploded at the MTV Music Awards show, grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift who just won an award for Best Female Video. This is a show that kids do watch and, after seeing this, my 8-year old daughter, a fan of Swift, wanted to know “Why did that bad man do that to Taylor?” I’d say many of the adults watching wanted to know too. West appeared the next evening on the new The Jay Leno Show and promptly gave an apology and even almost cried. What are we to make of this kind of thing?

I think the answer is that it is obvious in these three cases that the apology is made as damage control, but in all three cases I question the sincerity of the apology. Still as adults, parents and teachers struggle to find a way to make sense of these issues and break them down into a teachable moment, and since they are indeed teachable moments, it is necessary and compelling to address them with our youngsters.

What did I say to my daughter about Kanye West? I told her that he was obviously excited about his friend Beyonce not winning the award, just as she could get upset if one of her friends didn’t win a singing contest at school. I explained that she knows it would be wrong to rush up on stage in front of all the students and claim that her friend should have won because her song was better. My daughter understood this example, but she wanted to know if she had done something “bad like that” would “sorry” be okay? I said it would be good, but it does not change the unacceptable behavior and that unacceptable behavior should have consequences.

I think the biggest problem is that kids see this kind of thing and believe “sorry” is sufficient, when most times it is not. Yes, Serena Williams was fined $10, 500 for her reprehensible behavior involving a call she disagreed with from the line judge, and she may face additional penalties, but do kids connect with that? My feeling is that consequences have to fit the crime, so to speak, and fining Ms. Williams a paltry amount of money, when she makes $500,000 for the U.S. Open alone, seems ridiculous.

And what of Rep. Wilson’s abhorrent behavior? For yelling “You Lie” as the President of the United States was speaking to a joint session of Congress, he is getting just a slap on the wrist. The House voted to “formally disapprove” of Wilson’s rant, but what this resolution does is nothing but symbolic. Republicans are calling the measure partisan politics, but do they think he should just walk away from this with no reprimand? How is that for an example for our children? Sadly, it is not.

In all these cases the people who did something inappropriate basically got away with it. In fact, in some odd way, these things probably will enhance their careers. Extremists will no doubt now want to support Wilson even more, and West earns some kind of street credibility as a guy who stands up for what he thinks is right. As for Ms. Williams, she was only defending herself against a bad call. No harm, no foul, right?

Obviously, this kind of thing will continue to happen. If Wilson were sanctioned more seriously, perhaps taking away his ability to vote on key issues for a time; if Williams were seriously punished, say banning her from the Australian Open to make her really feel it in the pocketbook; and, if West were forced to give a sizable amount of money to a charity of Taylor Swift’s choice, maybe we could say that the apology was more than just words. In this case it is just an easy way out, a quick fix, and kids are very smart and know that.

I think that each time something like this happens, that teachers can address it and use it in a lesson on right and wrong. There also should be an extremely careful plan to highlight the proper way to do what people like West, Wilson, and Williams were doing. Students need to understand the true art of discourse: we can debate an issue intelligently, coming down on different sides, but always respecting the other point of view as we proceed.

In the end it’s all about making sure that our children learn to perceive that doing things the right way really does matter and, more importantly, that people put on pedestals are sometimes not always worthy of being looked up to. It is our job as parents and teachers to make certain we are there when their heroes fall in order to, not just to pick up the pieces, but to make clear to them that “sorry” isn’t just a word to say. They must also know that some kind of appropriate and positive action to prove the sorrow must take place. In this way we can make every effort to show our children the right way to handle these challenges and to live their lives in the best possible way.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Revisiting 9/11 Forevermore

Every year on this day, we are all New Yorkers.
-President Barack Obama

Suddenly, without warning I am here again, spiraling through the clouds and heavy rain, hovering over what they now call “The Pit” where once stood the buildings known as The Twin Towers. I see that since last year some progress has been made, but it seems incredulous that after all this time that things aren’t farther along than they are. How can this be?

I gain some control and can focus better through the raindrops; the people who have come to honor me and those like me are nowhere near where it all happened. They are removed and on the edge of things in a small park. I come every year because I desire it, and somehow when I want things they happen. I still don’t understand how it works, and I sometimes cannot believe I am even dead. I know I am but I still can’t accept it I guess.

The people who have come here are so valiant, standing in the rain with umbrellas and all sorts of raingear covering them. There are children holding flowers, mothers holding photographs, fathers holding signs with names on them and messages. There are wives who cry in the rain and with the rain and in spite of the rain, because their tears are endless as the seas and there is no eight years ago or today, but only a tomorrow without their beloved ones.

I see politicians whom I wish I could not see because these same people did nothing to protect and save me and my brethren. Why are they here now except to capitalize on some political points they can gain. Why can’t they let this day be pure grief and leave those people who are truly suffering alone with others like them?

Of course, the cameras are there and the news people who pretend this didn’t happen during the rest of the year, but they too are using the moment to their advantage, for ratings and whatever reason people without hearts do things. How dare they insult the intelligence and dignity of these good people with their cameras and phony expressions of sorrow?

I still have trouble dealing with that day, accepting that day, and going on with my, well, my existence after death. I am told by others like me that everyone is different after death. Some accept it freely, and those are the lucky ones. Others do not accept it or even do not believe they are dead. I am in this category. I still see myself at my desk, checking e-mail when the first plane hit, and I haven’t been able to reconcile things.

Once the initial impact was over and I had shaken the plaster and part of the cubicle wall off my body, I picked myself up off the floor and did what I always had done when something big happened. I called my wife. People were screaming all around me, smoke was pouring up from the point of impact, and debris hung in the air like confetti on New Year’s Eve. I dialed her number and spoke to her. She already knew because she was ironing clothes and watching TV. I said everything was going to be okay. I told her I was getting out of there and would be home as soon as possible, and that was the last time I spoke to her.

I had no idea about terrorists as I hung up the phone. I knew something terrible had happened from the way the building shook. Maybe an earthquake. Maybe a bomb like back in ‘93. I didn’t know what the hell happened but I was getting out of there, or so I thought. I remember grabbing my jacket and running to the exit door, but the black sulfurous smoke came pouring out as I opened it.

I was spinning and turning and then I remember nothing but the flash of neon light, and then I felt like I was falling forever, way beyond the edge of the building and through time and space and I kept thinking about those e-mails I hadn’t answered, about calling my wife back, and finding a way to get out and on the E train home to Queens.

So all this time has passed for people but nothing has really passed at all, for the dead or their living friends, lovers, and family. What happens seems like it just happened to me, in fact it keeps happening and then I am someplace else, with other victims and then I am free of all that and roaming the earth. Searching. I want to find my body, cram myself back inside it no matter how damaged it is, and find a way to hobble home. I think that my wife will accept me no matter how I look; my children will shower my battered face with tears, and my parents will love me as they always have no matter what.

I have been searching and am amazed at how time means nothing and everything. I can think I want to be someplace and I am there instantly. I have marveled at things I never saw in life, but I am humbled by people all over the world who have mourned me and others like me who died on 9/11. I am also revolted by those who celebrated the fall of the Twin Towers like it was a victory on a playing field. How shameful are these people? Well, wait until it’s their turn to die. They’ll see how it is.

I know the people responsible for what happened are not all caught yet. I’ve been there in Afghanistan and have seen our brave men and women fighting the good fight, but it’s not over. I know many people just want it to be over, but it is never over. All of you ridiculous people who bemoan water-boarding and all this other stuff, I have news for you: there are hundreds and thousands more of people just like those guys who caused the fall of the towers. They’re waiting to strike again anywhere and anytime, and you’re worried about their rights and care nothing about all those souls lost that day.

Let me tell you something. All you have to do is flood Afghanistan with soldiers, all the ones from that other war that is over anyway in Iraq. I’ve been there too and have seen the courageous soldiers fighting, but we need them over in Afghanistan now. All of them and more. We need to flood that country and occupy every area of it, push across the border into Pakistan whether or not anyone likes it, and crush these people now. If we do not, more buildings will fall and people will die and it will never end. Trust me, it never ends.

So I am here again. I thought about the day and I was here. This is how it works for me now. I flutter down through the rain, looking for my wife amongst the many. I hear the people crying, I see their tears mingling with the raindrops, but this does nothing to dilute their pain and suffering. They are reading the names on a platform. So many names and faces to go with them. I am one of those faces and I do not fade away with the years; none of us do.

I finally see my wife and children standing there under two big umbrellas. My son and daughter are so big now. She brought them this time after not bringing them before. It’s not like I haven’t seen them; I visit the house now and then to watch over them. It hurts me so that I cannot hold them, cannot brush the tears from their eyes, but I am there with them and kiss their foreheads as they sleep in bed, and I try to spoon my wife as she sleeps, still clinging to her side with the rest of the empty bed seemingly waiting for me. Well, Honey, I am there. Always.

The ceremony is over now and the people are walking down toward The Pit to a small pool, throwing in flowers of love and memory. The grieving is extraordinary, the comfort is in the process and I can see my children each drop a flower in the pool, followed by my wife. She sobs as she drops the flower, says a few words I can’t understand from where I am, but I do know what she has said. There was so much unsaid between us when I died, but I know it all by heart now anyway, for it has been revealed to me through her prayers.

Things end rather quickly and I am moving upward again, toward the rain and grey clouds, and I look down at The Pit one last time, knowing I’ll be back. This time of year next year, and the year after that, until the end of time. We on this side will never forget and we need you on that side to always remember. We are all energy now, floating together above the mourners and we intermingle, allowing each other’s thoughts to be heard.

There are thousands of us joined for a moment in time, and then just like that we shoot out in all directions, heading to all corners of the earth, parting ways but not company. We are all part of a club we never wanted to join, but we are members for eternity. I don’t even know where I am going, but I am still searching and hoping to find a way to accept.

Whatever happens I’ll be back. We’ll all be back because we have no choice. So, remember us not just this one day a year, but all 365 days of it. Please build these towers to show the world, and get them built faster and higher and do it for us. Get Bin Laden and any other person who would ever harm innocents, and show the world justice and remind them of our legacy. Do it for us all and never forget us. Never forget us because all we can do is remember and wait.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Obama’s Back to School Message: Give Him an “A” for Effort

With all the controversy swirling around Mr. Obama’s Back to School Message, anyone who watched or listened to the speech must have been thinking “What’s the big deal?” In truth, there was no “big deal” at all in the speech, just a solid reminder to kids about the importance of taking their studies seriously and staying in school. Coming from the President of the United States, maybe that message will be taken a little more seriously by those kids and their parents.

He started talking of universal truths about going back to school: kids will be nervous, some wish it were still summer, seniors everywhere are rejoicing they got this far. But he quickly changed gears and talking about things he has said before about education, including “responsibility” for everyone involved in the process: parents, teachers, and government. What was also important was the focus on the student. He said that all the responsibility in the world by other people won’t matter “Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.”

As an educator, I was happy to hear this. Too many times it seems people have been passing the buck. It’s everyone’s fault that schools are failing and kids are dropping out of school. Yes, all those people bear responsibility, but I welcomed hearing the President remind kids that this is their job too, that they must pull their weight in order for the process to work.

Over the years I’ve heard students talk cavalierly about what will happen after high school. They will say things about getting great jobs, making lots of money, and having big houses and fancy cars. Many times this comes from students with the lowest averages who seem to have no grasp on reality. Mr. Obama apparently understands this when he went on to say, “You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.”

I loved this comment, but then he followed it up with something even stronger when he said:

And this isn’t just important for your own life
and your own future. What you make of your
education will decide nothing less than the future
of this country. What you’re learning in school
today will determine whether we as a nation can
meet our greatest challenges in the future.

To use an old cliché, this sounded like music to my ears, and it plays upon President Kennedy’s old but wonderful call not to ask what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country. Instead of bemoaning all the countries whose kids do better in science and math, Mr. Obama is telling them that they have a stake in this not just for their own careers but collectively, as citizens of our nation, and that they have a vested interest in making the grade and going beyond because that will secure our way of life for future generations.

Mr. Obama also addressed students who may not have the perfect life at home. As a teacher, I have heard many horror stories over the years that I don’t need to repeat here, but I often wondered how kids got their homework done or studied for a test in that kind of environment. Yet, truthfully, often those students defiantly found a way and gave in some of the best papers and scored highest on tests.

Mr. Obama gave some insight from his own life on the subject: “I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had.” He let those kids identify with him, then masterfully brought it around and back to them.

He told them “That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.” This echoes what I and many other teachers have said to students one-on-one and in a class setting over the years. We educators must be thankful for him having said it, as our President and as a man who is respected by kids who will listen and hopefully follow the advice he is dispensing.

All the critics who were against this speech must have, I can only hope, thought differently after hearing it. When Mr. Obama told the students to set goals, he gave realistic examples and yet also set the bar higher too. The goal could be doing homework, reading, or paying attention in class, but the bottom line is the idea of striving toward something. For many kids this is like an adult starting a diet. That person shouldn’t fast for days and get him or herself sick, but take baby steps of cutting portions or skipping sweets. Mr. Obama let kids know that they can set goals and then, after reaching them, strive for something higher.

I think many people from both parties probably welcomed when Mr. Obama said that when they give up on themselves they give up on their country. Again moving back to the idea of something greater than the individual, Mr. Obama reminded students of something crucial about the USA. He said, “The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.” This is not only good common sense educationally speaking, but it is downright patriotic and this quotation should be posted in classrooms around the nation.

When the President of the United States tells kids “I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you,” I think it sets the tone for a great school year. Will kids fail this year? Inevitably. Will students drop out of school? Of course they will. I do believe though that Mr. Obama has set the bar high, but not too out of reach, in order for many students to believe they can achieve something more than they have done in the past.

As educators often do, I like to grade performances and public speakers, so I am giving Mr. Obama an “A” for effort for this speech, especially considering all the negativity that preceded it. He spoke passionately and eloquently, and he indeed provides one of the most important things the students (and their parents) of this country need: a fine role model in the highest office of the land.

Of course, now it is all in the hands of those whom he addressed. It is also up to educators and parents to make this teachable moment into something more. We can ask questions and require written responses, we can have students set goals, post them in their classrooms or rooms at home, and get them as motivated as we can. More importantly, we can remind students in our classes and children in our families that it’s not just the President who expects more from them, but we do too. Giving as much guidance, assistance, and love as we can, think of the possibilities.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Some New School Year Ideas for Parents

If you are like me, you are a parent who is anticipating the new school year just as anxiously, or perhaps even more anxiously, than your child is. This is perfectly normal as we gather new school supplies and make certain all the new clothes fit, and that the backpack, lunch box, and pencil case are ready for that first morning. You probably are also making sure (for the smaller ones) that the camera is charged and there is room on the card to take enough photographs.

No matter what the ages of your children (parents whose kids are going off to college tell me they have similar anxieties), there are ways to make it easier for both them and for yourself. Besides being a parent, I have been an educator for the last 26 years, including being an elementary and high school teacher and a school principal. I have seen most of what can be seen, and experienced it from both sides of the equation.

The first thing is to take deep breaths and think positive thoughts. Emitting any negative vibrations can affect your child, and believe it or not teachers will pick up on them too if you walk in the room that way. Being extremely positive is an excellent way to go about life anyway, so exuberantly tell your child that this is going to be a great day, a great year, and a wonderful time in his or her life. Say it and mean it.

You may be in a situation where you know the teacher your child is getting. As an administrator, I always tried to keep this under wraps until the first day of school. The kids would come in, be directed to a room, walk in and be surprised. This may seem unfair, but it is actually not. If you think your child is getting Mr. Mean Teacher all summer, what good is that going to do you or your child? Conversely, if you think you are getting Miss Sweetheart, imagine how disappointed you and your child will be if on that first day you find out that she took a new job or that the principal shifted her at the last minute to a different grade.

If you do know who the teacher will be, make every effort to be positive about this person no matter who she or he is. Even if your child has heard negative things about that teacher from siblings or friends, tell the child that you have met the teacher and found him/her to be very nice. This is probably the primary hurdle the first day of school brings, and we can do so much as parents to soften the blow.

Once the day comes, make a special breakfast and get your child off to school early. With the little ones I know this is difficult, but kids don’t need to see Mommy or Daddy upset because of running late. Remember, all of our own phobias, anxieties, and memories about school come into play here. We must be careful never to let children see these things, or to tell them war stories of when we went to school. Save that for when they are out of college and in the workforce. You can have a good laugh about it then.

During the first week, teachers and administrators are under tremendous pressure just like you are. If you can do something nice for that teacher, even a warm smile or enthusiastic “good morning” will brighten the day. This is not a time to tell the teacher all about Mary’s issues from last year. Make an effort to be seen by the teacher, and even the principal if possible, but make it only a quick “hello” situation. If people other than you will be picking up your child, make sure they are seen as well during that first week or so. Most teachers are fiercely protective of their students and will remember faces, which is a wonderful thing.

Once the first day is over, talk to your child about how it went. Show a real interest in everything that is said, look over all the books, and cover them that night if it is required. Try doing this together to show how much you care about things happening in school. I know it is sometimes difficult, but this enthusiasm has to continue throughout the year. Remember, if your child perceives negativity on your part about school or the teacher, this will become apparent in the classroom. You don’t want that to happen.

After the first week or so, there is usually a Back to School Night of some kind. This is a chance to meet and greet. You will probably sit at your child’s desk, get to hear the teacher speak about his/her program, and in general get a very good idea about what the year will look like. You may be nervous about this moment, and your child will be too.

Believe it or not, the teacher will also be extremely nervous. Having gone through these evenings many times as a teacher and administrator, I can tell you that for a teacher this is worse than a command performance before the Queen of England. The teacher wants to communicate so much to you and probably has one session to do it, because in most schools sessions are rotated so parents with children in other grades can meet all the teachers.

As the session begins, be prepared to take notes. Listen carefully and jot down any questions you may have. You might think of more later as you’re driving home. Usually there is no time that night to ask these questions or to have a one-on-one talk with the teacher, so don’t press for this or expect it. Luckily, these days most teachers have an email address and it is very simple to send those questions politely. If there is a major issue, then it is time to make an appointment.

If not, you can wait until the end of September or beginning of October to see what progress your child is making. If no major issues come up by then, it may be wise to make an appointment anyway. Teachers really do appreciate getting to meet parents. I know after I used to sit down to talk with a parent, I understood my student so much better, and I could see the child in the parent. This is a symbiotic moment good for both parties, and it is better for you to do this before the first report card appointment that will be coming a month or so later.

These are just some ideas to get the school year started right for you and your child. Communication is the key to successful school years for parents, teachers, and administrators. Also, a we're-all-in-this-together attitude makes for a much more pleasant, positive, and ultimately rewarding experience for everyone throughout the school year. Remember to go in shining a positive glow, and your child will appreciate it as will the teacher. That way everyone is off to a great start to a great year.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Obama’s Back to School Message

President Obama’s planned message to all school children in grades Pre-K-12 is to be delivered next week as students all over the country return to school, but there has been a good deal of controversy regarding it. At the center of the debate is a writing assignment included in the preparatory materials distributed to teachers by the Department of Education asking students to “Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.”

This was obviously taken the wrong way be some parents and Republicans who felt that this is part of a bigger attempt to fill students with liberal messages and to promote the president’s agenda, including the health care initiative. After the public outcry hit the media, the assignment was changed by the Department of Education, no doubt with a good deal of input from the President, to read: “Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term educational goals.”

White House Spokesman Tommy Vietor said, “We changed it to clarify the language so the intent is clear.” Okay, we might say, that sounds right, but if we examine the two different directions they do seem to have nothing in common. If the original direction was written in that spirit, whoever wrote it certainly did a poor job. For a student to “help” a President is far different than for him or her to think about a way to “achieve” in school now or in the future.

Is there something inherently wrong about a President addressing students on their way back to school? I think not. In fact, I like the idea that Mr. Obama values education and is willing to take the time to let kids know it. We certainly need more positive messages about school, staying in school, and accomplishing something more significant than reaching the next level of a video game.

What has some Republicans and some parents spooked about this message? Well, politically speaking, the President would be woefully wrong to turn the back to school message to kids into a political speech. I am anxious to see the text of the address, which will be released on Monday, but until then I think everyone would do well to not get overly excited. Again, I must emphasize that it is necessary and compelling in these times for students to get a positive message about school. A message coming from the President carries weight and kids, who obviously admire and respect Mr. Obama, are going to be more open to his call for taking their studies more seriously.

Also, I am not at all offended by the original text asking “what they can do to help the president.” As an educator over the years, I have often used “write a letter to the president” as an assignment, especially in middle school and high school. Imagine a child’s excitement as he or she sits down to write a personal message to the most important person in the United States and the leader of the Free World. I recall that grammar and punctuation mistakes occurred much less frequently in such assignments, at least in my classes.

I do think too that a call to “help” the President is not an effort to promote an agenda, but rather have students show good citizenship. Whether the President is Republican or Democrat, is it not the goal of good citizens to want to assist this man, share their ideas, and engage in true discourse rather than biased attacks?

This reminds me of something President Kennedy said long ago: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I believe this is in essence in that same spirit, pushing children to become good students, caring people, and outstanding citizens. In this way I believe there is nothing wrong with the original text, but the new text does ask students to focus more on themselves and their goals. In this way we must hope this gets them to contemplate where they are and where they are going, and that can be a good thing too.

So I anxiously await the address to school children by the President next week. Until then, I think we should all be comforted to know that Mr. Obama cares about our schools, cares about our kids, and wants to encourage good educational practices. As an American and as a parent, I couldn’t ask for anything more.