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My bullying prevention program

The first week of October featured a flurry of discussion about bullying in the US – Newsweek , People Magazine, CNN (a week of coverage on bullying).  I was saddened and shocked by the children who committed suicide after bullying. 

Boys playing

Bullying happens.  It has happened since the dawn of time. Animals do it in the wild – they fight for social status and breeding rights. And so do people – we jockey for social position and that jockeying is hurtful to the person who doesn’t win. I know, as a kid, I was pretty low on the social status meter as a child.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman’s NurtureShock aggregated research showing that “Zero Tolerance” is a 100% failure (chapter 9, Plays Well with Others - synopsis here).  It often penalizes play or simple bad judgement. With the severity of the penalties for any form of bullying (“tag” is considered bullying by some definitions), the children drive this behavior underground where the bullying includes threats if the subject asks for help.  Zero tolerance is catchy and as a parent, sounds reassuring, but it doesn’t work. And it’s not realistic training for life.

How do you stop bullying? Or help your child avoid the temptation of being a bully online or in person?  How should you help your child deal with being bullied? Is there any way to enable your child to share with you if they feel bullied (and verify the story if needed)?

From all the writing of the week of Oct. 4 plus NurtureShock and my own experience, I think parents have all the tools we need to conduct a 16 year bullying prevention program.

  1. Start when they are toddlers.  Kindness must be taught to toddlers and reinforced for the rest of childhood. If you explain, model and reward kindness with social status, children learn that there is a healthy path to social acceptance. If you missed this window, start now.
  2. Parents, teachers and people in the community have to make an effort to recognize and applaud kindness. And be absolute in reaction if your child is a bully – it’s unacceptable and they should be ashamed and embarrassed.
  3. Listen to our children without taking action. They need to decide what they want us to do – to just listen, to brainstorm, to act. They have to know it’s safe to tell us what’s happening.
  4. Help our children develop a thick skin. Not everyone is nice or polite. Not everyone is going to like you. Sometimes you have to let it roll off you.
  5. Teach our children when and how to fight back.  Whether through words or acts, in person or digitally, they have to know how to stand up for themselves.

True zero tolerance comes from their peers. Kids, especially teenagers, care more about what their friends think than what their parents or teachers think. Zero tolerance comes from peer pressure. When, among your peers, it’s just not okay to be a bully – when it lowers your social status – there’s no benefit to doing it. And it stops.

What do you do about preventing and dealing with bullying?


Hide the spinach with a Vitamix

My eldest son will not eat green foods, except for M&Ms, and there are only so many battles a mom can have with her son.  He's in good shape and very healthy, so I stopped fighting this problem. And that's when a solution popped up. 

As we traversed Costco last weekend, he stopped me by a demonstration of a Vitamix blender. I was skeptical - we have a blender and it didn't cost half of what this blender costs. The first sample was a strawberry-banana smoothie similar to Jamba Juice (in fact, Jamba Juice apparently uses Vitamixes). Then the demonstrator pulled out all the stops and made a drink that had oranges, pineapple, carrots and...spinach. 

My son watched him put every ingredient in the blender. Vitamix is known for liquifying foods - so every food, including the spinach, was in full view. The mix was made and the green sludge was poured into Dixie Cups for the tasting. His green aversion was mounting but so was his curiosity. And then I had a stroke of brilliance... 


For a boy who loves playing plants vs. zombies whenever I'll let him have access to my iphone, this was the most incredible possibility. He had to taste it.  He wanted to like it.  And like it he did. A lot.  And that's how I wound up with a Vitamix 5200 in my kitchen.

At the farmer's market the next day, my son trotted to the farmer with bags of fresh, organic spinach and briskly purchased two bags. And after a few tries, I am now a highly successful smoothie barrista making bright green zombie juice virtually every day.  Sometimes we make pink smoothies (strawberries, pomegranite, orange).  Or green smoothies (yellow fruits plus spinach).  Even made fresh butternut squash soup (pretty good). Nothing quite as fabulous as zombie juice, but hey, he's drinking his vegetables.


When should a gifted child start kindergarten?

Jokingly, my friends and I will say that all our children are gifted.  In fact, in all the conversations I've had with parents about when to start a child in kindergarten, absolutely no one has said that their child isn't smart enough to start - it's inevitably about social or athletic concerns. It's sort of assumed that the intellectual development of the child won't really be impacted either way.

The President of the Montana Association of Gifted and Talented Education's post on Teacher Magazine's EdWeek suggests that for gifted children, perhaps we should be considering EARLY start - or, as in the case of fall children/boys kids, ON TIME.  She cites 50 years of research (summarized and available at the Acceleration Institute which is focused on Gifted and Talented education) on the benefits of acceleration (skipping grades).  Certainly something to consider for the parents of bright children considering holding their children back for non-academic reasons.

Whatever you believe about skipping grades, its virtually undisputed that schools should challenge every student and encourage students to go beyond their comfort zone of abilities. How to do this without creating pressurized schools is a challenge. Personally, I like the project based learning models that I see at our school and others as a way for each child to learn according to their learning style and push beyond their comfort zone. 

Students in Science Class

An example - the fourth grade at my school started their year learning the scientific method and immediately applying to an experiment testing different brands of paper towels. They 

A quick review of the scientific method:

  1. Observe something
  2. Form a hypothesis that states the explanation of the observation
  3. Predict what would happen if the hypothesis is true or false.
  4. Create an experiment to test the predictions.
  5. Analyze the results and determine if the hypothesis is on track.

So the fourth grade observed that different paper towel brands are different and ran experiments on absorbency and strength over the course of a week.  Then the kicker...when the experiment was done and the data collected, each child had a week to create an advertisement for the brand they chose - a poster ("print" in my world), jingle or video. Their ads were to be "big, bold and beautiful", make and defend scientific claims and engage the audience. The criteria for excellence was written and distributed to students (and their parents).  The result was every child strove for public excellence and expressed themselves and their abilities - whether or not they are gifted in science.  Or writing. Or art.  And when they presented their ads, the classroom erupted with support and feedback - from the students and staff. 

There are possibilities to challenge every child every day. What is unacceptable is letting students disengage from learning because they are either bored, lost or something else. It seems to me that finding a school that will engage and challenge your child appropriately is crucial - whether they are truly gifted or not.



What happened to my AP curriculum - it's gone!


Rear view of a graduate

What do you remember about AP Calculus? AP Biology?  AP English (which wasn't offered at my math and science heavy high school)? If you remember writing papers, proofs, designing and executing your own experiments - it seems as though that's just not done anymore.  I remember challenging classes where the teacher had no expectation that any or all of us would actually take the AP test. So, the teacher spent time teaching, not prepping for the test.

Apparently, that academic program is history.  

APs have become the way high schools compare to each other. Perhaps it was US News & World Reports or Newsweek who came out with high school rankings - but offering a lot of AP classes and getting a lot of good scores on AP tests has become a critical success measure. And according to Dr. Tony Wagner, as more high schools offer AP classes, fewer colleges are accepting them for credit.  Turns out that the colleges didn't feel that the AP credits were earned doing college level work.

AP tests today measure content. Content is pretty easy to find - through a phone or a laptop. Knowing if the content is reliable and analyzing, presenting and using content - that's hard. That's what's expected in college courses and it's not what's being measured in a multiple choice standardized test. You can graduate with a robust AP curriculum and never write a research paper.  It's not a requirement of the curriculum (individual teachers and schools can have their own requirements, of course).

You teach what you test.

I was an excellent test taker, so I have no story about how testing hurt me. Assessment is crucial for students, teachers and parents - it's how we know that we're learning the intended skills. The problem is the unintended consequences of using a content literacy test as the sole measure of school quality. The only logical thing to do when your institution is measured on a specific test is maximize performance on that test.

  • Is the most important skill for an academic high school junior or senior memorization? 
  • Or is it critical thinking and analysis?

My kids will go to college in a long time and I expect they'll be carrying digital textbooks and always-on devices that make content universally accessible.  So, when they're preparing for college, I hope they'll be learning to analyze and present content - perhaps even in collaboration with others. Kudos to Scarsdale High School in New York for eliminating AP course - they have Advanced Study, but it's not test centric. Kudos to Sequoia High School in Redwood City for having the International Baccalaureate program.

Do you think the use of AP scores as a measure of high school quality has helped improve education? What else could we use to assess high schools?  What are the unintended consequences of those choices?


Hope and despair in Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman reminded me of how lucky I am that by circumstance of birth and timing, I had access to a good public education and that I got tracked into the “academic” track as a 6th grader. It’s heartbreaking to watch parents who want their children to have more life options and get out of poverty facing few, if any choices, about the school for their child. And their option is winning the lottery or educating their child in a drop-out factory schools - even in suburbia lest you think we are exempted from this problem. Waiting for Superman is a new documentary from the people who made An Inconvenient Truth. Once again, the producers are trying to start a movement and a conversation about the American educational system. 

In this film publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, Geoffrey Canada, standing, is shown in a scene from, "Waiting for 'Superman'." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures)I wasn’t expecting to like the movie. I was expecting it to vilify teachers’ unions (they don’t look very good in the movie) and I was expecting it to herald Charter Schools (they do come out looking good). I don't believe there is a single villain or savior to this problem.  Most charter schools do worse or no better than the public school alternative. Most countries outperforming us in education have strong teacher unions. 

That said, the film provokes dialogue about the state of our educational system.  

My main takeaways from the movie are these:

1. There are no excuses for a child not to receive a great education. 

Some of these charter schools are working in terrible neighborhoods where more than 30% of the students have no parent in the home supporting their education. And succeeding. How do we replicate that?

2. Only 20% of charter schools are exceeding the performance of the public schools in their area.

These schools need to be seen as successful test labs and their methods should be adopted quickly by the others. If not, failing charter schools and failing public schools lose funding.

3. We’re over-reliant on standardized test scores.

Those tests, which don’t evaluate the skills relevant to 21st century jobs, do show that students are learning to read and do math. Considering that the other schools do not achieve those minimal goals, the tests are demonstrating improvement in reading and math.

4. Tenure is not healthy.

My school doesn’t have a tenure system – employment is at will. Teachers are evaluated and coached regularly. How else would they improve? And everyone in every job needs to continuously improve, including teachers. We also have to treat our teachers with respect so that they want to continue teaching in our school.

5. Our system is designed for the graduate job outcomes of the 1950s.  

It was designed when only 20% of students who graduated were expected to go to college.  The rest went to factories, farms or office jobs.  Today, the economic prospects for people with high school degrees are so limited – and yet we have an educational system designed to send 20% of the students to college.  Colleges report that they have to remediate 50% of their freshmen students because they weren’t well prepared. One of the reasons I love Jewish day schools is that those schools (and the parents who send their children there) traditionally aim at 100% college enrollment without remediation.

Improving school choice will start to address the problem.  The best educators I know are very comfortable with accountability for the education of children – and I wouldn’t want a school or educator who isn’t. But we must be careful not to define accountability by performance on the current crop of standardized content tests that aren’t proven to measure anything other than test taking and test teaching.

The rest of the world – especially Finland – is showing that you can measure student progress and school effectiveness with meaningful assessments that demonstrate critical thinking, communication and creativity as well as content literacy. And in virtually every country outperforming us, they do have strong teacher's unions.  

The face remains that our children and our country are being left in the dust.

Parents need to educate ourselves on what constitutes a good education and it’s not as simple as a standardized test. We must understand the implications of student tracking, IQ testing and content cramming on the education of our children. Educators and policy makers must create assessments that measure what matters across schools so that we can have accountability. And then we must allow progressive educators to experiment. Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. And spread those lessons far and wide to every school and every district. No excuses.

Start with pledging to see the movie and getting involved in the conversation. Personally, I think it is a matter of national security and our future. I’m thrilled to be involved in the pursuit of excellence in education at our school and sharing what we learn there with other schools.

What are you doing to pursue excellence in education?

Other articles on the movie:

CBS News: Waiting for Superman fuels debate over education

Why blaming the unions is counter-productive

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter on education reform under Obama