What Are We Doing to Our Children?

  BLOG- WINDOW2My 13 year-old nephew told me that his classroom is in a basement. No windows.

He doesn’t have gym, music or art.

He gets to school at 7am and returns home after 5pm.

As a teacher, I find this heartbreaking.

As a person, I find it inhuman.

This past weekend a piece in the New York Times, Best, Brightest and Saddest, reported that between May 2009 and January 2010, five teenagers in Palo Alto committed suicide by stepping in front of a train.

The article discusses the stresses (advanced placement classes, perfect SAT scores and exceptional grade point averages) that push teenagers to overachieve.

Teenagers often don’t get enough sleep and depression is on the rise.

Two weeks ago, on a Saturday night, my daughter, a junior in high school, came to me in tears. She was scheduled to take a practice SAT the following morning. She’d already taken countless tests.

My daughter wakes up at 6:45 every school day and commutes for over an hour in traffic. She comes home from school around 8pm after she’s completed soccer practice, or worked with her SAT tutor or gone to a friend’s house to study. She goes to sleep around midnight, which she claims is early in comparison to her friends. Over the weekend, she has hours of homework.

It made sense that she was stressed out.

“I’m so tired,” my daughter said, clearly upset. “And I have to wake up at 6:30 tomorrow morning to take the SAT again.”

Parenting requires we use our best judgment and the terrifying truth is that we’re not always going to be right.

But in recognizing that my daughter had reached her limit, that she needed empathy and support, I said, “Don’t take it.”

But I was unsure.

Was I teaching my daughter to expect less of herself?

Was I teaching her bad values?

I went with my gut.

Education has always been important to me and my children are aware of that. In fact, my older children like to tease me that I wouldn’t let them miss a day of school when they were young unless they were bleeding from their eyeballs and had 104 degree fever.

The thing is that even though education is an important value to me, teaching my daughter to value her well being, more than a test score, felt right.

Even still, I was relieved to see that in the NY Times article mentioned above a psychiatrist, Adam Strassberg, agreed that limiting the number of times a student takes the SAT is one way to reduce student stress.

The article points to a new awareness, “Want the best for your child, not for your child to be the best.”

Doodle Power

Doodle-How Schools Kill Creativity  If you google most popular TED Talks the first one listed is Ken Robinson’s: How Schools Kill Creativity (2006).

I was fortunate enough to go to Isadore Newman School in New Orleans, where creativity was valued. In fourth grade, I had the opportunity to sit on a carpet with my classmates and sing Langston Hughes poetry while our teacher played the guitar; and in fifth grade, my homework was to bake homemade bread when our class studied the Pioneers.

Newman recognized something in me; and so while my friends in other classes memorized multiplication facts, I designed the classroom bulletin board. At the time this method of teaching was quite progressive. It was before Howard Gardner wrote, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983.) In his book, Gardner proposes that intelligence should not be measured by a single ability but should be differentiated into specific, primarily sensory, modalities: musical, visual, verbal, logical, bodily, interpersonal, intrapersonal.

My experiences at Newman affected me greatly and as a fourth and fifth grade teacher, I wanted to educate in a similar way, a way I believed was essential. At NYU and  then at Bank Street College, where I received my graduate degree, I learned about educating the whole child; providing meaningful experiences, and a variety of materials, in order to create an environment in which children could learn to their full potential.

But at school in New Orleans, I didn’t understand why I got to skip math in order to practice my balance beam routine. I thought I was getting away with something, beating the system. The staff at Newman understood that in order to educate me, and others like me, it would require something more than sitting in a chair for eight hours straight, staring at the blackboard. I would need to dance, draw, sing.

In sixth grade, however, in science, I received the first and only "D" I ever got on my report card. My parents went ballistic, and grounded me. Wanting to leave my room, I promised to work hard and pull up my grade.

One day, my science teacher lectured about clouds: cumulus, stratus, cirrus, nimbus. I sat in the front row and doodled. My teacher was generally a nice man, and probably a proponent of progressive education, but given my report card grade, the squiggly drawings on my notebook aggravated him; and he ordered me to put the sketches away. It was one thing to value the arts in a classroom but doodling?

I was humiliated in front of my class, not only because he’d scolded me; but because I really had been listening, and hated that he thought I hadn’t been. I wanted to show him that he was wrong, that I could doodle and pay attention, in fact maybe even better attention than if I hadn’t been doodling. And I did. I showed him. I got a 92 on the next science test. But it wasn’t until last week, almost 40 years after the day I doodled in class, that I found scientific research to back me up.

After I watched Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, How Schools Kill Creativity, I wanted to tell others to watch it. (The TED tagline is Ideas Worth Spreading.) In trying to summarize the content of the video, I could barely retrieve a single detail other than what the title inferred, and this upset me. Why was my retention so poor?

Inadvertently, a few days later, I stumbled on Sunni Brown’s video on Doodling. Doodlers, Unite! Brown says that studies show sketching and doodling improve comprehension and creativity. Further browsing led me to a site on graphic note taking, which is basically another name for doodling.

I know I need to write things down, see them, in order to remember them. I’m not an auditory person: in one ear, out the other, as the saying goes. But once I take pen in hand, and can see the words or pictures on a page, the images are etched in my mind, the details stored. But I'd forgotten, or at least minimized, how essential this was to me as a learner.

So, I listened to How Schools Kill Creativity again; but this time, I doodled as I listened and graphic note taking, it turns out, is a great tool. The difference in my comprehension was incredible. I had no problem recounting how Ken Robinson is a creativity expert who is challenging the way we educate our children, reminding us that schools need to nurture, rather than undermine, creativity, and to acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.

I tried graphic note taking while I watched Brene Brown’s TED Talk- The Price of Invulnerability. (I highly recommend her talk- The Power of Vulnerability as well.)

The Price of Invulnerability

I joke now that I could recite these talks, verbatim.

The power in doodling is just one of many ideas worth spreading.