Archive | August, 2013

American Education: Being Number 1

31 Aug

Image courtesy of Photokanok /

As millions of American schoolchildren head back to class, they carry on their shoulders a heavy weight–and they don’t even know it.

Despite our collective and constant sense of being “Number 1” in every way, America is far from it in education. Both anecdotal and quantifiable evidence tell us this: America has fallen behind our worldwide peers in the race to be the best and the brightest.

It’s not a big leap to look at this reality and see how it impacts us from an economic and political perspective. This should be a wake up call for American parents and students. Here’s a story about jobs being off-shored because American workers were not skilled enough to fill them–a sad testament to our reality.

We are no longer the “smartest” country in the world. Not only that—we’re often not in the top 20. According to one of the most widely respected comparisons provided through PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment), we are 31st in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. We may feel like Number 1, but we are not. (For a deeper look at 2009 PISA scores for reading, math, and science across all countries, see here.)

Here’s an important question: How badly do Americans want to be (and not just have the illusion of being) Number 1?

From my own experience, not badly enough. American students have sadly become smart enough to get by. I did it myself in high school, I have seen one of my children trying to do this (and not get away with it because my husband and I won’t let it pass), and I know that it happens for friends and other family members’ kids.

Teaching graduate-level classes at The Ohio State University, I work with students who operate at a high level of personal expectation and performance. Their dedication is infectious across the board. But this week I had separate conversations with three mainland Chinese students in my classes that really left an impression on me. Despite the language barrier and cultural differences, these students bring a work ethic and desire to succeed that American students don’t always have. They are hungry to learn.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that my American students are not hungry to learn. On the contrary, I’ve been lucky to work with highly motivated individuals. But across the general middle school, high school, and college-aged population of American students and parents, I do believe there is an element of taking education and achievement for granted. There’s a spirit of “We’ve always done well, so we always will.” This is dangerous thinking.

I don’t think that we want this badly enough–and we often don’t know what it will take to get back to being Number 1. For middle-class families, we are satisfied to get by, meanwhile spending more time on legitimate but less impactful leisure interests like sports and video games. For poor families, who have far less time to provide support to children’s education, we lower our educational expectations and provide little or no support to neutralize the effects of poverty. And for the “1%”–there’s little incentive since success can be purchased rather than earned through hard work.

Although this information is not new, too many American parents and students refuse to believe it. Or do anything about it. What will it take for us to be Number 1 again? The big shift is to make educational excellence a personal, family, and community priority. Here are some steps to get there:

  1. Set high expectations and hold ourselves to them. For example, I have one child who works hard for As–and earns them. I have another child that doesn’t work hard for As. I push each of them differently. The first needs support and encouragement to build confidence. And the second needs a cattle prod to go beyond “good enough”–and also build self-discipline for future performance.
  2. Pay attention to the new Common Core State Standards and support our students and schools to exceed them. The standards describe what students need to know and be able to do based on not random desires but the needs of businesses–our kids’ future employers. Their development and implementation has spanned the Bush and Obama administrations. The standards are about American economic livelihood–not politics. Don’t get sucked into extremist rhetoric that politicizes these common-sense expectations that will build our children’s and nation’s futures.
  3. Follow through on the promises we make to the next generation. This means doing what it takes educationally to compete in a global economy where the game has clearly changed. Being educated is not elitist. It is not uncool. It is above all a practical necessity in today’s world. As parents, at a minimum we need to push our students to study things we never had to–because this is what will get them to OUR standard of living–and then they must go beyond because this is what it will take to get us to Number 1 again.

What’s the lesson? Here’s a quote from The Economist that speaks volumes:

A big message is that national culture matters more than the structure of an education system. So the main lesson for policymakers may be to put education at the forefront of the story a nation tells about itself. Countries which do that with conviction and consistency can leapfrog the complacent. Outcomes can change rapidly: many students in the Asian “super league” countries have grandparents who are barely literate. Israel has also leapt up in maths and reading. Rankings and data do not tell the whole story. But they provide a useful spur.

When the Tween Has Outgrown the Teen (and everyone else)

24 Aug
Boy giant and his big sister

Boy giant and his big sister

We are now a household with a 12-year-old who is larger than the rest of us. No one else is bothered by it, but his 16-year-old sister is not in favor of this new development.

“Why couldn’t he just stay small?” she complains. “I liked him better when he was little and had those cute cheeks.” When he was a baby, she called him “Pillow Cheeks Cheeto Face.” I’m not sure why she added the “Cheeto Face” part, but it was his nickname for a long time.

Now, the cheeks are all but gone, having been stretched into a much longer, more grown-up-looking mug. He bears an alarmingly close resemblance to my dad circa his HS senior photo, including the super-sized eyebrows to match. And all of a sudden he has very particular fashion choices, only wanting to buy A&F jeans and athletic wear from a ridiculously expensive place called CHAMPS. He has entire color-coordinated ensembles by the famous designer Kobe Bryant in color-blocked schemes alarmingly reminiscent of the 90s men’s fashion that I have already once lived through.

Every time I come back from even an overnight trip he looks different. His legs are long and knobby-kneed, he wears a men’s size 11 shoe, and he’s in men’s medium shirts and young men’s jeans. There is a hint of facial hair. The doctor tells us that he will likely be 6 foot 5–a regular Jolly Green Giant compared to the rest of us. Good thing he plays basketball.

Curious onlookers have started asking: “Where does that height come from?” True enough, the gene for height clearly did not manifest for either of the boy’s parents. But our families both have it. My maternal grandmother’s father and her husband’s father were German (one of them living in Columbus’ German Village). For this reason, my mother is taller than my father, and my brother is 6 foot 5. My husband’s mother’s family is from Denmark and Poland three generations ago, with the result for his generation being that two of his sisters are taller than him.

This family history is a source of great disappointment to my 16-year-old girl, who bemoans her “fun size.” She complains, “Mom, it’s not fair. I’m not even as tall as you.” True, she is only 5 foot 2, but she won out in other ways as a result of heredity.

The lottery of genes has winners in different ways with both of them. In my daughter’s favor are a natural toughness and no-nonsense attitude, which serve her well in keeping her brother in his place. She hits hard, and my son knows it, so it’s quite amusing to see how she coerces him into doing what she wants. Even without the height. She can be very intimidating.

Often, my son will play the “I’m still the baby card,” and ask her to get him a glass of “ice-cold water.” This is pretty ridiculous coming from such a large person, as well as a 12-year-old, and she understandably laughs and tells him to “go get it yourself, dumbo.” At other times, she manipulates him by not letting him eat–an artful use of the carrot approach that works quite well with him at this stage (and probably for another 10 years at least). “No, you can’t have the donuts. I have them locked in the car,” she declares. Pretty good, especially when she hides the keys from him.

Ahhh, siblings. It’s fun as a parent to sit back and watch them work out their differences, being themselves, and growing up together–even if “up” no longer means height for the one.

The Unlikely Boxer

11 Aug

Image courtesy of John Kasawa /

Three weeks ago, I tried a boxing class with my daughter at Title Boxing Club. My motivation was this:

Curiosity and FREE CLASS!

Long story short:

  1. I felt like I was going to die at least 10 times during this first session. Not just out of breath dying–I mean actually losing consciousness, possibly for an extended period of time. KO style, without anyone actually being there to knock me out.
  2. I found it strangely therapeutic to focus on the technique of straight punches, upper cuts, jabs, and hooks.
  3. After the class I signed us up for monthly membership because we felt so good.
  4. And now we are going 3x per week. This is the minimum as prescribed by my husband, who knows my history with exercise and doubts that this time will be any different. So far, he is wrong. So there.

Admittedly, I’m not the last person in the world you’d expect to be interested. While in grad school, I was very involved in a Tae Kwon Do club, but I never kept up with it after I graduated. The thrill only lasts so long. I get bored. But the difference with this boxing thing is that every class is taught by someone else–people with exotic names like Mondo, Seamus, and Adli–and it seems that even with the same instructor every class is somewhat different.

So it’s keeping my interest for the moment. Is it a coincidence that I have been less angry lately? Probably not. As my boss, who also has been doing these classes, pointed out: “It’s bad-a$$.”

It is safe to say that I’m not a motivated exercise type of person. It all sounds good in concept, but my general preference is to sit this one (and every other one) out. This year, I signed up as a Virtual Rider for Pelotonia–a perfect solution for my laid-back (lazy?) personality type.

So far, the boxing is well beyond virtual for me. We did a kickboxing class with an instructor named Reggie a couple of days ago, and it took me back to my Tae Kwon Do days. I can actually feel muscles in my legs again for the first time in years. The full-body and combined cardio/strengthening benefits also came back to me. It felt good to explain to my daughter proper kicking techniques….which I do remember.

And another first for me: Reggie had us doing sit-ups, while holding weight balls. I actually did 50 sit-ups. This is not something that I would ever do on my own. In fact, I can say with complete assurance that it’s the first time I’ve EVER done 50 sit-ups,  let alone while holding a weight, so thanks to Reggie for making all of us push through.

Added bonus to all of this: I get to spend some quality time with my teenage daughter, who’s also enjoying the experience and doesn’t seem to be too embarrassed by me so far. We laugh together, at our own lameness and at the other “boxers” who get overly pumped up and make funny noises while they do their thing.

I’m no Rocky, but I’m ready for the next round!

French Lesson

10 Aug

Image courtesy of num_skyman /

As I sit here on the back porch on a beautiful morning, enjoying my tankard of strong coffee and yogurt with fruit and granola, I’m appreciating the simpler things in life. Less is more in most cases, especially when it comes to food.

Some of this I learned while living with a family in southwestern France as an au pair, back in the Pleistocene Age (1989). Here’s why my breakfast made me think of this:

Plain yogurt is better than any other yogurt. Why?

There are no extra ingredients.

It is tart, has a lovely texture, and 100% real. The flavor is even better if left to sit close to room temperature. (Most Americans find this gross, but in France it is quite normal.)

Mountain High, Fage, or Stonyfield are my personal preferences. We buy the giant containers and use them up. Because it’s an Ohio company and because the milk is extraordinary, I want to also try Snowville Creamery’s plain yogurt.

And forget the 0% fat. For a dessert yogurt or a special treat, go for full fat…it’s the good kind so nothing to feel bad about. And for everyday use, 2% is fine unless you really need to shed pounds.

I always substitute plain yogurt for anytime sour cream is required (with burritos or tacos, gazpacho, baked potatoes). The flavor is better, and you get more goodness out of the experience because of the live and active cultures, or probiotics.

Especially interesting to point out that I learned this NOT while in the notoriously liberal Paris, but while living in an area of France well-known for its political, cultural, and culinary traditionalism. The family I lived with supported Jean-Marie Le Pen, an ultra-conservative politician whose daughter is following in his footsteps. (Note that I did not share the family’s positive opinion of Le Pen!)

My family in France earned their living through veal farming (the famous black and white “Limousin” cows named for the region) and a small factory that made animal food. But unlike many American farmers, they did not support the use of small pens or antibiotics. They never used them and would not consider it because they found both practices fundamentally wrong, in keeping with their traditional views on farming practice and healthy eating. I received regular lectures from my family about the negatives of antibiotics and why eating such tainted meat was unthinkable “en France.”

So that’s my take on being simple, brought to you by my breakfast and my memories of simple living in France.

No Dance In This House

3 Aug

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic /

I can’t believe it’s been a year since I’ve written a post.

But it’s true. The blog has had no love from me lately.

I just haven’t been inspired. Lots of writing to do at work, and lots of writing to read by my students at the Glenn School. I needed a break from extracurricular writing.

But now I’m back.

I’ve had an entire year of utterly or nearly embarrassing my children, so there’s a lot to catch up on.

One of my less popular ideas quickly vetoed by the family:

Inter-generational dance party!!!!

What’s not to like? Here’s what I had in mind:

  • Awesome playlist ranging from Motorhead to The Clash, from Prince to Robin Thicke
  • Invitations to all people who love to dance: young, old, and in-between
  • No alcohol or illegal substances, and an 8-11 pm timeframe so kids could come with parents and enjoy

In short, just good, clean fun.

Let me just say that the idea did not go over well with the young ones or the old one (i.e., grumpy husband). Everyone quickly scrambled to come up with sleepover plans with friends, or, in the case of my husband, one night at a hotel.

Well, apparently my children are just too darned self-conscious. Or perhaps worried that friends would not want to see their mother dancing. It breaks my heart that these kids can’t just let loose and enjoy the moment. I’ve always enjoyed dancing–even when I was supposed to be self-conscious as a teenager. Guess I didn’t pass on that gene, or maybe they’ll loosen up as they get older.

And my husband keeps the hours of a dairy farmer. Going to bed at 8 pm does not work when there’s a dance party going on in your house.

Well, I still have the playlist, but I’ll be like Billy Idol dancing with myself.