Jan 27 2015

School Daze

I wrestle with the guilt. The shame that we have put our children in such a traditional school, one with the classrooms arranged in rows, facing forward, one in which they are expected to consume and memorize the expertise imparted by an authority in the front of the room, a school with teachers who never coordinate their lesson plans or homework assignments, instructing the students without (or with very little) cross-collaboration with the other teachers. A school which measures success on having the right answers rather than the right questions. A school which is old-fashioned.

I feel guilty, especially considering my profession – purveyor of creative thinking, problem solving and innovation – that I’ve settled for less than the kind of desks_rowseducation I know would be far more useful and inspiring for my children.

The French school is not a bad education. A good portion of the students at the lycée are from local Catalan families who’ve chosen it because of its fine reputation. It provides a rigorous education that prepares children well…for an earlier decade. It’s not – nor was the school they attended in Paris – the kind of school in which I would have expected to have enrolled my children. But we have not managed to find – have I looked hard enough? – a school that fulfills that progressive expectation. When we have found an institution that comes close, it is not close enough to our budget, or close enough to avoid an hour-long commute, each way, every day.

Homeschooling? I’m not that kind of mom. I need a break from them during the day and I need to throw myself into my work. Is that selfish? Or just honest?

“But they’ve lived in different cultures.” This is the protest I hear from my friends when I express out loud my disquiet. “And they already speak four languages.”

Yes, I know we’ve given them a wider horizon. I know they see the world differently living abroad and traveling the way we do. I know that learning languages is probably an advantage, it helps you understand not only the words, but the people and culture that speak with those words. This, I think, Google Translate will never achieve.

I watch them memorize facts and prepare for tests, not for life. They tick off boxes to get their homework assignments done rather than delving into projects and gobbling up the subject. Maybe that’s a tall order, that it wouldn’t feel like work, that they would relish school. Is it so far fetched? What if school was fun? What if they worked on projects in a way that explained the world to them, that taught them things they cared about? What if school seemed more relevant to their lives now? What if school engaged the students to be more creative, rather than killing their creativity?

~ ~ ~

Each September there’s a school meeting at which the teachers and administration are collected to address the assembled parents about the year ahead. I’m inevitably disappointed after this meeting, to the degree that I wonder why I even attend. I long for a visionary administrator – this is an oxymoron, I suppose, except I know it is possible – who will launch into an inspiring presentation about the education they hope to provide the educate_the_monkeystudents. I want teachers who will get up and talk about helping students learn to love to learn, to help them think and ask and be curious. Instead, meetings at the French school begin with, and rather abruptly, the rules and regulations. What time classes start. The signatures necessary for students to leave the campus. The punishment for being late. The punishment system in general. The rules about carrying backpacks and doing homework. I leave shaking my head: What am I doing, with my kids in this kind of school?

Just a few weeks ago the school sponsored a meeting for teachers and parents during which we were assigned 5-minute slots – yes, five minutes – back-to-back with each teacher. This is barely enough time to explain what’s happening, let alone to dialogue about any issues. The parents dash from classroom to classroom to keep on time, only to find themselves waiting in line because a teacher took too long with somebody else, looking bewildered and muttering to ourselves is this really the way to get meaningful parent-teacher interaction?

I made the mistake of asking, gently, one of Buddy-roo‘s teachers if there was any way she might consider adding other forms of instruction to address different learning styles of her students. The handout she’d distributed for the myth of Isis and Osiris was rather dry, not to mention that it was unintelligible because it was a photocopy of a photocopy. When I was helping Buddy-roo study for the test, it was clear she didn’t understand the story, let alone why it matters. So I gave her an assignment: go to YouTube and find five videos about Isis and Osiris and watch them. Buddy-roo transformed after watching the videos, and she could retell the story and even draw some conclusions about why it was an important myth.

Ludique? Nous n’avons pas le temps!” She explained they didn’t have the time to be playful. Her excuse: there’s a big test three years from now. They have to prepare for it, seriously.

Seriously? We can’t make learning even a tiny bit fun, or at least interesting?For a test that’s years from now?

I knew better than to press further. It was already a risk to even suggest something like this. But I couldn’t help myself, I had to see how she’d respond. On the way home I worried if she might punish Buddy-roo because of her meddling mother. I should know better than to taunt a schoolmarm. Or should I know better than to put my kids into such an old-fashioned, rigid system?
kids_at_work
~ ~ ~

Last week I attended a TEDx conference here in Barcelona, one dedicated to the topic of education. A roster of fascinating speakers paraded on stage, each one with an uplifting story: a cross-disciplinary teaching team, project-based learning, an entrepreneurial education program, or a futuristic view of how to teach our children well, for the coming century, not the last. It was all terribly inspiring, and yet I finished the daylong conference feeling even more discouraged. The evidence is there that there are better ways to teach our children, using multi-disciplinary curriculum, team teaching and technology. I know it’s happening in forward thinking school systems, in other places in the world. But the inertia in the system we have chosen is bigger than us. Or I don’t have the stamina to take it on.

As parents, De-facto and I can shore things up around the edges. We invent games for doing homework, we use Post-it notes to help them think about what to cover in their school presentations, we try to help them cultivate their imagination at home, we drag them to creativity conferences and camps. But I know it’s not reinforced at school, at least not consistently. There are some bright spots: Short-pants does have an imaginative English teacher who uses inventive methods in her class, and both the girls rave about their maths teachers. And yes, they’re learning lots of languages. But are they learning what to do with those languages?

I know it’s not easy being a teacher. I don’t think I could do it, spending the entire day with large throngs of pre-adolescents. I know they’re underpaid, even at private and semi-private schools like the Lycée Francais. I know they’re saddled with huge classes, and unruly, overly-entitled students. I know the system they’re working in is focused on testing rather than understanding. But I wonder, do they feel guilty, too? These teachers must read what I’m reading, see what I seeing on-line about schools and the future – it has to be part of the zeitgeist of the world of education. Do they feel as powerless as I do?

I’m trying to do more for the girls. Teaching them to code, rejecting the archaic gender bias and reminding them they are good at math and science, encouraging their passions, nourishing their creativity. But then every morning I send them out the door to go to a school that I’m not convinced can give them the education to prepare for jobs that don’t exist yet, to enter a world that will be very different than the one I encountered after school, to solve possibly insurmountable problems that we’ve hoisted upon their generation. And what do I do? I wave goodbye and close the door, taking inhttp://www.danwalkerartworks.com/ the quiet that descends after their departure. I wrap my hands around a fresh cup of coffee, set my gaze toward my computer to plot my day, attacking my own list of things to do and learn, scrambling to keep up with my own life, let alone to envision what needs to be done for them to create theirs.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? Burrowed in to our day-to-day, it’s hard to lift our heads and look at the horizon and think strategically about our lives, our work, our kids and their schooling. Until I carve out the time for that, I’m left with the guilt. Until, I guess, it gets so bad that I do something, which might be simply to decide to stop feeling guilty. They are still bright eyed, curious, open-hearted girls, and they’ll do just fine. But I keep wondering, could we do better?

(Photo credit: “You are the Bows” is artwork by Dan Walker.)


Apr 13 2012

The Façade

I had a kitchen pass last night, allowing for an after-the-kids-are-in-bed rendezvous with a girlfriend. We sat beneath the outdoor heaters on the terrace of my favorite café and slowly made our way through a carafe of Côte du Rhone.

The meet-up was not easy to organize. Family commitments and work schedules put our calendars at odds. After a half dozen back-and-forth emails, we realized our lives as professionals and mothers wouldn’t permit a daytime coffee or even a pre-dinner aperitif. The only way to meet was after the children were fed and bathed and tucked into their sheets. This suited me, I like the feeling of escaping my domestic responsibilities, kissing those tender foreheads and pulling up the covers, closing the door behind me, walking out to the street where unattached people navigate, spontaneously, the free hours of their evenings. Now we, too, were among them, on the terrace, sipping our wine, and as women unhampered with children we could catch up and talk about our lives.

What did we talk about? Our children. Whether the French school was right for them, the pros and cons of other education systems, whether a different school in Paris is more suited to cultivating their creative promise. We talked about the little quirks and charms of their emerging personalities, our worries and hopes for them as they grow into little people. In essence, we talked about all the things that we’d escaped from in order to sit at that café together.

Such a conversation inevitably tumbles into the stream of the parenting theories and practices. Last year it was the controversial Tiger Mom, terrorizing her children to perform. This year the spotlight hones in on the French method, contrasting the resulting polite, obedient, no-fuss-at-the-table children with the insolent Veruca-Salt-like youngsters holding their American parents hostage. There’s a lot to be said for it.

My friend is French, but because of stints living in foreign countries, she shares my understanding of being other, as in an expat living abroad, and shies away from stereotypes. Rightly so. They help us describe things in broad strokes, but neglect the nuances that most subject matter deserves. She argued that there are also French parents held hostage by their children. All those French mums in the park will tell you how firmly they parent, but is it that really that way when you peek into their salon? She wasn’t so sure.

“Every parent has a façade,” she said.

* * *

At least once a day I have a moment of maternal despair. It happens quietly, my head lowered while I stack plates in the dishwasher, my back to the family as I fold their laundry, or those first minutes, café-au-lait cupped in my hands after I’ve pushed them out the door to go to school, sighing with relief as their voices circle down the staircase and out of our building. Yes, yes, nothing can eradicate the love and laughter my children have injected into my life, but there is also the un-joyous part of parenting, a tedious string of commands to get up, clean up, wash up, finish up. Then there are those moments when the required enthusiasm and encouragement I must conjure up is, well, a façade, because I am, mentally elsewhere, in my own creative world, and when I want them to be elsewhere, not underfoot, not speaking to me, asking of me, wanting of me.

Do my children notice? Probably. But they seem to appreciate my maternal efforts nonetheless, and they can – and will – get me back for this when they are teenagers.

I tear through the moods of mothering, juggling what I feel with what I’m supposed to feel. Occasionally I sense the tough love of the tiger mom in me. Sometimes I believe I have taken on the practical approach that has now been categorized, as least for the Americans, as French. Other times I’m as indulgent as you can get, on the floor playing with them, giving them choices, watching their imagination flower unhindered. It’s not a very consistent measure. Some days the house must be ordered, I cannot stand to look at their clutter. The next week, I’ll leave the blanketed fort that’s been constructed between the couch and bookshelf standing for days, with its hidden treasures of trinkets and toys and make-believe and odds-and-ends stuffed beneath.

* * *

We all show ourselves to the world by way of the different roles we play. Our professions and familial positions define us broadly: teacher, lawyer, aunt, parent. Adjectives are added to narrow in on the quality of how we execute those roles: lenient, strict, engaged, detached. Battle lines are drawn. You’re a stay-at-home mom or a working mother. (Or a working-while-staying-at-home mother?) You’re a breast-feeder or a bottle-giver. Family bed or let-them-cry-in-the-cradle. It’s easy to glance sideways and make a judgment. I do it. Everyone does.

Sometimes I am certain, and possibly even a bit full of myself, reporting on this blog a conversation or a conflict I feel well handled, constructing a mosaic of proud parenting moments. Other times I disclose – not always without hesitation, and yet these posts are the most powerful – my faiblesses, my #fail moments, my vulnerabilities and obsessions, or the angry rants that seem ridiculous in retrospect but were, apparently, too impassioned for me to contain. When I write about it, I get to construct a façade of who I think I am as a mother, good and bad.

The real façade, perhaps, is that any woman is one kind of mother. The rhythms of our days and weeks and the passages of our lives stretch us across the boundaries of prescribed parenting styles. When I am not overworked, I am more creatively engaged. When I am stressed, I am stricter, firmer, even impatient. When I’m tired, I’m laissez-faire. When I’m inspired, I bake heart-shaped cookies. As I straddle the abyss between my ideal self and my real self, it helps to accept the fact that I might be every kind of mom. Except to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, I’m just their mom, and they seem pretty devoted. Maybe that’s where I should look when taking measure of myself as a mother.


Nov 30 2011

Departure Stress

It wasn’t as bad as usual, this time. I even spent a few hours, the day before leaving, no less, wandering through the brocante on the rue de Bretagne with De-facto and the girls. We combed through the stalls of faux-antiques, furniture and junk in search of bookshelves and a dresser for the girls’ bedrooms, stopping midway for a chocolate chaud before hunting some more and heading home without a bookshelf or a chest-of-drawers, but instead with a desk for Buddy-roo that we hope will inspire her to do her homework.

Such a leisurely, familial break could have set me back, but it didn’t. I managed, somehow, to be packed and in bed with the (most of) the list checked-off by midnight. This is highly unusual. There were also fewer incidents of dragging my hands through my hair with the exasperated how will I ever get it all done? that too often accompanies my preparations for a journey. I’m a chronic sufferer of departure stress, but for this trip it was less torturous than usual.

Not that there was a total absence of angst. I lamented out loud, more than once, what was I thinking? I must have lost my sanity to agree to these projects that would take me away from Paris for such an extended period of time, and just before Christmas. I’ve been traveling too much, I moaned to De-facto, I can’t do it like this anymore.

Which is a load of crap, because I love to travel, it’s my drug of choice. I like to be on the road. I am most invigorated standing on a train platform with my valise beside me, or dragging my suitcase through a long airport corridor. Standing in a long queue at passport control can indeed be frustrating, but it can also breed a fierce anticipation of the adventures ahead. It’s all how you look at it. This trait I inherited from my mother, who in turn learned it from hers.

The problem is my obsession to put things doubly in order (also inherited). There’s the preparation to go away: packing, assembling supplies and the fairly mindless yet remarkably time-consuming task of booking tickets and checking-in on line. Then there’s the preparation to be gone for such a long time: paying bills, leaving notes and cash for the cleaner, anticipating babysitter coverage for the complicated moments in the girls’ schedules. It doesn’t help that De-facto has his own week-long trip during my three week absence, so a detailed calendar is required for the two babysitters who manage the girls days and nights when we’re both gone, including pick-up from two different birthday parties and dropping Buddy-roo with one of her friends while Short-pants goes to her music lesson. This is not just organization; it’s choreography.

I catch myself whinging about it and I think of the longing moments I spent on my back porch, growing up, dreaming of traveling in the manner that I do now, and I want to slap myself across the face and shout snap out of it! Because once I’m on the plane – or even before, once I’ve cleared security and I’m in duty-free land – and there’s nothing else to attend to and only the voyage ahead, I’m in a state of bliss. Two long-haul flights to get to New Zealand? No problem. That’s a full day of absolutely uninterruptable time, which can also be described as several movies, two New Yorkers, a novel and still plenty of sleep. I’ll wake up as the plane landed in a far-away place with the familiar tickle: who knows what adventures are ahead?

Guilt is part of it. Even though De-facto is super about taking on the kids and never once complained (to me) about the duration of this trip, I know what it’s like to be the sole parent at home – I do it for him when he travels. The girls don’t like it when I’m gone; their sweet pleading voices tug at me. Worse, I’m missing several important events-of-the-season: the school marché de Noël, the Christmas carol concert and Short-pants’ first viola recital. I know how it meant so much to me that my parents sat through all my orchestra and chorus performances. I feel a bit guilty to be missing theirs.

But guilt is part of parenting. A constant stream of media and societal messages harp on us about how to parent; it’s easy to get caught up in it. I’m always unwinding myself from this tangle, remembering that I don’t have to be the perfect parent, I just have to be a good one. Being true to myself is part of that recipe; mothering by example.

Now I am halfway around the world after 24 tranquil flight-hours of travel that followed 24 hours of frenzied preparation. I do miss my family, but without drama. I also know that this is an important part of me: to be on a trip with a grip, and I can’t deny it. Traveling may seem like a hassle when managing a life around kids, but if I didn’t get to do it at all, I’d shrivel up.

So I endure the pain of preparing to go away, and I find a reasonably sized receptacle in which to place my guilt about being gone. I focus not on the morning cuddles that I’m missing, but on those that will be all the more succulent when I return. And I hope that when it’s time for Short-pants and Buddy-roo to go out and grab the world, they’ll know just how to do it: without stress, without guilt, instead with a wide-angle view on the horizon, and all it has to offer.