Sunday, October 31, 2010

Some Halloween Images

Halloween kind of stunk it up this year. First, it was on Sunday. This is very confusing for those of us who live in Utah and actually use a calendar but conform to social norms and Trick or Treat on Saturday to avoid doing so on the Sabbath. Second, it rained...I mean it POURED during the end of the afternoon, and that kind of kept the trick or treaters away. Third, we had very few trick or treaters....and way too much candy. With all that, there were a few highlights!

First, Dean carved a really cool pumpkin in tribute to our SF Giants!
Dom Dressed up as BatGirl. My favorite part is her yellow duct taped belt. It says "Ba-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Batman!" Did I mention that for some odd reason, she took the yellow duct tape to school and got it taken away by her shop teacher. Nice. Why she took it to school??? I just can't explain these kinds of things.
After a rousing run of trick or treating in the rain, we had 15 kiddos at our house indulging on candy, popcorn, apple juice and laughing their heads off.

They all eventually left. The end. Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Waiting for Superman

On Saturday I participated in an event hosted by my local school district. There was a special viewing of the Davis Guggenheim documentary, "Waiting for Superman" hosted by the district. After the film, a group of panelists congregated to discuss issues related to education in our school district. I was asked to be the parent representative on the panel. I was joined by our Superintendent, Dr. David Doty, Jim Wall who is currently with the Deseret News but will take the reigns at the Sandy Area Chamber of Commerce in November, Tony Romanello who is a teacher and the president of the Canyons Education Association, and Paul Edwards who is the Deseret News Editorial Page Editor (and prior to that was the Provost at Southern Virginia University).

Picture of the Panel: Dr. Doty, Jim Wall, Tony Romanello, Me, Paul Edwards
I asked Dean to use the tripod to get a clear pic in bad light, but this is the best shot he took.
I became acquainted with Dr. Doty and members of his staff during a PTA training day last year. Since that time, we've kept up on Twitter, Facebook and the occasional in person meeting for activities related to our schools. I was quite honored to be asked to contribute to the discussion; local education is a topic that is quite close to my heart.

If you haven't seen the film, take the chance to do so. While it is a documentary, everyone has an angle. I'm a big connoisseur of documentaries, but even I recognize that often times they are created to promote personal or political agendas. So, be aware of that fact.
The film follows five children in their quest to better their education through a charter school lottery process. Intertwined are features on Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone Project and Michelle Rhee, now the former Chancellor of the DC Schools. The problems are complex, and this film focuses on some of the most needy school systems in our country. While there is not necessarily a direct correlation to the problems that in Utah, some thematic topics apply and provide a platform to further the discussion.

Here is a list of questions we were provided in advance:
  • What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the schools in our community?
  • How have these challenges impacted our schools?
  • What do you think are our greatest strengths, both inside and outside our schools, for dealing with these problems?
  • What is an “excellent school?” How can we (teachers, parents, administrators, business leaders, community members) work together to ensure all schools are excellent?
  • What are we doing now to support student success? Collectively, how can we improve and expand these efforts?
  • What keeps some parents from becoming more involved in our schools? What can we do to change that?
There are some themes that naturally developed from the Q&A. In no particular order of importance, the following were identified as issues for our local schools.
Funding. Raw numbers, percentages and statistics can all be deceiving. Utah is known for having one of the lowest funded per-pupil rate in the country, but what impact does our rate of funding have on teaching and learning?
I actually led with funding as the biggest challenge facing our schools. Let me tell you why. When we lived downtown and I went to my first ever back to school night with Bradley and Mariah, I was stunned when we were asked throughout the night to fund everything from Kleenex and paper to field trips to periodicals. I sat with my mouth agape that teachers would request such fundamental items. I asked Mariah's 4th Grade teacher, "Have you ever lived anywhere else? This is not normal to ask parents for money like this. Why don't you have budget to cover these things?" Welcome to my introduction the the Utah public school system.
I was so fired up...I mean really fired up. Since the Governor lived in my neighborhood, I told Dean that he needed to drop me off at the Mansion where I planned on knocking on the door until someone answered.....and demanding to know what he planned on doing about public education funding. The Governor at the time was Mike Leavitt. I refrained from an activity which would have surely landed me in the Salt Lake County Jail, but my anger and frustration did not subside, nor has it to this day.
In addition to funding basic classroom supplies, our teachers can have classroom sizes that approach 35-40 learners. Research tells us that teaching and learning can be most effective with smaller classroom sizes. The systemic problem of increasing classroom sizes is directly related to our ability to fund teachers and the facilities to support those smaller classes.
During our Q&A two teachers spoke up about funding (although they didn't call it that). One woman mentioned that she carried excessive student loan debt from the pursuit of an advanced education aimed at helping her advance in her profession. Another young teacher proclaimed that he was going to move out of the country to teach for a few years to accumulate money. (He didn't specify exactly why he needed to accumulate money, but he did mention that his current salary was insufficient.) The same woman who discussed student loan debt spoke about unpaid time spent after school assisting students.
I believe that good teachers should be compensated for excellence in teaching. That requires funding.
Funding is a big issue. I don't suggest that I have all of the answers, and I definitely don't recommend throwing money at a problem to presume that this alone will make a problem better. However, more discretionary funds at the local level could help empower schools to make decisions that will be in the best interest of educators and students.
Accountability. In the documentary, there is much emphasis placed on incompetent teachers. Tony mentioned that it was unfair to place the onus on teachers and that parents and students also need to be held accountable for student success. I couldn't agree more!

We hold our kids' to a pretty high standard (they feel abused, but I assure them that it is out of love that we try so hard influence and encourage their success). Parent involvement matters. Parents need to be informed about what is going on with their student, and a parent must be willing to do whatever it takes. Trust me. I had so many struggles with my step-son. From the time he hit 7th grade all the way through his Senior year, it was a battle. We tracked his grades, emailed teachers, went in to speak to teachers, spoke to guidance counselors, sat with him in class, had rides arranged for him so that he went directly to and from school.....we as his parents were fighting SO hard to help him. He, however, didn't work nearly as hard as we did. As a result, he did not graduate from high school. I blog about it here.

During his last quarter, he failed nearly every class. He had been told that he didn't need his Spanish credit to graduate or his Law Enforcement credit; he had already met the number of credits needed to graduate, so he "checked out" early (metaphorically). He did, however, need Financial Literacy to graduate, and he failed it. I'm glad he failed it. He deserved to fail it. According to his teacher, he had cheated on an exam. Additionally, when he finally tried really hard at the end of the semester, it was too little too late.

At the end of the day, the child has to WANT to succeed and the child NEEDS to be held accountable. I cried for days because my son didn't graduate. I felt that after 7 years of struggling with him that I would be "rewarded" with a graduation day ceremony. However, I want to be very clear; I completely support the teacher who failed him. I would have done the same thing. My disappointment lies not with the teacher but with my son. The post script to this story is that he did remediate his insufficient credits and received his high school diploma in August; I wouldn't call it a "happy ending." It will, however, suffice.

At the core of all discussions regarding education should be "What is best for the child?" "How can I motivate this child?" "What do I do if I cannot motivate a child?" "What if this child is having a problem with Math, Reading, Writing, Science...fill in the blank?" In a perfect world, student-centric learning would be optimal. Our reality is that our public schools are not staffed to take care of the individual learning needs of a given shepherd a child through a bump in the road whether that bump be educational, social or financial. That high-level of engagement is simply cost-prohibitive. Perhaps we can't solve every problem of every learner, but if we had some programs in place to try to meet the needs of the individual, we could move a bit closer to the finish line. I think of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. To get to the point where a person can learn, basic needs must be taken into consideration.
Do I believe that the school is responsible for meeting all of the needs of the child? No. However, if we could be a bit more responsive to a particular learning style, economic need, social need of a child, it can assist with the facilitation of learning. There is more that can be done. Which leads to the next point.
Community Involvement. Jim had an interesting thought. It went something like this, "If it takes a village to raise a child, who is raising the village?" His point was that the community and its businesses need to take a vested interest in education. I couldn't agree more. We never really came to a resolution about what that means, but the fact that the conversation has begun is a most important first step.

I just wanted to mention that businesses have supported our local schools in a variety of ways, and as a parent, I'm appreciative of what has been done. Monetary contributions, gifts in kind and sponsorships of events are some of the ways that businesses have supported local school programs.

My company sponsors a program called SEED, Serving Education Every Day. This program not only allows me flexibility to serve in my local school, but the program ENCOURAGES me to do so. With my company's support, I am able to attend PTA meetings and Community Council meetings even though I have a full time job that requires extensive travel. I am proud to work for a company that understands how important education is and supports volunteerism at the local level.

Click here to read about my very first PTA experience in 2008. Click here to see how this working mom offended a bunch of entrenched PTA ladies to try and shake things up a bit in the spirit of making a difference. Click here to see how my recycling plan all turned out.

Can businesses do more? Absolutely. When I suggested that a career professional with academic acumen for a particular subject matter could assist a teacher...even allow a teacher time off to complete coursework for an advanced degree, the idea was not well received from the audience stating that a volunteer would not know how to teach to the core curriculum and prepare a learner for the requisite tests. Perhaps that is true. I respect teachers tremendously. I, personally, have gone through the teacher certification program at the University of Utah; I did not complete my student teaching nor do I hold certification credentials. There are many qualified and capable individuals who can make meaningful contributions inside and outside of the classroom. I still think my idea has merit and is worth further exploration. This leads to the next theme from the panel discussion, teaching and testing.

Teaching and Testing. I am not a fan of No Child Left Behind; neither was the state of Utah. In 2005, the Utah State Legislature passed a bill that rejected NCLB. For Utah, this was an issue of states' rights and the rejection of federal insertion into the tenets of Utah education policy. The legislation was primarily symbolic. Make no mistake about it, Utah still "participates" in NCLB. As a member of our Community Council, I recently reviewed our school's NCLB scores.
On the panel, I was the most outspoken about my disapproval with NCLB as a measure of success. I believe that NCLB was well intended in a theoretical context, but in it's practical application has done very little to improve the education system in America. I also believe that 100% proficiency by 2012 is not only unattainable, the goal is automatically setting us up for failure. I have seen an interesting dance occur when it comes to massaging the numbers to generate passing grades for a school when otherwise, they would not have passed. Are we doing this to make it appear like NCLB is succeeding? That is how it appears to me.

I am a realist. While I believe that we need to teach to a higher standard to achieve a higher result, I am still practical in my approach. We don't live in a society of members who are all high achievers. We must be realistic in our approach. Not all learners have the same capacity, same motivation, same skill level, same intellect. Can we take a randomized group of learners (as it suggests in the film) and help them be successful? YES...with the sufficient amount of resources and if we provide a learner-centric culture (not a curriculum-centric culture). If you meet the needs of the learner, I firmly believe that almost all learners can be successful. We don't have the luxury of unlimited resources to manage our education system in that way. Therefore, we are forced to manage to educational objectives with the resources in our power to influence and control.

Click here to see what I have written about NCLB on my blog.

Dr. Doty believes the NCLB testing standards are still too low (I agree). The sad commentary (which was emphasized in the film) is that the tests that we are using as measures (like NCLB) indicate that we are not preforming well in Math, Science, Reading and Writing. If we have a test which is perhaps substandard, and if we are performing poorly on that test, how ever would our learners perform on a test that measured what they need to know for college? I shudder when I think of what that test might look like and what the scores would report.

Let me tell you about standardized tests, I was discussing this topic the eve before the film screening, and I mentioned how disappointed I am that my children don't write. They don't ever have writing assignments that they do at home; they don't develop a thesis statement, create introductions, a body and a conclusion to a cohesive theme or topic. My 9th grader piped up and was a bit offended that I thought she couldn't write. She said, "I know how to do that; I had to learn it for the test that we take." Um....she JUST proved my point. Are we teaching to the test? Or are we teaching children to develop skills so that they can be thinkers and learn to apply that thinking in written format.

All through high school, I wrote and wrote and wrote. By my senior year, I was writing complex research papers. My kids can't do that. My daughter who is a junior in high school has never written a research paper. Ever.

One of the major initiatives of the Canyons District is to create a culture of academic excellence and ensure that our students are prepared for college. I couldn't agree more! How do we achieve that goal? What are the tactical steps to take? I don't know the answers, but I know that we can be doing better.

Paul mentioned that we have grade inflation issues in Utah. Is an A in English from a Utah public school the same as an A in English from a school in X state? Perhaps. I would hope that we teach to the highest standard and hold our kids accountable for earning grades. So much of what my kids do is what I call "fluff." Again, I'm not blaming teachers. The problem is systemic; there is not reason to place blame. I'm interested in identifying the issues and helping work a plan to make things better.

Paul also mentioned that teachers should be trained and qualified and kept up-to-date on pedagological methodologies. I agree; I will again state that this also requires resources to be allocated to this effort.
Parting Thoughts. Go see the film. Have a discussion about education with your local leaders in your school, your district and your state. Be part of the solution. I firmly believe that if community members, parents, teachers and administrators work together that we can target toward excellent education.
I am grateful for the opporunity that I had to view this film and participate on the panel with Dave, Jim, Paul and Tony. Thank you, gentlemen, and if I've misrepresented your views, please feel free to leave a comment to clarifiy!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

If you think your kid is not smoking pot because you can't smell it, think again.

Tonight I had a long, quality conversation with a woman who I admire tremendously. She has a teenage son who is a friend to my teenage daughter. A few weeks ago, my daughter said, "He's a pot head." I asked how she knew this, and she told me that he talked about smoking pot all of the time.

Okay. Do I do anything with this info? I sat on it for a few weeks, but tonight during our conversation, I expressed concern for this woman's son. She said, "It wouldn't surprise me, but I don't ever smell it, and I know what it smells like."

If I had 20 bucks for every time a parent has said this to me.....

Let me tell you my story. I share this because I think it is important for parents to know. When my stepson was 14 and in the 8th grade, he was busted for smoking pot at school. I was shocked. I thought that I was a pretty smart parent. I know what it smells like. I thought I knew all of the signs that would indicate any kind of drug abuse. I was dead wrong.

At the time, our son was not a latch-key kid. Dean was working 2:00-7:00 AM shifts at FedEx, and he was there when the kids went to school. He delivered pizzas during the day, so he was there when the kids got home from school. This was our arrangement...he worked two part time jobs to be with the kids; I worked full time so he could be with the kids. What I'm trying to explain is that our kids were not unattended; they were quite attended to. We ate dinners at the table, we had meaningful conversations with them, and we thought we knew them.

Additionally, our son was grounded almost full time for failing grades. Literally, the only places he went were back and forth to school and back and forth to church (which sounds really weird when I type it like that). At any point in time, he could earn his privileges back by getting his grades up. We did everything we could think of to help him with that, too. I even went to his classes and sat with him (which is highly unpopular when you are in junior high, but the teachers were quite supportive). I was trying to figure out what was leading to his terrible grades.

Parent advice #1: If you kids have failing grades, it is indicative of a problem that is probably not related to school work.

The night before he was busted smoking pot at school, we had a conversation that we had had 20 times before. This time, it escalated with me saying something like, "If you don't shape up, you are going to be on a quick path to jail." His answer stunned me, "I don't care." (Just so you know, that same answer wouldn't stun me today. It's quite typical for teens to say that, but he was our first, and I was really floored that the threat of jail didn't phase him.)

I was on the phone with a work colleague when we got the call from the school. Dean and I went over, and the police were there. Our kid was high. He didn't say much. Dean also didn't say a word; I think he was in a disappointed shock. I, of course, did most of the talking.

The police asked to search his person. I said that they could search anything they wanted. At that time our son would wear multiple layers of underwear, two pair of shorts and baggy sweats over that. I don't know why he did that, but he did. I told the officer to make sure to check all of the layers. In his backpack they found drug paraphernalia. It wasn't anything you would have recognized. He took ink pens, pulled out the ink and attached common hardware like a nut to create a pipe. Ironically, Dean went looking through the kid's stuff the night before, found the baggie of pens and hardware and didn't think anything of it.

Parent Advice #2: Be informed as to what common household objects kids are using to smoke/use drugs. Pens, apples....if you want the latest and greatest, call your local police department; they will rattle off things for you to search for.

I told the officer that I never smelled anything so I had no reason to be suspicious. The officer asked him how he was hiding the smell. He didn't answer. I said something like, "You WILL answer every question this man asks help me!" He said that he did it before school so most of the smell had worn off. Remember how I told you that the only places he went were back and forth to church and school? Yep...before school...which also helped explain the poor performance AT school. I asked him how he got it/paid for it. He said, "My friend just gives it to me." Oj!

We also found out from him that he used cologne and body spray to cover the scent in his clothing.

Parent Advice #3: Be leery of a child who over-uses body sprays and colognes.

I've lived through the smelliness of a teenage boy...and it is DISGUSTING. The only way to get rid of those scents is with soap and water in the shower. It's one thing to want to put on a little cologne, it is an entirely different thing to mask smells with way too much of a scent.

The officer continued searching the backpack and opened his notebook. He said, "What gang are you in?" Ok, at this point in time, my life started flashing before my eyes. Me: "What did you say?" Officer: "What gang are you in?" Son: "I'm not in a gang."

The officer continued to thumb through his notebook and asked the question again. He then handed the notebook to the Vice Principal, and the VP began interpreting what was in the notebook. Apparently, there is some rhyme and reason to gang graffiti art. They handed me the notebook, and I saw a drawing he had done of a drive by shooting. Are you freaking kidding me??? Thinking this can't get any worse, the officer pulled out a red bandanna from his backpack and asked for the third time, "What gang are you in?"

I'm like, "Answer the man!" Again denial of gang activity.

So, let me see if I have this straight....our 14 year old son...who has a father in the home (who is actually AT home most of the time) and a step mom who is highly involved...who only goes to and from school....who doesn't "hang out" with friends because he's perennially grounded....who doesn't get phone calls at home from friends...who doesn't even have a cell not only smoking pot at school but is now in a GANG....

It just didn't add up. Either I didn't know my stepson or he was really good at hiding things from us.

The officer then asks, "What is your moniker?" I asked, "What is a moniker?" (I have no clue what gang speak is.) The officer explained that it was a nickname commonly given by a gang to a member. Son: denies having moniker. Me: "You have a moniker, and I know what it is. You have even drawn pictures of it." I told the officer what I believed his moniker to be.

I was SO furious at my kid for not cooperating with the police. They wrote him up on possession of drug paraphernalia. He went to juvy court and had to pay a fine and do community service.

What did we do after that?

Well, one thing we did was that we decided that we weren't going to keep this a family secret. We called several people who had the power to influence him for good: his grandparents, his young men's leader, his bishop, close family friends, other relatives. We thought, "it takes a village." We didn't want to shoulder the burden alone, and we thought that the more people who had his best interest, the better. We rallied the troops, circled the wagons....

We also got him outpatient drug counseling. Let me tell you, this is near next to impossible to find for a young person. There are many inpatient drug facilities, but we were looking more for a counselor who had a specialty with teens and drug use. We found a WONDERFUL counselor at the Odyssey House in Salt Lake City named Eric Schmidt.

Parent Advice #4: Rally the troops and get help when you find out that your kid is involved in drugs.

I wish I could tell you that all of this got immediately better. It didn't. In fact, it got much, much worse....but that is another story.

The point of this post? Even if you think you know your kid, even if you think you know what pot smells like, even if you think you would recognize the signs of drug use, even if you are "always there for your kid," I'm here to give you a public service announcement....sometimes all of that doesn't matter. If someone tells you, "I've heard your kid is doing drugs from my kid." Or, "Your kid is acting a lot like my kid was when he/she was on drugs." Don't ignore that message. The well-intended person may be wrong, but they just may be right.

You want to trust your kid, but there are oh so many thing that we don't know about what happens in their daily lives....the time that they walk to school, attend school, walk home from school....

If you suspect your kid is doing drugs, get them random drug tested. It doesn't cost much. You can also run a hair follicle test on them to search for longer term use.

I hope this helps someone. I really do. I am still in wonder that this happened to our son...and to us. I can't think of anything we could have done differently except pay closer attention to some of the signs I've mentioned. Things change rapidly in teenage culture (and with teenage drug culture). As a parent, you must be vigilant about being informed.

I love my son more than he will ever know. I wish he hadn't made choices that made his adolescence so much harder than it needed to be. Hopefully, when he is a father he will understand how hard we tried to get him help from the time he hit puberty at about 12 until the time he moved out of our house when he was 18. Sometimes it's really hard to be a parent; these kind of things make it hard!

Friday, October 22, 2010

'O Ye Mountains High

There is a goregous hym in our hymn book that I really love; it's called "O Ye Mountains High." Several weeks ago, we took a Saturday morning drive on the Alpine Loop in Utah to gawk at the beautiful fall colors. Here are a few shots from our outting.

Verse 1: O ye mountains high, where the clear blue skyArches over the vales of the free, Where the pure breezes blow and the clear streamlets flow, How I’ve longed to your bosom to flee! O Zion! dear Zion! land of the free, Now my own mountain home, unto thee I have come;All my fond hopes are centered in thee.

Verse 2. Tho the great and the wise all thy beauties despise,To the humble and pure thou art dear;Tho the haughty may smile and the wicked revile,Yet we love thy glad tidings to hear.O Zion! dear Zion! home of the free,Tho thou wert forced to fly to thy chambers on high,Yet we’ll share joy and sorrow with thee.

Verse 3. In thy mountain retreat, God will strengthen thy feet; Without fear of thy foes thou shalt tread; And their silver and gold, as the prophets have told, Shall be brought to adorn thy fair head. O Zion! dear Zion! home of the free, Soon thy towers shall shine with a splendor divine, And eternal thy glory shall be.
Verse 4. Here our voices we’ll raise, and we’ll sing to thy praise, Sacred home of the prophets of God. Thy deliv’rance is nigh; thy oppressors shall die; And thy land shall be freedom’s abode. O Zion! dear Zion! land of the free, In thy temples we’ll bend; all thy rights we’ll defend; And our home shall be ever with thee.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Picking out Pumpkins.....

I don't remember carving pumpkins in my adolescence, but I recall that it meant a great deal to me when I was a little kid. I was in a pumpking picking mood today, so I loaded all the girls up in the van and headed to a roadside (completely fake...just there for Halloween) pumpkin patch.
Dominique toting her pumpkin.

Elle didn't want a big pumpkin; she only wanted a little one for her room.

Great pumpkin, anyone?

Mariah plans on carving her pumpkin with her pumpkin (I'm only funny in my own mind!) She plans on carving the gourd with Garrett.

Yeah, our fake pumpkin patch is just off of 90th South (a super busy road).

All the girls, plus one (Mariah's friend, Zavey)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"They grow up way too fast...."

If I have hear that once, I've heard it hundreds of times. Lately, I've been thinking about just how quickly my step children are growing up. I remember 7 years ago when I was just getting my feet wet with instant motherhood-- I thought I would never see a day when they would possibly grow up.

Mariah is now a junior in high school and plans on moving into her own place after high school....that is less than two years from now! Bradley has already moved out. I always worry that we haven't taught them enough...or we haven't taught them well enough. I worry that they're going to catch their own kitchen on fire or do something equally stupid and preventable. Did my mom worry about me this way? I felt so ready to leave the house when I was 18, but recognizing that Mariah is 18 months away from her 18th birthday scares me half to death. I can't even think about Elle and Domi.

I don't know if other parents feel this way, but I'm acutely aware that time moves quickly and that the time we have together as a small, familial unit is short. Oh, I know that they will grow up, get married, do their own things...but it won't ever be the same again. Holidays won't be the same...Sunday afternoons won't be the same. Somehow I'm hoping that it all gets "better." I'm hopeful that it will.

I suppose looking at these pictures I took over the weekend made me realize how much they are growing up and they it is all happening way too fast!