Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Snapshots in Time

            One of the great benefits to being a full-time father – and despite their time in school each day and the other projects on which I am working, that is still what I am - is the amount of time I get to see my children in close quarters. This time together means that I know a great deal about who they are and lots of details about their characters, preferences, and typical reactions to given situations. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on who they are at home or when they are operating within our family context.
Beyond that context though is another matter. I don’t actually see my kids at a distance very often. I don’t really know how they interact with their friends at school or how they handle themselves in a crowd. People act differently depending on the people around them, and I am constantly curious what that means for Pip and Polly. It also seems like an important measure of how our parenting is working. Character, as the saying goes, is what you do when no one is watching.
            As it turns out, over the past week I have had opportunities to observe both Pip and Polly from a distance, interacting with peers and playing out some of the roles we don’t usually get to see. For Polly, this took place at Skye’s sixth birthday party. For Skye’s party, her parents hired a pair of college-aged girls to come to their house dressed up as the main characters from Frozen. Skye got to invite six or seven friends to join her. Polly and Skye are best friends at school where the order of the classroom plays to Polly’s strengths. But it was interesting to see them interact in an environment where chaos was a prominent theme. What I saw as the girls sang and danced, ate cake, put on costumes, and bounced about the house was that Polly turns out to be a very capable facilitator. While the other girls all dressed as Elsa, Polly took up the one Anna costume and made it fun. She patiently waited for her turn to get her face painted, turning her version of the coloring pages each kid worked on into a birthday card for Skye. I was proud of her because she handled things so well, making herself present and part of the fun yet not going too far and grabbing the spotlight from Skye. That’s a delicate balance.
When it came time to open presents, the girls all sat together on the couch with Polly on one side of Skye and all the rest on the other. In that moment I felt like you could read the future of these two girls. Skye would grow into being a ‘cool’ girl, in possession of an array of up to date clothing and gadgets, following the latest social trends, and linked in to an extended network of other girls (The gifts coming in from her parents, grandparents, and the other guests – lots of Friends LEGOs and her own tablet computer - suggested that). Polly will probably continue to be on that other side of Skye, the one Anna in a world of want-to-be Elsa’s. I’d like to think that is a good thing. I can imagine how from that position Polly can float between worlds, hanging out with Skye but also going elsewhere when she sees fit. I can see her being confident enough in herself, in her smarts, in her ability to function in the world that she can be best friends with Skye without being overawed by all the stuff and the people Skye is going to have around her. That’s what I saw in Polly on that Saturday, and I hope that’s what continues to stay with her as she grows.
            Pip’s turn in the Daddy telescope came a couple of days later. This past Thursday, the second and third graders at Pip and Polly’s school put on a musical celebration of Black History Month for the school and parents were invited to come watch. This was a smaller event than the big winter and spring shows, and it allowed me to sit in a place where I could easily see Pip through the entire thirty-minute production. He was standing in the second row, his red polo shirt buttoned all the way up and tucked tightly into his black pants, his white tennis shoes pointing out below in a slightly duck-like angle. Ava’d recently cut his hair so he looked clean and trimmed all around, like a golf pro making his first appearance on tour. This impression didn’t change when he started to sing. His eyebrows crunched into a slight scowl as he focused intensely on getting the words, the notes, and the corresponding dance moves all working together. He worked earnestly to get every bit right and the effort involved gave his movements a halting quality. Instead of feeling and inhabiting the rhythms as they came, it seemed more like he was hunting them, stalking after their every measure in a determined effort to get everything right.

            This image seems to foretell something of his future as well. He didn’t joke with the girl to his right or whisper things to one of his friends in front of him. He was focused on the task to the exclusion of everything else. He wasn’t stand-offish. He wasn’t aloof. But he was slightly uptight, earnestly hard-working, and nerdy in that clean-cut, teacher’s pet kind of way. Only when the show was done did he momentarily break from this state, sliding his chin down into his shirt and popping it out again with a little grin on his face. I might have wished to see him enjoy things a little bit more, but given the multitudinous array of other things he could be, I’ll take this version any time.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Prepping for the Test

            Four weeks ago I wrote about Pip and the letter he received about the accelerated program at his school. At the time I was feeling powerless with respect to a selection process that seemed heavily dependent on a single number generated by one unknown test given on one unknown day. I wanted to Pip to get into this program because he likes school and he likes learning and the accelerated curriculum would give him an opportunity to do more of both. While getting in isn’t the do-or-die situation that it is in some places (we use to live in a rust-belt city where you either got your kids into the accelerated programs or you took them to private schools – there was no in between) I felt like he deserved one of the small number of spots available. Not only has he consistently worked at the leading edge of the curriculum, he also treats others around him with genuine respect. The teachers trust him to take care of his business and do what has been asked of him. He contributes productively to the class and willingly helps others. Pip is the type of kid that these kinds of programs should be accepting.
None of these qualities though show up on the quantitative measurements that are used to determine who gets a place and who doesn’t. The test is the only thing that matters.
            A day or two after writing that post, I decided to get over my paralysis and embrace a moderate Amy Chua approach to taking on this thing. While I didn’t know exactly which test Pip would be taking, it didn’t take a big imagination to go to the internet and figure out which ones he might see. After reading through a couple of different possibilities, I went about putting together example questions that would cover the general scope of what he might see. Each day after dropping him off at school I’d come home and spend about thirty minutes drawing up a set of questions, some of which came from the internet and others of which I made up on my own. When Pip came home each day, we would work through the questions together. It took a couple of days for us to figure out how many he could reasonably do and how best to go through them, but we eventually fell a good rhythm. I even started splitting the questions into an easy practice group and a more complex group to give him some work both at getting used to the types of questions he would face and at working through problems that didn’t immediately make sense to him.
            The most valuable aspect of our work together over the ensuing weeks was what I came to think of as the post-completion review process. After Pip finished all the problems on a given page, I had him explain to me his thinking on each problem before I told him the answer. This process had two benefits. The first was that it forced him to slow down and articulate what he was thinking regardless of whether the answer was right or wrong. This was particularly important for the questions he got right as those he tended to know without really understanding why. The second benefit of this process was that it gave me insights into his routines of thinking that I could then pick at in subsequent days.
            Ultimately, we didn’t have long enough for Pip to really reconfigure his thinking processes to match those of the test or even develop a regular set of procedures for addressing various kinds of problems. However, he did get to see enough problems to demystify the test itself and for him to become aware of which approaches he favored in solving certain types of problems. For the time we had available this was a satisfactory result. As I told Ava the night before the test, I felt like we’d done well. He was prepared for the type of questions he would see. He would be able to spend his time figuring out answers and not having to figure out exactly what the questions were asking of him. This was the best position we could get to without having the test take over our lives.

****
            All of this work together had a couple of interesting side-effects that I had not anticipated. For one, it temporarily made me into a less friendly person. Usually I’m inclined to talk with other parents just before pick-up time to see what’s going on and to learn how they are feeling about various things taking place at school. It’s mostly an exercise in collaborative competition as people talk about what their kids are into, how they’re doing, things like that. There’s usually some soft bragging on all sides (mine as well) which is fine because it helps give each other a sense of what other kids are doing and what we might expect of our own. And for the most part, the kids are not competing with one another in these moments. It’s mostly just parental pride at stake.
But with respect to the accelerated program tests, I didn’t venture any questions. I decided I’d rather not talk about how Pip was preparing on the off-chance that I’d give someone else the idea to do the same. I preferred to preserve that (possibly imagined) edge for Pip. Of course, without talking about it, I had no idea what others were doing which may very well have prevented me from doing something else that was beneficial, but that was a gamble I decided to take. All of this made me edgy and less talkative than usual. When you’re thinking so much about not letting others know what you’re thinking, it becomes hard to actually speak like a normal human being. In the last couple of days before the test, I couldn’t help but think of Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, and his gruff exercises in ambiguity and non-disclosure with the media. Standing around waiting for Pip and Polly to come out from school, I found myself doing much the same thing.
            On the flip side, now that the test is over, I’ve found that I am missing getting to spend extra time working with Pip. For the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a moment of comradeship each day when it was time to work through the questions I’d put together for him. Polly would come in and sit on my shoulders (literally) and look on while we talked through each of the problems. Pip would be proud when he got the hard ones right, frustrated when something didn’t fit his logic, and excited to do more the next day. The weekend before testing day he even asked for me to put together an extra set of questions for him. We both felt invested in the work and enjoyed having something to work on together in a focused and determined way. The day after the test was over and there was no more prepping to do, the afternoon felt kind of empty and directionless. It was missing the espirit de corps that had become part of our routine. Without that half-hour of intensely close work, I feel like I know him a tiny bit less at the end of the day and that makes me sad.

            So the test is done and now we wait. On the afternoon after the test, Pip said he felt comfortable with the questions and came up with reasonable answers to them all. The tricky thing with this whole test – and the reason it worried me so to begin with – is that the measurement is all relative. He could have done incredibly well and still not make it in to the program. Its all a matter of what everyone else does. Maybe this year was a good year. Maybe it was not. Maybe it won’t matter at all. We just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Polly and Math

            Ten years ago, Larry Summers, a former Treasury Secretary and at the time president of Harvard University, gave a set of remarks to a conference on diversifying the science and engineering workforce in which he posed some hypotheses about why there were so few women in science and engineering fields. He ventured three hypotheses. The first was that the career pressures of such positions were not as attractive to married women as they were to married men. The second was that there were more men than women possessing the “aptitude” to work at the highest levels of mathematics. The third was that men and women were “inclined” for various reasons to go into other fields. While all three claims feel strangely ignorant for a person in Summers’ position to suggest, it was the second of his hypotheses that really struck a nerve with the public at large. While Summers’ defenders in the media brouhaha that followed pointed out that he wasn’t saying that all women are innately less mathematical than all men nor even that the average woman is less capable than the average man, when you parse his words and shift them from the language of academia to the language of everyday communication, he was basically saying he thought that as a matter of biological difference fewer women than men might be capable of doing math at the highest levels.
            Now, I’m ideologically suspicious of any biological claims made regarding the general superiority of one person or group over another. Usually, such claims are deployed – consciously or not – in a way that justifies a person or people’s position of power over others by claiming some inherent betterness in themselves. And if you look at Summers in this context - a white male economist moving in the upper echelons of academic, economic, and political power in America – such an alignment fits. He basically said within those remarks that women have neither the interest nor the capacity to handle the kind of work he does. He even made a spurious claim about how his twin daughters, despite not being given dolls, transformed other playthings into mothers and babies as a way of justifying his hypothesis on the differing inclinations of women and men. Hey Larry, did your children not go to preschool or have a nanny or play with other kids or watch TV? Where do you think ideas about gender roles come from? A child’s parents are only one out of a great many sources.
            Anyway, the whole Larry Summers episode was brought back to my mind recently when Polly told me about the math groups in her kindergarten class. Polly has a good feel for numbers and, for reasons I’ll discuss in a few moments, is way ahead of the average kindergartener in handling the basic functions of mathematical thinking. As such she is working in the most advanced math group in her class and, as it turns out, all the other members in her group are boys. Now, the highest level reading group in her class has an even mix of boys and girls. Why should the math group be any different? It’s an anecdotal result that would cheer Larry’s heart and one that makes me shake my head. I had hoped things would be better than this by now.

****

            In one chapter of his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about hockey players and an interesting pattern that can be observed when one looks at which players ultimately make it into the highest levels of the sport. Interestingly, many have birthdays that come early in the year. Gladwell looked a bit more closely at this and found that Jan 1 corresponded with the cut-off date for kids joining youth hockey leagues in Canada. In other words, the kids who had birthdays early in the year – those who were at the oldest end of the league spectrum – tended to have a greater chance of developing the skills and talent necessary to play the sport at higher and higher levels. Gladwell attributes this correlation to the idea that the older kids were bigger, stronger, and more capable and thus garnered more developmental attention from coaches, got more playing time in games, and attained the kind of early success that keeps one interested in doing more. While Gladwell argued that one’s birthdate was no guarantee of success, it did create a slightly more favorable set of conditions and thus more of those players eventually made it into the professional ranks.
            I’ve been thinking about Gladwell and Summers together because it seems to me that much of Summers’ argument regarding the distributions of mathematical thinking at the highest levels could be explained by a Gladwell-type argument. While I don’t know why the distribution in Polly’s class is the way it is, I can see how it would propagate from there all the way up through the ranks into the highest levels of math and science. The kids in the advanced group are getting the same kind of feedback that Gladwell’s older hockey players are. They are getting the extra attention. They are encountering the success that makes one want to keep going and doing more. They are not all going to be great mathematicians, but the odds say good mathematical thinkers are more likely to come from one of these kids than from kids in any of the other groups. They essentially have a head start that can increase with time.

****

Before I had children I always thought of kindergarteners as little kids not that far removed from infanthood. They still have their entire school careers in front of them. They were, I thought, a blank slate waiting to absorb the world. However, that’s just not the case. By the time they turned 5 both Polly and Pip were well established as people. Their personalities were solidly in place. What they’re willing to do and not do were largely set. Their aptitudes and interests had a solid form. Their school years will certainly be a time of adding and molding, but the foundations regarding who they are and what they know about themselves are already poured.
This reality makes me think that all the effort put forth in later years to bring more women into math and science fields, while not a waste of time, is something of a rear-guard action. The real ground where much of these relationships is getting decided is in the zero to 5 age group. It turns out, I think, that if you really want to head off the cultural influences that shape girls’ relationships to mathematical thinking, you have to get to them really early. You have to get to them when they are learning to speak, when their brains are making the transition from basic stimuli response to conscious and considerate thought. From what I’ve seen with my kids, there is a sweet zone in the 2-4 range where so much of their basic thinking is worked out. If you can get to them then, you can shape a good deal of their capabilities later.
            And this is why Polly is in the highest math group in her class. I started doing simple math work at home with Pip when he was four and Polly was two (we used Singapore Math but I don’t think any particular program really makes that much difference). She looked over his shoulder for a full year then after he went to kindergarten the following year, I started her on the same program. By the time she entered kindergarten she’d had two full years of math already and was doing subtraction with three-digit numbers and substitutions. (She’s actually slipped a little since then because she hasn’t kept doing it). Polly is now good at math which makes all the stuff she’s doing in school easy. And because its easy, she does it well and she likes doing it. That momentum is going to carry her a long way. I don’t think she’ll be a math genius or necessarily pursue a career where math is central – right now she wants to be a veterinarian or zoologist or something else where she would work with animals – but, if we take the Gladwell effect seriously – and I do – she will be on the front end of her class in math from the rest of her academic career.
            I think this will probably be true for another reason as well. I’ve consciously made her aware of the ideas Summers was espousing, and this has given her a bit of a chip on her shoulder. It was Polly who brought to my attention to the fact that she was the only girl in the highest math group. And she took relish in telling me last week about how she was already done with her math sheet and the boys still had at least half the page to go. They weren’t serious enough about doing the work, she said with a touch of disdain.
            This chip is going to keep her working and that is something I don’t mind feeding. I even took advantage of her moment of triumph over the boys to start giving her one math problem a day when she comes home. We’re not going to do new material until the summer, but I’d like to get her back up to where she was this past fall. That way we can plow forward come summertime and Polly will be well situated for another year of math to come.

 ****


            I don’t know why the distribution of mathematical prowess in Polly’s class is the way it is. At this time, I don’t have the data to completely rule out Summers hypotheses regarding biological differentiation. However, I don’t think they’re right. Polly is not in the most advanced math group in her class by accident. She was not freakishly inclined towards mathematical thinking from the start. She was exposed to math principles early on and has been doing math work regularly ever since. This kind of socialization is more fundamental than any biological differences one may find.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What's good for one? What's good for all?

I grew up in a small town. There was one elementary school, one middle school, one high school. If you lived in that part of the county, these were the schools you went to. These were the schools your parents went to. These are the schools to which your grandchildren will go. The buildings may get updated or even built anew, but the link between the town and the schools will remain (seemingly forever) unchanged.
            This is not true of the city where we currently live. It has a population of around 250,000 and is served by a couple dozen elementary schools, ten to twelve middle schools, and four high schools. When the school district’s officials last rezoned the city over a decade ago, the neighborhood in which we live got a boost. While its elementary school remained the same, its middle school got shifted from one of the city’s worst to one of the city’s best. That shift was significant in that it made this low to middle income neighborhood a very attractive location for families with young kids. They could buy a small, reasonably priced house and still be able to send their kids to a decent elementary school, one of the state’s best middle schools, and a well regarded high school. Since that time, the quality of the elementary school has improved dramatically - a trend that probably has as much to do with changing demographics as it does with the admirable efforts of the school’s teachers and administration – making the neighborhood even more attractive. When more middle income families who care about education – and who have the time and monetary resources to devote to it - move in ( as we did this past April), your school’s performance goes up.  How much and in what ways may be personnel and location dependent, but the larger trend of improved test scores is often divorced from the specific actions of any given school.
            Unfortunately for us, given the city’s current and anticipated growth in population the school district decided this year that it is again time to make some adjustments in the school zone boundaries. After much whispering and gossip, the new proposed school zones were revealed this past week and while both their elementary and high school zones remain the same under the proposed plan, the kids in our neighborhood would be sent to a different middle school than the one they currently attend. This different school is about the same distance away as the present one, but its location is worlds apart. The present middle school is smack in the center of a set of rich, mostly white neighborhoods. The nearby businesses include a small-time hardware store, a French bakery, a local bookstore, and a home furnishings shop. The middle school our children would go to under the new plan is sited in a poorer and highly diverse neighborhood. To get to it, we have to drive past a low-end liquor store, a couple blocks of shotgun houses, and a church that used to be a restaurant. This school’s current test scores place it among the lowest third of all middle schools in the state. As someone who felt overjoyed at our good fortune in being able to buy a house in our neighborhood in part because of the schools to which we gained access, the proposed change in middle schools is a bit of a blow. I can’t help feeling like we got the rug pulled out from under us.
            However, I also am a bit conflicted about this reaction. Naturally, I’d rather my kids go to the ‘good’ school with the high test scores and the upwardly mobile environs. There is a comfortable certainty in sending them there, a certainty that whether they really thrive or not, they will at least be in an environment where most of the kids are doing well by conventional standards and so they probably will, too. But, the numbers don’t tell you what’s going on inside the school buildings, what kind of pressures exist or what the competition levels are like for participating in extracurricular activities. We can’t tell what the social and sartorial expectations are nor how the school’s dominant values align with the ways we want to live our lives. What’s good for one is not always good for another.
            Plus, what happens to this other middle school when the kids from our neighborhood elementary join it? Will the test scores go up? Probably. Will the school rise in the state rankings? Probably. Will we come to think differently about it? Possibly so. Will it become a ‘good’ school like our elementary school has over the last decade? It could. Should the district try to make that happen? Absolutely. So, should I complain when my children are the ones who get moved? Probably not. Why shouldn’t my children be the ones to move around? Why would I fight to send other kids to a school on principles of resource redistribution while maintaining a claim that my children should remain where they are? That would reflect a kind of ‘not-in-my-backyard’ hypocrisy that is the bane of so many worthwhile community ventures.

            All the same, this change worries me. Whereas the school gets a new crop of kids every year, I only get one chance at middle school with my children. If one year goes awry for a class or a school, the teachers and administrators get to try again next year. If one year goes awry for us, that is a year we’ve lost and will never get back. It makes one want to be hyper-conservative. It makes me want to fight for the most selfish and individual of outcomes. The tragedy of the commons has never felt more real.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Deserved First

“Piiiiip.”
It’s six o’clock on Sunday morning. Everything is very dark, and we are all still tucked in our beds.
A few seconds of silence follow, then,
“Piiiiip.”
Polly’s whisper is more insistent this time. Ava rolls over beside me and softly groans. Pip gives no evident reply.
“Piiiiip.”
This time Polly tries a little louder, making it clear that she will not be ignored. Groggy but curious, I decide not to intervene.
It takes three more tries before finally Pip concedes.
“What?” he whispers back with palpable irritation.
“Today’s my big day.”
“Huh?”
“I’m going over to Skye’s house this afternoon to play.”

****

Polly and Skye (not her real name) are in the same kindergarten class. It took a couple of months for them to work their way towards each other – they were seated at different tables when the year began and thus started out moving in different circles - but now that they’ve come together, little can tear them apart. They eat lunch together. They play on the playground together. They danced together in the school’s winter show. They sit beside each other whenever they can. Polly looks forward to going to school everyday in part because while she’s there she gets to pal around with Skye.
            Skye is the latest and most sustained of what Ava calls Polly’s ‘crushes’ and the first with whom we’ve done playdates. A lot gets made in the literary world of the special relationships that girls develop with each other (Anne of Green Gables and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants come immediately to mind) and that sense seems to carry over into the real world as well. These relationships are held up as being especially close, filled with secret languages and shared dreams, as well as being a fortress against the slings and arrows of marauding boys, ill-intentioned girls, and various serious adult-types with all their material demands. They are seen to possess their own special magic that’s not so different from true love.
This kind of view, I think, speaks more to a cultural caricature of ‘men’ and ‘women’ than the reality of what plays out between kids. In this caricature, women are emotional and demonstrative. Men are aloof. Women are collaborative. Men are competitive. Women feel. Men think. Even as we’ve become more sensitive to such binaries in recent decades, these tropes still permeate so many of the established narratives we use to understand the ways kids organize themselves that we start anticipating them and subsequently writing them on to things that seem to fit those expectations. I did it at the beginning of this section. The idea of Polly and Skye finding each other as if they were puzzle pieces brought together from opposite sides of the table fits this description perfectly.
But, in watching their relationship develop through what Polly shares with us, I don’t think what’s happening with her is in any way substantively different than some of Pip’s experiences with new friends at the same age. Reciprocated interest leads to intense curiosity about how another person thinks and acts and lives. It looks like infatuation up close but back away and it looks more like another limb in the educational tree of a young child, a learning about a life that is not your own, an expansion of your understanding about the world. Polly and Skye are comparing themselves and coming to a clearer understanding of who they are. They try out each others’ phrases and songs. They explore their different imaginative worlds. Pip did this as much as Polly has and in as many emotionally varied ways. I don’t know that there is anything especially gendered about it except for how and where we tend to focus our attention. Pip was just as excited to go play with his new friends as Polly has been with Skye.

What has been different for Polly is that she is coming into this friendship with Skye after having watched Pip with his friends. She knows things about friends, or has a set of expectations, that Pip never did. For three to four years, Polly was the third wheel, the one brought along while Pip played or the one left to hang out with me while Pip ran with older kids on the playground. Pip was good at including her in the ins and outs of their games, but he doesn’t realize how often she still wound up watching from the sidelines. With Skye, Polly is getting her turn. This is why she wanted to wake Pip up at 6 AM to tell him that she was going to Skye’s to play (And, this is why I let her get away with it). She has waited a long time to be able to do things with her own friend and not just be Pip’s third wheel. Sunday really was a big day for her. Pip, much to his initial dismay, was staying home with me, and she was getting her chance to be in the foreground. It was an experience that she deserved to have. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Letter

            An envelope came home in Pip’s backpack this week. It was an envelope we’d had our eyes out for since the school year began. Inside it was a letter informing us that Pip had passed the penultimate checkpoint in the process of getting a placement in the county school system’s accelerated program and that the final determinations would be made using a cognitive abilities test that would be administered in the coming weeks. We signed the necessary permission forms for him to take the test and sent it back.
The accelerated program has been on our radar since Pip first entered kindergarten in part because Pip and Polly’s school is one of three sites in the county that host accelerated program students in grades 3-5. This coincidence has made the program particularly interesting for me because it would allow Pip (and later perhaps Polly) to participate in a more challenging academic environment while still remaining part of our neighborhood school. This seemed like a best-of-both-worlds situation for us, and I imagined from time to time how nice it would be. Now, we have to deal with the uncertainty of whether that vision can actually come to pass.
            Pip is a thoughtful, wonderfully curious, and engaging kid. He reads extremely well and likes to do math. He knows how to be serious and articulate with adults and patient with other kids. However, he is not what I would consider to be a preternaturally ‘gifted’ individual. He doesn’t work things through obsessively. He doesn’t have an immediate and uncanny feel for numbers. His ‘gifts’ are mostly a matter of growing up in an environment where learning is valued and his willingness to ask questions about complicated subjects.
This combination has largely kept him working at the front edge of the subject matter in his class, but it has always felt sort of precarious, like we’re gaming the system a bit. He reads because we taught him to read. He does math well because we do some extra math in the summer. With this cognitive abilities test though, it feels like the game might be up. We don’t know exactly what’s on it. There’s no way to really prepare for it. It’s a big black tunnel which Pip has to walk through and we have no idea what the test will say about him when he comes out on the other side. Maybe he scores high enough to garner one of the 25 odd spots at his school. Maybe he doesn’t. I have no way to even guess where he stands.
This black box experience is not novel, of course. It is part of any endeavor where there are many people vying for a limited number of spots - college applications, job interviews, astronaut training programs, etc. But as we’ve never had to chase after a spot in a daycare or preschool, this is our first time going through this particular wringer, and it’s unnerving. When we first talked about what the letter contained, Pip got teary-eyed. He saw in the test a judging voice that might proclaim him unworthy and said aloud that while he knew he should and would take it, he didn’t really want to. As the bearer of the letter, I felt kind of sinister sitting beside him.
Fortunately, he’s already had an experience with being intimidated by something and going for it anyway. Back in November, he’d wanted to try out for a solo in the school’s winter show then got cold feet as the day to actually try out approached. At the time I pushed him to do it, reasoning that the more things you try for, the more opportunities come your way. I didn’t have any real evidence for this but I pushed anyway. Now I feel vindicated. As Pip talked more about his feelings with respect to the test, he specifically compared them to how he felt before trying out for the solo and how that hadn’t been so bad.
The other psychological challenge for Pip to overcome is the feeling that this test marks a culling point, a moment wherein he either gets to keep being one of the ‘smart kids’ or has to find a new identity altogether. The reality that things are much grayer than that doesn’t register in his emotional knowledge. It feels like an all or nothing proposition to him and the best I can do is to tell him to keep his head focused on his long-term goal – he wants to be an engineer doing space-oriented work – and know that there are many routes to achieving it. This test does not determine his future. It only marks another gate in the wide-array of possible trails he can follow. He seems to believe me, for now.
            In fact, Ava is somewhat dubious as to the actual long-term value of putting kids into an accelerated program anyway. She sees it as potentially isolating kids from the range of interests and personalities they will eventually have to negotiate in the world at large and leaving them ill-prepared to deal with people who do not treat them as special. In her position as a professor at a regional university she has seen a number of students in the university’s honors program complain about having to do the same kind of work as everyone else. They have been told they are special for so long that they have trouble taking instruction from others or doing the kind of menial grunt work necessary to overcome real world challenges.
            I tend to have a softer view. This is perhaps because I had the opportunity to participate in an accelerated math and science program during my final two years of high school and it made a significant impact on what I was able to learn during that time. This is mostly for two reasons. First, the students were all operating at a high level of knowledge and motivation. They generally wanted to learn. They were willing to do the homework and engage in class activities. They weren’t angels, and they didn’t follow all the rules but they were all there to do something and were generally excited to take advantage of the extra opportunities the program provided.
            And second, the teachers were much better. For example, the chemistry class at my regular high school was taught by a Vietnam vet whose main objective was to get everyone their C so they could graduate. The main thing I learned from him is that you can actually light the gas coming out of the Bunsen burner supply line and not blow the whole school sky high. To this day, I have a miserable understanding of how the chemical world works. The following year I took physics in the accelerated program from a teacher who was able to model vector forces on a computer, have us do motion experiments with sophisticated tracking sensors, and build a hologram to demonstrate the wave and particle properties of light. I can still see the world as it looked through these experiences.

            It is for these reasons that I’ve been thinking about Pip’s test frequently since the letter arrived. He has an opportunity to get in to an accelerated program early in his school career and have access to an educational track that can focus on doing more than meeting mediocre standards. If he gets in, it will require more intense and exacting work from him, but I think the payoff of that is an educational experience that offers chances to learn to see the world in fundamentally different ways. That is something I want for him, and I hope that it isn’t some one-off test that gets in his way.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Seeing a museum through the eyes of a child

            If I were to ever write a book on parenting, one of the recurring themes would be the importance of seeing the world through your children’s eyes. As an adult our role in interacting with children is usually the opposite. We need them to know when and how to eat. We need them to understand when they should talk and when they have to be quiet. We need them to comprehend that some spaces are made for play and others just can’t handle a game of tag. We need them to see the world through our eyes.
            But there are lots of times when a shift in our own perspective can bring unexpected benefits. I encountered one of these over New Years.

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            My mother-in-law lives in a large city with a nice collection of places to visit and things to see. For the past couple of years we’ve spent the mornings during our visits with her either picking around the various space, health, and physics-oriented exhibits at the science center or checking in with the monkeys, wolves, and elephants at the zoo. We’ve had fun at both but are now reaching the point where its time to try something new. So this New Years I suggested we try out the art museum.
            As a kid I didn’t have an art museum near where I lived and I don’t think I’d have had much interest in one if we had. But during a college semester spent traveling in Europe, I discovered that a really good art museum can be an incredibly interesting place to spend some time. Granted, it helps when you’re looking at Picasso’s Guernica or Michelangelo’s David, but once I was done with those I found the lesser known stuff to be intriguing as well. It was interesting to be able to see the changing styles, the intellectual trends, the up-close textures of different pieces and to fathom the amount of work and effort required to bring them into being.
            Of course, none of those things holds much currency with our children but, as we’d read a couple of books set in and around art museums, they were curious enough to see a real one that they agreed to go along.
All the same, I was somewhat nervous as to how enjoyable it would really be for them. Prestigious art museums like one in my mother-in-law’s city are generally not the most kid-friendly places. You can’t touch anything. You are expected to be reverently quiet. You can’t run down the halls. Docents and museum personnel glide quietly about the gallery rooms, looking warily at those who might violate these prohibitions. It can be an intimidating and frustrating environment for kids as well as the adults who bring them.
{As an aside, the museum where my mother-in-law lives has tried to bridge some of these challenges by creating a gallery near the entrance where kids can create mobiles, construct felt collages, and interact with different pieces of art in the collection through touch-screen computer terminals. From what I saw, this space was being well used by mothers with young children. It also appeared that the museum’s strategy to keep those kids and families interested as they grow leans heavily on an app that enables the creation of personalized tours. It would be interesting to track how effective that strategy is. I could see it going either way.}
As a way of giving Pip and Polly some direction to start with, Ava and I picked out a couple of rooms – the Egyptian gallery and the armory – about which we knew the kids had some outside knowledge to draw upon. This worked pretty well. In the Egyptian gallery, both of them were fascinated by a papyrus scroll that was unrolled in a glass case. They’d seen a documentary talking about scrolls a couple of weeks before and found it exciting to be able to examine one up close. In the armory, they liked checking out a broad sword that I told them reminded me of Excalibur.
But it wasn’t until we turned them loose that things really got interesting. Children as a general rule have a heat-seeking aesthetic. They know intuitively what appeals to them and have no qualms about immediately dispensing with stuff that doesn’t. Their judgments are untempered by any concern for historical significance, prestigious names, or opinions beyond those of their immediate companions. They also are unconcerned with anyone else’s collective order or genre. They are liable to walk into a room and pick out something they find interesting, spend two minutes looking it over, then moving on to see what the next room holds. It turns out this can be a very compelling way to experience a museum.
Following Polly and Pip around that morning was a great reminder that at its stripped down essence an art museum is basically a house of entertainment. Its thrills are perhaps more subtle than a movie theater or amusement park, but at heart the goal of a visit is pretty much the same – you want to see something cool, to find some joy, to experience a visceral sensation you don’t usually get to have in the everyday world. And, while there are all kinds of interesting patterns and histories at work in the pieces around you, you don’t actually have to know any of that for it to be enjoyable. Pip’s favorite piece was a wacky bookcase set up at the far end of a long hallway. It looked like something he could make out of LEGOs. Polly’s favorite was a portrait of a girl about her age. As she stood in front of it, I wondered if she wasn’t imagining herself within that picture. Without knowing any of the intellectual currents or conceptual challenges at work in the art they were seeing, the kids made real connections with those pieces, connections that came from deep within themselves.

            And that’s a particularly exciting reminder of what a good piece of art should actually be – something visceral and expressive, something that resonates with some aspect of your soul, something that draws out feelings and thoughts and memories, something that helps you learn more about who you are. I think the kids got a brief whiff of that over New Years. I can’t wait to take them back and do it all again.