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Ah yes, Black Friday cometh. But before we join the stampede to grab the latest gadgets and gizmos, there’s something I’d like to share with you – a little twist on our conventionally held notions of gift-giving.

So many of us get caught up in the “spirit” of the holidays. We peruse the door-buster ads in advance, rank the priorities, and map out the most efficient course to hit all the best sales. We have lists and more lists of whom to buy for, what to buy, and how much to spend. It’s the world’s largest scavenger hunt. For many, it’s become a seasonal tradition, cherished as much (if not more than) our Thanksgiving feast a day earlier, and I actually think that’s fine.

We’ll spend the coming month shopping, singing, baking, and decorating. We’ll attend a never-ending stream of school plays and holiday parties, planning and coordinating and burning every ounce of energy we’ve got until at last, Christmas Day arrives. Gifts are presented, packages ripped open with elation, and thank-yous exchanged. Another meal, a glass of wine, and then?

We need to follow through.

Huh?

We need to follow through on the gifts that we give. You see, the value of a gift is not in its price, but rather in its worth. And what makes a gift worth giving is the follow-through. I’ll give a couple of examples . . . If you give a kid a football, make the time to play catch. If you’re giving the Monopoly game, follow through by taking the time to play along. If you present your wife with some beautiful new jewelry, plan a night out where she can actually wear it. The gift isn’t the “thing,” the gift is you. Am I making sense here?

Without the follow-through, gifts quickly lose their value. Sometimes, a gift without the follow-through is worse than no gift at all.  We give anticipation, and set our loved ones up for a big let-down. In the end, nobody feels good about the gift. I’ve been guilty of this in the past. In fact, I’m a repeat offender.

It’s taken me 40-something years to figure this out, and with any luck I can make up for some lost ground, starting now. Here’s wishing everyone a wonderful season of giving. Cheers!

My Saturday began on Friday, strategizing with my wife about how we were going to conquer the events of the next day. By any measure, the itenerary was nuts – 3 soccer games, 2 parties, and a planned outing with my daughter’s volleyball team to watch the ASU-Stanford volleyball match – but not far from ordinary for a family with active kids. We could have taken our usual approach, to divide-and-conquer. That would have been a slam dunk. But with just enough time between events, we embraced the challenge to stick together and do it all as one big, happy family. We went over the start times and locations, factored in drive time and necessary stops, and plotted our course. 

Saturday morning, I was in charge of packing enough food and drink to get us through the day. What’s faster than fast-food? Easy, PBJ in the car! By 8am we were out the door.

Game 1: My son’s soccer team had been struggling against higher-caliber competition all season, and morale was sinking. This game was more evenly matched, and the boys played hard. As the game progressed, we could see some of the training and teamwork start to show through, and my son scored on a great offensive run. The game ended in a 3-2 loss, but some confidence had been restored, and we looked forward to the afternoon game.

Game 2: The final game of the season for my youngest daughter, and honestly, we were all glad to see it come to an end. She’s a great little talent and usually plays with heart and passion, but her enthusiasm was squashed this year by a coach who really just had no business leading a little girls team. He was loud, scolding and intimidating, and he’d lost the respect of the girls (and most of the parents) a long time ago.

I actually missed most of Game 2. My son wasn’t feeling well after his early game, and I had to make a run to the pharmacy. We’re still not sure what the underlying ailment was, but I had a feeling that dehydration was probably a factor.

Party #1: We wrapped the birthday gift in the car on way, and dropped our young soccer star off for a sleep-over party on the way to the next game.

Game 3: My son’s afternoon game was in serious doubt. He’d improved slightly in the past half hour, but wasn’t moving quickly and said he just wanted to go home. Knowing that he’s really good at acting miserable, I did my best high-wire act, suggesting that he at least come down to the field and make an appearance. If after warm-ups he wasn’t feeling any better, I told him we’d go home. As it turns out, I’d played the hand perfectly. Come game time, he was revved up again, and ended up scoring in that game as well. By the time it was over he was completely spent, but I could tell that pushing through was a great confidence-booster for him.

Party #2: We gathered with my older-daughter’s volleyball team for an end-of-season BBQ. Since I’ll be taking over as head coach for the upcoming season, I saw this as a unique opportunity to carry some momentum forward into the new season.

And finally, the big-girls game: Most of the girls had never played volleyball before this season, and it was great to see how far they’d come in just a couple of months. It’s one thing to teach the technical skills of how to pass, set, and hit, but how does one teach awareness, anticipation, and strategy? I seized this opportunity to drag the girls out to see ASU’s final home game, against #6-ranked Stanford. I was hoping the girls would benefit from seeing what it looks like when a team has all the pieces in place – positioning, movement, communication, focus and intensity. It’s possible that it was too much to comprehend. Volleyball is a very different game when played “above the net,” so they may have been confused by much of what they saw. Even so, it was a great night out, and a fun bonding experience. Our first practice under my supreme rule is tonight. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes.

So there it is, a busy day in the life of me. I came home exhausted, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I’m really digging this family thing.

Is our model for public education as broken as it seems? And if so, how do we fix it? Of course, funding is surely part of the answer, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it’s THE answer. When I first saw this headline about the creation of a new, national standard for education, my immediate reaction was “Oh no, please no!”

You see, as a consumer of public education, I’ve become jaded. Like most folks, I’ve watched the quality of our educational system slowly erode over time. Most recently, our schools have become fixated on standards-based testing, resulting in a narrowing of curriculum and an obsessive focus on meeting the benchmarks for “No Child Left Behind.” With the near-abandonment of “elective” classes in art, music, etc., and teachers forced to focus more time and resources on the slower learners, it seems to me that NCLB could have just as easily been called “No Child Pushed Ahead.”

I know I’m not the only one who has an intuitive sense that, as a whole, we’ve been dumbing down the standards to keep kids moving through the system. So, when I see that the powers-that-be are looking at creating a single, national standard for academics, I fear the worst. I fear that this could become the ultimate dumb-down, setting the bar so low that kids actually have to try to fail.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that any new standards would be based on the highest-performing schools, the most innovative teaching methods, the most enterprising public-private partnerships. I want to see hard-working teachers rewarded for their efforts, and lazy ones booted out of the system. I want to see more responsibility placed on the parents to actively engage in their child’s education.

I want to see schools keep their doors open after-hours, creating a safe environment for kids who want to stay and do homework, form study groups, or receive tutoring to do so. Why can’t we create that fun, socio-academic vibe (that “hey, I’m just happy to be here” feeling so common on college campuses) in our primary and secondary schools?

And what role do our teachers play in the resurgence? Personally, I’ve watched my kids reap the benefits of some truly dedicated and inspiring teachers, and it’s made me feel a great sense of hope and pride. But I’ve also had the horror of seeing them endure teachers who were so out-of-touch, mean-spirited, apathetic and lazy that it felt like, despite our efforts to intervene, the entire year a waste and we honestly felt as though some real damage had been done. Teachers like that have no business being in our classrooms.

In today’s brutal unemployment climate, there are undoubtedly thousands of smart, creative, and energetic professionals that could make the leap into teaching. Perhaps now is the time to offer early retirement to some bad apples, and give our kids hope for a better tomorrow. And I’m curious . . . do “first career” teachers generally respect the talents of “second career” teachers? Are they welcoming and helpful, or do the newbies spark a sort of career turf-war? Are newer teachers viewed as simply naive, with the old guard knowing that their enthusiasm will quickly wane once reality sets in? What’s really happening in the background, and how does that effect what goes on in the classroom?

Charter schools are on the rise. We’ve had personal experience with a couple of them, and have been generally impressed with the academics in both cases. I can’t help but think part of the reason for their success is that these schools are typically not the “convenient” option, which means that if the kids are going to attend, the family is going to make a substantial commitment and investment in time, travel, and volunteer work. This has the effect of weeding out the families that don’t take personal responsibility for their kids’ education. And could it be that the lack of tenure in the charter schools keeps teachers more engaged and on their toes? Should we trade tenure for merit pay?

I know that some of my readers are teachers, and I’d really like to hear from you. Is our model for public education as broken as it seems? And if so, how do we fix it? Forward this blog to every other teacher you know, and let’s air out some ideas. You’ve got some, right?

Oops.

On my political soapbox again . . . I’m really trying not to make a habit of this!

I just saw this article from CNN, and was wowed by the statement attributed to Dr. J. James Rohack, President of the American Medical Association, regarding their support for the current health care reform bill:  

. . .  the legislation is “not a perfect representation of our views” but is close enough to warrant his group’s support and keep the reform process moving forward . . .

Now, how inspiring would it be if other players in the debate, on both sides of the aisle, could adopt a similar philosophy? When we fight for extremist ideologies, and refuse to yield on principle, nobody wins.

The article goes on to note that the house Bill includes a public insurance option. Gee, if the doctors aren’t afraid of a government-run insurance system dictating how they deliver medical care, why should the Republicans be?

The answer, obviously, is that that isn’t really what the Republicans are afraid of at all. What they’re most afraid of is a little competition draining the profits of their political donors. All that scary stuff is just a smokescreen.