Sunday, May 22, 2011

To Fail or Not to Fail

Parents know what is best for their kids and as all parents know, struggle is part of growing, learning and becoming an adult. Part of  being a parent is watching our kids fail, struggle and overcome their obstacles. Last week I read this piece about failure being cool from The Good Men Project. It got me thinking about the importance of failing and how our ideas of failure have gotten a little skewed.
Currently I'm not sure we really understand the importance of failure and this is strange because our cultural history is based in failure. A few brave men and women, after being persecuted and failing to thrive across the Atlantic, hopped a boat to find a place where they could build something better. Later we erected the Statue of Liberty to welcome those who, just like their American predecessors, needed a place to start fresh and put their failures behind them. The poem on The Statue of Liberty states,

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door. 

We open our arms to those have failed before and want to start a new life.  It is this dream, whether realized or not, that has always moved our culture forward.  Our message has always been that one can find a unique and personal form of achievement here. Cookie cutter education and assembly line testing don't honor the power of failure and don't embrace the potential unique success of each person.
Let's pretend for a moment we talking about a woodland school for animals. The classroom and tests are set up for rabbits and they excel with learning and testing at school. If a rabbit falls behind they are motivated to succeed because they see other rabbits doing great. The frogs start to fall behind as do the birds.  It doesn't take long until the frogs and birds are dropping out, withdrawing from the educational community all together.  Soon there are birds joining gangs and frogs being picked up for petty larceny. So to curb the flight of failing students, the parents and educators who identify with the frogs and birds start wanting to educating them differently, taking them to different schools in hopes to find success. Does this analogy ring a bell?
Failure is either a catalyst for success or a catalyst for withdraw. The failure our culture was based upon motivated success. It didn't cause withdraw.
The struggle our kids encounter in school shouldn't cause them to withdraw from the system.   Educating a child is about giving them the tools to overcome failure and become successful. If we only educate the rabbits, soon the forest will be over run with  elite academically successful rabbits. There will be no bird song and we won't hear the frogs croaking in the twilight.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mirror Mirror on the Wall...

Recently while paging through the Social North site I read Julia Rosien's post about filming the Dove Singin' in the Rain Commercial. Ms. Rosien participated in the filming of the ad and shares her thoughts about Dove's ad campaign that uses real women of all ages, races and ethnicities to celebrate the extraordinary success and spirit of women. 
Dove isn't just trying to sell soap in this ad.  There is something more at stake here than a bar of soap or a bottle of shampoo. Dove is attempting to raise awareness about the determinants of believing there is only one kind of beauty and that this beauty equals success.
We live in a culture in which women are often held to an impossible standard of beauty. It is a culture in which the dream  never matches the reality, even in the most ideal situation.
However, the problem isn't only the poor body image that results from being bombarded by this shallow message. There is another extremely damaging side effect.  Because we think less of our bodies, we think less of ourselves.  Self image is the pivotal factor in how much any of us passionately pursue our life long goals. We must start with a basic sense of "I am good enough." If our daughters look in the mirror and see a person they like and say, "I am good enough" they will reach farther, achieve more and feel more confident in the process.  If they don't see a person they believe to be "good enough", then they will sell themselves short.  They will never attempt to attain their dream. Our job is to show our daughters that every face is one of success.
What Dove attempts to do by pointing out the variance in beauty doesn't just send a message about the perfect imperfections of the body, it also points to the fact that every face of success looks different. True success doesn't lie in physical perfection. It lies in the perseverance to achieve and attain a personal dream.
 I want my daughter to look in the mirror and not focus on the color of her eyes or the texture of her hair. I don't want her to be reduced to self criticism that will limit the vision of herself and keep her from making her best contribution to the world. I want her to see the face of a successful woman.
So, thank you Dove for celebrating women in all their many forms of physical beauty and for all their achievements. And thank you Julia Rosien, for participating in this insightful ad campaign that opens viewers to the idea that success and achievement start with a sense of "I am good enough", not an airbrushed ideal.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Gardening: A Portal for Understanding our Interconnectedness

As our world becomes more and more socially connected through technology, building relationships and respect for the global community becomes more important, not less. This global community is not limited to human interactions, however.  As we deepen our understanding of interconnectedness, we must also deepen our respect for all living, breathing creatures and the need we all have for our earth to thrive, produce resources and support humanity. 
 How can children learn to work in harmony with their surroundings and this expansive idea of community that now faces us in the 21st century? 
What better place to start than with a past time that every culture on earth has in common, gardening. The earth, the dirt, the seeds, the desire to observe the growth of an organism is shared by all people.  Whether we are plant or animal we are dependent upon the same soil, air and water to sustain our life force.
Recently Lori Lite of Stress Free Kids, shared her family's spring gardening project on her blog. Ms. Lite, like many moms, is looking to foster an underlying sense of respect, responsibility and the growth of positive relationships within her family and the world. She shares a beautiful and inspiring post about her daughter and her husband planning and creating a garden together.  Read her full article and recommendations for family gardening here.  The lessons learned in the garden about a healthy lifestyle, interconnectedness, respect and responsibility will carry our children all the way through life and even into the vast  unplanned gardens of social media and technology, into a world yet uncharted by any of us yet intimately shared by all us. 

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it's only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner in the Glory of the Garden. 

-Rudyard Kipling, from  "The Glory of the Garden"

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Thread that Keeps it Together

Today is Mother's Day.  Other years I have passed this holiday quietly with  my family, perhaps enjoying a yummy homemade breakfast, kisses from the kids and a lovely bouquet of flowers.  However, this year it is all a bit different. This year I am fully engaged as an advocate for education and play and this involvement has pushed me to look a little deeper into the role of mother. How do our mothers help us achieve?
This past week Thomas Matlack of the Good Men Project, shared with me his Mother's Day post. As I read the amazing interview he did with his mother about his childhood and decisions she made along the way, I was struck with the thought that it is not our faults or weaknesses that define us as parents.  It isn't the things we recognize as mistakes years later that permanently color whether we are successful parents. Rather it is how we respond to the obstacles placed before us.As you read Mr. Matlack's piece you will hear intimately about the obstacles his family faced. Some of those struggles will probably be familiar, but what you will also hear about is a woman who constantly experimented and worked to find a solution to those problems.  That is what a parent who strives for excellence and achievement does. They never stop working to find a situation, a job, a house, a school or a community that will help themselves and their family.
Motherhood has changed over the decades and women have more choices than ever before about how they want to lead their lives.  However, the one thing that continues to define us as mothers is our dedication to doing what is best for our families. It isn't the faults we all have or the weaknesses that we are all plagued with. We continue to be best defined by if and how we choose to overcome our obstructions.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Revolutionizing Motherhood

In honor of Mother's Day I am joined by Liz Lange of Liz Lange Maternity. She has become a fashion pioneer.  Ms. Lange is the only maternity clothing designer to show her work at New York Fashion Week, is author of Liz Lange’s Maternity Style: How to look fabulous during the most fashion-challenged time and her work has been covered by Entrepreneur magazine, Women’s Wear Daily, the Harvard Business Review and Fortune, who named her a “Top 10 to Watch” entrepreneur.
She shares with us how she got started designing maternity clothes:

Back in the late 1990s when I was in my 20s, my friends started to get pregnant (I myself was newly married but not yet pregnant - that came later. Today my children are 12 and 10.)
All my pregnant friends had the same complaint: they couldn't find maternity clothing that made them feel normal, pretty and in many cases professional. I had an aha moment that I could make maternity clothing that looks just like regular clothing and, if I used only stretch fabrics, I could even make it fitted unlike the hugely oversized garments which were currently on offer. I had no background in design (I went to Brown University and studied Comparative Literature) but I did have a love of fashion and a good sense of style - my first job out of college was at Vogue.

As a mom of three, I can testify to the fact that putting on a pair of beautiful maternity jeans or a fashionable winter sweater changes the way I feel about being a mom. In that moment the hardships of pregnancy can slip away and once again the self confidence I felt before I was pregnant can be restored. I feel beautiful.
It isn't just  maternity fashion that has been revolutionized in recent years, however. In fact it is the fundamental way we think about and view pregnancy.  Ms Lange goes on to say,

I firmly believed then as I do now, that pregnancy is a sexy and celebratory time in a woman's life (perhaps the most life changing) and that the clothing should reflect that.

No longer is pregnancy something to be ashamed of or covered up with shapeless clothes or to hide in the house because of. Rather it has become something to be honored and celebrated and is actively, visibly part of our lives. Finally.  Pregnancy has made its way out from underneath baggy frocks and out from behind closed doors. It has been elevated right to the forefront of our creative fashion culture and our mainstream collective conversation, and all this thanks to innovative leaders like Ms. Lange.
What does this mean for our children? It means that when they look back at their experience of mother, they won't see a woman who has compromised a piece of herself. They will see a woman who was proud of being a mom, unashamed of her body and embracing the fullness of becoming and being a mother.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The "Cool Factor"

With all the blame ricocheting around the discussion of education reform, it is easy to loose track of the most important element of this collective conversation, the children. The real questions we should be asking aren't about WHO is at fault.   It is not the fault of one party, one group or one policy. We are ALL responsible for the well being of our children. None of us have done the job we needed to do, not teachers, not parents, not teachers unions, not education reforms, not administrators and not policy makers. If we had, we wouldn't be in this position.
The fear that many education reformers have today is that the constant over use of assessments and merit pay will result in a culture of meritocracy amongst teachers. In other words, we will create a community of teachers who are only striving to get by and keep their jobs.
The problem is, their worst fear has already arrived.  We already have a culture of meritocracy in education. This is why the "best and brightest" aren't flocking to teaching schools. This is why the fight for merit pay is on and why many politicians are embracing arguments in favor of basing compensation on testing and other evaluations. If there was a culture of excellence, would merit pay be relevant?
Fear, however, is not the best motivator.  Holding teachers in a fearful relationship with administrators and politicians doesn't necessarily build the sort of culture of excellence we are looking to attain in education.So what will? We need to change the way we do business in schools, in the classroom and in our relationships with students. We must begin to foster a respect for teaching. We must hold teaching in a place in our general culture that properly represents its importance.  I was speaking with a LA special ed teacher over the weekend and she mentioned the lack of a "cool factor" in teaching these days. I happen to agree with her.
There is not a culture of recognition for the achievements that are being made amongst great teachers or students. We don't brag about teachers the way we brag about athletes, doctors, lawyers, movie stars or politicians. Why would young people want to become a teacher?  It isn't going to be for the pay or the prestige. We haven't conjured enough respect or even a bit of "cool factor" for education.
Teaching is not just another job where you punch in the time card in the morning and punch out in the afternoon. This is not a job one should take just for good benefits and long vacations. If these are the sorts of people that we are attracting to education, we have to seriously ask ourselves why we are not attracting passionate teachers who want to strive for excellence in education. We are not giving teachers a place to express themselves and their passion. We need to pay educators for innovation, passion and excellence not only test scores and assessments. Now, that is the sort of merit pay I could stand fully behind.