Education is not a preparation for life but is life itself. - John Dewey

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Talking With Your Child About Tragedy

I write this post with a deep and primal sadness.  I am sitting with the news of the Newtown killings.  Trying not to move too quickly into doing, thinking, expressing.  Trying to just feel and honor the sadness.

However, I have two children.  So I must do, think, and express.  My husband and I want to be their primary contacts for information and concerns before their peers and instead of youtube.  I want this to be a time when we share our sadness, reaffirm our love, and discuss the many ways we protect and care for each other.

Here are some resources that I have found helpful as a parent and a professional to navigate this difficult and heartrending terrain. 

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has an excellent guide for discussing the shooting with your child.  It’s straightforward and simple.  NPR also has a page of advice, which is brief but good.

If your children range in age from pre-school to grade school/middle school, tailor your general conversation to the youngest, not the oldest.  Have separate conversations with your older children.  Explain to them the need to handle this differently for the younger siblings.  Ask for their leadership and cooperation with this.

VAIS has posted this reassuring and instructive article from Drs. Robert Evans and Mark Kline.  If your child is in a dual-household family, share these resources so you can create a common approach and common language.  Make sure that you and your co-parent(s) can agree on basics – media exposure and creating a safe and loving environment. 

If necessary, please try to characterize the shooter in terms that are clear to children, both young and old.  Using a simple descriptor such as “extremely dangerous” is less ambiguous to children (and more accurate) than “angry,” “upset,” or “mentally ill.”  We can get angry or upset when they put glitter glue on the dog.  We may have family members or friends who are mentally ill but not dangerous.  Explaining this difference can help children with their fears and uncertainty.

You may choose to discuss how important it is for all of us to get help when we need it – with our emotions and our behaviors.  I have explicitly talked with the 3rd-5th graders this year about Hero Bystanders.  When we notice any kind of dangerous behavior, we must report the situation to a trusted adult.  Especially if there are weapons involved.  This is not tattling but reporting.  This is helping someone OUT of trouble rather than getting someone INTO trouble.  In our community, when anyone is showing behavior that is dangerous to themselves or others, we must get help right away.

Remind your children that Sabot actively teaches kids how to safely express emotions and that we make sure children and adults get help from professionals when they need it – for problems big and small.  Help your child identify adults to go to for help at home and at school. 

The American Counseling Association has posted a factsheet about children’s responses to trauma and disasters.  If your child’s reactions begin to disrupt his ability to function, please contact a community professional.  Sabot parents can email me with questions and concerns.

Even if we do not know the bereft families personally, we still grieve for the loss of life.  Create or participate in a personal or community ritual to frame your mourning.  Visit your place of worship for a prayer service, vigil, or just to light a candle.  Join with others to walk the labyrinth or to meditate.  Group rituals can strengthen our connections in our community while lifting our spirits.

We are so blessed to live around the James River – my favorite place to remember the unending nature of life.  Be in nature.  Find a way to ground yourself in what is and always will be.  

Share with your child some small things that comfort you:  drinking a cup of tea, snuggling with a pet, reading a favorite book, listening to or making music, spending time with a friend, or holding someone’s hand.

You may choose to light a candle in your home to honor the lives that were lost.  If your children wish to participate, they can place artwork, poetry, a special bit of nature, or a toy by the candle.

Be sad.  Express.  Love.  Connect.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Point of View

Once upon a time there were six blind men who all lived in the same town. One day the circus came to town and the men went to see the elephant. But how could they? The first man said, “We can feel him.”
 “That’s a great idea!” said the rest. 

So each man went to feel the elephant. 
The first man touched the elephant’s big, flat ear. He felt it move slowly back and forth. 
 “Oh” he said, “An elephant is like a giant fan!”

The second man touched the elephant’s leg. “Oh, an elephant is like a tree!”

The third man felt the tail and said, “No you are both wrong. The elephant is like a rope.” 

But the fourth man disagreed. He felt the elephant’s pointed tusk and said, “Ouch! An elephant is like a spear.”

“No” said the fifth man, “Can’t you tell an elephant is like a wall?” He was feeling the elephant’s huge side.

The sixth man grabbed hold of the elephant’s tusk. “You are all wrong! An elephant is like a snake!”

The men continued to argue, each one certain he was right. “It’s a fan.” “No, a tree.” “Surely a rope!” “No, it’s a snake!” “You’re wrong. I’m right!”

Finally they got tired of shouting at each other and they all went home. So none of them ever found out what an elephant really was.

I read this story to the 7th Graders last week as part of a series of guidance lessons on bias.  It generated a great discussion about perspective, assumptions, and judging.  Each character in the story clings to his own experience and each walks away with an incomplete understanding of the elephant and of each other's experience.

We reflected on how our experience may be different from someone else's in the same situation and how our truth may only be a part of the whole picture.  At which point, one student said, "That's like Plato's Cave."  The other students leaned in with interested, questioning expressions.  The student explained how the people in Plato's Cave were shackled to the cave wall and could only see the shadows of reality, never the true, authentic reality.  "They could never see what was really going on."

Wow.  I was impressed with this student's insight and I was equally impressed by the rapt, respectful attention of the other students.  

After we spent some time digesting this story and imagery, I described experiencing a house by looking through one window.  I can look through the window and see into a room but not see the whole room.  I certainly cannot see the whole house.  Each of us might look through a different window and have a completely different sense of what lies within the house.  

Possibly, if we all shared what we each see through our window, we can move closer to the truth about what lies within the entire house.  

Share your point of view honestly and bravely.  Honor and respect the perspective of others.  No small challenge for the typical middle school student.  No small challenge for any of us.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sleepovers, Summer Camp, and Resilience

Paul Tough's book, "How Children Succeed," has me pondering how we encourage resilience in children.  I'm sure I will have many more posts on this subject, but I thought I would share an article from The Washington Post  by Carolyn Butler that I had filed away this past summer on sleepovers, summer camp, and resilience.

"One of the things that troubles me about this generation is that we want our children endlessly challenged academically, but we don’t seem to want their resilience challenged in other ways. You can’t know you’re resilient until your resilience is challenged. And resilience or grit is key because it’s what gets you through the hard times in life." 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


For the past month or so, I have been visiting the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classrooms talking about Bullying.  One concept that I've explored with the children has been the role of a bystander.  Who is a bystander?  How can a bystander make a difference?  When have you been a bystander and what happened?  What is the responsibility of a bystander?

Last week, I read "Wings" by Christopher Myers to the 5th graders.  I absolutely love Myers' collages and I thought that the class would also appreciate the dramatic tale of Ikarus Jackson.  They did.  We discussed the artwork, Ikarus and his wings, and the powerful impact of a bystander.

We talked about superpowers and how sometimes what makes us special, powerful even, can make us feel different.  The other kids (and adults) in the story took Ikarus' difference and used it as a tool for bullying.  But one bystander, with her courage and truth, celebrated Ikarus' wings.

What are your wings?  What is your superpower?  Has someone ever helped you when you had a tough time celebrating your differences?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Finding Stillness in One Moment

Have you felt it lately?  Maybe it crept in with the cooler weather, the high pressure slipping under a cold front.  It arrives without fail each autumn for me:  an ever-increasing tempo of obligations, expectations, and not-to-be-missed opportunities that snowball into Thanksgiving and then crash into the winter holidays.

My first line of defense is to just breathe.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Repeat. 

Breathe.  Relax the face.  The shoulders.  Breathe.  Let the world spin without me for one minute.  Maybe two.  Breathe.  Ground my feet.  Straighten my spine.  Find a lightness.

Breathe in peace.  Breathe out stress.  Breathe in expansion.  Breathe out confinement.  Breathe in acceptance.  Breathe out judgment.

I wake early in the morning to have my quiet moment of the day.  To sit with a cup of tea in the chilly darkness of the morning and connect with that which will always be, no matter what the day brings.  My breath.  This earth.  The stillness. 

I will carry this core of peace inside me throughout the commotion of the day.  Returning to it whenever I need it.  Returning to calmness.  To stillness.

I find that this stops the snowballing stress and I can find greater perspective, patience, and tolerance.

If you are interested in how mindfulness, meditation, and inward focus can benefit you or your children, please look into a wonderful upcoming opportunity:

On Saturday, November 10th, Joe Klein from Inward Bound Mindfulness Education is coming to Ekoji (3411 Grove Avenue) to hold a day retreat.  From 9am-4pm, there will be a retreat for adults.  From 6pm-10pm, there will be a teen event.

Ekoji offers a Family Mindfulness Meditation from 1pm-2pm this Sunday, October 14th with a Teen Mindfulness Meditation following from 2:30pm-3:30pm.  This is offered monthly.  What a great way to establish a family practice of meditation!

If right now you are saying to yourself, “That’s fine for others, but not for me.  I have no time and no quiet in my life,” I offer you this video on One Moment Meditation.  Try it out …

Monday, October 1, 2012

Being Yourself

I am not a fan of frequent screen time for kids (or adults), but I love having a family movie night now and then with my kids.  It is sometimes a struggle to find a movie that everyone can enjoy, but the documentary, Being Elmo, was a hit for all of us.  As an added bonus, Being Elmo solidly supports our three middle school themes:  Identity, Community, and Advocacy.  

This is the story of Elmo creator, Kevin Clash, and his journey from being a kid in a Baltimore neighborhood who likes to play with dolls to becoming one of the most popular puppeteers in the world.  Clash maintains his focus and sense of self despite clearly standing out as a child and teen (a strong portrayal of identity); his family, neighbors, and colleagues support his journey as a young, struggling puppeteer (community support); and even after “making it” in the entertainment business, Clash finds the time to support the Make a Wish Foundation and also mentor young puppeteers, never forgetting how he was supported as a young man (a cycle of advocacy).  

There are so many "guidance themes" in this movie:  perseverance, focus, attention to detail, and the importance of parental support to just name a few.  After viewing this movie, try talking to your child about what helped Clash succeed and what might have stood in his way.  This is also a great opportunity for a discussion on non-mainstream careers and following your passion.  

Being Elmo is a much-deserved tribute to Kevin Clash but it is also pays homage to the power of creativity and love.  Here is a review of Being Elmo from The Washington Post.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Meditations on Creativity and Risk

Last night, I attended the Richmond Symphony performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major.  What a tremendous emotional journey!  I will spare you my pedestrian music review (suffice it to say that I was transported and loved every note), but I would like to share some of my thoughts following the performance. 

When this piece premiered, it received overwhelmingly negative criticism and boos from the audience.  Now, it is one of the most frequently performed symphonies around the world.  In his day, Mahler was seen as a great conductor but a failed composer – and yet in our day, he is celebrated as one of our finest composers.

How did Gustav Mahler continue to compose despite negative criticism and discouragement?  Where does one find the will to create in an unsupportive environment? 

Obviously, creativity and expression require risk and vulnerability.  History is littered with great innovators who were underappreciated, discouraged, or ridiculed by those around them.  Some survived to be recognized for their achievements.  Others died with no acclaim.  

How do we, as educators, encourage students to take these necessary risks, to be open to mistakes and criticism, to learn and grow?  How do we develop a student’s inner strength and confidence – the ability to see past initial failure or to see beyond perceived failure?

A dear friend once gave me some advice as I was preparing for a recital.  I was telling him about my terrible performance anxiety and how I fall apart in front of an audience – hitting the wrong notes, messing up the tempo, etc.  He told me, “Whenever I hit a wrong note, I do it with confidence.  I go with it – maybe even hitting it wrong again on purpose.” 

Now I certainly don’t have his sense of panache, but he helped me see that my fear of failure was more powerful than the actual mistake.  The truth of the moment was not in the wrong note but in my response to the wrong note.  Could I celebrate the mistake and get past it? 

Fear can stop us from moving forward, from learning a skill, mastering a concept, or sharing a talent.  What if nobody likes it?  What if I mess up?  What if I get the answer wrong?  What if someone laughs at me?

Mahler was definitely affected by the negative criticism surrounding him (he completely reworked his first symphony only to have the next version meet the same disappointing reaction), but he chose to honor his inner voice rather than the tastes of his audience.   Mahler’s biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange writes that “the emotions [Mahler] needed to express were so overpowering that he was not much concerned with his future listeners’ reactions.”  I am thankful that Mahler persevered.  

I do not want my students to let their fears block their growth.  I want to encourage determination and inner strength by providing a learning community that is a safe space to risk innovation.  To embrace mistakes with confidence.  To develop an inner voice that can guide through obstacle and opposition.

In life, there will be wrong answers.  There will be mistakes.  There will be times when our hard work and personal expressions are met with boos and negativity.  We cannot let this stop us from sharing our voice and our gifts.

Thank you, Gustav Mahler, for your tenacity and courage.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fact Checking

“So my friend who goes to that school said that it’s true.  So it’s not an opinion, it’s a fact.”

Ah, the tricky work of sorting fact from opinion.  I recently asked our 8th graders to research facts about the various high school specialty centers in the Richmond area.  Despite an abundance of accurate information from reliable sources on the Internet, some students wanted to report opinion and gossip from neighbors and friends rather than fact, usually followed by a chorus of “Well, what I heard was …”

In middle school, students are very attuned to what other people think – about themselves and each other.  This is a time for them to cull through the deluge of peer, media, and family beliefs to find what fits and what doesn’t, trying on different attitudes and identities.  This exploration is essential.

However during this time, the distinction between opinion and fact can blur.  Parents and teachers have a responsibility to gently question student assumptions that are based on opinion and prompt them to find reliable sources for information – a critical process when students are dealing with peer relationships, sexuality, drugs, and alcohol. 

Am I saying that we should disregard opinion?  Absolutely not.  Trusted counsel from friends, older siblings, neighbors, or professionals is a valid way to gather information.  However, parents and educators have a responsibility to teach our children to fact check:  Is this person/website/program a reliable source of information?  Where did they get this information?  How can you double check the information?  Parents must send a strong, unequivocal message to “come to me first” about issues relating to drugs, alcohol, and sex in order to mitigate the flow of misinformation.

In my high school transition work with the 8th graders, I emphasize that the opinion of friends can portray a sense of the culture of a school but that they must recognize opinion for what it is:  the outlook and reflection of one individual.  Additionally, interview admissions directors, research statistics, and talk to a variety of people to get a fuller picture of a school.

As we look forward to October, parents and students will have ample opportunity for gathering opinions and facts about the various high schools in the area.  This is the season for open houses, information sessions, and tours.  A perfect time for fact checking.

Friday, September 7, 2012


This is forming time in the classroom. 

This is the time for the teacher to establish expectations and a rhythm to the day, to learn the nuances of the students – when to support, when to challenge – and to tinker with how to guide exploration and discovery. 

This is the time for students to consider, “Who am I in this group?  What do I bring to the class?  How am I part of the whole?  Do I fit in here?” 

This is the time for the teacher to provide leadership and guidance with clear boundaries, warmth, and care – providing a safe, comfortable environment for the students so they can take the social risks necessary for joining with others.

Vulnerability.  Guidance.  Authenticity.  Acceptance.  Trust.

This is essential work – primary, grounding. 

Until the beginning of October, I try to avoid interrupting the flow of the classroom.  I may visit a few classes where I have deep, comfortable relationships with students – students who may need a reassuring word, smile, or hug.  But I try to leave the teacher and students to their dance of relationship and group identity.  To form as a group.

When we allow this to occur, when we allow a space for students and teacher to join together, something magical happens.  The group becomes dynamic, flexible, and strong – able to work through conflict and strife during the school year, capable of deep growth and progress.

The group transforms from a collection of individuals to an entity. 

The whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Invisible String

This is one of my all-time favorite books to read with children!  Patrice Karst's picture book is simple and helps when we need to feel connected to someone who is not right here, right now in a physical way.  Twins, awakened at night by a thunderstorm, run into see their mom who explains to them that she is always with them, no matter what.  People who love each other are connected by invisible strings of love - such a powerful concept that children, big and small, get in a very deep way.  (I use it with children Pre-K through 5th grade but have given it to older children to read and discuss as well as adults.)

I like to ask kids where their strings go - who are the people connected to them by love?  It's a great way for them to identify their support system.  They often start with family (and pets, of course!) but will also include friends, neighbors, teachers.  We explore questions such as "Can you be connected by love to the earth?" or "What happens when someone tries to cut a string by being mean?"

I have read this with children who miss mom or dad during the school day.  I have also shared this with students who could no longer see a parent or family member due to death or incarceration.  It is such a lovely and reassuring book for us all - who hasn't felt alone and scared at some point?  As Karst writes:

"... they started dreaming of all the Invisible Strings they have, and all the Strings their friends have, and their friends have, and their friends have, until everyone in the world was connected by Invisible Strings.  And from deep inside, they now could clearly see ... no one is ever alone."

Friday, August 24, 2012

More First Day Prep ...

Here is some advice from Diane Peters Mayer (via Tracy Grant's Momspeak) specifically about transitioning to a new school.  And yet with advice like "Don't dismiss the child's worry" and "Believe in your child," her suggestions are great for those of us returning our kids to a familiar school as well!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

First Day Prep

I know that it's coming.  There it is on my calendar:  The First Day of School.  Yet I never feel ready.  It always sneaks up on me, hiding behind family trips or last minute pool parties, until ... Gotcha!  I'm scrambling to buy lunch bags and binders, everyone is up way too late, and no one is ready in the morning.

Does this sound familiar?  Here are some tips for easing the transition from summer days to school days.  Many are for all age groups, a few are more geared towards older or younger children.  Please add your own suggestions in the comments!

Before School Starts:
  • Resist overdoing the back-to-school shopping.  Children usually have sufficient clothing for the first weeks of school.  Focus on obtaining the necessary school supplies and reviewing dress code policy.  
  • Call the school to confirm that you have all the necessary paperwork completed and signed.
  • Reset bedtimes and mealtimes so that everyone is on the right schedule by the first day of school.
  • Arrange playdates with classmates if possible to easy those first day jitters.
  • Turn off the TV especially in the morning to re-establish a morning learning routine - encourage reading, library or museum trips, board games, or family exploratory walks.
  • Establish a homework spot for your child.  Pay attention to noise, distractions, and lighting.
  • Establish a "launch pad" - a place for kids to place backpacks, sports bags, and lunches in the evening to be ready in the morning on the way out the door.
  • Set alarms for the morning wake up!  Third or fourth graders and older can have their own alarm clock.  Practice!
  • If tardiness is an issue, give your child a stop watch and have him time a trial run.  Analyze the data and plan accordingly (make sure you are running your trial at the right time of day since traffic varies).  How long does breakfast usually take?  How much time should you allot for actually getting out of the door?  How early should you wake up for this all to work?  Kids love this! 
  • Review your after school routine - especially with children who are home alone after school or children who have carpool/childcare/dual household schedules that vary from day to day.  You and your child can create a graphic/visual schedule - electronically for the older children, pictorially for the younger.  This can be laminated and pinned inside a backpack with emergency numbers.
The First Week:
  • Make lunches ahead in the evening, especially if mornings are rushed.  Children third grade and older can usually handle this task on their own with guidelines.  Review those guidelines before school begins.  Conduct a trial run.
  • For the first few weeks, allow for extra time in the mornings.  If you are early, great!
  • Since you will want to spend extra time sharing with your child about the first few days of school, plan for simple, healthy meals or make them ahead of time and freeze them.
If Your Child Seems Anxious:
  • Try not to over-react.  Listen to your child's concerns and worries with a caring, sympathetic ear.  Share any experiences that you have had starting a new school year or beginning a new job.  Name both your feelings and the physical symptoms that often accompany them:  "I felt nervous with butterflies in my stomach and a shaky voice when I had to introduce myself to the class."  Emphasize how you calmed yourself and that it got better over time.
  • Reinforce your child's ability to cope.  Reflect back to him that he is capable and can deal with this challenge.
  • Leave a note or two in her lunch box or backpack.
  • Plan some get-togethers with classmates to encourage friendships and habits of play.
  • Create a "talisman" - a heart-shaped bead, a special temporary tattoo, a small, meaningful object - that you can pack with your child to remind him that you are thinking of him and sending him love and strength.  Discuss this with the teacher in case your child needs to carry it during class or check on it during the day.
  • Email or talk to the classroom teacher or the counselor if your child's nervousness doesn't improve after a few days.
This is my favorite time of year - full of expectation, possibility, and community.  It's a time to meditate on how your child is growing and changing.  A time to fully, deeply appreciate the person they are now while pondering how this person will develop in the coming year.  A time to trust your child's abilities and sovereignty.

Welcome back!  It's going to be a magical year!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Helping Children Cope with Death

One of the topics that sends even the most seasoned of parents into a panic is death.  What do you say?  When do you say it?  What if I don't have all the answers?  Is it okay to cry?  Is it okay not to cry?  Phew!

Tracy Grant gives a brief, basic primer on talking to kids about death in her Momspeak column here. Parents often avoid this difficult conversation in order to protect or shield children from sadness and pain.  However, as Grant states below, having honest and early conversations about illness and death is more helpful.

"Sudden death is particularly hard for anyone to grasp, but often the deaths that children confront - those of older relatives or beloved pets - can be anticipated.  Don't assume that kids will notice Grandpa's declining health and extrapolate that that means he may not live much longer.  A death that seems obvious to you may come out of the blue to your child if you haven't talked about it first."

Here at school, we have so many organic opportunities to discuss death with children.  Children and teachers explore the cycle of life and death in nature. They observe dead bugs, plants, or animals in the forest and garden.  And we often find a dead mouse in the garden that has been dropped by a raptor flying overhead.  In one instance last year, a small group of young children chose to accompany a teacher outside the garden wall for an impromptu burial service for a mouse.  These small yet essential conversations about life and death help prepare children for the larger losses that they will encounter.

I will post more about children, grief, and mourning throughout the year.  Please email me if you have specific concerns or questions.

Talking About Alcoholism

Every Thursday, I flip through The Washington Post to Marguerite Kelly's Family Almanac to see what wisdom she has to offer.   Back in January, she addressed how to talk with children about a grandparent's alcoholism.

"Tell them that nobody ever wants to be an alcoholic; that alcoholism flowers in some people but not in others; and that Grandma just drew the wrong straw.  And then add this reassuring fact:  It won't happen to them, because you're going to teach them how to avoid the problem, no matter what straw they draw."

My only addition to her advice would be to find an Al-Anon group or other support group for family members of alcoholics for on-going support.  Read the entire column here.


The 2012-2013 school year is fast approaching.  I'm thrilled to incorporate this blog into my work.  I hope to bring into sharper focus those meaningful daily interactions, exchanges, and experiences at school and at home.  This will be a forum for sharing what works and what doesn't; a link to resources that support families; and a space to strengthen connections.

Please check in often and do not hesitate to email me about topics of interest!