Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Summer in Between

Tomorrow morning, we will hold our annual commencement exercises in which we confer diplomas on the members of the Bosque Class of 2016.  We will hear a number of speeches, including one from our guest speaker, Dr. Finnie Coleman (UNM Professor of Africana Studies and Bosque parent) and senior student, Josh.  Both of these speakers were chosen by the Senior Committee and members of the class.  Our choral and strings students will also perform, with a special piece featuring our senior musicians and singers for their final performance at Bosque. By the end of the ceremony, there will be nary a dry eye in Sanchez Park.  Again and again, we are told by visitors that Bosque graduations are uniquely beautiful for their intimacy and sentimentality.  We hope you can join us.

Once the seniors have graduated, they will have the rest of the summer to bond with their families before leaving for college. Children and parents will have many long, meaningful discussions over extended dinners; graduates and siblings will share emotional moments where they express how much they will miss one another; and the summer will be conflict-free and enjoyable for all. Right?  

Wrong! While there may be some touching moments between now and when the students head off to college, there may also be tension and stress as children and parents negotiate this time.  I was reminded of this when I read an article sent to me by a Bosque parent, “Off To College: The Serious Talk You Should Have With Your Child” by Lisa Heffernan.  As Heffernan relates, against our heartfelt wishes, we may find that these months can include an emotional pushing and pulling as parents and children renegotiate their relationship.  “My son wanted to spend much of his time with his friends. He wanted to be treated like an adult, though many times failed to act like one. With an ever-lengthening but still untouched to-do list (the forms, appointments, shopping), I reverted to type and nagged. He pushed back and pushed away in a phenomenon known commonly as ‘spoiling the nest.’ The pain for both of us of his imminent departure brought to the surface some very unattractive behavior. He was surely nervous about leaving and, despite the fact that I had 18 years of warning about this date, my sadness was often expressed as frustration with him.”  

Both parents and children realize internally that one phase of their lives has ended and another one is beginning, but neither side is sure what this new relationship will look like.  There will be new ways of connecting with one another, and there will be different norms to which we must become accustomed, but we don’t know yet what they will be.  As with any situation in life, limbo is not a fun place; unfortunately, we may need to live in it for this summer. Since our children were little, they have been finding ways to individuate and become independent. The first time they rode their bike around the corner; the first time they slept over at a friend’s house or went away to camp; the first time they drove off in the family car—all these experiences brought us parents moments of pride mixed with a tinge of sadness because they were literally out of our sight.  

I remember last summer when my wife and I discussed our son’s going off to college. We understood that he would have friends we would not know, professors who he respected but we would not meet, and he would go places that we would never see.  We could hold the conflicting emotions of excitement for him and sadness for us simultaneously, but it was not easy.  This maelstrom of emotions can be tricky for parents and children.

As Heffernan recommends, we need to have honest conversations with our children before they leave.  We need to share in their excitement, but we also need to let them know that not everything will be perfect, and there may be problems along the way.  These talks with our children allow us to share in their enthusiasm but also recognize that there’s an element of ambiguity for parents and children as they enter this new phase of life.  Heffernan suggests:
“This summer’s talks need to touch upon mental health and sexual misconduct. Colleges spend a great deal of time talking about sexual assault with incoming students, but that does not get parents off the hook for discussing this topic. Stress and anxiety are rising on college campuses. Our kids need to understand how and when to reach out for help for themselves, and how to be a friend in times of crisis. This is the time to tell our kids the importance of taking care of others, of being there when they are needed, and of being the kind of friend they hope to have.  We need to tell our kids how we failed and recovered, how our own judgment let us down sometimes, and how both good and bad luck play a role in our lives. This is a moment for real honesty. We need to shed part of our superhero image if we are to have an adult relationship with our kids, and that is an armor that is very painful to remove. They need to know that we remember what it means to be 18 and will be there for them if they need us.”
The summer before our children go off to college can be both exciting and infuriating.  We will get through it, but having open and honest conversations may enable us to travel this road together and set up our children and ourselves for what lies ahead.  I recently spoke with a parent who said with a mixture of pride and wistfulness, “We spend our whole parenting lives preparing our children to be independent, and then they go and do it!”  

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Thesis vs. Advanced Placement (AP)

Every year at this time, Bosque seniors, in their final academic rite of passage, defend their theses at the annual Senior Colloquium.  For two evenings this week, Wednesday, May 18 and Thursday, May 19, our 12th graders will share the research and writing they have done over the past year and justify their findings to an audience comprised of schoolmates, parents/guardians, teachers/staff, alumni, and members of the community.  More than just a chance to show off, Colloquium provides our seniors with the opportunity to impart their expertise and wisdom.  In some ways, Colloquium is also like an academic homecoming as we welcome back alumni and their families who come to hear what this year’s class has chosen to research, learn, and present.  

Year after year, Bosque alumni tell us that the thesis program prepared them for college in a manner that is vastly superior to what their college peers did while in high school.  They laugh when their freshmen classmates freak out over a long writing assignment or having to do substantive and substantial research.  Former Bobcats often brag that what they have to write in college in no way compares to the writing they did at Bosque, and they are amazed that their new friends had never encountered similar work during their high school years. Recognizing the value of student-driven learning, we introduce “thesis” type skills as soon as students arrive at Bosque.  For example, this year’s 6th graders were asked the question, "What problem would you like to solve?"  Students then performed research on their question, documented their findings, and then created a presentation which they shared with peers, teachers, and adults in the community.  

Similarly, we hear from people at the collegiate level that our alumni are exceedingly well-prepared for the kind of work they will encounter in college because they have done that level of research, writing, and speaking while in high school. Bosque graduates are truly “college ready” wherever they go.  

For this reason, at Bosque, we prefer the thesis program to the Advanced Placement program offered in many schools.  Simply put, we could not do both, and based on what we hear from alumni and college professors, our program is superior in preparing students for the rigors of college. This is not to say that our students don’t take AP tests—some do, and they do well. However, we have consciously decided not to have our curriculum determined by the College Board in New Jersey, that for years now has annually audited AP classes.

I was reminded of this as I read an article that was sent to me by a Bosque parent.  (I should also say here that my previous school in St. Louis had a very robust AP program, so I have seen the benefits and costs of it.)  As the article states, many colleges are opting not to give credit for the AP test; education evolves as society does, and more and more colleges are realizing that AP classes are simply not the same as college courses. In addition, taking an AP class does not necessarily guarantee acceptance into a select college or university.  

Selective schools want to see that prospective students have taken a challenging course load in their junior and senior years.  If the high school has AP classes, then students should be taking those courses; if the school does not, then the student should be taking whatever are the highest level courses in those subject areas.  Unfortunately, all too often, I have seen students take AP classes in areas in which they had no interest in order to be competitive in the college search; consequently, the students are miserable, sleep-deprived, and resentful as they grind their way through reams of names, dates, and facts. In contrast, the thesis program invites students to work out of their own deepest interests, increasing their engagement and joy in learning.  

At Bosque, as each senior works on her thesis, she has a primary reader—one of her classroom teachers—and a secondary reader—someone she has chosen to help formulate ideas, consider sources for research, and refine her paper and presentation. These conversations between students and their outside readers exemplify the kinds of discussions we hope our children will have with their professors in college; they are engaging, scholarly, and enlivening for both students and adults.  

It is in the grappling with academic concepts, formulating hypotheses, changing one’s mind when confronted with the newest research in the field, and communicating one’s findings in writing and in public speaking that Bosque students demonstrate a profound commitment to our core values of scholarship, community, and integrity.  There are few things more exciting and hope-inducing than watching our students on these Colloquium nights as they culminate their high school careers by sharing their intellectual passions, knowledge, and abilities with a greater audience.  If it sounds like I am proud of them, it’s because I am.  

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Developing “Grit”

Last Thursday’s Boys State Tennis Championship match was a sheer delight.  Bosque’s #1 doubles team of Will, Class of ‘16 and his 8th grade brother Neil, faced off against the Bosque #2 doubles team of Cameron, Class of ‘17 and Gus, Class of ‘18.  Since it was guaranteed that the champions would be Bobcats, we could cheer for both teams, applaud every great shot, and appreciate the outstanding effort of all four players.  

As exciting as the championship was, perhaps even more impressive was the determination that the players demonstrated in the semi-final matches.  From all accounts, those contests were amazing as both our teams came back from being down, in one case defeating a higher- seeded opponent and in the other, dealing with a player’s severe leg cramps that stopped play for a while.  When it would have been all too easy to throw in the towel, both duos demonstrated will and perseverance—or grit—and in the end, won out.  

For a while now, there’s been a great deal of discussion on the topic of “grit.”  The University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Angela Duckworth is regarded as one of the foremost spokespeople on the topic, and she has just come out with a new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  In a recent interview with The New York Times, Professor Duckworth spoke on the topic and how parents can help their children develop a sense of grit and confidence.  

Many studies, along with anecdotal evidence that we can all probably cite, point to the power of determination as one of the crucial elements in success.  As Duckworth says, “My lab has found that this measure beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations.”  We were probably all told at one point in our lives the Thomas Edison adage that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  Grit may be crucial to success, but it’s not always clear if there is anything adults can do to aid children in learning this.  

In the interview, Duckworth counsels parents to remember that teaching children grit involves the same parenting styles they would use to teach other good habits.  She advises us to, “Be really, really demanding, and be very, very supportive. By this I don’t mean material things; I mean emotional support. If parents are warm and loving, the kids tend to feel loved. Respect, or what the parenting literature calls ‘autonomy support,’ is also essential. That’s when parents allow their kids to make their own decisions just as soon as they are capable.”  Good parenting, like good teaching, means holding our children to high standards, but in a way that lets them know that we respect and care for them.  It is our belief in them that encourages our children to be their very best.
Of course this is not always easy, but it’s incumbent on us as parents to show our children what grit means in a variety of ways. One of these ways is to share stories with our children of times when we faced challenges and had to summon the courage to continue.  It is also important to bear in mind that as we teach our children determination, we also need to emphasize the Bosque core value of integrity.  Grit may be important, but it’s not sufficient if we want our children to be both successful and good.  On a daily basis, the news reminds us of people who are perseverant but also destructive.  We want our children to be gritty, confident, caring, and compassionate.  
Whether it’s practicing a forehand, rehearsing a monologue, studying for a test, writing a paper, or putting the finishing brush strokes on a painting, our children will encounter frustration somewhere along the line.  As the adults in their lives, we need to demonstrate the belief in our children by holding them to high standards, while also consoling them when they experience defeat or discouragement.  In the process, they will come to believe in themselves and develop an inner confidence and resilience. It may be one of the most difficult elements of being a parent or a teacher, but when we see our children achieve success after encountering adversity, it is as beautiful to watch as an exciting tennis match on a sunny afternoon.  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Could It Be a Good Thing if Your Child is Talking Back?

Seriously??!! Is this really happening again?  We have asked our child to do something, and instead of his smiling and saying, “Yes, Mom and Dad, I would love to come home at the hour you have so reasonably suggested,” we become engaged in a back and forth that could be confused for an oral argument at the Supreme Court.  Or why do they do the exact opposite of what we had asked them to do, even after we had made a very clear request?  Somehow, their cavalier response, “Well, rules are made to be broken,” doesn’t cut it.   

As parents, there are few things that can be more vexing than debating with our children about issues that seem beyond discussion.   We know rationally that they need to individuate from us  and develop their own personalities and sense of independence, but can’t they just hold off for a bit, take out the garbage or do the dishes, and save the argument for another time?  
A recent article sent to me by a Bosque parent, “Study: Kids Who Talk Back Are Likely to Be More Successful,” may give us cause for hope. In this piece, Ilya Pozin points to a few recent studies showing that children who break rules or argue with their parents may be more successful in the workplace than their more compliant peers.  For example, a University of Virginia study of 150 thirteen-year-olds found that children who argue with their parents are more likely to be successful in dealing with disagreements outside the home. (Is this the meaning of practice makes perfect?)  According to the article, “The kids who learned it was acceptable to disagree with parents, while remaining calm, were better able to stand up to peer pressure in the real world.” Maybe we should view the “discussions” we have at home as preparation for the differences of opinion our children will encounter in life beyond home, and we’re helping our kids develop the skills needed for resolving conflicts.  Coincidentally, Carly Andrews, Head of Middle School, blogged on this topic just last week in an informative and interesting fashion.

In addition, Ms. Pozin suggests that perhaps our children’s ignoring instructions or defying parental authority is part of their path toward becoming successful entrepreneurs.  “Research published in Developmental Psychology looked at how childhood behavior influences career success as an adult. Researchers first observed the participants when they were 12 years old and then again 40 years later. They found that frequently breaking the rules as a child was the biggest non-cognitive predictor of their having a higher income as an adult.”  Knowing this may provide little solace when they come home after curfew or leave the kitchen a mess, and I am certainly not proposing that we just throw up our hands and condone disrespectful or defiant behavior.  However, maybe, just maybe, when we’re in the thick of a conflict with our children, we can be hopeful for the long term while frustrated in the here and now.  We want our children to be people who question the status quo thoughtfully and not just take things at face value, but we want them to do so in ways that are appropriate and respectful toward others.
A psychologist friend of mine once said that when we’re in a conflict with our child, we need to stop and consider whether we’re arguing over the issue or we’re fighting over power. He argued that if what we’re really arguing over is power, then, ultimately, we’re in a losing battle.  As a parent and as an educator, I have always tried to remember his advice, particularly when facing  a moment of conflict.  We may want our child to do whatever we’re asking right now, but we can hold out hope that in her talking back, she’s developing the ability to stand up for what she believes is right.  So possibly we should say to her, “I look forward to your being hugely successful in ten years, but for now, can you please clean up your room?”  

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Stress Versus Anxiety—How Do We Help Our Children Succeed?

As some of you have commented recently, this quarter feels like it’s rushing by.  First of all—so you know it’s not your imagination— this quarter is a week shorter than the typical fourth quarter since the third quarter was a week longer than usual due to the timing of Winterim, Spring Break, and Easter.  Students are doing the same amount of work this quarter as they have in other years, but there’s one week less in which to do it, and this may be creating some stress.

As we think about stress, it is important to distinguish between the kind that is externally caused and the kind that comes from an internal state of anxiety. In the same way that some stress during physical exercise can help us move to a higher level during our workout, some amount of stress related to a student’s school work can enable her to discover new academic concepts and reach a new level of performance.  This can be true for the musician learning a new piece of music, the artist grappling with an idea, the math student wrestling with a problem, or the student endeavoring to translate something into a new language.  In moderation, stress can push us out of our comfort zone and teach us that we are capable of performing at a level we never imagined.  In contrast, anxiety drains performance, self esteem, and optimism about the future.  We may be all too familiar with the adolescent who feels overly anxious in response to stress and sometimes seeks unhealthy outlets in an effort to manage his emotions.  

For a counter-example, as I type this, some of our 9th graders have gathered into a circle outside my office and are laughing uproariously as they take a study break and bat around a volleyball. It’s a wonderfully healthy sight to observe.  

So, how do students handle their stress, and how can we as the adults in their lives help them? First of all, it is important to bear in mind that, as a recent article in The New York Times suggests, boys and girls experience stress differently.  In the article, “Why Do Girls Tend to Have More Anxiety Than Boys,” Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, points out that he has observed a pattern of increased anxiety in girls:

It may start with how they feel about how they look. Some research has shown that in adolescence, girls tend to become more dissatisfied with their bodies, whereas boys tend to become more satisfied with their bodies. Another factor has to do with differences in how girls and boys use social media. A girl is much more likely than a boy to post a photo of herself wearing a swimsuit, while the boy is more likely to post a photo where the emphasis is on something he has done rather than on how he looks. If you don’t like Jake’s selfie showing off his big trophy, he may not care. But if you don’t like Sonya’s photo of herself wearing her bikini, she’s more likely to take it personally.”

All too often, young women tend to internalize their disappointment and blame themselves for their problems while young men may look to external causes and as a result, not necessarily feel that they are the cause of their problems.  This is not to say that boys don’t experience anxiety—they do—but they may do so with less frequency or less severity, on average, than girls.  Of course, generalizations may miss the mark for your child, but Dr. Sax’s comments are worth consideration.
Since it would be unfair to point out the problem without offering solutions, Sax provides some tips, which seem relevant for both genders. A major point he makes is the importance of reducing children’s private time on social media. For example, he says that parents should insist that when their children are on electronic devices at home, they do so in a public place, like the living room, rather than in the privacy of their bedroom. He also insists that parents should “fight for suppertime” and not allow phones at the table. Sax also exhorts parents to not allow earbuds in the car; parents and children could take advantage of this “forced togetherness” and talk with one another. Of course, this necessitates that parents are also willing to reduce their own use of electronic devices to prioritize family conversation!  As a final note, Sax includes the possibility that some anxiety issues may be severe enough to require professional interventions, including therapy or medication.
As we all know, getting teens to talk can sometimes be a challenge.  We need to strike a balance between creating opportunities for connecting and respecting a teen’s need for privacy.  The internal or external anxiety for teens around social media may stem more from the way they react to a message than to the posting itself.  As with mistakes, stress happens; it’s how we respond to it that determines our well-being. Acknowledging and reflecting on feelings, our children’s and our own; helping children develop the ability to see things from a variety of perspectives; modeling self-compassion, especially in the face of perceived failure—these all can help a teen learn to navigate the stressful world of adolescence.
As the adults—parents, guardians and educators—in their lives, we can help our children discover the good kind of stress that enables them to learn and grow while helping them avoid the detrimental type.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Benefits of Family Mealtime

Another evening has come and gone. I arrived home after my wife and son had finished dinner and ate directly from the pan while standing at the stove top.  As an educator and a parent,  I know that one of the most powerful things families can do is eat together; yet I seem to have missed another family meal.  I say this neither to complain nor elicit pity, but because I know that I am not alone in this dilemma. Over the years, many parents have expressed their frustration about wanting to do the right thing in terms of family dinners, but they find it difficult to do so in this day and age of 24/7 work.  Similarly, many parents have found a way to dine with their children, while bemoaning the fact that the meal has been slapped together with little forethought or attention. But it can be disheartening if one does work hard to make a family dinner—only to have the children rush through it because they have homework, want to socialize with their friends, or the siren Netflix seems to be calling them.  

So, what’s a well-intentioned and loving parent to do?  Fortunately, there are people like Lisa Damour—a psychologist, author, teacher, speaker, and consultant from Cleveland, Ohio—who have written on this topic.  In a recent piece in The New York Times, “Where’s the Magic in Family Dinner?,” Damour provides a compelling rationale for having evening meals together by relating it to the concept of authoritative parenting.  
As Damour explains, “In the early 1970s, the psychologist Diana Baumrind identified two essential components of parenting: structure and warmth. Authoritative parents bring both. They hold high standards for behavior while being lovingly engaged with their children. Decades of research have documented that teenagers raised by authoritative parents are the ones most likely to do well at school, enjoy abundant psychological health and stay out of trouble. In contrast, adolescents with authoritarian parents (high on structure, low on warmth), indulgent parents (low on structure, high on warmth) or neglectful parents (low on both) don’t fare nearly so well.”
Family dinner provides an opportunity for parents to convey the priority they place on their relationship with their children. Devoting time to dinner means overriding other pressing concerns, such as work; our children see this and, even if they don’t say so, they appreciate it.  In addition, the work that goes into preparing dinner, eating together, and cleaning up allows parents to demonstrate the necessity for structure in a household, and the importance of our children playing a role in providing that structure.  
Toward the end of the article, Damour reminds us that the contents of the meal may be less important than the fact that at a family dinner, we’re all giving up our most precious resource—time—to be together, and there’s power in the symbolic value of that.  In addition, it may not always be possible to have dinner together, so maybe breakfast is an alternative.  I can envision the eyes rolling around this notion, ”Do you know what the mornings are like in our house??” However, it’s good to know that there are some options besides an evening meal; it’s really more about being together, and the conversation that ensues, than it is about the main course and the side dishes.  

Whatever your family’s eating ritual, I wish you a “bon appétit.”  “Mangia! Mangia!”






Thursday, April 14, 2016

What’s This “Day of Silence” About?

For many years, students in schools all over the country, including Bosque, have observed the National Day of Silence each April. This year, our students are observing it today, April 14.  In the past, I have received questions from some parents as to why we do this, so I wanted to take a moment here to explain.  When people have asked me if this event is about advancing a certain political agenda, I have said that this is not about politics; it is about our responsibility as a school to provide a safe environment for all of our children.

Studies have repeatedly shown that one of the, if not the, most at-risk groups to be bullied and harassed in high schools is LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) youth.  Consequently, these individuals are also the most at risk for self-harm and suicide.

According to a report, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health,” published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2014, “Another survey of more than 7,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students from a large Midwestern county examined the effects of school [social] climate and homophobic bullying on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning (LGBQ) youth and found that:
  • LGBQ youth were more likely than heterosexual youth to report high levels of bullying and substance use;
  • Students who were questioning their sexual orientation reported more bullying, homophobic victimization, unexcused absences from school, drug use, feelings of depression, and suicidal behaviors than either heterosexual or LGB students;
  • LGB students who did not experience homophobic teasing reported the lowest levels of depression and suicidal feelings of all student groups (heterosexual, LGB, and questioning students); and
  • All students, regardless of sexual orientation, reported the lowest levels of depression, suicidal feelings, alcohol and marijuana use, and unexcused absences from school when they were
    • In a positive school climate and
    • Not experiencing homophobic teasing.”
And according to data from YRBS (Youth Risk Behavior Surveys), “LGBTQ youth are also at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicide. A nationally representative study of adolescents in grades 7–12 found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers.”
The good news is that schools can do something to address this problem.  We are not helpless. According to a report done at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and published in the journal Pediatrics in 2011, schools may be able to reduce the risk of suicide among LGBTQ youth by providing a supportive environment.  The summary of a study done about youth in Oregon says, “Among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, the risk of attempting suicide was 20% greater in unsupportive environments compared to supportive environments. A more supportive social environment was significantly associated with fewer suicide attempts, controlling for sociodemographic variables and multiple risk factors for suicide attempts, including depressive symptoms, binge drinking, peer victimization, and physical abuse by an adult (odds ratio: 0.97 [95% confidence interval: 0.96 – 0.99]).”
The National Day of Silence brings attention to this issue by recalling all of those who have been silenced in the past.  This day’s message is that no children in our schools should have to hide their identity, and they should be allowed to be who they are. In addition, students are encouraged to not be bystanders in the face of bullying and harassment for any reason. This day reminds students that they have the power to create a culture of kindness, and they should use this power wisely.
That is why at Bosque, along with hundreds of other schools around the country, we follow the Day of Silence with a celebration the next day called “Night of Noise,” where students can revel in their ability to make a difference and help create an environment where everyone can feel safe and supported.  
By being quiet for an entire day, the Day of Silence reminds students of those individuals who have been silenced in the past or present, and to speak out on behalf of those people who are unable to do so.  In the words of Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller who was imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps in Nazi Germany from 1937-45:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Let’s help our students learn that they can make a difference in the lives of others by speaking out and not remaining silent.