Category Archives: education

Lies We Tell About Bullying

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Being bullied has taught me a lot over the years. Lessons learned in childhood run deep and last long. We learn to not be noticed. That we must try to fit in. That certain people and places and situations are hazardous. That being different is a sin.

But it is not only the things that children do to one another that cause harm. Some of the things that adults say to children about bullying hurt the most. These remarks may be intended to help the bullied child, but at times they do as much damage as the bullying itself.

Chief among the responses to bullying that adults come up with is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is a profound lie, as any bullied child knows. Oh, there are sticks and stones, even literal ones. As a third-grader I had rocks thrown at me and countless children have experienced physical bullying – pushing, tripping, hitting, and more.

But words are more than capable of hurting just as much. There are forms of bullying other than physical – emotional, social, racial, sexual. But these forms of bullying are much less visible than the physical kind. If the grown-ups responsible for the care and well-being of the child don’t see bruises or bloody noses, they may think no harm has occurred.

Socially or emotionally bullied children are often told “Don’t be so sensitive.” And it may be true that less sensitive children do not feel the effects of cruel words as drastically. But the underlying message is that there is something wrong with the bullied child – excessive sensitivity. And this is not something that children can change about themselves. It’s like telling a person not to be so tall.

Another piece of advice commonly given to bullied children is, “Just ignore them.” If becoming less sensitive is impossible, even more so is ignoring bullies. Bullies are in-your-face. It’s almost impossible to ignore insults and injuries, derisive chants or laughter. Humiliation is not something that can simply be shrugged off. Bullies rejoice in having an audience for their abuse. It’s beyond hard to ignore a room or playground of kids (or teens), all of whom have witnessed your victimization.

Similarly, bullied children are told, “Other people’s opinions don’t matter.” Again, this is a lie. Of course they do. The opinions of a child’s peers control whether other children feel safe being friends with a bully’s victim. Their opinions determine whether a child will be lonely or despised, or will develop self-esteem. Bullies affect the opinions of other children and make the circle of bullies and bystanders wider. Other people’s opinions make wide ripples.

Bullied children often hear, “Toughen up.” Again, this is an assignment given with no clue as to how it is to be accomplished. It may even be misinterpreted as tacit permission to become a bully too. After all, bullies are tough. And the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” may come into play. Naturally, this only expands the number of bullies and can victimize other children. A bullied child who becomes a bully may experience not a sense of empowerment but a sense of guilt.

Another common reaction to bullying is to encourage or even to coach a child in fighting back physically. This has little chance of working if the bully is physically larger than the victim and takes a lot of practice if it is to work at all. In addition it teaches children that violence is an appropriate solution to a problem. If the bullying has been emotional or social rather than physical, the bullied child is also likely to get in trouble for striking back in a literal manner.

The problem is that the bullied child is not the problem. He or she does not need to change or be changed. The bully is the one who is demonstrating unacceptable behavior and needs to be stopped. Bystanders are bullying enablers and need to learn how to support and intervene instead.

There are no simple solutions to bullying, which will likely continue as long as children are children, though with awareness of the problem and concerted efforts on the part of adults, it may someday lessen and be less acceptable and less accepted.

But whatever the solution is, it is clearly not to tell the bullied child lies.

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Early Childhood Education: Then and Now

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Back in the ’80s, I edited a magazine called Early Childhood News. It was aimed at owners and operators of day care centers (as we called them back then), though there was content that was of interest to employees as well.

Times have changed. But how much? A lot of what concerned early childhood educators back them reverberates through the field today, although sometimes in slightly altered form. Here’s what the experts are saying now.

Abysmal Economics. Back in the ’80s, child care worker pay was a big concern, as was the cost of child care. Government subsidies to child care centers and workers seemed like the answer but went nowhere aside from Head Start. Many mom-and-pop child care centers popped up in homes around the country, a good number of them unlicensed; they were the only kind many parents could afford. As low as teacher pay was in accredited centers, professional child care was out of reach for the poor and even for large parts of the middle class.

Not a lot has changed. Government being largely unresponsive on the subject, and child care tax credits making little actual difference, parents began to turn to employers as sources of care. Alas, only a few forward-thinking companies provided any on-site care for their employees’ children. The Baby Boomers were aging out of the parenting years and, as good a benefit as it seemed, child care in the workplace never took hold.

One thing that hasn’t changed as child care workers morphed into early childhood educators is the fact that salaries remain so low that such work cannot provide a living wage. NPR had this to say about salaries for a typical worker:

Why would she teach preschool when she could make a heck of a lot more money teaching kindergarten? … In some places, we pay early childhood teachers less than fast-food workers, less than tree trimmers. As a country, we’ve acknowledged the importance of early learning and yet, when you look at what we pay those educators, it doesn’t add up.

This despite the fact that preschool teachers are increasingly well educated – NPR reports that 24 state preschool programs require a bachelor’s degree for the main teacher in the classroom and 45 percent of preschool teachers working with children ages 3-5 have a bachelor’s degree. Even in a credentialed center with educated teachers, salaries still put early childhood workers below the poverty line.

Still, parents find it difficult to pay for child care. Care.com’s 2018 Cost of Care Survey reports that:

One in three families (33 percent) now spend 20 percent or more of their annual household income on child care. Seven in 10 families report paying rates higher than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ definition of affordable care, while nearly one in five families spends a quarter or more of their household income on child care.

Yet child care is a service that few can do without:

American families will go to great lengths to pay for child care. In fact, 26 percent would put themselves in debt or further debt to pay for child care, and parents report they’ve saved less money (54 percent) and made major budget cuts (41 percent) to pay for the rising cost of care.

Even family planning is affected. The same study finds that “one in three families (33 percent) say the cost of child care influenced their family planning, in that they either waited longer to have children or had fewer children than they would have liked because of child care costs.”

Education versus play. The term “child care” seems to be fading out in favor of “early childhood education.” Along with that change comes an increasing focus on academics.

While it is true that many children come to kindergarten unready to learn, a debate still rages about what the role of the child care center is – early education versus play. “Academic” centers abound, to the extent that some of them appear to be mini-kindergartens. Some parents apparently eat this up, perhaps thinking that for the to-them-exorbitant price of child care, their children had better be learning something.

PBS, in a focus on teachers, had this to say:

“Most kindergarten teachers will tell you what they really value is the opportunity to teach kids when they show up at school prepared and ready to learn. It’s not so much that teachers value that the kindergartner can read or write. They value that the children enjoy learning, have a set of experiences that got them used to a classroom setting, and know how to engage adults and kids in another setting,” [Dr. Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia] says.

Play-centered environments have their champions as providing that kind of readiness. They say that play-centered learning is more than mere play. In play-centered (or as they often say, “child-centered”) environments, children can learn not merely socialization skills, but preparation for learning without all the academic trappings. Preschools that feature exploratory science equipment (such as water tables and sand tables), well-stocked libraries of good-quality children’s literature (and story time to go with it), art areas, and other manipulatives and play centers are actually imparting valuable lessons about the way the world works. The NEA is a particular champion of play-centered care.

These two trends, the economics of child care and the push-pull between academics and play, are likely to continue. Absent better salaries for both workers and parents, early education centers will have to choose between offering learning and play if they cannot convince the public that they are two sides of the same coin.

 

Why a National Curriculum Makes Sense

I can hear the cries of outrage now: Local control! Washington bureaucrats! Educational fascism! One size doesn’t fit all! Who wants to be like France or Japan?

Settle down, now. I don’t mean that one central authority should determine everything taught in America’s schools.

But I do think some standardization is long overdue.

Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 book Savage Inequalities revealed massive problems with local funding in education – a system that rewarded already wealthy districts with more money. Local curriculum standards are also fraught with inequalities.

Some of the problems are due to state standards, while part of them are promulgated by local politics.

Let’s start with states. Only a few states drive the textbook industry. (I’m looking at you, Texas, California, and New York!) Textbook producers must tailor their content to the requirements of these large, influential states. Other states are lucky if they get a textbook supplement for their state or region.

When those textbook-dominating states wish to present a, let’s call it, idiosyncratic view of, say, history, much of the nation has to go along with them.

Difficult as it would be to arrive at a consensus U.S. history, given that some states appear to believe that slavery, for example, was a good or at least neutral, thing and others present U.S. presidents as paragons without regard to their flaws or challenges, a balanced, factual approach would be welcome. Not that we shouldn’t teach students to weigh various factors and form opinions – we certainly should, in pursuit of those critical-thinking skills that everyone talks about.

But in some areas of the curriculum, facts are facts. Students who live in districts or states that deny evolution are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to college biology, geology, history, and other classes. Schools that advocate “teaching the controversy” of creationism (or intelligent design, or whatever they’re calling it now) are doing their students a disservice. If you want the Christian Bible in K-12 schools, teach it as literature or in the context of comparative religions throughout history. It’s not like school shootings are caused by comparative religion classes.

And let’s talk sex education for a minute. Again, factual information, presented at age-appropriate times, is crucial. As the saying goes, “If they’re old enough to ask, they’re old enough to know.”

Presenting sex purely as reproduction is also problematic. The clitoris is not essential to reproduction, so there’s virtually no mention of it in discussions of sexual anatomy – in fact, in many states it’s forbidden. Non-reproductive but related topics like consent should also be covered.

And let’s dispel the notion that teaching kids about sex will make them have sex. Kids are going to have sex anyway – might as well see that they have the facts about it, if only to lower rates of teen pregnancies and STDs, which most people agree. Yes, that means teaching about condoms and how to use them.

So, what does my vision of a national curriculum look like? Actually, lots of things would be left up to local schools. They can spend time teaching the history of their state if they want, for instance, although with the mobility of current society, the students may end up living in another state entirely. Maybe that time could be better spent elsewhere.

I have no preference as to whether reading is taught via phonics or whole language. It should probably be a combination of both. In fact, most subjects should be taught with Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences in mind.

But when it comes to courses that are currently neglected, there are ones that I think need to be taught early and often. Civics is a big one: our town for youngsters, our state for the slightly older, and our nation for everyone.

Subjects to cover in those courses? The three branches of government (with an emphasis on what each can and cannot do, instead of the usual lip-service mention of checks and balances); the Constitution; and The Bill of Rights would be a good start. And no just memorizing the numbers of the Articles or Amendments! Students should graduate with an understanding of how these documents are supposed to work.

Other suggestions for a national curriculum?

  • STEM, but not to the exclusion of the arts.
  • Practical subjects such as budgeting and banking and credit, which could be taught in math or practical home skills classes.
  • Art and music appreciation at the very least, with not all attention in music given to the three B’s. Something modern would be nice, or even a unit on musical theater.
  • Physical fitness focusing on lifelong pursuits and health.
  • Keyboarding and use of common office software.
  • Hands-on pursuits such as woodworking, cooking, and gardening, but not segregated by sex.
  • Foreign languages to begin in grades K-3, when a child has the best chance of learning them fluently. ASL at any age.

Yes, I know that teachers already have too much to teach. A number of these subjects would have to be electives or mini-courses – gardening, for example. And we’d have to reconsider the time spent teaching to the ridiculous proliferation of “high-stakes testing,” which has too much effect on funding and not enough on actual, productive learning. And we’d have to give enough money to the schools to accomplish all this (see Savage Inequalities, above).

Who should determine the national curriculum? I don’t know, except that actual classroom teachers and school administrators should be involved as well as education theorists or bureaucrats. In fact, I don’t think anyone who has never spent time as a public school classroom teacher should have much of a say.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with all – or perhaps any – of these ideas. But as long as my tax dollars support our public schools, I’m as entitled to have an opinion as anyone else.

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

School Shootings and the Tipping Point

Teen activists may hold an answer to school shootings.

I say “may” and “an answer” because each shooting is different. There’s no one reason for them.

There is a common denominator. It’s not mental illness, or divorce, or bullying, or the Internet, or video games, or no prayer in schools, or toxic masculinity, though each of those may be a contributing factor in some school shootings.

The common denominator is that school shootings are, well, shootings. Before we address the contributing factors, we must address that.

To do that, we must talk. Negotiate. Problem-solve. Not rant, spout slogans, or pass around memes. Not blame mythical “crisis actors.” None of that will help. Let’s discuss what proposed solutions are feasible, practical, and actually helpful.

This time the kids are taking the lead and speaking up. Mandatory suspension means their walkouts may fail, at least if they walkout until Congress does something, as was suggested.

But other students are speaking out in other ways – talking to the media, visiting elected officials and attending sessions of legislative bodies. Encouraging voter registration among their peers.

And you know, these efforts may fail as well. It’s difficult to get your message across when you’re trying to get the attention of people who live and die by ballots, not bullets.

Here’s the thing, though. With the Parkland school shooting, we may have reached a “tipping point” in our society. Even if legislation doesn’t work, as so many say it won’t, there is a force that can catch the nation’s attention.

Grass-roots activism.

Here I won’t praise the efforts of the 1960s, when under-30s protested and helped stop a war, though I surely could.

What I want to talk about is attitudinal change. Societal change. It can happen and it has happened.

Think about the things that used to be commonplace and succumbed to pressure from groups and individuals.

Smoking is a prime example. Despite push-back from tobacco lobbies and cigarette manufacturers, smoking has tapered off in public and in private. Restaurants started with smoke-free seating areas and now in some states are completely smoke-free. Public buildings and many private ones are too. Smoking around young children is particularly looked down on.

Why? People spoke up, including teens (see truth.org). And society reacted. Look at old movies and how many characters in them smoked. Then look at modern movies and notice how few do. It’s almost like someone realized that these characters are representations of our changing society and – perhaps – role models for kids, even if only subliminally.

And look at drunk driving. MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving – changed society’s view of drunk drivers and prompted legislative change; for example, getting states to lower the limits for what is considered “impaired,” holding drinking establishments responsible for taking the keys from patrons too wasted to drive, and requiring harsher punishments for repeat offenders.

Non-legislative solutions are having an effect as well – the “Designated Driver” idea and PSAs that say “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” There are smaller, local efforts too, such as providing free cabs on the holidays associated with over-indulgence.

What happened in both examples was that society reached a tipping point. After so many deaths and so much ill health, individuals and groups decided that the prevailing practice had to change.

And change it did.

There are reasons to believe that the Parkland shootings may be that tipping point for change. For the idea that school shootings are not just an everyday reality – or shouldn’t be.

Businesses are cutting ties with the NRA, for one. These are protests that will get attention because they are backed up by dollars.

Sure, many teens (and adults and businesses and law-makers) will ignore the issue. Even teens succumb to the “it can’t happen here” mentality. But others are saying that it can and does happen anywhere. In elementary schools, where the students are too young to mount effective protests. In colleges, where students should.

And in the surrounding society, people are saying, “Enough already with the thoughts and prayers.” Even sincere ones have changed nothing, and insincere ones substitute for actual change.

Likely the change that is coming will be incremental and slow. And after the tipping point is reached and the mass of everyday Americans demand real answers to school shootings, maybe we can turn to the related factors like acceptance of bullying and the broken mental health care system. Grassroots efforts and public education are key.

But first, let’s listen to the kids. They have the most to lose.

 

Science Madness

The problem these days is not so much “mad scientists” as people who are mad at science.

Where did the Mad Scientist come from? Arguably it was Mary Shelley’s horror novel Frankenstein, published in 1818. Science fiction classics like Jules Verne’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) kept up the theme and the “Golden Age” of science fiction provided many more examples.

In these novels, scientists either tampered with things better left alone or succumbed to a lust for power. Death rays and the precursors of gene splicing abounded. The outcome was mostly dreadful, except for those few gallant hero scientists who managed to save Earth from a deadly plague/alien/monster/giant something/tomato.

While the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s were the heyday of mad scientists in fiction, they also constituted a time when real scientists were heroes. The atomic bond ended WWII in the Pacific. Polio was conquered. The U.S. space program began. (So did the “Space Race,” what with the Soviets and their Sputnik.)

Back then, scientists were revered.

Later on, not so much.

There was the conflict between science and religion, way back before Mary Shelley warned us about “playing God.” Galileo and Kepler removed us from our God-given place in the center of the universe, and Darwin implied that we were just another animal. The Earth suddenly became billions of years old,  circling a mediocre star.

Then there was fallout, both literal and figurative, from the atomic bomb. Medical science gave us thalidomide. NASA spent billions of dollars, with no guaranteed payoff. Science didn’t seem like such a good deal after all.

And that led to changes in the general public’s attitude toward science.

By the ’60s. medicine was under fire from those who found Eastern philosophy and natural healing just as good, or better. Physicists were condemned for the same atomic bomb for which they had been lauded. (Even Einstein took a hit over that.)

And there’s some truth to the complaints. Many scientists believed that math, physics, and chemistry were all. If it didn’t have numbers attached to it, forget it. Psychology, sociology, anthropology, and most other -ologies were “soft sciences,” barely sciences at all. Hard sciences ruled. Special relativity and moral relativity butted heads.

Slowly, the ground under science had shifted. Now science was the enemy, the domain of elitists and narcissists and people who felt they were entitled by their intellect to run the world.

Of course, the stereotypes from early science fiction had nothing to do with that.

But the Average Man (and Woman) had a bone, or at least a fossil, to pick with science and scientists. Again, science was denying what people believed.

People believed in the efficacy of non-Western medicine, or at least the non-efficacy of Western medicine. Science believed in genetics and stem cells and cloning.

People believed in souls and the spiritual realm. Scientists believed in the measurable.

People believed in religion. Science believed in science.

You can see where this is heading – right back to the days when science meant slime monsters and scary aliens and death rays. Because what, after all, is the distance between growing human organs and creating life in the lab, between a cloned sheep and a half-man-half-fly, between a laser-guided missile and a death ray?

And many scientists are arrogant, dismissive of popular opinion, and unwilling to engage in dialogue with opposing viewpoints. “Because I said so,” seems to be enough for them.

Unfortunately, “because I said so” seems to be enough for the general populace as well. (Or “because the Bible, or David Avocado Wolfe, or Jenny McCarthy said so.”)

Unfortunately, everyone is shouting and no one is listening.

Personally, I am a sometimes science geek as well as a word nerd, thanks to high school chemistry and physics, college astronomy, and lots of reading. I don’t think science knows it all, and it’s a long way from figuring it all out. I also think that psychology and spirituality and art have a lot to teach us about the human condition and our place in the universe.

If only we didn’t have all these mad scientists and people mad at scientists mucking things up.

 

 

What Kids Should Learn About Mental Health

The stigma and the misinformation surrounding mental illness are staggering.

How many adults believe that depression is “just being sad”? That the weather can be “bipolar”? That you can call yourself OCD because you’re a little too organized? That suicide threats are never acted on? That mentally ill people are dangerous? That prayer, or sunshine, or positive thinking will cure all mental disorders?

We can’t do much about educating and informing the adult population that all those beliefs are false. But we can avoid raising another generation that buys in to these misconceptions – if we start now with mental health education in schools.

Whenever someone proposes this idea, there are common objections. You want kindergartners to learn about schizophrenia. You’ll have impressionable kids thinking they have every disorder you teach about. Discussing suicide will give teens ideas.

Again, those are misconceptions. Mental health education in schools could look like this:

In kindergarten and grades 1-2, part of the health curriculum should be a unit about understanding emotions and how to deal with them. This is already being done when teachers tell kids to “use your words” or “use your indoor voice.” But more could be done in the area of teaching children how they can keep from letting anger, sadness, frustration, and other emotions cause them difficulties. Yes, this may involve techniques that resemble meditation and yes, these may be controversial, but the outcomes will be beneficial.

I also think that young children ought to be taught about autism. They will certainly meet autistic children in their classes at this age. Helping them understand the condition at their age level will, one can hope, lead to more inclusion and less bullying of kids who are “different.”

Older children can learn about mental illness in their science or health classes. This should be a unit that covers the basic facts: that mental illness is like physical illness in some ways, that treatment is available, that mental or emotional disorders will affect one in four Americans in their lifetimes, and that mentally ill persons are not generally dangerous.

Middle schoolers can be taught some more specifics: the names and symptoms of some of the most common disorders, the kinds of treatments available, famous people who have succeeded in spite of mental disorders and ordinary people who live fulfilling lives despite them. Speakers from local mental health centers or the school guidance counselor would be helpful.

The topics of self-harm and suicide should be brought up at the middle school level. It is sad but true that children in the middle school age range are affected by both – if not directly, by knowing a classmate who is. And suicide is the third leading cause of death for children ages 10-14. Learning the facts may help students who need it find help before it is too late.

In high school, the focus can shift to human psychology; more detail about serious psychological conditions; and the possibility of careers in mental health treatment, nursing, or advocacy. Topics of self-harm and suicide should be covered in greater detail, with discussions of how suicide affects the families and loved ones of those who die by suicide, how to recognize possible signs that a person is thinking about suicide or self-harm, and what does and doesn’t work when a person shows those signs.

The details of mental health education in schools still need to be worked out. These suggestions come from my experience as a person with bipolar disorder, who began showing symptoms while I was a child. Organizations such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) provide resources that can help in understanding the need for mental health education among school-aged children.

Understanding mental health is as important for schoolchildren as understanding physical health. Why should one get all the attention and the other virtually none? Mental health education that begins early can help children and their families in ways that will resonate far into the future.

Most adults have little to no understanding of the realities of mental illness. It doesn’t have to be the same for the next generation.

A Taste for Wine

Wednesday afternoons at 4:30 were special at my college. We’d gather in an auditorium and spit in buckets.

Well, that’s not all there is to the story.

It starts back when I graduated high school and was old enough to drink. I discovered wine. Really bad wine. Not quite as bad as Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. Not quite as bad as my mother’s Mogen David, but pretty bad. Pink champagne on New Year’s Eve bad.

Candy wine. (This was before distillers started putting marshmallow fluff in vodka, you understand.)

My tastes developed over the years. I graduated (as it were) to Yago Sangria. The only cheap wine that was too disgusting for me, besides the Mogen David, was Carlo Rossi Grenâche Rosé. So I added orange juice and seltzer water and called it a spritzer.

Then, in my junior year of college, I had an epiphany. It was called Wine Tasting 101 for Non-Majors. The class met on Wednesday afternoons in the aforementioned auditorium and sampled various wines. Good wines. Bad wines. Wines from France and Italy and California and New York. We passed bottles of wine and small plastic cups down the row like we were in church, only without the collection baskets. There was a spit bucket at the end of each row of the auditorium seating for those who didn’t drink (very few) or those who hated a particular wine.

There was lots to hate, as well as lots to love. We sampled the candy wines (I was actually fond of Pear Ripple, which I don’t think you can get nowadays). We sampled wines that had gone bad in various ways so that we knew what to say to snooty wine stewards: “This wine is foxy,” for example. (Or “musty” or “oxidized.” Those were ones for the spit bucket.

Every week we tackled wines from a different part of the world. We learned to tell a Bordeaux from a Beaujolais, a Sauvignon from a Sauterne, and which ones we liked better. We learned why you swirl the wine in the glass before you drink it and what information you can get from that.

But this, as I mentioned, was the course for non-majors. Cornell had, in addition to the usual schools of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Agriculture, and the like, a Hotel School, which ran an actual hotel on campus, much beloved of alumni and visiting parents. Hotel majors had a very different wine class, the sort in which you took a sip and had to identify the country, the variety, the grape, and the name of the woman who stomped it. It was not pass/fail, the way the course for non-majors was. It was not a jolly passing of bottles. It did not enliven Wednesday afternoons.

I never took the class for majors, though I once thought about transferring to the Hotel School. But over the years, my taste in wine has changed. I now like dry red wines, and I no longer drink them chilled. I ask for Brut or Extra Brut champagne at New Year’s Eve. I can tell when a wine is oaky or has undertones of cherry. Oh, I still drink Three-Buck Chuck when I’m down on my luck. And I will indulge in the sweeter, fruitier wines like Pinot Grigio that my husband prefers, when I’d rather have a Pinot Noir.

The only gap in my education is German wines. I still can’t tell a Riesling from a Liebfraumilch. I was absent that Wednesday.

Every other Wednesday I would roll home to my sorority house, bathed in a grape-y glow, satisfied with the knowledge that I had just furthered my education – and with something that would be useful in years to come.

 

Who Needs the Department of Education?

Once when I was traveling with my mother, we met a woman from Australia and discovered that, despite the fact that we all spoke English, we still had cultural differences. My mother told her about this wonderful vest I had with all the pockets so I could keep my money, passport, photo equipment, maps, bus schedules, brochures, snacks, and other gear handy. (It was from Banana Republic.) Slowly I realized that to the Australian woman, “vest” meant “undershirt,” and she was getting a very odd idea of how I carried around my travel supplies.

She also said that she couldn’t understand how there could be a different speed limit in every state, especially since we had 50 of them. (Australia has six.)

“That’s nothing,” I said. “You should see the liquor laws. Those can vary by county or even city or township – when and where you can buy beer, wine, and liquor, if they allow it at all; what days and times liquor stores can be open; and so on.”

That’s not unlike how the education system in the United States works. “Local control” of education is held sacred in many schools and districts, even if it means that students in one state learn about evolution while others don’t, or that school boards have control of curriculum instead of states, or that children in certain states use textbooks the content of which is dictated by people in other states.

It’s a patchwork and a hodge-podge, and a big mess. Attempts to make school funding more fair, to eliminate de facto segregation, and to standardize curriculum are loudly and effectively resisted.

Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, is at best a loose cannon. Her nomination was confirmed by only the slimmest of margins – hardly a ringing endorsement for her agenda. And what is that agenda likely to contain?

More patchwork, more hodge-podge, more mess. In addition to waving the banner of local control, Ms. DeVos is a proponent of private and charter schools, which suck students and money away from the public schools. And she promotes the practice of home-schooling, which can be beneficial or not, depending on the skill and oversight of the home-schoolers, and what they teach their children.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we may not have to deal with whatever changes Ms. DeVos would like to make, since shortly after her confirmation it was announced that the entire Department of Education was slated for destruction.

Why do we even have a Department of Education? It was broken off as a separate Cabinet-level department from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now called Health and Human Services). For over 35 years, its function has been to “establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on U.S. schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.” It had almost no influence on curriculum or standards until 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act. It has been opposed since its inception as being unconstitutional because education is not mentioned in that document.

Most of the Department of Education’s mission has been related to ensuring equal access to education, promoting legislation that particularly addresses access to education for children with disabilities. Under the Department’s aegis, these children have been determined to be entitled to a “free, appropriate, public education.”

Ms. DeVos has expressed opinions at odds with the laws that guarantee these rights for disabled students, especially IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Parents of children with disabilities and educators who work with those populations were particularly vocal opponents of her confirmation.

What this all means for education is a profoundly unsettled question. What will Ms. DeVos be able to accomplish before the Department disappears out from under her? Will the laws regarding access to education be weakened or even repealed? It’s almost certain that more and more matters will revert to local control, with all the confusion and inequities that system fosters. Will parents who want specific educational outcomes for their children be forced out of public schools and into home-schooling or private schools (if they can afford them)? Will families have to relocate to districts or even states with compatible educational programs and goals?

Increasingly, it’s going to be difficult to call the U.S. system of education a system at all.

Why I Should Get a Say About Raising Your Children

I know that childless people (of which I am one) like to bitch about how parents are raising their kids. I feel confident in saying that virtually every parent has had the experience of going out in public and being chastised for your children’s manners and behavior, your discipline, or the latest theories of child-raising. (Or for that matter, the good ol’ theories of child-raising.)

You’ve heard it all, from praise of Dr. Spock to “Dr. Spock is the root of all evil”; from “those kids could do with a good spanking” to “spanking is child abuse”; from “children should be seen and not heard” to “you’re stifling their creativity.”

The automatic reaction is, “You don’t have children, so you don’t know what it’s like.” And that statement is entirely true.

I don’t – and shouldn’t – have a thing to say about discipline, behavior, and manners (although I do wish your children wouldn’t fingerpaint with the salsa at a Mexican restaurant, especially when it’s at our table and you’ve assured me that the children know how to behave in a restaurant, to choose one example not completely at random).

Unless I see your child actually pocketing the server’s tip or harming an animal, I will keep my big mouth shut. And if I do see those things, I will do my best to respond in a polite, calm, and constructive manner.

What I can’t stand by and see without commenting is children not receiving a proper education. Even though I don’t have children, I still care deeply about – and will act upon – my notion of what is good for your children in school.

Part of this is selfish, I will admit. Your children will be the workers of their generation who will be affecting the quality of life for my generation. I don’t want to be governed by politicians who don’t understand civics, treated by doctors who don’t know the facts about human reproduction, or “informed” by scientists who have not had a chance to encounter the varied opinions of their field.

I also want my health aides, restaurant servers, mechanics, computer programmers, hair stylists, tour guides, garment workers – all workers – to be able at least to read and write basic English and do basic math. This is not entirely selfish – workers who do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills are more likely to be cheated by their employers and less able to negotiate the treacherous paths of bureaucracy that every American, without exception, must deal with. I want these things for children with disabilities as well, or at the very least the presence of well-educated aides and advocates.

For that matter, I want some of your children to grow up to be painters, musicians, singers, dancers, actors, athletes, craftspeople, writers, and animators who will make my future richer and more sustaining as I age.

In order to achieve these things, I have a vested interest in the education system. Just because I have no school-aged children – or any children at all – does not mean I should keep away from school boards, community volunteer programs, decision-making bodies, etc. I will support good education issues with my tax dollars and my votes. I will oppose any that limit a child’s access to good-quality, thorough, well-informed, factual, adequately funded, modern education.

I want your children to be smart, motivated, curious, skilled, artistic, problem-solving, conscientious, well-adjusted, healthy, helpful, effective, competent, confident adults, both for my sake and theirs.

The best way for me to contribute to that is to support, fund, and, yes, influence both the local and national system of education. I will help all you parents who want the same things for your children, and I will oppose those who settle for second best (or worse, given the international statistics).

Give me a well-educated world of your grown-up children and I’ll even overlook the salsa fingerpainting.