Friday, March 31, 2006

Teaching Flashbacks

The public schools in our town are on spring break right now, and our church is having a morning church school program for preschool and school-age kids for the week. My wife and I signed Benjamin up for it and I signed up to volunteer to work at the program for a few of the days.

Benjamin hasn't had a whole lot of experience with long, organized group activities or learning. Nevertheless, he's been doing great. He's had no signs of "homesickness," and is adjusting to the routines quickly.

I, on the other hand, was reeling a bit after my first day of volunteering, and it was not even half of a day. I was leading the "recreation" sessions. Each (age-level) group of kids would come to "my area," and I would lead them in specific games or activities. Having taught elementary school, I was on familiar ground.

I often carelessly remark, about being an at-home dad, that I'm still teaching, but with the ideal student-teacher ratio — 1:1. It wasn't quite as funny when the "ideal" part was taken away and I was forced to humbly remind myself that even a small group of kids about whom I know little is much different terrain.

These are some pedagogical and life lessons I relearned in a few hours:

  • Kids aren't born knowing how to raise their hands or get in a line.

  • Just because kids are staring at you intensely doesn't mean they have any idea what you're saying or even that they're listeni— "What? Uhhhh, no, we're not talking about my shirt right now …"

  • You should have already come up with excuses valuable life lessons about why everyone won't be able to have a turn at being the special … whatever … today.

  • When a 10 minute activity takes 20 minutes, and you have to repeat it for the next "class," they will finish it in 5 minutes. You will want to be ready for the question-and-answer session that will follow it: "Now  what are we gonna do?" "Uhhh … "

  • Curricula are rarely written by "normal" teachers, but instead by curriculum writers and/or teachers who seem to have forgotten what it's like in a classroom. So most teachers' guides are to teaching as your car's manual is to learning to drive.

  • Any schedule that doesn't list bathroom breaks is wrong.

  • There are  naughty kids There are  kids with naughty behavior (even at church school.) Not your kids. They were great! Hope springs eternal that the naughty can be truly separated from the kid. Prepare. This transformation will not  occur under your watch.

  • Starting at around 5 or 6 years old, kids will perceive almost any activity as a competition, no matter what  it says in the teaching methods book, lesson plan, or the Bible.

  • If any sort of projector is involved, allow 5 minutes for improvisational shadow plays, 5 minutes for ceasing said shadow plays, and 5 assistants to micromanage spontaneous arm and head shadows. Alternatively, have ample security personnel to lock down a corridor between projector and screen.

  • If you're seeing leg   shadows on the screen, the owner of the leg might not  be your first choice for the student to summarize today's lesson.

I was being cautious on day one. By the second day, however, I was flagging down running kids in the hall, and jumping in front of the assembled group of kids channeling presumed-long-lost gimmicks to get their attention even when it wasn't my turn to teach. The teacher knee-jerk reflexes die hard and resurface quickly. (It took years for me to lose the impulse to intercept others people's kids running or yelling in the supermarket.)

Now a shocking confession: soon I may just be "Occupation: Part-time Dad" for a while. I have signed up to substitute teach (in the local school system). (The pay will help defray some of the adoption costs.) Not to worry, when our beautiful daughter arrives I'll be back on full-time overtime.

I don't know how much the kids learned at church this week, but I do know that God sent me some good practice for subbing.

Sub' teaching, as I recall, makes for some good stories. So the outstanding question is, do I post them here … or create Occupation: Sub?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spy vs. Us

Yesterday we asked Benjamin point blank, "Are you a secret agent?"

Straight-faced, without hesitation, he answered, "Yes."

My wife and I laughed. "Why are you laughing, Mama? Dada, why are you laughing?"

I don't know how much longer I can take these mind games.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Cover Blown

We've always thought our son was good and bright and cooperative. A little too  angelic? Surprisingly  clever? Suspiciously  obedient? No ... we just always thought we were extremely blessed and lucky. Until now.

Today Benjamin let it slip. He started talking about his "security papers." "Important  security papers."

Sure they just looked  like notepad sheets with scribbles on them. But it's obviously some sort of ruse or highly-sophisicated encryption. Our kid's clearly some kind of secret agent, disguised as a preschooler.

I know what you're thinking. But, in talking to him and each other we have identified no books, videos or TV he's encountered that talk about "security papers". (Sure, there are lots of kids materials about  "security papers"; we just don't read or watch them.)

No. He's a covert operative all right. Homeland Security sent him here, no doubt, on suspicions of our suspicious dealings with China.

And people thought the NSA's "warrantless wiretapping" was an intrusion ... try living with a secret agent and 4 hairball-horking cats.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Occupation: Overprotective-Private-School-Yuppie-Dad???

Yesterday we visited the school to which we will likely send our son. It is a private school. So what? Lots of people send their kids to private school. Well, I was (and may be again) a public elementary school teacher. Hypocrite! Right? I know of some public school teachers who would say so. I know some who would say, "I don't blame you!"

In fact, if I hadn't taught in a public school, I probably would never have even thought of sending Benjamin to a private school.

That being said, the schools here in Wisconsin, in general, are very good. The schools in our town are very, very good. But we want to shelter our child while he is young and impressionable. Are we spoiling, overprotective wackos? Well, not surprisingly, I say no.

I had this discussion once with someone of a similar opinion. He and his wife homeschooled their children. They often got the question, "But aren't you worried about socialization?"

His answer was, "Yes! That's why we homeschool."

This comment gets to the root of our feelings as parents. In school, kids learn behaviors from other kids. Good behaviors and bad behaviors. In public schools, classes are large, there aren't funds for sufficient supervision. The schedules are filled with loose transition times where students have lots of unecessary opportunities to socialize with little guidance.

Counterargument: If you brought your kids up well, they will be good role models and will rarely pick up negative behaviors from other kids.

I disagree. While teaching, I've seen too many good kids pick up naughty habits. Do they learn   that they are negative behaviors? Of course, and quick! The brighter, good ones also  quickly learn that they shouldn't do them … until  they think that adults aren't around.

Another counterargument: All kids learn naughty stuff from their peers. We're only delaying the inevitable, and denying them an opportunity to learn about self-control, and about kids who are different, kids who may suffer hardship. Any bad behavior they pick up is a chance for parents and teachers to give an object lesson on right and wrong, why other people misbehave, etc., and to teach self-control.

Again, I disagree. Public school, private school or home school, there will be ample opportunities to teach self-control. We want to minimize  learning by negative example, not maximize  it. There is a time and place to learn that Johnny may have hit Bill because he has a hard home life, or that Mary swore at her teacher because she her parents don't monitor what she sees on TV. I contend that the best time and place is not in a 2nd grade classroom, nor even a 5th grade one. Part of my reason for saying so is that young children are still developing the abstract thinking abilities required for adult-like self-regulation.

There are myriad other reasons why we will probably choose the school we having been scoping out. (Blog posts, however, should probably be shorter than this one is already. In the future I would like to write about:
-Why I have the crazy belief that private school (and this one specifically) is any better than public school
-Curriculum and academics
-Organziation and management
-Diversity or lack thereof
And maybe I will.)

Right now, I'll just say I am so very thankful that this is even a possibility for our children.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Old Mystery Solved

If you know me (or at least have read this old post), you know I am indecisive.

My wife is more decisive -- that's not saying much -- but she is not a stranger to agonizing about whether to get the turkey sandwich or the pasta primavera, etc., whether to go to the party or not, etc. Since she highly vales decisiveness, she is not particularly proud of what she describes -- in her critical moments -- as our being crippled by indecision.

My wife especially, then, is quite pleased that this trait seems to have skipped our son.

Case in point:

The other day I happened to hear the old Dylan song, "Blowin' in the wind." Bob famously wonders, "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" Being no stranger to non sequitirs  and other such foolishness, I said to Benjamin, "I have a question for you, Benjamin. How many road must a man walk down ... ?"

Without hesitation he answered, "Two."

All right then. That settles that.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

In the sun-stained brown grass

Spring is lurking under this chill.
I can smell it. The winterbright sun is
trying to thaw something reluctant, not the
snow, it's gone. I think I found it, the

first clover that's not in a ranch house
window with a leprechaun. So small,
with light and dark greens only found
near the earth. My son can sense it. He won't

go in the house when we come home. This
34 degrees is different than three
weeks ago. He's rolling around in last year's
leaves with the cat. I think they're both purring.
© B├ába

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Line up

The other day, Benjamin was washing his hands and I needed to do the same. I reached in from the side and started to wash along with him.

"Dada, no," he started. (I fitted my I-don't-respond-for-Mr.-Bossy look.) "You have to get in line."

He doesn't go to preschool, but lately he has been attending Sunday school quite regularly. His rash reaction was clearly instigated by my appalling breach of wash-up-time protocol.

He will start a preschool program this fall, so this is just a taste of things to come. It will intensify, culminating in 2nd grade. At that point, we should anticipate that any break with established precedent will require a lengthy, carefully-worded explanatory statement, along with a liberal question-and-answers period. The results will likely range from "Well, that's still not fair" to resigned, quiet and highly skeptical acceptance. (Or, if we're in a hurry, we'll have to fall back on "we'll talk about it later," hoping later never comes. Worst case scenario: "because I said so.")

Back to the bathroom incident: Benjamin registered my stern look and reflexively repeatedly his request with a "could you please." I thought about explaining that there are different rules for home than there are in classrooms. I had just imagined all of our rules discussions for the next four years. I'll skip it this time.

"That's better," I sighed, and slunk to the end of the line.

He's probably right. It's a small sink.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

De-sensationalizing the Adoption Abduction Connection

China adoption news is on my radar because my wife and I are in the process of adopting a baby girl from China. The topic ventures into the media every so often. Some positive (or at least neutral) recent examples are the Meg Ryan adoption and a recent People  piece on the adoptive families of Chinese sisters finding one another. Negative media crops up from time to time, as well. Mostly recently The Washington Post  featured an article drawing attention to Chinese baby trafficking and its connection to the adoption system.

The author lays out the alleged facts in such a way as to suggest unfair and sensationalistic implications. First, the report leads one to believe that most of the babies involved in the trafficking were abducted. Brian Stuy, who has done much informal research in China and has followed the Hunan trafficking case closely, points out that there is no evidence that any of the babies involved in these prosecutions were abducted. Rather, it appears that they were given up by parents willingly. Moreover, the parents of the trafficked children in question did not sell their babies but rather paid a liaison to insure that the children would get to a family or an orphanage safely. (Most Chinese parents giving up children are doing so out of ponderous cultural pressure, unbelievable economic hardship and in response to China's "one child" population control policy. These parents are forced to relinquish children secretly and illegally in the face of fines that could bankrupt them for life.) The fact that profit may have been made by middlemen is very disturbing.

This more accurate narrative, however, is a far cry from the inference that people have abducted hundreds of children from Chinese parents to be sold and adopted.

Second, the article seems to portray that the real story of Chinese adoption is one of wealthy Westerners going off to China to buy children from orphanages to avoid the complications of adopting elsewhere. The truer and bigger story of Chinese adoption is this: Some 250,000 to as many as one million children are abandoned in China each year. Dozens of thousands are adopted domestically, despite disincentives. People all over the world have opened their minds and hearts to provide homes for these children many of whom, should they remain as orphans, are headed for a future without education, in poverty, and worse. These are caring people sensitive to the complexities of international adoption, learning and bringing Chinese culture into their families so that these children will be able to have the opportunities and freedom of their new homelands, while being secure with and enriched by their culture of birth. (I do not mean these statements to be self-congratulatory. We have done a lot of work, but we are still waiting to adopt.) The adoptive families I know (and know about) are people changing the path of their lives and the shape of their families to provide a home to someone without one.

Child abduction sickens me. But that is a different story. No one wants to turn a blind eye to a report of corruption and selling human beings for profit. But that is yet another story — of people (some trying to help perhaps, some just greedy) in Hunan, who along with their official accomplices are, after all, being prosecuted.

The story of China adoption is a quieter, more complicated one about a huge need and hands from many places carefully reaching across the globe to respond.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Like a Duck in Water

Benjamin was playing with a duck decoy we have out as a decoration. He was asking about it, so I explained how hunters use duck decoys. I guess he picked up on that they floated in the water; he began talking about how the duck was in the water, etc. I thought it was clever because he was playing on the glass-covered coffee table ... the glass being like the water. Not so. He soon said, "I want you to notice something about duck's head." Instead (when I went closer), I noticed something about the ducks environs. The duck was swimming in a shallow (thankfully) puddle of actual water on the coffee table. "I just did it just for fun." (At least this newly-formed pond motivated us to clean the already-smeary tabletop.)

Benjamin is almost always very good at not doing something we've asked him not to do. As in this story, he comes up with new, creative ideas, that in his mind, are not connected with previous prohibitions. It's true. We never told him not to make a duck pond on the coffee table.

Friday, March 10, 2006


Benjamin started bringing the fireplace tools across the room to me.  I was trying to be enthusiastic about the offerings, sayings things like, "Thanks, this is nice."

He was asking, "Why?"

I said, "Well, these are very useful tools."

He went to get another, mumbling something about the "wood grabbers."  On his way back to me with the fireplace tongs, he very excitedly informed me, "Now you're in for a real treat."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


The other day my son had a friend over. With just the two of them, it was easy to eavesdrop. Preschooler conversations can be pretty interesting to listen in on.

Some highlights of that visit:

4 Going on 40
"Oh, Josh, I forgot to show you this," Benjamin said, as if he had this idea in the back of his head for days. Then he took a birthday party themes catalog over and showed Josh the Thomas page. Josh is a huge fan of "Thomas the Tank Engine." Then they commenced to talk like a couple of grown hobbyists having a bull session about their favorite gear.

"Look, there's Thomas's caboose ! He doesn't always   have his caboose."

"Look, they have Thomas plates.  I  would like Thomas plates at my birthday party."

"I had Thomas balloons  at my birthday party."

And so on.

Another conversation:

Oh, the Invisible  Ones
Josh, sort of mumbling, "You stay here and help me. But you  go into the other room . . . "

Benjamin: "What?"

Josh, oblivious to the question, " … and you take this when you go. Now you help me make this …"

Benjamin: "Josh, … WHAT did you say … ?"

This pattern of exchanges continued for a few more "what"'s, until Josh finally answered, exasperated, as if it were the most obvious observation in the world, "Ben, I'm not talking to you. I'm talking to my imaginary friends !"

Then Benjamin responded, as if it he'd been quite the fool not to know something so blatantly clear, "OhhhHHHHHHhhhhh."

Their own little society. Fascinating.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Full Disclosure

You won't believe me, given these recent entries, but toilet-realm material is not my genre (it's my brother's). But, "they" say, parenting changes you. Anyway—

So I was on the toilet and the telephone rang. Benjamin speaks pretty well for his age, so we often let him answer the phone. He loves it, in fact, he insists on it.

He ran for the phone. Then I remembered what happens, so I tried to pre-empt, "Um, when you answer, just say your dad's not available; don't say I'm in the bathroom, please."

"Hello?" Pause. "Oh, no, he's on the potty right now."

Fortunately it was my wife. I haven't always been so lucky.

Ask a Silly Question ...

My son was walking around grabbing at his bottom, groin and hips. "Is there something wrong with your undershorts?" I asked.

"No. Why did you ask that?"

"Well you were kind of grabbing at your seat," casually, calmly. "Why were your doing that?"

Don't worry, I'm not trying to give him a complex or anything. I wanted to make sure that he didn't need to use the bathroom, that he didn't have a rash, and that we did manage to get his clothes not only on the right parts but facing the right direction.

Asking "Do you have to use the potty?" is often construed as an indictment of his independence, and can provoke a mild contrary reaction ("No" and then he waits, to save face, even though he does  have to to go). And, as suggestible as preschoolers are, you never know, bringing up a rash might trigger an imaginary or psychosomatic one. More likely, there would be lots of "What's a rash?" and "Why?" I'm a sucker for indulging his curiosity, so it wouldn't be long before we were on the web looking up various rashes—which, on some days might be great  fun; but I have cleaning — and blogging — to do. (Don't ask me about the morning we did our on-line exploration of bacteria and viruses. I was  at least careful enough to talk a lot about "friendly" bacteria and not just illness [See "suggestible" above.])

Anyway, my son's answer about why he was grabbing his behind: "Oh. Well ... I was just doing that for fun."

I'll have to try that some time.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Anal Retentive

My son and I both had to use the washroom at the same time. I went upstairs; he used the washroom downstairs. Before I was able to leave, I could hear him hollering for me. After shouting, "What?" through the house a few times, I was able to figure out that he wanted assistance; he said there wasn't enough toilet paper. After some more shouting back and forth and "Pardon me?!!" ... "What?!?" I was able to communicate to him that he should just get more out of the bathroom cabinet.

It was quiet for a while and then I heard him shouting something about the cabinet. Since it was not in an interrogative tone, and I was tired of shouting, I didn't respond. After a minute or two I could hear, closer, in a more conversational volume, some typical pre-schooler self-talk, though, given what I could make out, I was curious: " ... and this pile is for Dada ... and this pile is for me ... "

So when was done, I went downstairs. Apparently, he got a little sidetracked while replenishing the toilet paper. Benjamin had spread reading material from the bathroom cabinet all over the floor. Among the "piles" were his pants. He was in the middle of this debris field, naked from the waist down, doing some serious perusing and "sorting."

After shaking off my silent, squinty "huh?" stare, and snorting out a few laughs, I began, "Uhhhh ... what ... are you ... doing? I mean, ... why ... did you put ... all this stuff out here ... ?"

"Oh, uh, so I— I thought I would just surprise you," he cheerfully explained.

Mission accomplished.