Thanksgiving – Isn’t it Everyone’s Holiday?

Isn’t Thanksgiving the best holiday of the year, especially for schoolchildren to celebrate? It fosters gratitude and generosity, values that are often missing in today’s world. It encourages young people to count their blessings, to give back, and to engage in community service — such as food and clothing drives — to help those less fortunate. It doesn’t favor one religion or another, like Christmas, a Christian holiday marking the birth of Jesus, or even Halloween, which some won’t observe because of its pagan origins. Finally, it acknowledges that we are a nation of immigrants, and we are comprised of a rich tapestry of cultures, ethnicities, religions and backgrounds.  

What could be a better holiday for students to observe, in and out of school?  Isn’t Thanksgiving the most unifying day of the year? Not to officials in the Seattle public schools, Washington State’s largest school system. According to Fox News, the district sent letters to teachers and staff saying that Thanksgiving is “a time of mourning” for its Native American students. 

The memo, from Caprice Hollins, the district’s director of Equity, Race & Learning Support, included a “debunking” of 11 “myths” about the First Thanksgiving. The list attempted to knock down traditional views of the holiday, including what was served, the motives of the Pilgrims, and the commonly held belief that the holiday was a happy one. Instead, the letter stated that Thanksgiving is a time of mourning for Native Americans. A spokesperson for the district said the letter was an attempt to help students understand history from the perspective of others. 

According to Fox News, “one Seattle-area tribe says Thanksgiving is not somber on the reservation but a time to see friends and family, as it is for other Americans.” 

The report quoted Daryl Williams of the Tulalip Tribes saying that Northwest tribes celebrate the holiday with turkey and salmon. 

“Before the period of bitter and violent relationships between natives and their culturally European counterparts, they worked together to survive,” he said. “The spirit of Thanksgiving, of people working together to help each other, is the spirit I think that needs to grow in this country because this country has gotten very divisive.” 

One of my favorite Thanksgiving books when my children were small was Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen, which takes place around the turn of the last century. I recently read it again in anticipation of sharing it with my six-year-old granddaughter this Thanksgiving. It could probably use an update to make the third-grade teacher Miss Stickley more proactive against her students’ bullying of Molly, a recent immigrant from Russia.  But the message is still a beautiful one – the class finally comes to understand that Molly’s mother is a Pilgrim too. She left her native land for religious freedom, just like the original Pilgrims. 

As we observe Thanksgiving in our schools and in our homes, let us focus on the important values the holiday promotes – freedom, gratitude, diversity, and understanding. As role models, we need to be vigilant in teaching our children to focus on what unites us, not on what divides us.,2933,312480,00.html#ixzz1eN2yRcNZ

School Shorts – Food for Thought

With all of the attention focused on the Penn State scandal, three provocative education stories have gotten little attention. All of the issues below are worthy of an in-depth discussion. I’d love to hear your opinion on any or all of these. Please leave your comments on the bottom of the page or tweet me @DrMerylAin. 

Is Pizza a Vegetable – What Do You Think? 

Education Week recently reported that pizza with tomato sauce would be considered a vegetable in school lunch programs under changes proposed by Congress. The Agriculture Appropriations bill approved by a conference committee of House and Senate members would also make other changes to rules about what’s served in school lunch programs. In the Education Week piece by Nirvi Shah, Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the following:

“At a time when child nutrition and childhood obesity are national health concerns, Congress should be supporting the U.S. Department of Agriculture and school efforts to serve healthier school meals, not undermining them. Together the school lunch riders in the agriculture spending bill will protect industry’s ability to keep pizza and French fries on school lunch trays.”

What do you think?

Is Pizza a Vegetable? In School Lunches, Congress Says Yes

Are High School Lockers Obsolete? 

USA TODAY reported that a growing number of US high schools are eliminating lockers. Proponents of lockerless schools contend that new technology, such as iPads, are rendering the need for lockers obsolete. Supporters say removing lockers cuts down on noise and lateness, enhances school safety, and saves money. The Madison County, Mississippi School District saved $200,000 by going without lockers in its new high schools. Other schools are removing lockers from older buildings. 

Are lockers obsolete or do students still need them? 

Hall lockers? Some schools say no –

Should Parents Go To Jail if Their Kids Skip School?

Parents in Halifax County, NC may be heading to jail if their children have poor school attendance. The Halifax County court system, three public school systems and county agencies have joined forces in a new initiative called the Tri-District Truancy Procedure to address student attendance issues. 

After more than six unexcused absences, a parent or guardian will be notified by mail that they may be in violation of the Compulsory Attendance Law and may be prosecuted if the absences cannot be justified under the school system’s attendance policy. In addition, after more than six unexcused absences, school personnel will work with the student and family to find out the cause of the absences to determine what should be done. If a student has 10 unexcused absences at the discretion of the school principal, the district attorney’s office may be notified in writing, along with the Department of Social Services. 

A criminal warrant for school attendance law violation against the parent or guardian will be secured, and the parent or guardian will have to attend a truancy hearing, which could result in a 120-day jail sentence. 

School and court officials indicated these new procedures would send a message to parents about their responsibility to make sure their children are in school. 

Is this the right message to send to parents? 

Courts to punish parents on school attendance issues

Five Essential Tips for Successful Parent-School Communication

It’s the season for report cards and parent-teacher conferences. It’s also the time when parents may decide to confront problems their children are having in school. Or they may have come to the conclusion that their attempts to communicate with the school have just not been working.

Whether your child’s issues are emotional, physical, social, or academic, it’s not unusual for parents to become emotional and defensive when their children have a problem. One reason why your communication efforts may not be working is that school personnel may feel threatened and attacked by negative criticism. If you’re upset about something your child tells you, don’t jump to conclusions until you hear the other side. Try approaching school personnel in a respectful, calm and non-threatening manner by using an “I” message with the focus on meeting your child’s needs. 

  1. Describe how the problem makes you or your child feel without being defensive. For example, say, “I feel helpless when my child comes home crying and tells me that children are making fun of her,” instead of, “What kind of uncaring teacher are you that you’re allowing all of the children to pick on my child?”
  2. Actively listen to what the professionals tell you, and then summarize, paraphrase, question, share information and brainstorm solutions. This is preferable to allowing yourself to become so emotional that you don’t listen and resort to yelling.
  3. Come to an agreement about a solution that meets your child’s needs. Remember it’s not about who is right or wrong. You want your child to be the winner. He’ll be the winner if school and home work cooperatively to help him succeed.
  4. If you’re still not satisfied, then bring additional people into the discussion. You may want to include your spouse or another relative to support you, and you may ask that the principal or assistant principal and/or the school counselor to join the meeting. Many schools have team meetings, where all the staff members who are involved with your child meet at once. You may ask to attend a team meeting.
  5. If you have totally exhausted all of the avenues at the school level, contact district administration.

How to Be in the Know if You Can’t Be There

Patricia Heaton, who as Frankie Heck on “The Middle” is intimidated by officials in her children’s schools, recently confessed in a TV interview that she wished she had more time to attend PTA meetings for her own four children but finds it difficult because of her career.

I know and I empathize, both with Patricia Heaton and the many other parents who are stressed and scheduled to the limit. You work full-time and want to be home with your children in the evening; you have a newborn; your husband gets home at 9 p.m.; you’re a single mother. There are so many reasons that parents are unable to attend both daytime and evening meetings. 

In a perfect world, all parents would attend PTA and board of education meetings regularly and stay on top of all the school news that way. But we know that doesn’t happen. In fact, I have attended meetings where fewer than 10 parents were present – out of a potential 20,000! Parents who work long hours are not available during the day and may not be inclined to leave home in the evening. So what’s a concerned parent to do?

First, become intimately familiar with your school, school district and PTA Websites. PTA Websites should give you the names of the PTA officers, meeting and event information, and issues for which the PTA is advocating. PTA presidents are a great source of information, so keep in touch with him or her if you can’t attend meetings.  In many districts, the PTA president meets regularly with the superintendent and has an inside track on the latest developments. PTA presidents consider it their responsibility to share what they know, and are often frustrated that so few parents attend meetings. So be sure to stay in contact with your PTA president.

If school and school district Websites are good – and nowadays many are – they will provide you with a wealth of information that will be easy to navigate. I should warn you that some are not user-friendly, but with some effort you can usually find what you need to know. For example, you should be able to access the names and contact information of all of the important players from teachers to board members. Additionally, you should be able to find important dates, time schedules, meeting information and minutes, policies and procedures, and news.

It is in the area of news that school Websites present a one-sided view, focusing on the accolades and accomplishments that enhance the district’s reputation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! As the Public Information Officer and PR person in two prestigious Long Island districts, it was my job to spin the news in a positive way — and that’s what you’ll find on your school district Website. It’s the school district’s job to present itself in the best possible light.

As a result, if you want to find out about the burning issues and controversies in your district with all sides represented, learn whether there are local weekly newspapers that cover your schools. They generally send a reporter to every board meeting and write about it. In addition, there may be editorials and letters to the editor that offer other points of view. Some stories rise to the level of coverage by a daily newspaper, such as Newsday, or a TV station, such as Cablevision’s News12.  In the last couple of years, the Patch, the AOL-owned hyper-local on-line newspaper, has been covering news in many communities across the country. It presents comprehensive news about the school districts in its coverage area, as well as the opportunity for readers to comment on stories.

Parent-Teacher Conferences – Do You Need A Bribe?

It’s the season for parent-teacher conferences and I urge every parent to embrace this opportunity to sit down with your children’s teachers, no matter if your kids are in kindergarten or high school. 

This is your opportunity to find out specifically how your children are doing, and generally what’s going on in their classrooms and in their schools. I have to admit I was a bit disheartened when I recently came across a NEA (National Education Association) article advising teachers of tactics that they might want to use to “lure” parents into attending parent-teacher conferences. I’d be interested in knowing whether you think the parents in your school need to be cajoled into meeting with their children’s teachers, or whether they understand communicating with them is one of the best things they can do to help their kids succeed.  

Among the strategies recommended in the article are student-led conferences, in which students actually prepare and participate in the conference. The article said that feedback on this type of conference was “overwhelmingly positive,” and that there is a growing trend to encourage parents to bring their children to conferences. Other teachers had students prepare and present Power Point presentations to show their parents what they were learning. This tactic reportedly ensured record attendance. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with involving students and giving them a chance to be present, but I’m not sure that quite fits the definition of a parent-teacher conference. It seems to me the parent-teacher conference is one of the few chances you get to sit down with your kid’s teacher — adult to adult — and discuss what’s best for your child. 

Then there were the “bribes” to entice parents to meet with the teachers. These included: extra credit for students whose parents showed up, personal invitations, raffle tickets, a dessert bar, and goody bags. Finally, it was reported that some teachers go on home visits to meet parents who cannot get to the school. 

It’s commendable that some teachers go to such lengths to accommodate parents, but I would think parents would prefer to see the teachers’ creative energies going instead to inspiring the students. 

The article didn’t mention adjusted hours for working parents, which should be pro forma nowadays in all schools and something that parents should insist upon. Similarly, if your work schedule does not allow you to get to school on a particular day, request an alternate date or a phone conference.  

Here are 7 tips for a successful parent-teacher conference:

  1. Come prepared with questions and take notes. Always ask how you can support your child’s learning at home.
  2. Don’t be passive. If you have a particular question or concern, don’t be afraid to bring it up. Be specific. 
  3. Discuss your child’s social and emotional development as well as academic performance. Be sure to let the teacher know if there is anything going on at home that may impact your child’s behavior and performance in school, such as divorce, illness in the family, or a new baby.
  4. If there is a problem, describe how it makes you or your child feel without being defensive or negative. Actively listen to what the teacher says. Come to an agreement about what is best for your child.
  5. Schedule follow-up meetings or telephone calls to be sure the plan is working.
  6. Find out how the teacher communicates with parents, e.g., online, newsletters, agendas, etc.
  7. If you are not satisfied with the conference, you may ask to meet with an administrator.  

Try This: The New Parent-Teacher Conference

It’s Up to Parents to Ensure a Safe Halloween

There’s a nip in the air and pumpkins are everywhere: in patches, on porches, in stores and in schools. It’s hard to ignore the signals that Halloween is fast approaching. 

Almost every store has aisles of costumes and candy.  Elementary schools plan Halloween parades and high schools organize Safe Halloween festivities for pre-school and elementary school children. But I can’t help think that Halloween is not what it used to be, when armies of little kids combed the streets collecting goody bags from moms who had lovingly assembled them.  

That was long before there were objections to Halloween on the grounds that as a religious holiday it shouldn’t be observed in public schools. It was long before we knew sweet treats were taboo — and even dangerous for those with certain food allergies. It was long before deranged people inserted razor blades into candy and sexual predators prowled the streets. And it was long before the latest craze – candy-flavored tobacco in brightly colored packages. Cigarillos, cigars and such smokeless tobacco products as chew, snuff and dissolvable tobacco – considered by many the first step to tobacco addiction — are now vying with Halloween candy for shelf space in convenience stores. 

As I recall, we got real about Halloween when schools began recommending that parents bring to school all of the candy their children collected to be x-rayed. When that happened, I thought for sure the holiday was doomed.  

But it’s made a great resurgence in recent years. People now adorn their homes with Halloween lights and blow-up pumpkins, witches and scarecrows. It’s a bigger business than ever before. 

And yet, Halloween has changed. 

First, there are parents who object to Halloween celebrations being held in public schools. With children coming from so many religious and ethnic backgrounds, parents are opposed to celebrating holidays that are not part of their tradition.  

On the other hand, it’s probably a good thing that much of the Halloween observance has moved off the streets and into the schools. It’s a lot safer. Every year it seems we get fewer and fewer youngsters trick or treating at our door. 

Parents have to decide for themselves if and how their children celebrate Halloween. What do you think? Here are some tips for a safe Halloween. 

  1. If your child has a food issue, make sure you discuss it with the teacher and school nurse ahead of time.
  2. If you have an objection to a Halloween celebration on religious grounds, make sure you let your principal and teacher know about it well in advance of the holiday.
  3. Even if you take your children to a Safe Halloween sponsored by your local high school, watch them carefully. It may seem like a very safe environment, but keep in mind that the school gym is full of strangers.
  4. It’s best to accompany your children if you allow them to trick or treat, including for UNICEF. And of course, discard any treats that are not pre-packaged or look like they have been tampered with. 
  5. Honestly, it’s just a bad idea nowadays for children to go door to door – especially in the dark – to strangers’ homes.
  6. If you do allow your teenagers to go out, they should go to people they know — and in a group. Make sure they have cell phones with them and that you know their route.  You should also stress the importance of obeying laws, respecting private property and not engaging in pranks or vandalism.
  7. Better yet, encourage your teens to volunteer at a Safe Halloween event at their school.

The Week That Was: From SAT to Steve Jobs

There is a gaping chasm between the values of the high school students involved in the SAT cheating scandal in Great Neck, L.I., and those of Steve Jobs, the genius inventor who died last week at 56. 

What messages and what kind of pressure did these young people get that made them abandon common sense, ethics, and the law in the pursuit of stellar SAT scores they believed they were incapable of getting on their own? What beliefs did Jobs have that gave him the confidence to drop out of college and invent products that truly transformed the way that we live, learn, communicate and work?

I suspect the Great Neck teenagers felt pressure to achieve – from their peers and from their parents.  They are certainly not alone in succumbing to that pressure. You have only to watch Toddlers and Tiaras to know that parental pressure has no age or geographical boundaries. Does anyone really believe that three-year-olds aspire to be beauty queens and actually enjoy having false eyelashes glued onto their faces?

The high school students who paid someone to take their SATs for them had swallowed a bill of goods that led them to believe that to be successful, they needed to attend a top tier college. Likely, they thought they would forever be defined by the college they attended and their prospects for future success would be set in stone their freshman year. They did not have confidence in their own skills or abilities, believing instead that the top tier schools they attended defined success.

It never occurred to them that they could distinguish themselves at a third tier school, or even that they could transfer from Nassau Community College after two years.  Ironically, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, about 775 U.S. colleges and universities – including some first rate schools — are now test optional. Some schools exempt students who meet grade-point average or class rank criteria, while others require SAT scores only for placement purposes.

Contrast the mind-set of these young people with the advice Steve Jobs gave to the graduating class of 2005 at Stanford University:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

“You’ve got to find what you love.”

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…

What can parents learn from these words?

Stop pressuring your children to live up to some ideal standard. If they get a 93% on a test, don’t ask them what happened to the other seven points. If they want to and can get into an Ivy League school on their own power and desire, that’s great. But don’t keep telling them they have to go to Harvard or Yale. And please, don’t make them think they have failed if they can’t reach that goal – just because you want it. There are tens of thousands of high schools in the U.S. and each has one valedictorian and one salutatorian — and all are trying for the same nine top tier schools.

Encourage your children to live their own lives. Don’t pressure them to live out your dreams; let them have their own. Enable them to become the best they are capable of being, not the best your neighbor’s child is capable of being.

Help them find their passion and to pursue it. If they follow their interests, they will not only distinguish themselves but also be true to themselves.

Most of all, children of all ages need unconditional love, ethics and values from their parents. As hard as schools may try, they can’t teach character education without parental agreement and support.

Steve Jobs never finished college.  And most successful people didn’t have perfect SAT scores. Without character, commitment, and emotional intelligence it really doesn’t matter where your kids go to school.