Monday, March 30, 2015

Two Mothers, Two Daughters, One Moon

I used to think I turned the pages of my life, but not anymore. Not quite at least. Now I believe circumstances and faces and objects steadily float past me, and the trick is learning which details have meaning and how to catch them.

When we adopted Maggie from China, I became a stay-at-home mother. I'd had careers, but nothing ever stuck. I'd always been waiting for something else.

During our first year, Maggie and I did pretty well at home, all things considered. She'd spent the first eleven months of her life in a huge Guangdong orphanage, so the quiet of our house and my constant attention surely kept her surprised.

I was an only child who had briefly babysat when I was in high school. Clearly, I didn't know up from down about children, but I knew our world had to expand.

We tried Mommy and Me Gymnastics. The college-student instructor was beside herself with frustration. For one thing, I was old enough to be the mother of the other mothers. Next, we owned no athletic clothes. Class began with screaming children jumping into a pit filled with foam blocks. Maggie whispered, "I don't want to jump into a hole, Mama." I couldn't disagree.

We tried an art event. Maggie didn't want to draw the assigned lesson. I finished hers while no one was looking.

I re-thought my outreach plan. We went to a bookstore, where our clothes were suitable. We loved sitting. We loved quiet. We loved books. That's where we found Owl Moon by Jane Yolen.

Each time I got to the part where the little girl sees the owl, Maggie placed her hand on the page. I have no idea why. But her tiny fingers showed me a book can find a child's heart.

Money was tight in our house on one income, so I told her the book lived in the store, but we could visit it. Because it was a Caldecott winner, they kept copies on hand. On every trip, as I pushed her stroller through the door, Maggie said, "Find it." I knew which book she meant.

So when I tried to write an adoption picture book and the plot stalled, I returned to Owl Moon and realized one economical sentence after another took that little girl on an important nighttime adventure. There was my map for Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale. 

When it was published, it was difficult to know if my book mattered until an author event brought a particular family to my autograph table. The father chatted with me while his adopted two-year-old Chinese daughter flipped through the pages of her book, clearly looking for something. She stopped at the picture of the baby floating away in a basket. She pressed her little hand on the page and smiled at me. She thought she was showing me a picture. I knew she was showing me her heart.

It was a recent, accidental click on my computer that led me to a page about Jane Yolen's Picture Book Boot Camp at her Massachusetts farmhouse. Knowing that points were surely converging, I enrolled for four inspiring days about writing and publishing. More significantly for me, however, I learned Jane took fifteen years to write Owl Moon, and the unnamed girl in the story is her daughter Heidi. I struggled for years to write Sweet Moon Baby, and the unnamed girl in my book is my daughter Maggie.

I went a long way for these details:

The moon is forever the moon, a shining mirror of everlasting promise.
One daughter looked at it and saw an owl.
One daughter looked at it and saw a home.
Two mothers looked at it and saw their daughters.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Making Black Sheep: The Group Consequence Fallacy

One evening Cliff delivered popcorn to Maggie, who had stayed home from school with a cold that day. Her first grade teacher had sent the treat. She cried.

It took a while to understand her distress, but the popcorn signified a special reward party that she'd missed.

The teacher kept a set of tally marks on the board to measure good and bad student actions in the class. Good things received checkmarks. Bad things meant checkmarks were erased. When the class achieved the designated number of plusses, they got a popcorn party. On the day of Maggie's absence, the long-awaited event was held.

She missed the reward. Receiving stale popcorn in isolation was hardly the same experience.

Cliff was dismayed by such a public checks and balances system because he knew the hazards. Misbehavior was called out, embarrassing the guilty child. Well-behaved classmates were "punished" for the infractions of others because the checkmarks they had worked to earn were erased. Over time, it's typically repeat offenders who are continually guilty of lost points. Consequently, they are resented by the other children. They become the black sheep.

This kind of group consequencing makes the other children responsible for monitoring and mentoring their impulsive classmates, never an effective idea. How often in life does the disorganized child turn in his homework on time because he wants the others to be rewarded? When does a mean child hold back a cruel comment, knowing a handful of popcorn hangs in the balance?

In group consequencing, the teacher's hands are clean because children are expected to do the controlling and reforming. The misbehaved are supposed to be magically transformed or humiliated into modeling the better choices of others.

Who is the paid professional in the classroom anyway?

Because Cliff was the middle school principal, he spoke with the lower school principal about the matter. She admitted she was aware of the situation and had mentioned it, but he continued his program. She urged Cliff to see if he could make any progress since his own daughter had been punished by the reward system.

In his most thoughtful manner, Cliff, who knows every last thing about developmental behavior and how to build a cohesive classroom community, explained the dark side of blackboard tally marks. He  discussed the negative self-images that develop from public shaming. He illustrated the benefits of working one-on-one with problematic children to turn their attitudes around privately. He detailed ways to help children contribute positively to a group. He talked about the power of getting the parents onboard to change inappropriate steps they might be taking at home.

Change doesn't happen overnight, but it takes the burden off classmates who are truly helpless. Left to their own devices, Cliff explained how damaging underground student retaliation could become--with no one winning and someone getting hurt.

Maggie's first grade teacher didn't argue or ask questions. He simply shrugged his shoulders and said, "The system works for me."

When Cliff reported his results, the lower school principal shrugged her shoulders, too.

People discuss education constantly--academic excellence, teacher unions, standardized tests. It's a lengthy list.

But none of that matters if schools aren't willing to roll up their sleeves and develop children who are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing.

And you can't get there with a popcorn party.

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