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7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Summer Freedom!

Today is the last day of this academic year. As the summer stretches out ahead of me, I feel tremendous excitement and relief.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my job, and I’m a big proponent of hard work, schoolwork, homework, and all kinds of work. But by the end of the academic year, I’m totally and completely worn out. Schools are possibly the most structured and disciplined places on our planet. During the school year, faculty and students alike are governed by schedules, timetables, and syllabi. We think in terms of hour-long blocks that end with a loud bell. Our thoughts are always, necessarily, fragmented. Just as we’re working through a particularly difficult piece of poetry, the bell rings. All of a sudden, students have to march to a Chemistry class and wrestle with the periodic table, while I have to run to another class and teach a totally different text. And then, all year long, students and faculty alike march from one set of assignments to another, from one set of assessments to another, from one reporting period to another. Much as I love school, I do find the degree of structure overwhelming.

So, summer is a welcome break. As I contemplate two months of freedom, I realize how important unstructured time is for all of us: faculty and students alike. While structured learning is very important, a whole different kind of learning takes place in the summer. We can spend a morning immersed in a book, with no bell to interrupt the experience. We can immerse ourselves in a particular project or learning experience without the constraints and demands of school.  We can play! Play with ideas, play with words, play in the sand and play at the beach. We can engage in an activity for the pure pleasure of it, without worrying about external assessments and judgments. We can do what we love, what we want, instead of being forced to do what everyone else (administrators, exam boards, parents, teachers) tell us to do. Oh, the joy of summer!

Unstructured time is, I think, critical for deep thinking and creativity. All people, teachers and students alike, need long stretches of unstructured time to imagine, dream, and think. It is this mental space and time that allows us to be reflective and creative. Additionally, we all need downtime to recharge our batteries. And, very importantly, we all need time outdoors, time to connect with nature and our physical environment. The beauty of the academic year is that we have this time built into every year. Every academic year begins anew in August, with renewed vigor and intensity. And then every academic year winds down in June, giving way to the luxury and freedom of summer.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Can schools vaccinate against hatred and extremist ideologies?

I recently received an email from my former professor at Harvard, Fernando Reimers, where he wrote about his feelings regarding the Orlando shootings. He said:

"I don't know about the background of the perpetrator or whether education could have vaccinated him against the sick ideas that led him on his path of hatred. I do think schools everywhere could do much more to prepare children and youth to embrace the beauty that lies in human difference, and to prepare them to challenge extremist ideologies. 
The goal to educate all was first articulated by Comenius as a way to overcome the intolerance and discrimination he had experienced. Much has been achieved in including all children in school inspired by that goal. We have work to do to ensure that teachers and schools indeed advance peace and understanding."

I couldn't agree more. As educators and as parents, we have the power to help our children understand that they must stand for peace and understanding. We can help our children to judge others less and empathize with them more, and we can help them to stand up for peace, tolerance, and diversity.

Here's an extract from a letter  I wrote to my graduating students:

"I have learned that when we skin our knees on the sidewalks of life*, we bleed, whether we’re rich or poor, gay or straight, Jew or Christian, Hindu or Muslim, Black or White, Indian or Chinese. I hope that as you venture into a world where people define themselves by how they are different from others, often with violence and hatred, you will remember our common humanity." 
*Skin our knees on the sidewalks of life is a line from Billy Collins' poem "On Turning Ten" 

Monday, 13 June 2016

3 Things I've Learned in Singapore

Here's an extract from an interview with Multicultural Kids. To read the entire interview, click here
How has researching and writing 'Beyond The Tiger Mom' influenced your own parenting/teaching style?
One interesting thing that all the Chinese moms I interviewed stressed was the importance of greetings; Chinese kids are expected to stop whatever they are doing at home to greet elders (parents, grandparents, visitors). The moms believe very strongly that these greetings teach kids to value and respect their elders, and that these greetings are very important for family unity and harmony. I think living in Singapore and interviewing parents here has made me think much more deeply about ways to create family unity and harmony.
Academically too, I think I’ve been very influenced by Singaporean culture. As I say in the first chapter of my book, the parents I interviewed influenced how I think about math education and the importance of early math skills.
Additionally, as a parent and an educator, I also think a lot more about how to extend my kids’ (and students’) attention spans. In the US, teachers are routinely taught to accommodate short attention spans by entertaining kids, making everything “fun,” and moving quickly from one task to the next. Here in Singapore, educators and parents don’t accommodate short attention spans; instead they deliberately train kids to extend their attention spans and concentrate more fully on a complex task for a sustained period of time.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Home Learning Cultures: What, how, and why?

Have you ever wondered about the culture you create in your home? I'm not talking about culture in terms of race, ethnicity, heritage or religion. And, I'm not talking about how loving or dysfunctional the family is (although this is, undoubtedly, the most important aspect of any family).

I'm talking about the kind of values and interests a home embodies. What does your home say about who you are and what you value? What kinds of objects are on display in your house? What do you have up on your walls? What kind of activities does your family do for fun? What do people talk about at the dinner table? What messages do the physical, verbal, and behavioral culture of your home give your child?
As Peter Drucker, the business guru says, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast," and I think that's true. The culture of the home shapes kids far more than any specific strategy, class, or task that we impose upon them.
One of my closest childhood friends lived in a home permeated by technology. His dad ran a software company, and his mom was also extremely computer savvy. They always had the latest technology and the best computers, and as a family, they preferred movies to books. My friend himself was always playing around on his computer -- not on mindless games, but on really sophisticated stuff. He started programming really young, and unsurprisingly, he went on to become a very successful software engineer. In his home, dinner table discussions would often revolve around computers, new technologies, and cars.

My own childhood home was full of literature, poetry, and art. Big, dusty bookcases crowded with books about art and architecture, museums and travel. Other bookcases overflowed with works of fiction -- great literature from India and the West. We were a reading family, and we were an artsy family.  Neither of my parents cared much about technology. They just weren't into machines. We had a small TV that was never switched on. Our house was also a quiet house. I don't remember much music or noise. Everyone in the family seemed to enjoy silence and solitude.

I often consider the kind of home that I'm creating for my children. What kind of culture are they living and breathing everyday. How can I make sure that the culture of my home reflects my love of learning, reading, and ideas?

When I talk to parents about learning, I often discuss what " a learning culture" looks and feels like at home. 
Parents can create a math culture -- with legos, tangrams, math conversations, math games, and math exercises. 
And they can create a reading culture -- with bookshelves everywhere, conversations about books, and lots of time for reading. 
And importantly, parents can ensure that everything about their homes signals to kids that learning is beautiful, enjoyable, and important.