Educational Arms Race

by LeslieKeenan on April 21, 2014

I went to wake Mia this morning and she started moaning. “My tummy hurts,” she complained. Hmmm, I thought, is this real sickness or is she just trying to get out of going to school? She’d complained of a tummy ache on the weekend but it sure hadn’t slowed her down. And she looked fine this morning.

I equivocated. “Well, let’s get ready for school, and if you still feel bad when you get there I can come pick you up.”

“No!” she cried, turning her head into the pillow, and starting to cry. “I don’t want to go to school!” Now we were getting somewhere. This seemed like more than just wanting more play time at home after the weekend of fun. “Mia,” I asked gently. “Is there something you’re afraid of at school?”

“I hate math!” she replied. More bitter tears and sobs. “I just don’t understand it and I’m not allowed to look at anyone else’s work!”

I felt the familiar anger and frustration at what seemed to me needless pressure for a first grader. Sure, she’s intense and feels things deeply. But what is creating this depth of fear and frustration? And why isn’t she getting enough time to understand the concepts?

“I’ll have to finish it tomorrow and I won’t get to have choice time!” More tears.

“Oh, Mia,” I said. “That must be hard.”

“And Mrs. R. doesn’t help me! I have to figure it out all by myself!”

I’d been in the classroom a few times. I knew how hard it was, with 18 kids in the class, to keep everyone happy. I knew the teachers were getting pressure from the state with the standardized testing and all. I knew Mia wanted someone to sit with her when sometimes she did know the answer. And I knew Mia’s teachers are dedicated and kind. But I felt furious. The kids can’t even help each other? A child is allowed to feel incompetent because she takes longer to understand? And it’s compounded by the pressure to finish at the same rate as everyone else?

This pressure to hit curriculum marks (the new Common Core standards  might be better than what came before but they still require testing) and speed everything up so that what used to be taught in first grade is now taught in kindergarten, and what used to be second-grade level material is now in first grade – it’s like an educational arms race where everyone has to keep up. Now I finally understood why some of the parents here had kept their children back a year (Mia has an August birthday, and is the youngest in her class).

All these thoughts raced through my head but I still had a crying girl in front of me. What to do now? First, a big hug was in order. Mia dried her tears.

I realized that keeping her home today was not going to help matters, and could even make it worse. I told her: it was OK not to understand; it was OK to make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes; and that after school I would help her understand whatever they were working on that day; but that staying home wasn’t going to solve anything. “Let’s think about it a little,” I said, leaving her to watch Arthur on Netflix for a bit, to regroup (while I got her lunch so we wouldn’t add another tardy to our list of problems). When I came back, she seemed resigned.

We made it to the classroom just as the class came around the corner from the playground and the teacher opened the door. I gave Mia a big hug. “I will talk to Mrs. R.,” she said bravely, as she set her shoulders and walked into the classroom.

I’m proud of her, and I can’t help thinking it’s important to pay attention to the high pressure being put on young children in school. I have recently learned about the Center for Childhood Creativity  that emphasizes how essential play is for kids from 0 – 10 and how detrimental all this focus on testing can be.



Vision Zero…Championing “Natural Time”

by LeslieKeenan on March 24, 2014

I kept hearing about yet another pedestrian death on the streets of SF. There have been 5 so far this year. Last year there were 21 pedestrian deaths. This is people dying because they don’t cross the street fast enough (a 6-year-old and an 86-year-old were among those killed last year), and in our culture getting people where they need to go (speed) is more important than human life. This is the one issue of linear vs. natural time that upsets me the most. (Watch my 3-minute YouTube explanation of the different kinds of time.) We are talking countless lives lost due to our hurry! Is there anything more screwed up about our priorities as a society than this?

So I was very happy to hear about an initiative getting underway in SF, called VisionZero.  It started in Sweden, and is now also in Chicago and New York. The underlying premise is explained rather simply in the video. Our current road systems have been engineered with the premise that speed for the vehicles is the priority, and that accidents are the responsibility of individuals. Merely by changing that premise and making engineering responsible for safety, changes everything. It acknowledges that humans are, well, human, and will make mistakes. “Our road systems are allowing drivers to take risks way beyond our capability,” the Vision Zero website says. And their strategy for changing this is working.

VisionZero Graph

This to me is very encouraging. It shows a natural time (“human”) perspective being acknowledged and even given an edge over linear time. But there is a long way to go to change people’s attitudes. Everyone is still stuck in linear time thinking. Even in the interview with Nicole Schneider, the executive director of Walk San Francisco, that I was listening to on KCBS yesterday, the two interviewers kept wanting to go back to whose fault it is and surely pedestrians have to take some responsibility (for instance, they are jaywalking or on a cell phone) despite her repeated calls for not blaming and for the fact that speed is the real cause of most fatalities, not distracted driving. Oh and an interesting side note. Jaywalking is actually a concept that developed when cars were first introduced to the roads. Cars taking priority over people, and making it people’s fault if they were in the road.


Were You Watching the Oscars Last Night?

March 3, 2014

And did you see this? Notice all the cool old typewriters in the background!      

Read the full article →

How do you know when you are done?

January 13, 2014

After the excitement of finishing your first draft, and the tedium of making all the fixes and changes you knew you had to do, how do you know when you are really done and the manuscript is ready to send out, or that you need to polish it some more? The answer to this is […]

Read the full article →

How to Select a Good Reader for Your Manuscript

December 18, 2013

•Pick someone you trust, but not necessarily someone you know well. Sometimes a comparative stranger can be more helpful than a close friend. •Pick someone who regularly reads the kind of book you’ve written (i.e., memoir, chick lit, mystery, history, etc.) •Pick someone who actively engages their own creativity. It doesn’t have to be a […]

Read the full article →

The Order to Follow in Editing Your First Draft

December 16, 2013

To ensure that you don’t waste time or duplicate work, take the advice of a seasoned editor and use a hierarchical system for making changes.   First come big, structural changes. These need to be in place first. I’m referring to chapter order, or large chunks of writing within chapters. Then move on from there […]

Read the full article →

How To Do Transitions

December 12, 2013

Many writers I know obsess about transitions from one section or scene to another. It comes up particularly when you are in the editing stage and are moving big chunks of manuscript from one place to another. Everyone (including me) always thinks it will be hugely complicated and difficult, but I have found that it […]

Read the full article →

How To Approach the Second Edit

December 9, 2013

Once you have your list of things you know need to be done to your first draft, then you need to go back into the manuscript and make them. There is a specific way to approach this that will make things easier and smoother. Here’s what to do: Make a list (if you haven’t yet) […]

Read the full article →

Part One: Why You Must Read Through the First Draft before Editing

December 2, 2013

Have your first draft done? Good! Here’s what to do next. First, you must print it out. I know everyone hates to use paper these days but I’m sorry, you just need a hard copy for this. Now, take a pad and a pencil or pen, and sit down to read it through. Since you […]

Read the full article →

What Hansel and Gretel Taught Me About Writing

November 26, 2013

When I am writing in flow, which is what I always aspire to do, it feels like such a relief. At last, the words are coming and I can’t get my thoughts down fast enough. But then, inevitably, my time to write ends. And then the next time I show up, that excited energy is […]

Read the full article →