On Dog Poop and the Human Condition

Spaniards in Brunete, a small, middle-class suburb of Madrid, are fed up with their dog poop riddled parks and sidewalks. So the mayor of the town decided to send the dog poop back to dog owners. I kid you not. Read the full story here

As explained in the New York Times:

Volunteers were enlisted to watch for negligent dog owners and then to approach their dogs to pet them. After a few flattering remarks about the beauty of said dog, they asked what breed it was. Then they asked the dog’s name. Back at City Hall, where more than 500 residents have their pets registered, that was enough information to get to an address.

Mayoral money quote, “It’s your dog, it’s your dog poop. We are just returning it to you.” The Times reports that:

The dog owners got their packages — white boxes bearing the seal of this town and labeled “lost and found” — within hours. Signing for the curious parcels, they must have been intrigued, though surely unsuspecting. . . .Delivering 147 boxes of the real stuff seems to have produced a . . . lasting effect in this town of about 10,000 residents. The mayor guesses a 70 percent improvement even now, several months after the two-week campaign.

Brunete’s Mayor deserves points for creativity and boldness, but I’ll be surprised if their parks and sidewalks are much improved next August. In part because dog owners have already stopped giving up their dog’s names, but more importantly, because it’s very difficult to teach old dogs (the masters that is) new tricks. As one commenter of the NYT article wrote, “Personal responsibility only works for people with a conscience. For the rest, it takes shame, videotape and public humiliation, all of it well deserved.” I disagree with the second sentence which I’ll return to shortly. First a related anecdote.

A few years ago I was enjoying a hard earned lunch at the Crystal Mountain turnoff late into RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day). While trying to recover for the final push, I was admiring a fellow cyclist also in his late 40′s/early 50′s—his bike, cycling kit, and obvious fitness. My book cover assessment. . . badass. Then he opened a Cliff Bar, ate it, and TOSSED the wrapper on the f#*king ground.

Stunned, I wondered, what kind of person litters? That’s why God created jersey pockets and trash cans. There’s tons of evidence on the side of our roads that lots of people litter, but we hardly ever see them. This was up close and semi-personal. It’s bad enough in an urban environment, but we were smack dap in the middle of some of God’s finest handiwork. Somehow I suppressed my instincts to open a can of whup ass on my lycra-clad compatriot.

If it’s not built-in, and I don’t believe it is, how do people develop a conscience and learn to take personal responsibility for maintaining their part of the public square—whether a park, a sidewalk, or a natural setting? It’s modeled for them at a young age by a constellation of caring adults—older sibs, parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, youth leaders. For the vast majority of peeps, the first ten to fifteen years of life tells the story.

Shame, videotape and public humiliation will not inspire meaningful change over time. If I’ve learned one thing as a life-long educator it’s that encouragement and positive feedback are far more motivating than shame and public humiliation.

Which makes me wonder, what if Spaniards and you and I used the postal service to acknowledge selfless acts of personal responsibility? What form might those types of notes, letters, or packages take? Here’s just one of many examples that come to mind. A friend who lives on a nearby lake is always inviting our family to enjoy their primo community dock. When we take advantage of her generosity, she often barbecues dinner—hamburgers, salmon burgers, veggie burgers, chicken. Typically, we bring a salad or some fruit, but there’s a clear imbalance. I should go “reverse dog poop” and send her (or drop of rather) a package of frozen burger patties as a token of appreciation along with a note of thanks.

Granted, she doesn’t need that recognition, because generosity is integral to who she is. It was probably a part of her nature at age ten or fifteen, but everyone appreciates being appreciated. Let’s spare the postal service any more dog poop and watch for random acts of responsibility, thank the person or people involved, and create positive momentum in the public square.

Mindfulness

Have you noticed? The term is cropping up everywhere. Alina Tugend, in an informative blog post that I borrow heavily from, explains:

Elementary school students practice it. Doctors practice it — and their patients. Prisoners practice it. There’s mindful eating that promises a healthier way of eating. And scans show mindfulness may change the way our brains function and help us improve attention, reduce stress hormones and even bounce back faster from negative information.

I dig Janice Marturano’s definition, mindfulness is “intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally”. If I could learn to intentionally pay attention to the present nonjudgmentally, my personal relationships would markedly improve.

According to Marturano, mindfulness isn’t only about reducing stress. Or about emptying our minds of all thoughts. Or about religion.

A few years ago I team taught a course with a friend who was taking classes in a mindfulness credential program. She’d occasionally fly from Seattle to Oakland for weekend courses. She suggested we integrate mindfulness training into our graduate course for teacher credential candidates. I liked her teaching instincts and philosophy so I agreed to give it a try even though apart of me worried that it might be New Age hocus pocus. In the end, it went beautifully and I became an advocate for mindfulness.

Martuarno explains the basics:

Find a quiet place to focus your attention — on your breath or perhaps on an object. It’s not deep breathing, but rather experiencing when the breath enters and leaves. Feel the stretch in the rib cage, without me doing anything. Can I notice when the mind takes a hike and redirect it? That redirection is the exercise.

Tugend adds:

There’s also what Marturano calls ‘purposeful pauses.’ Deciding that instead of thinking of a coming meeting while brushing your teeth you really focus on the taste of the toothpaste and the bristles and the water.

My attention is so scattered sometimes I think there’s only two times when I’m truly “in the present”. The first is when I’m exerting myself when cycling at high speeds in a group and the second I don’t dare describe since this is a family friendly blog.

Marturano again, “Take yourself out of autopilot and eventually expand that ‘being in the moment’ to other parts of your life.” 

Tugend says, “the idea is that over time you’ll feel more focused and more connected to yourself and others.”

Ever been at a large, raucous social gathering with someone whose unusually focused eye contact and attention made you feel heard and understood above the din? That’s mindfulness in practice.

Tugend again:

It sounds simple, but it’s not, because it so goes against the grain of how most of us think and operate. We want to get things done, to identify and fix problems. And that’s the opposite of what mindfulness is all about.

Christy Matta, author of the book “The Stress Response”, notes:

The way it’s presented in the media, people begin to believe it’s a magic pill. I’ll clear my mind and I’ll be peaceful and stress-free. If that’s what people think, they’ll be disappointed.

She adds:

If you go into it with the idea of reducing stress, you’re working against the very thing you’re trying to attain, because you’re aiming toward a goal. Mindfulness is about being present. You have to do it just to do it. You can’t strive for things.

Matta also cautions:

While being aware of your feelings may be nice when drinking a lovely cup of tea or relaxing in a garden, part of mindfulness is also uncomfortable feelings — not trying to change or judge them, but being aware of them. And that may not feel so pleasant.

Dr. Baime notes another common misconception about mindfulness, that it’s about learning to be happy. It’s not. Nor is it about eliminating stress.

Stress doesn’t go away, ever. That’s why we call it stress management rather than stress elimination. Rather, mindfulness can create a world where you experience depth, meaning and connectedness. You see joy and sadness more fully and settle more deeply into an authentic way of being.

That all important insight reminds me of a related book I previously recommended, “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking“.

Marturano says mindfulness is supposed to:

Help us spend less time worrying about the future or fretting about the past. We’ll gain perspective, listen better and step back to consider more choices and make decisions more clearly and intentionally, rather than reactively.

But Tugend cautions people not to assume that mindfulness is some sort of miracle cure. For example:

While It has been used to good effect in classrooms, it shouldn’t be used in isolation. . . . Mindfulness can increase attention and focus, and help children respond to stress in a calmer manner, but it also needs to be part of learning concrete emotional and social skills.

Tugend also contends it’s difficult to learn to be mindful on one’s own. She says:

There are some good books that offer guidance like “Full Catastrophe Living,” (Delacorte Press, 1990) by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Professor Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is considered one of the foremost experts on the subject.

“Everyone I spoke to,” she explains, “said that you need to take a course and perhaps go on a retreat to fully experience and gain value from mindfulness.”

Like Tugend, I can see why other people are drawn to it, given, as she says, “that we’re living in a such a fractured, information-overloaded world. We’re looking so far ahead to the next thing, we miss what’s going on in the present.” 

Guilty as charged.

The Link Between Walking or Biking to School and Concentration

My seventeen year-old supper nanny of a daughter babysits for a Mormon family up the street. They have six children, the oldest in fifth grade. When she got home from their house Saturday night, she excitedly announced that number seven is on the way. The coolest thing about this constantly expanding brood is that they walk, or scoot, or cycle to school during the week and walk to church on Sundays. Whatever the Pacific Northwest weather. They’re quite a spectacle, all dressed up, scattered up and down the sidewalk. School is two miles round-trip, church almost four. Early elementary children walking four miles to and from church, someone call Social Services.

Probably without knowing it, our Mormon neighbors are onto something. Sarah Goodyear recently reported on the results of a 2012 Danish study that found that kids who cycled or walked to school, rather than traveling by car or public transportation, performed measurably better on tasks demanding concentration, such as solving puzzles, and that the effects lasted for up to four hours after they got to school.

The study was part of a Danish project that looked at the links between concentration, diet, and exercise. Researchers were surprised that the effect of exercise was greater than that of diet. According to one:

“The results showed that having breakfast and lunch has an impact, but not very much compared to having exercised. As a third-grade pupil, if you exercise and bike to school, your ability to concentrate increases to the equivalent of someone half a year further in their studies.”

Goodyear writes the process of getting yourself from point A to point B has cognitive effects that researchers do not yet fully understand.

Another research conclusion jives with my experience:

“We learn through our head and by moving. Something happens within the body when we move, and this allows us to be better equipped afterwards to work on the cognitive side.”

Here’s the problem though. Goodyear:

“Nationally, as of 2009, only 13 percent of kids in the United States walked or biked to school, down from 50 percent in 1969.”

Her related questions:

“But if more parents realized that packing the kids into the back seat actually affects their ability to learn, would they change their ways? Advocate for building schools in more walkable locations? Demand improved bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure? Or simply make the time and effort required to get to the kids to school under their own steam, accompanying them if need be?”

And the excellent concluding paragraph:

“Many parents pay for test prep and after-school enrichment programs to make their kids more academically competitive, and go to great lengths to schedule time for those activities. Imagine if they invested those resources instead in something as simple as helping their children to travel safely from home to school on foot or by bike, arriving ready to learn.”

Public policy questions always involve challenging trade-offs. This particular one seems like a rare exception. School transportation costs make it difficult for districts to commit adequate resources to teachers’ professional development, students with special needs, better curriculum materials, and building improvements. If schools districts started requiring students that live within a mile or two of their school to walk or cycle, the savings could be used for those other priorities, teachers would accomplish even more as a result of increased student concentration, students would be healthier (and their adult chaperones), roads would be less congested, and the environmental impact of school travel would be greatly reduced.

Win. Win. Win. Win. Win.

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Aaron Schwartz—What Made Me Different From the Other Kids

Via Ronaldo Lemos in Brazil.

When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. . . . Curiosity builds on itself — each new thing you learn about has all sorts of different parts and connections, which you then want to learn more about. Pretty soon you’re interested in more and more and more, until almost everything seems interesting. . . . I feel like the only thing I’ve really done is followed my curiosity wherever it led. This isn’t easy. . . but it’s always worked for me.

The 90% Preparation Principle

Forgive me for I have fibbed. At the end of the last post when I said I didn’t know how to build team chemistry. The post was plenty long and I needed to pull the plug.

One of the secrets to building team chemistry is the 90% prep principle. Any residential painter worth her weight will tell you painting is 90% prep. Come on, there’s some female house painters out there aren’t there? The 90% prep principle is why, when our crib needs painting, I write a check. Inadequate patience. But I digress.

The best elementary teachers apply the 90% prep principle at start of the school year. They figure, “Even if it takes around 10 days to build a sense of community and teach the rules and procedures, we’ll accomplish far more than we otherwise would over the remaining 170 days.” Visit a local elementary school at the beginning of the year and you’ll likely see some expert teachers calmly saying to their students, “Nope. Try again.” And then watch the students return to their seats and line up table-by-table for recess or lunch a second, third, and maybe fourth time. Equal parts firmness and kindness.

In the same spirit, the best leaders take time when their teams are first formed to build community and establish decision-making norms. Community building, of course, can take many forms, but the common thread is team members getting to know one another better. Horizontals embrace community building activities more than Verts. Very early on, agreed upon expectations and decision making processes are made explicit.

Savvy leaders know that maintaining team chemistry requires ongoing community building activities, whether shared meals, celebrations, or retreats. They also know decision-making norms need to be revisited on occasion. They know their team’s success depends upon members genuinely respecting one another.

Families, athletic teams, theater troupes, church councils, school faculty, government agencies, and multinational corporations that consciously build community and spell out decision-making norms enjoy greater espirit de corps, and experience far less in-fighting, complaining, and malaise. Consequently, they’re more productive.

There’s an alternative that lots of teams revert to, ignore community building and decision making norms and hope and pray the common work is engrossing enough that people get along just well enough, just long enough to finish the work. Like running on a balance beam on fire. Run fast enough and you might just get to the end without getting burned or falling off.

And now my friends I bring teamwork week to an end with some self-disclosure. I’m most often a Horizontal; however, not when travel planning with the GalPal. How can I put this so that she keeps taking trips with me? Her travel decision making process is a tad bit drawn out for even me. When having to decide on destinations, dates, modes of transpo, departure-arrival-return times, etc., I transform into a Vertical. When it comes to group decision-making, we’re all probably switch hitters of sorts.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

When Parents are Too Child-Centered

[Adapted from Shirley S. Wang in the Wall Street Journal]

Anthropologist Elinor Ochs and her colleagues at UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families have studied family life in Samoa and the Peruvian Amazon region, but for the last decade they have focused on the American middle class.

Ten years ago, the UCLA team recorded video for a week of nearly every moment at home in the lives of 32 Southern California families. The families owned their own homes and had two or three children, at least one of whom was between 7 and 12 years old. About a third of the families had at least one nonwhite member, and two were headed by same-sex couples. Each family was filmed by two cameras and watched all day by at least three observers. The researchers acknowledge their presence may have altered some of the families’ behavior.

Among the findings: The families had a very child-centered focus. Parents intend to develop their children’s independence, yet raise them to be relatively dependent, even when the kids have the skills to act on their own.

Ochs, who began her career in far-off regions of the world, noticed that American children seemed relatively helpless compared with those in other cultures she and colleagues observed. In Samoa children serve food to their elders, waiting patiently in front of them before they eat. In Peru’s Amazon region children climb tall trees to harvest papaya and help haul logs to stoke fires. By contrast, Los Angeles parents focused more on the children, using simplified talk with them, doing most of the housework and intervening quickly when the kids had trouble completing a task.

In 22 of 30 families, children frequently ignored or resisted appeals to help. In the remaining eight families, the children weren’t asked to do much. In some cases, the children routinely asked the parents to do tasks, like getting them silverware. ‘How am I supposed to cut my food?’ one girl asked her parents.

Asking children to do a task led to much negotiation, and when parents asked, it sounded often like they were asking a favor, not making a demand, researchers said. Parents interviewed about their behavior said it was often too much trouble to ask.

Another finding: When the fathers came home from work, 86% of the time at least one child didn’t pay attention to him. “The kids,” the researchers noted, “are oblivious to their parents’ perspectives.” The researchers theorize that stems from a tendency in U.S. society to adapt to and focus on the children, rather than teaching children to focus on others. Americans tend to encourage children to pay attention to objects more than faces, emphasizing colors and shapes, for instance, over people. In Samoa, children are expected to be attentive to others from a very young age, and parents stress focusing on what others need.

This is a Monday, so I understand if you’re wondering what this research has to do with schooling. In short, everything. Teachers are intimately familiar with the “learned helplessness” the researchers allude to and the “helicopter parents” who swoop in and try to fix their children’s problems for them. No wonder it’s so hard for teachers to get students to think first and foremost about what’s in the best interest of the classroom.

I believe middle (and upper-middle and upper) class America has long since passed a child-centered point of diminishing returns. What explains this profound, albeit relatively recent trend? I wonder if the answer lies in large part in the aforementioned sentence, “Parents interviewed about their behavior said it was often too much trouble to ask.” By which I wonder if they mean, “After working all day we’re too exhausted to teach our children how to set the table, how to make their beds, what to do with their dishes after meals, let alone to remind them of those responsibilities, and also how to pay attention to others’ feelings, and how to solve problems themselves.”

Too few parents realize that by investing time and energy on the front-end, through teaching their children how to help around the house, how to interact respectfully with others, and how to peacefully resolve conflicts, they save themselves major frustration and hardship on the back-end.

Plus, by investing lots of teaching time on the front-end, they increase the odds that their children will become thoughtful, appreciative young adults who know the world doesn’t revolve around them.

And when caring, respectful, selfless students outnumber entitled, dismissive, self-centered ones, teaching will become especially rewarding. And everyone will live happily ever after. Amen.

The Parent-Teacher Resolution

In many neighborhoods, the time of the year is fast approaching when parents completely freak over their children’s teacher assignments. Particularly Elementary Parent. At our local elementary school, parents, mostly moms, with cell phones ablaze, stampede toward the class lists taped to the front doors. It’s understandable because a good teacher can make a significant positive difference in one year just as a weak one can prove detrimental.

An educational truism—the quality of every teaching faculty at every school in todo el mundo is always uneven. Word that explicitly enough? Every faculty is a mix of really outstanding, good, and weak teachers. The best schools have more of the former and fewer of the later. And yes, I’m either experienced or arrogant (or both) enough to subdivide the teachers at your school after one site visit without (gasp) access to the students’ standardized test scores.

The inevitable unevenness creates a challenge for administrators who have to deal with parents who naturally want the very best teachers for their children. Consequently, they usually tell parents they can’t pick their children’s teachers. Those who get assigned their least favorite choice complain that the other parents manipulated the outcome by volunteering more, bribing or befriending the principal in some way, or both.

Before rushing the school door this year, take a deep breath and consider a couple of things. First, teachers’ reputations, typically based upon a flawed version of telephone tag, are often inaccurate. Consequently, the teacher who you’ve “heard” is a weak disciplinarian, may turn out to connect with your child in ways the “outstanding disciplinarian” never would have. Similarly, that rare male second grade teacher that everyone praises for being in total control may be so in control that students’ creativity is completely squelched. Often a disappointing assignment turns out more positively than expected.

Second, research suggests what we know intuitively, students are resilient. Case in point. I had lots of weak teachers and now I’m a famous blogger. Research indicates that students assigned to weak teachers two or three years in a row, not one, are at greater risk of falling behind their peers.

At this point Conscientious Parent is thinking, what the hell, I don’t care about the research. When it comes to my child’s future, why should I ever settle for a weak teacher? Because of the law of averages. When you roll the dice six times between Kindergarden and fifth grade, odds are you’re going to end up with teachers in all three categories.

At this point, I’d understand if you’re thinking, “Hey, you’re in teacher education. Why don’t you fix it so that every teacher is, like the Lake Wobegon children, above average.” Sadly, and long story short, I have concluded there are intractable problems in teacher education that are unlikely to be fixed in my lifetime.

While working to making the profession more desirable and to improve teacher education, parents should all make the following resolution: I am my child’s first most important teacher. Or in the case of a two-adult home: We are our child’s first most important teachers.

Set your cell phone down, slowly step back from the class list on the school door, and repeat: I am my child’s first most important teacher.

Too few parents fully grasp that. Simply put, they delegate too damn much.

This is what the homeschoolers don’t seem to understand. Students are in school 22% of the time they’re awake throughout the calendar year. You are in charge of the other 78%. Do teachers (and everyone in society) a favor and take the lead. To what degree do you partner with your children’s teachers? Do you make sure they get enough sleep, nutritious food, exercise? Do you limit their screen time? Do you know what they do on-line? Do you model a literate life? For instance, do you read or watch television more? Do you teach them fractions while baking in the kitchen, teach them about world geography while discussing current events at the dinner table, teach them how to apply math through word problems in the car? Are you a stable, committed, affectionate presence who models conflict resolution through peaceful problem solving?

Maybe that’s too many questions of too challenging a nature. Maybe your work is too tiring or you just have “too much on your plate”. Maybe you’d rather just keeping crossing your fingers that you win the teacher lottery.