Friday, October 08, 2010

good cop, bad cop?

"Mom, do all police do a bad job? Or do some police do a good job?" my son asked me this morning. "Why do some police do a bad job?"

It has been two weeks since I have taken my son with me to a police accountability rally in our hometown, and Jonah is still thinking about it. Inspired by his questions, we talked a bit about the possible reasons for why some officers may not follow protocol, and why some end up using excessive force.

At the protest, we listened to speeches given by community activists who have struggled to reform our city's police department. We heard from parents and young people affected by police brutality. The fathers of two young African-American men recently murdered by white cops were there too, although they did not speak. It was emphasized that communities of color and the homeless are disproportionately targeted by the police in our town.

Jonah asked to hold a sign and, for the first time while attending a rally with me, expressed interest in discussing the issues at hand.

My grandmother is of the opinion that five-year-olds are too young to attend protests. I disagree. I would rather expose my son to real issues and people taking action to change policy and practice for the better. Especially as someone growing up in this country in relative economic comfort and with white privilege, authentic experiences like these are crucial in his formation of a sense of community, ethics, justice and responsibility.

My son could be at home watching a Disney cartoon or playing with Legos on a Saturday morning (although we are actually a TV-free household), or he could be witnessing grassroots activism in his own community. I prefer the latter, when the opportunity for us to engage together is there.

Of course, that afternoon after returning home, Jonah whipped out his guns and played soldier in the backyard. Boys will be boys. But now he's at least learning about how serious and irreversible the damage guns cause is in real life.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Discipline the unconditional way... say what?

To be honest, I've never been very fond of the modern, widely endorsed parenting techniques of "time-out" and, on the flip side, of rewarding positive behavior with praise or symbolic treats (such as stickers...). The traditional authoritarian style of parenting has never agreed with me either. My sister and I, for one, weren't spanked or threatened into behaving well as children. But why exactly do these styles not feel right to me? I've contemplated it; it's because they strike me as coercive and controlling.

Of course, the parent must be an example and a guide, straddling the line between compassionate and firm, but is it not possible to raise our children with deep respect and empathy without manipulation?

One of my heroes in the field of education, Alfie Kohn, has written an excellent piece on unconditional parenting. What a concept.

In Parental Love with Strings Attached, which appeared in the New York Times last fall, he explains:

Conditional parenting isn’t limited to old-school authoritarians. Some people who wouldn’t dream of spanking choose instead to discipline their young children by forcibly isolating them, a tactic we prefer to call “time out.” Conversely, “positive reinforcement” teaches children that they’re loved – and lovable – only when they do whatever we decide is a “good job.”

This raises the intriguing possibility that the problem with praise isn’t that it is done the wrong way -- or handed out too easily, as social conservatives insist. Rather, it might be just another method of control, analogous to punishment. The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love.

As a parent of a talkative, energetic and willful boy, I am having to forge my own way that agrees with my philosophy on life and one that obviously complements my husband's.

I'll admit that disciplining my son has been quite the trial and error approach, often inconsistent, experimental in nature, and perhaps a bit loosey-goosey to outside observers. Sometimes I'm gentle and communicate clearly, other times I slip into patterns I'm not so pleased with. But I am definitely very hip to this idea of unconditional love, and so rather than imposing an iron fist, I prefer talking through problems with my son and being emotionally open and accessible. I want my son to gain a deep understanding of how his behavior affects other people. I want him to develop his own internal behavior compass based on empathy and real-world relationships.

Alfie Kohn cites scientific research showing that: "Children who received conditional approval were indeed somewhat more likely to act as the parent wanted. But... they tended to resent and dislike their parents... They were (also) apt to say that the way they acted was often due more to a 'strong internal pressure' than to 'a real sense of choice.' Moreover, their happiness after succeeding at something was usually short-lived and they often felt guilty or ashamed."

Additionally, grown-ups, who as children "sensed that they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations, ...felt less worthy as adults."

In short, as Kohn asserts, using love withdrawal as a parenting method "isn’t particularly effective at getting compliance, much less at promoting moral development."

So, what is Kohn's answer and how does it mesh with my own ideas of parenting with unconditional love?

Kohn's conclusion, based on scientific research from the field of psychology, is this:

"Unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by 'autonomy support': explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view."

The idea of "autonomy support" is quite in line with how I was raised and with how I am trying to parent Jonah. In reality, to love someone unconditionally is one of the most difficult human tasks. I sometimes forget and raise my voice, I'll be honest. But I'm giving it my best shot, always questioning my own motivations and recommitting myself daily to basing my interactions with my son on mutual respect, empathy, and joy. In my professional life as a teacher, as well, I have made it a goal to try for the same kind of approach with my students. Parenting and teaching with unconditional love. What a trip.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

away we went

My first time stealing away from Jonah was when he was three months old (around the time I went back to work). I spent the three sinful days (mom's guilt; I know other mothers can relate) with my sister and mom in Seattle, pumping breast milk like a dairy cow while--the devoted groupie that I am--admiring my sister in concert and revisiting with two of the women closest to my heart the places we lived and frequented once upon a time when Seattle was our first American hometown.

Now Tim and I have both had opportunities to take breaks from the incessant duties of parenthood for the occasional night or two (or a few), but as a couple, we haven't had many chances to get away together. In fact, last month was the first time we left town without the little guy for just one night. (Little guy is four-and-a-half by now already, mind you!) And just last week Tim and I spent several days alone together on a trip to New Mexico, thanks to Jonah's paternal grandparents, uncle and aunt, who took care of him in our absence. And what an amazing experience that trip was!

I have traveled around the US quite a bit, crossing the continent from one coast to the other seven times by land, and traveling North to South the slow way many times. I've spent time in (not just driven through) nearly half the states, but this was my first time in New Mexico. I am still digesting the impressions I took away from that place.

Aside from the magnificent and varied scenery and scrumptious food of New Mexico, which both floored me, I was most affected--disturbed and simultaneously moved--by the state's history. For me, visiting New Mexico was, for the first time entering flourishing Native America, and I tried my best to be a humble guest. New Mexico, unlike any other part of the US I have come to know, is a place where the dominant paradigm is not Anglo, but indigenous. The truth is that--and I don't care if this sounds crazy to some of you--many aspects of the Anglo world just don't sit well with me. So being in New Mexico--with its painful, yet inspiring history of Native American triumph despite the violence inflicted on the Pueblo Indians by the Euros and Anglo-Americans, I felt a sense of relief and reverence for the incredible strength that it took for the people of New Mexico to assert their ways and persevere.

I was so moved by this that while taking in local history in museums, books and in remote places as well as cities, I was often unable to hold back my tears. I am always very careful not to romanticize events or groups of people, but I do have to acknowledge my admiration here. The whole trip, I felt so deeply for the people and the land. I was especially moved when reading about the Pueblo Indian revolt of 1680 against the Spaniards, which, in the words of author and historian Joe S. Sando, a Pueblo Indian, "made it possible for the Pueblo people of today to remain on their traditional lands, thus preserving their farmlands, their culture, and their way of life."

During the trip, I took note of how differently history is told depending on who tells it and who funds the effort. Yes, it's true; my heart tends to root for the underdog. But I am not naive. I also understand that the assault on the local people's way of life is far from over. It continues, one of the ways being the dumping of nuclear waste on the native people's land. So, the fight is still on.

I am so grateful Tim and I had this opportunity to travel and learn in the process. Lucky us, indeed. Jonah did great without us from what we heard. And I hope that some day we will have the chance to return to New Mexico. It really is a special place.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Diversity at my son's school: are they for real?

A couple of years back, when I was still a columnist for Anti-Racist Parent--now renamed Love Isn't Enough--I wrote a piece in which I surveyed my son's library to examine gender stereotypes and the representation of people of color in his books. I took a trip down memory lane this week, and conducted a similar experiment at his school during my short stint as a volunteer at a Scholastic Book Fair/Fundraiser. Fascinating.

Of course, the school AND the company Scholastic both like to pay a lot of lip service to "diversity." Who doesn't these days.

The first article by Scholastic on "diversity" that popped up in my search says:

Even 3 and 4 year olds are tuned in to matters of culture and ethnicity. For them, the issues are not social but personal, and are closely related to their self-esteem. . . If your child's preschool validates cultural diversity, you'll know it just by looking around. Are a variety of faces represented on the walls?

That article was published in 1996. So, how is Scholastic doing now as far as honoring diversity with the reading materials it sells in the communities who choose Scholastic book fairs as venues for fundraising?

First, let's look at my son's school community. I know that each classroom, during enrollment, tries to balance equally the gender represented in the student body. Racially, in my completely unscientific estimation, the population of the school is about eighty percent white, reflecting--and possibly proportion-wise surpassing--the racial make-up of Portland, the whitest US city with a population of over half-million. (Portland is about 78% white, while the state of Oregon is 87% white. Just to throw in a bit of trivia, the Czech Republic, where I grew up, is about 97% white). Religious affiliations are impossible to determine, though I know for sure that at least three major religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism) are represented. A myriad of ethnicities are represented, however, the only ones I can determine, other than those overrepresented in the region (e.g. Anglo-American and Scandinavian-American), are ones based on the languages I've heard at the school. I have heard Vietnamese, Chinese, French and Spanish. The languages spoken, of course, don't necessarily give me information on specific ethnicities (for instance, a French speaker could be Canadian, Hatian, or French among many other possibilities) but at least we can establish that a percentage of children at my son's school are growing up bi- or multi-lingual.

Let me just say, that to some, this may seem like an odd exercise in face value symbology. But we would be kidding ourselves if we asserted that we live in a colorblind society and that our ideas about people are not influenced by the racial, gender, and many other types of stereotypes which we encounter just about everywhere--in the media, in books, in advertising and entertainment, in our families, etc.

So, I was curious to see what a giant such as Scholastic was doing to educate our children, and if their book selection for the young was reinforcing or helping to shatter two categories of stereotypes in particular: gender pigeonholes and stereotypes about people of color still so prevalent in this society.

As far as gender, I counted how many book covers featured girls and women, paying attention to the numbers of "visible minorities" (yes, indeed a subjective definition), and to what the girls were pictured doing. Were they shown in midst of interesting and varied activities or just standing there looking pretty (and pretty "useless")?

As far as race, I took note of the number of books showing people of color, and again in what context they appeared.

In this survey, I only focused on book covers due to a time constraint, and because it is the cover that usually determines whether parents and children choose the book to pick up, flip through, and possibly purchase.

So, what was the Scholastic preschool/early elementary-level book selection like? Here are my findings:

Of the nearly 300 books displayed, 75 portrayed people only, and 21 showed people and animals together. The rest of the book covers showed either only animals, a scene, a building, or nondescript characters such as aliens. So, about one-third of the books for sale featured people on the front covers.

Of the approximately 100 covers with people on them, 20 featured "visible minorities." Of those books, 11 displayed girls or women on the front, interestingly almost always with one or more males. Four books showed people of color interacting with animals, six showed people of color alone (though I'm being generous here, because one cover was of a must-look-very-closely-to-ascertain African-American boy's arm carrying a suitcase--and I still counted it). Finally, ten, or about half, showed "visible minorities" together with whites.

Three of the twenty books with people of color had Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders on the cover. Yes, that's three out of 100 when my son's school has quite a few students of Asian heritage, and when the Portland population is more than twice that, percentage-wise. Needless to say, I was disappointed to see such underrepresentation.

Only one of the books had a Latina on the cover (Dora, the Explorer). That's right; only one out of a hundred books showed a Latina, while Latinos, according to the US Census Bureau, represent fifteen percent of the US population, and in the greater Portland Metro area, depending on the location, 7 to 50% of the total local population.

Sixteen of the twenty book covers featuring people of color showed African-Americans.

Eight of the books with "visible minorities" on the front focused on athletes, all African-Americans, and all but one of the many athletes shown on the book cover "collages" were male sports figures. Additionally, two book covers showed Barack Obama--one where he was alone and smiling, and the other where he was smiling, surrounded by his smiling family. Are you smiling yet?

So, let's talk more about what we see people of color doing on the book covers. The Asian girls are just standing there, one looking startled (whoa, she's not smiling!), the other... drum roll... smiling pretty. The one pair of Asian parents we are shown is smiling, climbing up and hugging a giant dinosaur. And Dora? She's at the doctor's office, sitting on the examination table with a stethoscope in her ears. Dora--pictured with a doctor who is a white woman--is, you may gasp now... smiling. And the African-American characters and personalities? Some are engrossed in sports games, others happily posing in sports jerseys. Other than sports figures, there is one black girl sitting on a bench with a book in her lap. However, she is not reading, but talking to a friend instead. And there is one black kid taking eggs out of an Easter basket. And there is that boy carrying a suitcase--his arm only, rather--because the rest of his body is on the back cover. But the remaining people of color are just standing there or jumping up into the air smiling, looking pretty. Even a photograph of Ruby Bridges on the book cover of her autobiographical story for children about being the first African-American to attend an all-white school in New Orleans, is pictured just standing there, smiling. A beautiful photo, nonetheless, but she is seen without books, pencils or anything hinting at the theme of the book. Inside, the book does have powerful photographs of the protests surrounding desegregation and of Ruby at school with her teacher and friends, but on the cover, her image is stripped of the historical context, so central to the story.

It is interesting to note that of all the people, the athletes (and a couple of kids who look scared of ghosts or who knows what) are the only ones whose facial expressions show intensity, this while focusing on a sports game. Otherwise, all the rest of the people, and especially those of color are seen smiling and looking "non-threatening." Showing people (and animals with human-like features) in their happy-go-lucky best is a definite trend with books for this age group in general.

Of the nearly 100 books featuring people, 39 included girls on the cover (Remember, most accompanied by boys or men). Ten of them were girls or women of color. About half the book covers with females showed girls as active and engaged in an activity, including painting, cooking, playing with dolls, performing theater, riding a horse or building a snowman. The other half of girls were pictured mostly posing with smiles on their faces. A much smaller percentage of "active" females was shown on the covers featuring women of color.

As far as the catalogue for the book fair, designed by Scholastic, of the fifty books featured, only ONE book cover displays a person of color, an African-American girl hugging a dog she rescued.

So, in conclusion. Are we seeing Scholastic breaking with or reinforcing gender and racial stereotypes? I must share that I am disappointed that, though a large percentage of books featured females on their covers, many of the girls, especially the girls of color, were shown not engaged in ANY interesting or meaningful activities. Instead, they were posing on the book cover, looking cute. Most of the girls shown as active were doing typically "girly" things such as art, playing with dolls, dancing or cooking. I didn't see any girls (ok, except for the one building a snowman) engaged in scientific pursuits or activities stereotypically assigned to boys, such as building, using machines or doing sports (other than one female basketball player and a horse rider).

I was also unhappy about the relatively low numbers of books featuring people of color, and even deeper than that, that the range of activities in which "visible minorities" were shown engaging was by far much narrower than that of their white counterparts. I mean, half of all the African-American "faces" belonged to athletes. What about the scholars, the scientists, the artists, the writers, the teachers... You get the drift.

Should I send my "analysis" to Scholastic? I think I'll do that... and report back.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

welcome, Devil, our friend

Oh yeah! This little family is really moving up in the world of household technology... and yes, namely cleanliness. We have finally, after fourteen years of living in filth, purchased a brand new (not an ancient, battery-powered-hand-me-down or a found-in-the-back-alley kind of) vacuum. All these years, the broom and rag have been our not-so-constant companions, but cry for us no more. We now have a new gadget with a capital G: a flaming red Dirt Devil! And what a powerful friend it is!

When daddy caveman brought the thing home to be assembled, caveboy jumped and screeched with excitement. The two of them spent a good half-hour matching holes to hoses and nicknaming parts with labels as clever as "The Wind Sword." When the apparatus was functional at last, the family converged in the middle of the living room in awe. The switch was flipped, and the magic began. We watched the Devil, pushed by Alphaman, do his dirty work for us. This neanderthal family hadn't seen anything as mind- or dirt-blowing in its own musty cave ever.

The cave family has added a new song and dance to its repertoire: Hip hip hooray for the Devil that takes the dirt away!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

taking the leap

And now a drum roll please. Yes, you are witnessing this blogger about to take a big leap into the unknown. Ready or not...

A bit of background first. Bear with me. Fifteen years ago I embarked on a teaching career. My trajectory has been varied and far from linear. I have taught in so many capacities: from volunteer facilitator to program coordinator, and in settings ranging from preschool to adult education, from non-profits and alternative schools to the private sector. I've taught English (business writing, workplace conversation, literature, and more), Speech and Rhetoric, Cross-Cultural Communication, Czech, Drama, Journalism, Creative Writing, Pre-Employment Skills for adults transitioning into clerical, customer service and health care careers, and more. The bulk—though not all—of my work has been with teen and adult newcomers. You know, my people in the broad sense of the word: African, Central American, Middle Eastern, Asian, European—all first- or second-generation immigrants like I am in this country.

After all these years I still feel the passion. I was born for this profession. The electricity in the classroom as ideas are pondered, discussed, as new ones emerge, as discoveries and connections happen still excites me. When the moment is right in the classroom, I feel that creative flow artists talk about—the thrill of listening, enlisting thoughts and comments, responding, directing, dialoguing...

My favorite parts of teaching are the interactions with large groups of students and the planning phase that's all about brainstorming and coming up with the big ideas, preferably in partnership with other colleagues, as opposed to in isolation. Ask me to list essential questions--the deep, overarching questions tackled when studying a particular topic--and I'll give you a thousand. Ask me to help you brainstorm for an event or workshop, and I'll be there, on fire. Ask me to research an issue that I feel strongly about in depth, and I'm all over it. Ask me to spearhead a new project I can get behind, and I'll do it in a heartbeat.

On the flip side, don't ask me to sustain or maintain projects long-term unless new ideas and reinventions are integral to the process. I get bored and drained with the same old. I'm all about the enthusiasm and energy for the new. Don't ask me to do repetitive tasks, especially office work or anything related to tracking the budget! You get the drift. The parts of teaching that I dread are basically all the paperwork: grading, writing up lesson plans, making handouts, seeking out detailed examples and quotes for lessons, breaking down big projects into small, individual skills to be taught. I also dread returning to the same room every day, seeing the same walls, same desks, same garbage cans... That's why I'm all about teamwork. Collaboration not only keeps me inspired and energized; it allows each person the opportunity to excel at what she loves to do. Unfortunately, almost all the teaching jobs I've had have been very isolating for a team-oriented person like me.

Now you, if you are anything like my inner critic, may say: oh, you like the easy-peasy parts of teaching, the parts that are all about the initial boom and the big show, the components poised to collect the accolades if the show is good enough to be eye candy for the onlookers. The inner berating voice goes on: Don't be ridiculous. Every profession requires unpleasant, mundane tasks; one cannot always do just one's preferred things. But my question these days is: why not? Why not focus on designing my work life with an emphasis on my qualities and inclinations? I can handle some amount of "chores", of course--I'm an adult, but the amount of tasks I love to do needs to far outweigh the ones I consider mundane, so I can thrive. I've been steeped in education long enough to understand my strengths and for me to be able to let my talents shine fully, I need work that demands from me what I do best.

In a nutshell, I am an idea person, a global thinker, an initiator and brainstormer extraordinaire who likes variety and work encompassing a broad scope. I'm a person who loves to launch new projects, and who is most at home leading and interacting organically in a large group setting, and who likes to collaborate in the project planning phase. I think I'm good at listening to and inspiring people. I care deeply about social justice issues and I try to channel that into all my work. And again, I like to team up with others with varied strengths so that everyone has a chance to shine and feel fulfilled.

The main deal is that other than being a dedicated educator, I have also led other lives while allotting the biggest chunk of my energy for teaching. I am passionate about writing and about organizing events that help bring individuals together, revitalize communities, inspire people creatively, and have the potential to affect social change. I have a deep, buried love of the theater, and now a newly found passion for photography.

At this time, I am finding myself at a crossroads and I have decided to take the leap. I am moving away from my tendency to derive security from being someone's employee (though deliberately nearly always with plenty of freedom to teach how and what I want), to steering my own creative life. I have many creative projects in mind (a couple already in the works), one very large one in particular for which I am gearing up as I finish out the school year at the place where I teach. Once the year is done, I am committing to paving my own way as an artist, dedicating myself predominantly to the other passions I've been putting on the back burner for years: writing, directing, and working with visual images. Teaching--or rather facilitating workshops--will still be a part of my life, but in ways that excite instead of drain me. I'll keep you posted on the latest developments, but for now, I'm only sharing this much, because the projects I am initiating are still in-utero and need the sacred time of gestation first. Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

a trip seven years ago

I can't believe it's been seven years since Tim and I traveled to Thailand together. What an incredible experience. Short, but unforgettable. We focused on the north of the country, as per the recommendation of a good friend who has lived in Thailand for many years. On our trip we spent time in wonderful and dynamic Bangkok, which, contrary to the warnings we'd received from our friends, we loved.

Our favorite place was the magical historical city of Sukhothai, filled with temples, lush greenery, lakes and statues of the Buddha from the 13th century. We explored Sukhothai just after sunrise both days, before the hordes of tourists arrived. I don't know if there is another place in the world where I felt so much special, sacred energy. The images of Buddha made of stone were breathtaking, the architecture stunning, yet intimate.

Continuing to the north, unlike most tourists who tend to travel to the beaches in the south, we went to the small, quaint town of Pai and the northern city of Chiang Mai, a great cultural and historical center. Last was the mountain town of Mae Hong Son where much of the architecture is Burmese in style.

Along the way, like typical tourists, we supported the local economies by eating street food and getting lots of traditional massages. Oh yes! We even took an all-day cooking class, which was a blast. We rented bikes and rode around the countryside. We slept in tiny hotels on ancient, narrow lanes and in bungalows--many rustic, some new, yet simple. We even got to meet up with a friend from the U.S. and her Thai boyfriend. Fun times.

When backpacking around the country, we ran into so many Czechs, it was uncanny. Thailand must be the top destination outside Europe for the Czechs. There were Czechs even leaping out of the bushes at the hot springs in the middle of the woods, for goodness sakes.

Ah yes, the memories.

Here are some photos I took on our trip:

More photos here

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

on raising a boy

No crying, don't be too emotional, carry heavy things, talk in a deep voice, stand up for yourself, fix cars, like cars, work outside, pay for girls, be a gentleman, drop out of school, fight, show off, work out, respect the ladies, open the door for them, work to support the family, keep the family in line, don't act "gay", be strong, play sports, look good, be thin, be buff, be tough, be lazy, keep the girl satisfied, be protective.

These are some of the messages my teenage students listed about what we are often told makes a "real man."

As a mother of a boy, I have been trying to be very conscious of not reinforcing many of these often harmful societal expectations for boys.

One of the foremost experts on raising well-balanced boys is Dr. William Pollack, who burst into fame after being interviewed on Oprah back in the 90s. I happened to see that show and bought his book, Real Boys, when it first came out. The book has influenced me in a profound way. In it, Pollack, a psychiatrist who spent two decades studying and interviewing boys, discusses the concept of the "Boy Code," the widely accepted ideas that boys must be stoic, independent, tough and brave.

Here is how Pollack defines the three common societal myths about boys, or the Boy Code:

• BOYS WILL BE BOYS-We're taught that boys' testosterone levels make them "naturally" more aggressive, when in truth a boy's behavior is shaped more by his loved ones than by nature.

• BOYS SHOULD BE BOYS-Society expects boys to hide "weak" emotions like fear, hurt or shame behind a stoic mask, and only anger is an acceptable emotion. In fact, there are many diverse and healthy ways to express oneself as a male.

• BOYS ARE TOXIC-We believe that unless they are kept under strict controls, boys are dangerous to society; actually, boys are empathetic and caring with a strong desire for justice.

These pressures can ultimately lead boys to become disconnected, low-performing academically, depressed, violent and even suicidal.

How do we, as a society, and in particular as parents perpetuate these ideas? Pollack writes:

The boy code is communicated through such phrases as "Stand on your own two feet," "Be a little man," "Don't be a mamma's boy," "Big boys don't cry." Such messages begin around the ages of four and five and are reinforced in adolescence. Because we diminish the expression of boys' genuine emotional voices, too many boys believe they are failing to achieve what has become a truly impossible test of masculinity. Since the expression of their natural love and empathy violate such a restrictive code of masculinity and, indeed, are considered feminine, boys are prodded into a homophobic stance, with softness considered acting "gay," their worst fear; and angry emotions accompanied by "bullying" actions may be their only means to express their feelings and still protect their fragile sense of remaining a "real boy."

In our research, we found myths about boys, created and reinforced by the boy code, that become self-fulfilling prophecies:

• Violence is biologically inevitable for boys.
• Boys are less empathic than girls.
• The expression of caring and love by young males is "unnatural" or "feminine."

Pollack says that mothers especially tend to fight their innate desire to nurture their sons, and to push away their little boys by the age of five or six.

Tim and I are doing everything in our power to break the cycle of these destructive pressures on boys, at least in our own little sphere. We are affectionate and open with Jonah, we encourage him to express his emotions and to be affectionate back. We work hard on counteracting the homophobia, sexism and machismo found in the dominant U.S. (and Czech) culture. For instance, we don't discourage Jonah from being affectionate with his guy friends and I talk with him about same sex relationships as I do about heterosexual relationships.

Another thing Tim and I try to do is not talk about weight or appearance issues we may be burning to discuss together. I don't want my son to grow up listening to his parents' body image issues d'jour, so those don't get passed on, however petty they may seem to us at the time. I will admit we don't always do a good job NOT voicing our own internal body image obsessions in front of our son, but we are trying remember to cut the doubts out internally and in conversations.

Yes, Jonah is obsessed with guns, robots, the police, construction and everything space war and space exploration related, but we let him indulge while steering him also towards other activities--physical, educational and creative. Neither Tim or I feel that it's unhealthy. Imaginary play--even if it has to do with fighting and aggression--can be a healthy outlet for pent-up energy and exploring identity and relationships, as long as no one is hurt and we build compassion and empathy in him (or more so support its natural development), to counteract the destructive presence of violence in our culture.

So far, I'd like to say that our deliberateness on counteracting the Boy Code is working, but Jonah is still young and the messages of what it supposedly means to be a man are everywhere.

Pollack writes that though boys often naturally tend to want to play in a more rough-and-tumble way than girls, "the way we nurture our boys is an equal, perhaps more powerful predictor of behavior than most biologically based tendencies."

Here are the suggestions on strategies Pollack offers to parents and educators on raising boys with healthy self-esteem. I use the "timed silence" and "shame-free zone" concepts in my approach to communicating with my male students quite a bit:

Active learning. A majority of boys learn and connect better through action or activity. At school, that means boys need more freedom to move around in the classroom (especially in the early years), more recesses, no punishments that take away recess or physical activity, "gadgets" boys can manipulate while they attempt to listen, and the incorporation of videobased and computer learning, even during traditional instruction.

Literacy. The typical boy will learn to read and write approximately 12 months later than the typical girl. Many boys prefer nonfiction stories involving action (violence not required). Reading and writing materials that cater to boys' learning curve and tastes will help boys get excited by and stay engaged in learning.

Communicating with your boy
If your boy isn't very comfortable talking with you about his day or his feelings, use our practical research model of Action Talk:

• Timed silence. First, although we always helped boys to express a wide range of feelings, we recognized that the "boy code" often made it hard for them to express their painful emotions in words and overcome their hidden feelings of shame. Thus, we allowed for "timed silence," not pressuring them before they were ready and giving them some time to connect.

• Shame-free and safety zones. We created safety or shame-free zones with adults where boys knew they were safe from teasing, shaming, blaming, and lectures. We also monitored our own attitudes and prejudices.

• Communicate by doing. Since action was still their preference, we did not force words upon the boys. First, we engaged in an activity of their choosing, such as a game, a walk, or a car ride. Only then did we make a very brief statement, and waited patiently for their unique responses, resisting the temptation to lecture.

• Share experiences. In an attempt to diminish boys' loneliness and disconnection, we shared a few of our own experiences of boy-code pain. When such sharing comes from a father or father figure, a boy learns in the deepest sense that real men have pain and can share it. When a mother or maternal figure shares an experience, a boy learns that women respect boys and men who can be openly vulnerable. Importantly, she also communicates that for all our apparent gender differences, we really do come from ONE planet.

• Express love. We sometimes hesitate to tell boys and young men not only how much we admire their hard work, but also how much we really do love them. As they grow older, boys hear that word from the caring adults in their lives 10 times less than the girls we cherish. Ignore the friends and relatives with tough-love advice, or the principal who doesn't understand that boys need emotional support at school, or even your son's own fears about turning into a "sissy." You really can't express your genuine feelings of love for your son too much.

Like I said, I'm sure Jonah is getting messages about culturally accepted forms of masculinity already from cartoons, observations of people's interactions with each other, and other sources. But by not having a TV and by making room for emotions and encouraging affection and good, open communication skills (which incorporate Pollack's suggestions of allowing for silence and communicating by doing), I'm hoping we're building a strong, positive foundation here.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

I once had a girl...

I still have the battle scars as proof you existed. And three photos. The size of your palm imprinted in mine, the feel of your ashes in my hand—ivory and turquoise—falling in to the gurgling river rushing on.

It's been two years and it is still hard to find the words, even the opportunities to speak about it all. I try to shape my sorrow and my memories of her into poems or photographs, but succumb easily to silence.

With the impending anniversaries of Amalia's birth and death--which fall within eight days of each other--I've been growing increasingly anxious, fearful and distracted. It's almost midnight and we are now on the precipice of our little girl's birthday, February 1.

What am I dreading so much? Is it the fear of fear itself? Is it the flood of emotion that hasn't had a chance to fully express itself, though I have given my grief a voice plenty of times? Is it that I'm afraid of further loss because I don't trust that the people I hold dear will want to hear me out and stick with me because I'll strike them as too needy, too unstable, too much of a "downer"?

As soon as she was born, the paramedics whisked my daughter off to intensive care. And the nightmares started. I didn't think I would survive those first days, those first weeks. I thought I would never be able to sleep again or to carry on living. I was conscious of my breathing, always hearing her raspy gasps like grasps at oxygen in my own breathing, internalizing her struggle to stay alive.

Jonah was my sole motivation to stay committed to this life, although I was very mindful of never placing my burden on him. I wanted to be truthful with him about what is happening in my world, but to shield him from my own misery, which required me to remove myself emotionally from the situation while simultaneously living inside the heart wrenching reality that it was--an impossible task. Granted, he was only two-and-a-half, but perceptive and curious nonetheless. We did our best.

Over the last two years I've worked so much on creating inner peace, and that is why I'm stunned at how much is resurfacing for me two years later.

The only time when thinking about Amalia stands apart from the trauma and hurt I so closely associate with her short life, is when I talk with Jonah about her. When he asks about her, I speak of her with neutrality that helps smooth over the turbulence and, to be completely honest, at times even the dread that thoughts of her trigger like a Pavlovian response.

When I tell Jonah about his sister, I am able--if just for a brief moment--to remain upbeat and tender and glad to remember. That is because I want Jonah to have his own stories, his own associations with his sister, free of my own painful memories. Sometimes, too, when Tim and I speak about her, the good begins to outweigh the bad.

She was and still is such a mysterious presence in our lives. It will take us years to unravel all there is to feel, learn and understand about what Amalia's presence meant and still means.

I once had a girl...
And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown
- The Beatles

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A blast from the past: J-boy watches Obama's Inauguration

Yesterday was the first anniversary of Obama's inauguration. I just reviewed the post from last year I made about that. Fascinating how much Jonah's attention was on the presence of weapons in the ceremony--something I wouldn't have registered as intensely. Very telling.

Here is the link.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

happily ever after...

My minison and his minifriends seem to have a lot of discussions about marriage these days. Last weekend Jonah asked me if the cemetery was where his dad and I got married, and then proceeded to tell me that "militaries" is where people get married.

A big topic in preschool also seems to be the idea of who can marry whom. Jonah has broached this subject with me several times lately. At five, his best friend Jacob (not his real name) is already taking a stand, sounding like a staunch supporter of the doctrine that allows only couples of the opposite sex to marry. And now I have my son parroting his friend's worldview back at me, looking for a reaction. So I take a breath, embracing this as another teaching moment.

I remember when those bumper stickers, "marriage = one woman, one man," cropped up all over our city. Those were the days when a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach was almost a constant while driving behind preachy people's rear ends. And boy, were there a lot of those around. That was pre-election time in 2004. Massive conservative movement campaigns were sweeping across our state, incensing voters to show up to elections to make their voices heard on a measure designed to amend the state Constitution to define marriage as a union of one man and one woman. That was also the year Bush was up for re-election. This was before Jonah's time, but the events and the bitter aftertaste of those ideological battles are still with me. After all, these battles continue today around the country and beyond.

On election night, Tim and I attended a party dedicated to the occasion. The entire house, full of about forty people, was discussing and following the federal and state poll results in real time. The mood turned quickly from upbeat and energetic to shocked and disillusioned when the results for both the Presidential election and the state ballot measure decisions came in. To our chagrin, the constitutional marriage amendment passed. I left the party disgusted and agitated.

"You know," I say to Jonah. "I have several friends--men who are married to men and women who are married to women. They love each other, live together and some raise children together."

He pauses briefly without losing a beat, "I like Jacob too much."

To that I reply, that's nice that you like him so much. And then it is time to say goodnight.

Friendship and love. The big questions d'jour for miniman. One thing is for sure. When it comes to my son, whether he falls in love with boys or girls when he is older, he will have his parents' total support and acceptance.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

the man with the silver crown

As the rain drenches our windshield while we wait, and the gas pump dial spins at breakneck speed, my son asks me from his car seat where we are. I say we're tanking up on MLK Boulevard, and since we're on the topic, I decide to delve in. Now that he's four, it's a good time to start talking about Dr. King: "Do you know who Martin Luther King Jr. was?"

I wonder how well Jonah will grasp the ideas behind the man's life and legacy. I try to break the concepts down to his level without sounding like a ridiculous, washed-out elementary school textbook that glosses over what really happened and mattered during Dr. King's life and still matters today.

As I navigate the traffic on MLK, which is what we call the street here, I use simple words to try to convey the essence of the civil rights movement and Dr. King's anti-war activism. It's much more of a challenge than I had anticipated to illuminate the abstract concepts at play here to a four-year-old literal thinker: in/justice, in/equity, oppression, racism, violence, law, rights, imperialism, resistance, courage, community organizing... So I start with talking about the man as someone special and brave who was a leader and who worked with people to challenge unfair things and to help people live better. Next I plan to get more detailed and to engage my son in greater depth.

Just at a point when I think Jonah is following along, he asks, "Did he wear a crown? A silver crown?" Well, he wasn't a king though that was his name, I answer.

Judging from our interaction, it's clear that the idea of challenging oppression is a little too abstract for my son, so I talk about King's anti-war activism. Fighting, getting hurt, shooting, enemies... Jonah grasps those concepts pretty well. So I discuss why Dr. King was opposed to war and we linger on that topic for a while. Jonah is curious about why anyone would wage war. I am pleased, thinking, glad you asked. At freeway speed, I am so engrossed in the conversation that I miss our turn, forcing us to loop around the whole city.

Jonah asks me if MLK is dead. I say that he is. Jonah asks how Dr. King died. I explain that he was shot, and in simple words why this most likely happened, because my son wants to know.

Finally, I tell Jonah he was named after Martin Luther King Jr., his middle name being Rey, king in Spanish. I tell him why we, his white, not overly politically active parents decided to name our son after Rev. King. I say, in simpler words, that it's because we wanted to honor a person whose work moves us deeply; that we wanted to send a ray of his courage, dedication and vision forward, into the future with the young generation; that we wanted our son to do important work for a more just world, as we--and dare I say more intensely than we--strive to do in our small, humble ways.

So, fittingly, I follow up with what he thinks he will do in the world when he is older, to which, after all this talk about ideals and societal change in pre-schooler jargon, he replies: "I'm going to drive a police... (While he pauses... I think, oh no, not the police, clenching my teeth, hoping he doesn't finish his sentence with the words "patty wagon" or some such wackiness that would make me keel over while driving sixty miles an hour)... tow truck."

A police tow truck. Well, there you have it, my friends. To be continued.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Czeching it

You knew the pun would come one day. Yes, my son and I are "Czeching it" these days. Sort of like roughing it, winging it while trying to preserve the mother tongue by any means possible.

The exciting news is that my dream has come true and a Czech preschool opened a couple of months ago in our American city. It's a brand new day. After a few months of Czechlesness, my son is back into language immersion again--once a week, but still. Since I have no kin here and very few Czech friends, the school is a godsend.

Last Monday was Jonah's first day there. He was beside himself, refusing to go home after a full school day. The next morning he begged to return. He even burst into spontaneous song in Czech. Most importantly, he is not mad at me anymore when I speak Czech to him. Tonight he even asked me to read to him only in Czech AND he understands almost everything I say (if I keep it simple enough)! His teacher even said to me she's pretty sure Jonah understands everything she says. The biggest task for me is just to remember to speak it to him daily. And as sentimental as it may sound, it's a good feeling to be keeping our heritage alive, passing it on to at least one more generation.

on the good days

On the good days, I remember the students do give back. They challenge me to the brink of madness, but they teach me this: patience, generosity, loving firmness.

Today was one of those days.

When I started this job, I vowed to myself to remain who I am: a fun-loving, playful, curious, questioning, intensely emotional person. And because I can get so silly and dramatic, I worried my students wouldn't take me seriously. You know the old cliche advising teachers to not smile before Christmas to instill respect in students? Well, even if I tried--and believe me I have in other teaching situations--I'm not someone who could pull that off.

I am not a big person with an air of authority, so I have to figure out different, creative ways to get my students on track and to create order in the classroom.

This year I'm focusing on building relationships and remaining positive and centered even on the bad days when students give me hell, ignore my instruction, refuse to work.

But things are getting better. In general, my students and I do have good rapport. Most of them are at least intrigued by the work we do together and I do think that a lot of them find meaning in it.

For instance, my English class students are now writing short stories on the topic of injustice. Good stuff.

I just wish there wasn't so much tedious work involved: grading, grading up the wazoo.

But on days like these, the good days, I try to remind myself why I do this work and how much it does make me grow as a person.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

teacher talk

Tereza, the teacher here. Popping in to record that on the menu, unexpectedly today, is something of a professional crisis. Fun times. I should be working on curriculum (at home, as per usual), getting ready for a staff meeting and a full week of teaching next week, plus all that other good stuff that goes with my job, but things are surfacing that I have to pause for, to mull over.

I love my job. I adore the kids. I think about them constantly, pore over books, trying to figure out how to best work with my students to inspire them, increase their skills, to work around the barriers the kids I call the "conscientious objectors to forced schooling" have set up (educator Herbert Kohl writes insightfully about students who decide to actively not-learn). I look for ways to get my students to take charge of and pride in their learning.

I think I succeed sometimes; I can see it in those moments when students are eager to share their writing and ideas, begging me for feedback, curious about what we're doing next, busy working in groups, not noticing that lunch break is upon us...

As any teacher, I work about twice the hours I get paid for. That is normal. To be expected with this line of work. But I'm finding that I tear myself apart internally for feeling more and more resistant to working outside of school hours. I get sick of the tedious tasks I'm expected to do for show, e.g. write down lesson plans teeming with teacherese when I'm already up to my neck with grading and planning. I admonish myself for being bored, lazy, irresponsible, for just wanting to reap the fruits without the labor. But it is beacause spending my time on the mundane tasks (other than choosing materials and responding to student work--I say that because I have an issue with grading) steers me away from the overarching goals that are at the heart of teaching for me. The kind of teaching I believe in is all about establishing relationships and weaning students off their reliance on authority, encouraging critical thinking and courage to stand up against injustice. Also, finding or reigniting internal flames: curiosity, drive, pride in accomplishment... All that deep stuff that can't necessarily be enumerated. And yes, I need to give my students basic skills, of course!

As far as working with youth, the job I have now is as perfect as they come. A small school with an amazing group of staff, freedom to structure my own curriculum... But there are still tasks I'm expected to complete that don't feel integral to what goes on in the classroom. And I am beginning to really resent this.

Perhaps part of why I am having these feelings is that teaching is one of my great, life-long passions, but it's not what I want to consume my life. I am also passionate about writing and photography and I want to fit all those into my life.

So, how do I do all that AND parent at the same time? I don't know. Over winter break I had a hard time getting motivated to do the tedious teacher things. I started to lose connection with why I love teaching. But as soon as I walked in the school in the new year with the students coming up to me and greeting me, it all came back. I was back in my element, so grateful for the opportunity to work doing what I do.

How to keep going without feeling warn-out by the mundane, how to stay inspired and full of energy for teaching and my other creative pursuits? I don't have any answers yet, but I'll keep looking.

[photo credit Walter Sanders"]

Friday, January 01, 2010

the year in review

2010 busted in the door, but, though I'm mapping out some goals for the new year, my mind is still stuck in 2009. What a year jam-packed with adventure it was for us! The second international move within a span of twelve months and all the adjustments that go along with that--new job, new place to live, new school for Jonah... Also travel, lots of travel. Six countries, five U.S. states, and at least 16 cities and numerous other historical sights that we visited in 2009. How lucky for us! Here are some in pictures I took on our trips:

The hip and historic city of Berlin, which I visited with my 80-year-old grandmother:

London where we met up with Jonah's paternal grandparents and a good old friend from college:

The ancient and still pulsing city of Athens which my little family spent four days exploring:

The breathtakingly rustic and romantic, cousin-of-Venice Corfu Town on the island of Corfu, or Kerkyra as the Greeks call it. Here we spent a week with Jonah's Czech grandparents:

Of course my birth city of Prague where we lived for a year:

And other places of interest, with our favorites being the very mysterious medieval castles and ruins around the Czech Republic. The one pictured is a 14th century castle called Bone (Kost in Czech):

And towards the end of 2009, New York, where we visited my sister and husband for Thanksgiving:

Workwise, I must admit that my job in Prague was the most boring and underpaid one I've ever had--teaching executives, secretaries and accountants English. Now the Czechs are known to be slow to warm up to strangers, but I had no idea how much that would impact my lessons! Imagine sitting in the same room with a poker-faced, taciturn man (or woman) for 90 minutes, hoping to get a conversation going. Yes, you're right. Sounds like a bad date--several, in fact--every day of the week!

The best part of the job was taking an undercover survey of current attitudes on politics and society under the guise of teaching conversation (when people finally did speak). Fascinating. But I'm glad the new school year is in full swing, because now I get to do work that I'm passionate about--teaching high school English to immigrant youth. I'm definitely in my element at this small public charter school. Yay!

Thinking back at last year, most of all, I value the relationships that sustained me over the last year(s) when things were going well and when things were difficult, especially after the death of our daughter. These are some of the special people who have always made us feel loved and supported:

My lovely grandmother:

My daddy and wife, who both helped us so much to make a new life in Prague:

Tim's parents who visited us in Prague:

And of course the uncles & aunts:

And many sweet friends... You know who you are.

To all those contemplating a move abroad, I highly recommend it. With enough emotional and practical support, it can be done, even with a small child. However, for anyone able to do it, I suggest a time frame of at least two years. A year is barely enough to begin to adjust, let alone get comfortable and create lasting bonds. Though the Czech Republic is my first home, I had never lived there as an adult, forging my own way with my own job, my own place to live, etc. Of course my family who still lives there helped, but I wanted to make new connections and get plugged in to some meaningful political/social work. However, with such a limited time, it felt like parachuting in, so I gave up trying because it just felt irresponsible to only be able to commit to a short time without the ability to form deep relationships. That is my biggest regret. But, many things were good: my son learned Czech, I got to spend with family and old friends, and to reconnect to my roots.

Our year in Prague made me realize that I am still Czech to the core and that, though I doubted myself before, I do have a deep understanding of the culture and society. Also, I proved to myself that something as challenging as starting a life in another part of the world with my whole family could be done. I am also glad Tim was able to form a bond with the place that makes me who I am.

In 2010, among my personal, creative and professional goals, I'm hoping to explore the Pacific Northwest more and to make it to a couple of national parks we've never visited. We will see if those dreams come true.

On a more recent note, the Czechs say that how you spend the first day of the new year is how you will live the rest of your year. The day started with an intense wrestling match with the self-proclaimed Wrestle Lord who tried out some of his deadly new moves, such as the fly toss, on me. Good thing we wrestle free style and I was able to solicit the help of a bunch of pillows in the process. Next we played some more and ate a feast of leftovers from the night before and some homemade cookies delivered to our door by a good friend. Not a bad start to a year, is it, friends?