The Kids aren’t Here

Our family includes many teachers, most in public school. Our kids have attended public schools, parochial schools, private schools, been homeschooled. Homework and talking about school happens at the kitchen table, in the car, while raking leaves.

It was a surprise that a school system where I have volunteered is struggling with absenteeism of 32 to 50 percent . And that reflects the national pattern of over 8 million U.S. students missing nearly a month of school each year. At this rural school there is poverty, students are widely disbursed, transportation options are limited. There are stories about kids needed at home to help care for siblings or other family members. Anxiety or bullying issues make attendance difficult.

In general, some parents feel schools don’t meet their kids’ needs. Some parents find the public education system to be monolithic in protecting traditional, seats in the chairs methods when other models exist. A teacher I respect told me that the process of pushing bright, unorthodox kids to adjust to rules that are necessary for control in classrooms of 28 students is sad, but ultimately prepares everyone for living in the real world.

School representatives cite anecdotal reasons for kids’ absenteeism. There may not be a ride available if a bus is missed. A doctor’s appointment can be an hour drive from school. Parents don’t feel their kids miss much if they stay home. The family needs to be away to care for relatives. A child is needed to care for younger or older relatives. The parents plan an extended vacation. Some claim to intermittently homeschool. A child is being bullied and administration is not responsive. A child suffers from mental health issues with no help during the school day. Travel for extracurricular activities eats up hours. When bad grades start, kids know they’re bound for summer school and give up.

Across the larger education sector, how does a child miss 30 days of school without prompting a remedial plan? How does a school system support learning in one-third to one-half of their enrolled students who are not present? What do students need to learn today and how is that delivered? So much money and so much policy maintain traditional archetypes when other societal archetypes are adapting or falling aside.

Schools are not unlike trains running on tracks installed a hundred years ago. There are reasons old rail beds have become hiking and biking trails. Like other social systems, the pathways to completing an education relevant now, and in the future, have changed.  School buildings, curriculum, teacher preparation systems, and teaching methods need dramatic review and overhaul. Fewer test scores, more involvement in the big world.

The question is not where are the kids, but how can we be sure there are good reasons for them to be here?

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Changing of Leaves

Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds walking on stinking hot asphalt is normal during first days of the Minnesota State Fair. Exhibit buildings and animal barns offer relief from a strong sun and the chance to gaze at huge dairy cows, fluffy bunnies, amazing artwork, quirky craft offerings. Plus opportunities to snack on fair food.

This year the first days felt wonderfully wrong. There were people in tank tops, shorts and flip flops, but many wore long sleeve t-shirts and jeans. With temps capped in the low seventies the great Minnesota get together drew record crowds. Weather folks hinted at a touch of fall in the air. Looking up some trees waving yellow leaves on their highest branches shared the same message.

Kids wearing big new shoes in advance of their first day of school. The state fair. Flowering plants browning as their glory days pass. Looking for predictors of what comes next, a common human habit, becomes easier. Then the Farmers’ Almanacshares its winter predictions and looking forward isn’t as much fun.

Except for the dwindling supplies of fresh vegetables and cut flowers, fall is my favorite season. Middle August’s splotches of yellow in treetops is just the start of the changing of the leaves. We have weeks and weeks of color to oooh and ahh, to bring inside, to place in books, to shuffle through during walks. Even in the city trees have their days of beauty. Trees show their true colors to everyone. Everyone.

Future generations may have less to enjoy. Years ago researching Midwest climate for my Ashwood books which end near 2050, the future of many familiar trees saddened me. Warmer temps will upset the wintering of fruit trees, some of our urban canopy trees will not tolerate the changes, pine tree forests will die.

Hug a tree. Make a promise to do what you can to keep the world green. Fill your memory with gold, red, and orange leaves waving on trees near your home. Oooh. Ahhh.IMG_5010

Shake the Marbles

As a kid I coveted my brother’s denim bag filled with marbles. The cool surfaces of the aggies, cat eyes, tigers and shooters. The odd tactile sensation of a steely or clay. I wasn’t supposed to touch the bag, but when he was at baseball I poured those tiny balls on the carpet and sorted the wealth into groups.

Like my brother the bag of wonders is gone. Toys were divided by gender in those days so I doubt if anyone thought a girl might cart pounds of glass, metal and clay into her future. The remnants of his childhood that I still carry are a Boy Scout canteen, a varsity track hooded sweatshirt, and books.

My husband recently had a nasty biking accident. Comments about shaking his marbles loose or losing his marbles brought back memories of that blue denim bag with its grimy string. As each specialist completed their exam and shared results the bag refilled, the bits of information building a report that suggested he would need time to heal, but would be okay.

When this crisis is closed I’m going to sew myself a bag, leave it outside to fade and get dirty while I search antique stores for marbles to commemorate all that has been good in our lives. Some day when we’re downsizing, and our kids think I’m being weird, I’m going to carry that bag to a new place. Now and then I’ll look at each marble chosen in honor of the memories of the family of my birth and the family my husband and I made. dqxAg4RVSx64bVUg0%6uLg

Sharing the Load

Canadian wildfires more than a thousand miles away filled Wisconsin’s northern skies with haze. Following another warm summer day slightly diminished by the loss of blue heavens and the company of pesky mosquitos, helping a neighbor harvest their lavender field made a small part of the world all okay. At eight in the evening, thanks to Canadian smoke particulates, the July sun appeared a gentle gold surrounded by a flaming ring. With humidity and heat lifting, the air felt just right to stay outside

She knelt next to the plants, cutting the flowered sprigs with a curved knife. I gathered handfuls, wound the end with a rubber band, then handed each to her husband to trim and load for moving. Their collies laid between the rows, noses resting on paws. A hawk screeched above as it circled the field. We talked about nothing much scattered with deeply important stuff.

We have other jobs that claimed the day, but like all plants lavender has a time to be harvested. They had already completed hours in the field and hung hundreds of bouquets in the barn to partially dry. In a few days the lavender would fill a roadside cart for customers. Sharing the work, an hour went by quickly. Mosquitos called an end to our time.

Some kind of magic happens when friends share the work of their days. Weeding each other’s gardens, making a meal, washing dishes together, sanding another’s wood project, painting a room, harvesting lavender. Formality slips away. The need to create conversation slips into comfortable talk. We move in each other’s space naturally, slipping into the dance steps of our real lives without practice. That’s where memories are made.

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