Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Gimme a break! (part two): Whatever happened to recess?

Empty playground and fieldsThis article was published on The Groton Line today.

After hearing from my boys that there is no recess for the older grades in middle school, I decided I’d find out why. (I’m not typically someone who questions authority, but having kids inspires me.) I talked to Steve Silverman, principal of Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School (G-DRMS). He told me that Grades 5 and 6 have recess every day for 15 minutes (not the 25 minutes and 11 minutes respectively, as reported by my children), during which time, there are 8-10 teachers outside with the kids to supervise. Recess is not counted towards time on learning.

According to the MA Department of Secondary Education: all schools shall ensure that every secondary school student is scheduled to receive a minimum of 990 hours per school year of structured learning time. Time that a student spends at school breakfast and lunch, passing between classes, in home room, at recess, in non-directed study periods, receiving school services, and participating in optional school programs shall not count toward meeting the minimum structured learning time requirement for that student.

Silverman has been the principal for six years, told me that the school had not offered organized recess for the upper grades in more than 20 years, and there is even less Physical Education offered now than before he started.

“We tried recess in 7th grade for two years and found that kids did not participate to the extent that the younger grades do: they didn’t play. Instead, they stood around and talked in groups.” According to Silverman, unstructured time can sometimes lead to behavior issues, such as disagreements or bullying (no doubt one of the underlying reasons for recess coaches).

Silverman is not against recess, but feels it needs to be age appropriate. He says he supports the teachers’ decision to offer “team time” instead of outdoor recess, which was implemented two years ago. The 7th grade teachers felt that it would be more productive to use the break after lunch for silent reading, doing make up work, getting extra help, or participating in “enrichment” activities, which may include problem-solving exercises.

As an aside, I also asked Silverman about 5th and 6th grade kids being kept in for recess. He told me, “If teachers are willing to keep a student in for academic reasons that would benefit the student, they may do so by mutual agreement between the teacher and student. Kids being kept in for discipline needs to be in collaboration with administrative authorities and parents.”

I mentioned that I had let my 6th grade son’s teachers know that I do not support keeping him in for recess unless it is his choice. Silverman inquired if there were any more instances since then. I confirmed that there weren’t, and felt that Silverman truly supports the G-DRSD mission: to work in partnership with parents (me) but also the community (the local online news) because he was willing to ensure that my family’s wishes were respected (as well as communicate with me repeatedly until I got the facts in this article straight).

Silverman agreed that kids do need a break and that is why they have a 25 minute lunch period. He then reminded me that “outdoor recess is not a common thing in a lot of middle schools,” which is exactly what some of the parents I polled and I remembered from our own childhoods.

While it is also true that the kids have a three-minute walk between classes –- taking time away from work is something recommended to office workers and mandated by labor unions -– this is certainly not enough to be considered “physical activity.” Every seminar and event I’ve attended has had scheduled, 15-minute or so breaks throughout the day in addition to a one-hour lunch, and I would venture to guess that the curriculum days offered by the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District for teacher development follow a similar methodology of specified minutes of break per minutes of seat time.

I also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Tony Bent, the G-DRSD interim superintendent.

Bent can see the rationale for having and not having recess. “There is a benefit from physical activity and movement. At the same time, schools are under pressure to improve academically and to get kids ready for high school.”

Aside from hearing about his recent fascinating trip to Finland and Sweden with a group of educational professionals to focus on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), my takeaway from my meeting with Bent, was that it is important to focus on the value of physical activity as it relates to academic performance.

According to the Need to Know site, to which I referred in “Gimme a break!,” proponents of keeping recess through middle school point out:

  • Research indicates that learning and memory actually improve when learning is spaced out rather than presented all at once.

  • Physical activity makes the brain more alert.

  • Play is an active form of learning, even in middle school.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a recent report titled, “The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance,” which compiles the results of 50 unique studies and confirms that there is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement (including grades and standardized test scores) and that it can have an impact on cognitive skills and attitudes and academic behavior, all of which are important components of improved academic performance.

The report suggests that providing recess to students on a regular basis may benefit academic behaviors and that teachers can incorporate movement activities and physical activity breaks into the classroom setting that may improve performance and the classroom environment.

There’s a program at South Lawrence 5th Grade Academy in Lawrence, MA where the daily schedule for fifth graders includes not one physical education class, but three. The program is just a couple of months old, but administrators studied similar programs in schools in Baltimore, Pennsylvania, and Illinois and were convinced that children learn more effectively when they’ve raised their heart rates by exercising before climbing behind their desks.

“Teaching middle school before was a lot of kids sitting at their desks,” said Meghan Kelleher, who teaches science and supports the new system. “We tried to find ways to stand them up every once in a while, and here we still do that, but they know that in 45 minutes or 80 minutes, they’re going to go outside and play or play a game or some physical activity, so they’re not as antsy, I’ve found. It helps with their focus in the classroom, and they get excited to come to school, and that’s one of the coolest things about it.”

I can’t imagine such a radical shift taking place in at G-DRMS any time soon, but is there anything we can do in the near term that would not increase the school’s budget or take away from time on learning?

If you have an idea for adding physical activity to the school day – keep in mind there are 230 kids per grade and that appropriate supervision would be required (not paraprofessionals or high school students) – let’s hear it. According to Bent, who has a leadership philosophy that includes principles such as respecting all constituencies, allowing space and time for multiple perspectives, and saying “yes” as much as possible, “We try to consider everybody’s suggestions. It’s the least we can do.”

Stay tuned for the third article in this series, with your feedback and suggestions.

Monday, October 29, 2012

H-E-Double Hockey Sticks

H-E-Double Hockey SticksDue to my middle son’s renewed interested in Legos, there are Lego structures all over the kitchen, dining room, and living room. Occasionally they get knocked over by his brothers or the dog, when any or all of them are being rowdy. “What do you expect, honey, when you leave your creations in the public domain? We all can’t tiptoe around them!” I admonish him before he yells at his brothers (or the dog) yet one more time.

One of his designs needed to be rebuilt a few times. It looked kind of random to me but he was very particular about how it was put together. When I asked him about it, he told me it represented heaven (yellow), earth (white), and “H-E-Double Hockey Sticks” (red). (He’s not entirely comfortable with the word “he**.”)

“Wow, hon, look at that: it seems that there is hell on earth here.” (I, on the other hand, am not uncomfortable with the word at all.)

“What do you mean, mom?”

“Well, see how the white part and the red part are on the same level here?”


“Well, it’s just kind of a visual reminder that you don’t actually have to sink to the depths of hell to be miserable. You can be miserable right here on earth.”

“I guess…”

“Well, haven’t you ever heard that expression ‘living hell’?”

Blank look.

“Okay, say you do something you know is wrong and you don’t feel all that good about it – isn’t that kind of hellish?”

“Well, it feels bad, yeah.”

“And you made this so it looks like if you do descend into hell, it’s a pretty long way to get back up...”

“Yes, it is. It’s bigger than heaven.”

“Why is that?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t mean it to be. I just had all those red pieces.”

I thought about the “slippery slope.” Temptation is out there: start taking steps in the wrong direction, you get closer and closer to the edge, and before you know it, you’re sliding and then sinking to new depths. From the American Heritage Dictionary, the slippery slope is “a tricky precarious situation, especially one that leads gradually but inexorably to disaster.” How many of us have ever ended up in a disastrous situation, but “didn’t mean it to be?” I know I have, and it is a long road back, but thankfully, not impassible, nor impossible. Certainly more than I wanted to share with my son at that time, so instead, I commented, “Oh, but look – it seems like you have made it possible to have heaven on earth, too…”

“No, not really. Heaven and earth are not on the same level. Maybe your fingertips can brush heaven, Mom, but heaven and earth are definitely separate.”

“Hmmm,” I shrugged, and smiled at him. “Well, make sure you move that awesome structure to the side table so it doesn’t get bumped again.”

I didn’t want to debate his philosophy, even though I did not entirely agree. I think about heaven and the afterlife a lot, especially around the anniversary of my mother’s passing, which is just prior to Thanksgiving. I have written about this before. Where is heaven? We can’t see or hear everything in the electromagnetic spectrum; in fact the portion that we can see and hear with our human eyes and ears is just a small percentage including certain colors of light and radio waves. We can feel some things that we can’t see, such as infra-red light. Is it possible that heaven is right here among us? If you have a living hell, couldn’t you have a living heaven? If heaven is a state of mind, as some people say, couldn’t hell be the same?

I also thought about a conversation I’d had with my oldest when we were discussing our souls and whether or not they existed before they were in our bodies and what happens to them after our earthly existence is finished. This conversation touched on karma, reincarnation, and paganism, too, and had originated when my son had asked, “Why did God make porcupines, anyway?” after our friend’s dog had to have surgery to remove the quills. I told him I surely didn’t know, just as I didn’t know why He made mosquitos, or more importantly, why He lets bad things happen to good people, and hopefully we’d have all our questions answered someday. “When we die and go to heaven, we can ask God.”

But still I wondered about people of different faiths. I had read a quote attributed to Bishop John Shelby Spong, “God is not a Christian. God is not a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist. I honor my tradition. I walk through my tradition. But I don’t believe my tradition defines God, it only points to God.” So, it seems there have to be many paths to heaven, just as surely as there are many paths to hell. Could one man’s heaven could be another man’s hell? Is that why there are many rooms in heaven?

Off from school, thanks to Hurricane Sandy, my middle son was eating butter-flavored microwave popcorn and watching a movie with his younger brother and the dog. I overheard him sigh, “Mmmm, this is heaven in the palm of my hand!”

“Hon," isn’t that like brushing heaven with your fingertips?”

His crooked smile and glance at me indicated he knew what I meant.

“Yeah...but look,” he pointed to the TV where “Forrest Gump” was on. It was the scene where Jenny is walking slowly “home” towards Forrest, as he's mowing the lawn. “That’s what heaven on earth is, Mom.”

Apparently he’d been doing a bit of thinking on the topic as well.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

My brown dog

[caption id="attachment_356" align="alignright" width="300"]My brown dog My brown dog[/caption]

"What kind of dog is he?"

"A brown one."

This is the answer I started to give people when they asked me about my dog, Niles.

I got tired of them recoiling in horror when I told them he's a pit bull, mere moments after they've pet him and told me how cute and well mannered he is. It's what I told the nanny that works down the street who wrinkled her nose, sniffed, and pursed her lips when she commented in her exotic Slavic accent, "Heez ed. Eet iss soh beeg. Vy eez heez ed soh beeg? Vuht kindoff dohg eez e?" (When I really wanted to tell her, "Your mouth. It is so big. Why is your mouth so big? What kind of person are you?").

Most people don't even know what a pit bull is. That is because a “pit bull” is not a breed, but a term used to describe three different breeds with similar characteristics: American PitBull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers.

Don't believe me that most people don’t know what a “pit bull” looks like? Try playing "Find the Pit Bull."

People have asked, "Why would you get a dog like that!?" Implying that I must be stupid for putting my children at risk for being mauled and eaten alive by this brutal, savage monster that the media portrays him and "his kind" to be.

"Pit bulls are good family dogs," I tell people. "Did you know Petey from the Little Rascals was an American Pit Bull Terrier?" or "The Pit Bull was so respected in the early 1900's that the US Military chose an image of a Pit Bull to represent our country on war posters." or "The Pit Bull is the only dog to have ever graced the cover of  Life Magazine three times." or "Pit Bulls were also used in advertising campaigns for Buster Brown shoes. Remember those?"

People did not know that. Most people only know what they've heard about dog fighting. Before the pit bull, it was Rottweilers that were the bad guys. Before that, Doberman Pincers or German Shepherds. But people, you're looking at the wrong end of the leash. Dogs are the way they are because of the way they are socialized (or not). How many parents would expect their children to know how to behave appropriately without guidance? It is the same for dogs. They are a responsibility and they need to be educated.

I wouldn't have picked a dog like this if I hadn't done my homework. When you agree to adopt a pit bull (and there are just so many of them that need homes), you are educated first. You sleep on the decision. You know you will be facing discrimination. You commit to training the dog. You commit to treating it as one of the family. The only history I had about Niles is the blog his foster mother kept. After several conversations and an introduction, I knew he was good with cats and I knew he was good with kids.

When we first brought him home, he did not know how to use the stairs. He still won't go into the basement. Even though he looks like a he-man type dog (yes, he does have that big head as well as broad shoulders and a big chest), he has a voice like a squeak-toy, when he chooses to use it, which is not often -- usually when he is protesting being alone or inviting the cat to play with him, but rarely when someone comes to the door.

When my veterinarian asked me why I chose a dog like this, I knew she was genuinely curious and not scornful.

"To tell you the truth," I said, "and you can call me shallow...but it was his picture. Oh, and after I read his story..."

"You got a good one," she told me.

October is National Pit Bull Month and today, October 27, is National Pit Bull Awareness Day. Now you are aware that my brown dog is a pit bull. Some facts in this column came from Poppy's Place.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Gimme a break! (part one): Kids in middle school need recess

hopscotch game at a school, white board on blueThis article was published in The Groton Line.

Did you know that the older grades at Groton Dunstable Regional Middle School (GDRMS) do not have outdoor recess? I didn’t – until football carpool during the first week of school, when my 7th grade son informed me that instead of outdoor recess, his class gets 20 minutes of sustained silent reading. This comment sparked some lively car talk among the four boys on the way to practice.

According to my middle-school-aged sons, “5th graders get 25 whole minutes” and “you get anywhere from one minute to 11 minutes in 6th grade, unless you have to stay in to make up work.” My 6th grader announced that he had to miss recess for the first time ever to finish typing something one day. Since then he has had to miss recess for telling a classmate how to spell something (disrupting the class) and for forgetting to have a test signed.

According to a parenting section on website “Need to Know,” one of the more debated educational issues right now is whether or not there should be middle school recess. While one side points to the rising obesity rate among today's youth, the other side points to the fact that our educational system lags behind many other countries.

I talked to a few of my mom-friends informally, and got feedback from the mom of two boys in middle school: “It’s (recess is) too short for the 6th graders and not enough to do with too many rules. Seventh grade needs a recess, especially when both grades do not have Phys. Ed. that is cardio / physical all year.” (Our boys will spend 2/3 of one half the year in the gym. The rest of this block is classroom Phys. Ed. (wellness), art, and drama.)

Another mom commented, “As a parent of a daughter entering 7th grade next year, the thought of no regular outside time during the school day is disappointing. It is important to impart the notion of balance between work and relaxation. Why should this stop in 7th grade when habits are being ingrained? Even a short break in their hectic day would be beneficial to their bodies, minds, and overall well-being. Go recess!”

A third mom pointed out, “I don't think we had ‘recess’ in 7th and 8th grade or high school. However, we also had gym class YEAR ROUND and therefore we had physical exercise at least a few times a week all year – and during the good days, this was outside.”

I had a light-bulb moment when I heard that. I recalled that I didn’t have recess after 6th grade either. I could no longer be outraged.

However, if your kids don’t have recess and are not participating in organized sports, are they getting enough physical exercise? The recommended daily amount is 60 minutes. Besides not having year-round gym class, another thing that has changed since my childhood – in addition to the fact that kids who lived within a mile from my school were not bused: there were quite a few of us who walked – is kids going outside to play after school. I didn’t participate in organized sports until 8th grade, but did have ample time for outdoor, unstructured until-the-streetlights-come-on play. Today, kids running around outside unsupervised is not only frowned upon, but also supposedly a crime, in the case of Tammy Cooper , a Texas mom who was arrested (and jailed) for child endangerment, when a neighbor called the police after seeing Ms. Cooper’s kids riding their scooters “unsupervised” in the neighborhood cul-de-sac (though Ms. Cooper said she was watching them from her yard). If kids don’t learn how to play together on their own when they’re younger, how can you expect them to be able to when they’re 11, 12, and 13? We need something between complete supervision and “Lord of the Flies,” which is why some schools have hired recess coaches.

Never mind obesity or unstructured play time (for which the school is not necessarily responsible), I still think kids need a physical break during the day.

“Though my daughter hasn’t complained about the 20 minutes of reading, I do think kids need fresh air, a chance to clear their heads,” is the feedback I heard from a mom of a 7th grade girl.
As a mom of three boys, I see how my sons need to get up and move their bodies and burn off some energy before they can sit still and focus again. I have thus communicated with my 6th grader’s teachers that I do not support his missing recess as a consequence for typing too slowly (he can finish at home), helping his friend with spelling (he will gladly accept another consequence for being “disruptive”), or forgetting to get an A- test signed (send an email home; I’ll be sure the test is signed and dole out the consequence).

I was all set to write a scathing expose about how unfair it is that kids don’t have recess throughout middle school, but in turn, it would be unfair to write anything without considering other perspectives.

Stay tuned for my follow up article where I share some enlightening feedback from school authorities.

Friday, October 5, 2012

In the pink

Pink socksTen minutes before we’d-be-late-if-we-weren’t-exiting-the-driveway, my oldest son told me he needed a pair of pink socks.


“It’s a team requirement.”

Alarmed, “I don’t recall hearing that from your coach.”

“All the guys are wearing pink socks.”

“What do you mean, ‘All the guys.’ I’ve only seen one guy – on the other 7th grade team – with pink socks.” I was a little annoyed, but not entirely unfamiliar with the concept. At the previous weekend’s football game, when I noticed the socks, I commented to the boy’s mom that it was nice to see him so secure in his manhood that he would choose pink socks. Occasionally my boys have chosen pink, as in toothbrushes, cotton candy, or Frisbees®, but this has never extended to apparel. She answered, “Yeah, I don’t exactly know what’s up with that. I didn’t realize he was so supportive of breast cancer.” I peered more closely – yet discreetly – at the socks. Indeed, they were adorned with the awareness ribbon. “Hmmm,” we’d shrugged.

“Well, I need them. We’re all supposed to wear them.”

“Honey, c’mon!” I was exasperated. “We have to go. You can’t be telling me something like this 10 minutes before we have to get out the door!” It was the second day of school and his team had an away football game. I’d had to orchestrate and manage his brothers (who both had football practice), and the dog – lining up help to do so – in order to get my oldest to the game earlier than early, because as Coach says, “if you’re on time, you’re late.” So, the pressure was already on.

Once in the car, I asked my son to plug the address into the GPS. After our course was set and we had driven along in silence for a time, I said, “So, tell me about the pink socks.”

“Well, everyone’s wearing them.”

“Hon, ‘everyone’ is not wearing them.”

“But we all want to.”

“It’s not something your coach said you had to do, is it.” Not a question, but a statement.

“Uhm, no…”

“Then you can’t tell me it’s a requirement. If it was, I would have heard it from the coach.”

“Just forget it. I can see you don’t want me to have the socks.”

“Hon, I didn’t say I didn’t want you to have the socks. I am just trying to get a better understanding of what is going on here. Your timing and delivery wasn’t so hot.”


“What I mean is, you asked me like 10 minutes before we were leaving for your game and we were in a hurry and I can’t just produce pink socks on a whim. You told me it was a requirement, when it wasn’t.”

“But, Ma-ahm…”

“It’s okay to tell me that you want the socks because you want to fit in and be one of the guys. I understand that. You don’t have to make excuses.” Pink socks are one thing, rated M video games are another.

“Okay, mom. Thanks, mom.”

I didn’t know what he was thanking me for; I hadn’t committed to buying him any socks (and I noticed only one other boy was wearing them that day). However, the next time I was in one of the sporting goods stores that we frequent, I did.

Later, I presented them to my son. “Thanks, Mom. They’re exactly right! I’m going to wear them tomorrow!”

When he got home from school the next day, he announced, “A lot of kids asked me why I was wearing pink socks.”

“Really? What did you tell them?”

I told them, “Duh. To support breast cancer.”

I, like the other mom, didn’t know my son was so supportive of breast cancer. Grandma was a breast cancer survivor, but that was wayback when I was in high school and hasn’t been spoken of much in my kids’ lifetimes. I hope they never have to face the fear, doubt, and uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis. I pray they never have to virtually hold their breath during the subsequent treatment and – hopefully – recovery.

When my son wore the socks to his next football game, he was the only one. At Sunday dinner, he reported being told he looked like he belonged with the cheerleading squad. “How sexist,” I replied. “We don’t even have a cheerleading squad. Anyway, cheerleading can be a guy-sport, too!”

“I know, right?” He answered. “Like where?”

“Well, one of my colleague’s sons goes to Texas Tech and he’s thinking about giving it a try. He was a football player, too.”

My youngest, in second grade, piped up, “Even kids in my class say there are boy sports and girl sports and boy colors and girl colors. It’s just stupid! I like pink! I don’t know about switching to cheerleading though…”

My oldest paused for a moment and then informed us he’d just wear the socks to school for now, until a certain game the following month when “everyone” was going to wear them. “October is breast cancer awareness month, Mom.”

“Sounds like a plan, honey.”

“Well, then I need a pair of pink socks, too,” my sixth-grade son chimed in.

“Yeah, me, too!” Echoed his younger brother.

“Is that so?” I laughed inwardly. At least this time I had more than 10 minutes’ notice.

But no one will see it

I set up the nativity in the back yard again this year. In the past it has been out front near the fire hydrant that is on our property, and...