Thursday, February 7, 2013

From a teacher's mouth. {Thoughts on why I'm glad my mom took over my 4th grade bug collection.}

"Helllllo Clarice."  
Sorry, I had to.  Bug collections always give me Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster shivers.  Not at all the point of this post.  

But here's what is (and it's kind of a soapbox).  
In fourth grade I had to make a bug collection.  Everyone knew that fourth grade was the bug collection year so all summer long whenever we'd come across a praying mantis or a cicada shell, or a shriveled up bee, or whatever, we saved it.  And then, come September or October we'd haul them out of our freezers and impale them with pins and oh-so-nicely display them.  And maybe this is what I could have done on my own.  It's reasonable.  It's neat. It's fine. 

My mom and dad however, would never have that.  They were more interested in completed projects of the variety displayed below.  And this was the expectation for every project.  Rarely did we complete a school project of this magnitude on our own.  It wasn't an option.  Period.  In fact, I don't know if we'd have been permitted to leave the house with a project like the one above. Not because it's horrible, but because it wasn't the best that we could do with a little help.

And I'm sure that people might disagree with this parenting-project-philosophy.  In recent years America has decided that kids should be able to do projects all on their own and it's a badge of honor for your kid to be able to say, "I made it all on my own," even if the end result is crap. Yep, I said it, crap.  A lot of American kids turn in crap (and there are varying degrees of it) and call them projects or papers or presentations, "that I did all by myself." As if doing something by yourself is the hallmark of quality.  The other spell that America seems to be under is the one that says if a parent helps a kid with a project, guides them to do their best, shows them how to enhance an idea, shows them what they are actually capable of that their kid isn't doing the project on their own and the validity of the finished product is cheapened.  That's a lie.

As an educator for the last thirteen years I'd say that most teachers, if they're being honest, hope that parents are helping, really helping, kids with their projects.  Because the thing is, we know that when parents sit down and help their kids, show them how to do something better, give them ideas, spur on creativity, model how to do something, send them back to the drawing board if need are inspired.  They get excited about what they can do and what the end result looks like.  And when they get excited that they produced a top-notch assignment, they want to do even better the next time around.  And that's growth.  Authentic and viable growth.

School-age kids need help in almost everything that they do--it's okay to offer's imperative. It's our job and it's their time to learn.  Even when they fight help; they need it.  My three year old daughter "knows" how to get her snow clothes on to play outside--she makes it very clear that she wants to do it on her own.  So I let her.  And then I step in and show her that her boots aren't secured correctly, her thumbs aren't in the mittens the right way, her coat is buttoned crooked, and that without me helping her she'll be freezing and miserable when she goes outside.  And she still gets mad at me.  And I don't care.

Because bottom line I want her to have a good experience when she goes out to play in the snow.  I want her to see me buttoning her coat the right way over and over so she'll learn to do it on her own one day.  If I never showed her and just cheered praise about something being done wrong or mediocre because I wanted her to feel good about the fact that she did it "all on her own" she'd get frostbite and sick and wonder why I said she'd done a great job and then went outside and froze and got snow up her leg.  And nine times out of ten after I've helped her she'll say, "Oh...that feels a lot better.  Thank-you." I haven't robbed her of her independence, I've helped it.....because I've modeled the right way to do something.  I've given her legitimate confidence to do something better the next time.

I've noticed lately that I've had to employ some of the 'you will do your best work in this family' attitude  with Georgia.  She'll sit and draw for hours at the little table we have in the kitchen.  And she can do amazing things.  The most adorable little people and animals that she'll pore over and perfect.  I go crazy over them.

She brought these cuties to me and asked me to help her connect their hands.  I did.  And then I told her it'd be cute if she added some glitter glue and I showed her how to use the new tubes of it that we had.  I also mentioned that they didn't have shoes on and she should add shoes to their legs.  She was happy for the suggestions.  Suggestions that built up her confidence in what she could do and what she could get her projects to look like....not suggestions that made her feel like I was taking over and dictating what the final product should be.

A few days ago she told me that she wanted to draw a special picture for someone she knew--someone that was an adult.  She told me she wanted it to be amazing. "Great!," I said.  "What are you going to draw?"  She told me, "a lady wearing a pink dress."  She got to work.

And this is what she drew.  It took her two minutes.  But she did it "all on her own."  She asked me if I liked it and thought it was beautiful.  "Hmmm, " I said.  "It doesn't seem like you took that much time on it and I've seen you do way better when you let me help you or when you just take your time and do it like..........," and I listed some suggestions.  She replied, "Well, it's okay, we can still send it this way."

"No," I said, "we can't."  "We're not sending this to someone we love as a special Valentine's Day drawing because I know it's not your best work." She looked at me for a few minutes and sat back down.  We've had the "best work" conversation before about a litany of things and she knows I'm not messing around when it comes to best work.

Now, lest you think I'm five minutes away from becoming Tiger Mom--I don't care if she draws scribbles and loops like this all day long......but when the purpose of the drawing is to send it to someone we love for a Valentine's Day card there are going to be there are for any project. And when I've seen what she's capable of on other days--I know what her best really is.

So she started again.  And I sat next to her and gave her some simple suggestions and reminded her of things she'd drawn in the past and helped her with a few shapes that she was stuck on.  I was not taking over her project. I was helping her see what she was capable of doing if she put her mind to it, focused, and worked hard.  At one point she told me she didn't want my help.  "You're kind of stuck with it," I said.  In the end she made an adorable little Cinderella drawing that was absolutely her best work.  She learned how to mix glitter glue and water color paint and thought that was pretty great.

She was proud and said, "I did this all on my own," proving my point that helping kids doesn't equal taking away their ability to accomplish something independently.  It only does if we perpetuate the myth that working with someone, whether that be a parent, a friend, a teacher, a co-worker, a spouse, or a child is not as valuable, is in fact less valuable, than working as a team.

So here's the thing.  Do projects with your kids.  Pretty much all of them.  Even when your kids insist that you are to have no part in them. School works best when it's done in tandem with home.  You'll build your kids confidence because they'll see what they're truly capable of and teachers (like me) will love it! And another thing--if your kids want to wage a war over a project and turn in crap, consider not letting them and facing a zero on a project that might very well damage their grade beyond repair.  Because the truth is, as a teacher, I wouldn't let garbage get turned in.  I'd tell kids, "I'm not grading that.  I know it's not your all.  I provided you with clear guidelines, you could have asked for help, planned ahead, or taken more pride........and I won't accept that.....I've seen what your best is, and that's not it."  I suppose I'd rather have them learn that lesson as a third grader or an eighth grader versus when they're a student teacher, or an intern at their dream job, or during the first week in a new position right out of college.

Our kids aren't learning that lesson like we did and whoa.....does it show.  We're all up in arms and playing the "wounded ego" card telling stories of how our moms 'took over our bug collections in fourth grade and made it more about them than us.'  And we need to stop and get real.  It wasn't about them, it was about showing us how great we could be....if we accepted help and admitted that as a fourth grader we might not know everything there is to know about making a bug collection look amazing.  It was about laying a ground-work of good ideas for future projects.  And it worked.

It worked a lot better than the fluffy, false praise of, "And you did it all by yourself!"

Let's change our language to, "And you worked so hard, and took suggestions, and asked for help, and applied yourself, and look what you accomplished."

That's all.  For now.


  1. I think there's a big difference between "help" and "doing the project for your kid." I think we saw a lot of the latter in the 90s. It's classic helicopter parenting.
    I also think there's a lot to be said for letting your kid take the lead and be responsible for his or her own outcome. Of course, you encourage the child to do his/her best. But when I look at those bug projects, the second one isn't a 4th grader's project. It's more along the lines of an 8th grader's. If you and your parents had a generally good time putting it together, and you really did at least half of the work, then that's great. But if they did more of the work, or pushed you to do an 8th grader's work in 4th grade, then, personally, I think of that as a problem.
    Now, my parents didn't do a darn thing to help me with any project. It always upset me when I saw the kids with money and stay at home moms who had these gorgeous science projects when I had to cut out all my own letters (no buying them premade from the craft store) and so on. You could always tell when the parents did more of the work than the kids.
    You have to find that balance, is all I'm saying.

    1. Absolutely there is a balance. But what I've seen in my time as a teacher that there isn't balance. The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of "letting kids do it all on their own" and getting a lot of mediocrity in return. There is very little striving for excellence and a lot of standards have been lowered regarding what is reasonable to expect at various grade levels. While teaching I saw no clear line of distinction when it came to projects of kids with working parents or stay at home ones--average was the norm. And projects with scrap book paper and pre cut out letters weren't necessarily the best ones believe me. You're right, fourth graders shouldn't be turning in work fit for an 8th grader--but we need to me more realistic about what fourth graders can do when empowered to do so.

    2. I'm w Robyn. My mother was disabled and my father had to work long hours and many weekends to support us. It was discouraging to see kids who's parents completed the project for them. Often I was the help for my younger sister and I'm sure we turned in a lot of "crap." With that said I did learn to be independent. I've been making family dinners since 4th grade something I still enjoy doing. Sometimes making mistakes on our own is what teaches us the most. I let my daughter take off her mittens and hat but it also then means that we have to end the outside sooner. I let her struggle thru putting the shapes in the wrong spot on the shape sorter- it's not going to hurt her but it helps her learn. Natural consequences of independence is an amazing teacher as well.
      Thought provoking post.

    3. I bet you didn't turn in a lot of "crap." I define that as something that wasn't your best. Every kids best looks different and teachers are pretty quick to pick up on what is someone's best. And the definition of best is not universal. And of course natural consequences are some of the best teachers--we let them happen on purpose right? :) I suppose what I meant though is that I get frustrated as an educator, and just citizen of the world, that we accept so much mediocrity. And when I see so many parents making the effort to run their kids all over kingdom come for dance, and birthday parties, and soccer, and play dates, and on and on but they aren't willing to put in hardcore time around the kitchen table to instill in them a love of school and creativity--it's frustrating and a sad commentary on priorities. It sounds, however, like mediocrity is not something you ever indulged in......more like a crazy hard working motivated kid! :)

  2. First of all, I’m grossed out by the bugs. Especially the grasshoppers, my most hated bug. They fly AND hop in unpredictable ways. Ahhh. My skin is crawling.

    Second, I love this post. A good friend of mine has recently gotten really into “unconditional” or “peaceful” parenting. She talks to me about it, and a lot of what she’s said sounds similar to the philosophies of this post.

    1. Beth! You need to e-mail me! I've been deliberately leaving you alone and not being nosy! But this comment gives me permission. :)

    2. I love how this post makes me ask important questions of how I will handle school projects with my son. In my exploration of the unconditional parenting approach, I have learned a lot about praise and how it can actually de-incentivize the desired behavior from being repeated in the future. It seems so backwards, but the studies clearly back it up. It is good to encourage your kids, but it can be detrimental to tell them "good job" and "that is the most amazing painting I have ever seen". Alternatives would be to inquire about why they made the choices they did and also offering ways they could enhance if they want (like glitter pens). It is hard because "good job" is default and it takes effort and intention to do it differently, but it is worth it!

    3. Maggie! Hi! I've been terrible about taking the time to blog or email. I've hardly seen TV or my computer since Rae was born. Not because she is difficult, but because she is WONDERFUL! I'll try and work on a new post today... even if it's mostly just photos. Maybe I'll actually do it now, since I've committed here in writing!


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