The Challenges (and Joys) of Parenting Your One Year-Old

As a high school teacher, occasionally I have snow days when I don’t have to work. Usually on those days my son’s daycare is closed, too. But today is different. Today I am off and he is at daycare, giving me some valuable time to reflect on some of my favorite — and most challenging — parts of being the parent of a one year-old son.

There are certain aspects of parenting that you just take to naturally.  For me, cutting my son’s hair is not one of them. I think it’s pretty hard to cut someone’s hair under the best of circumstances, such as when they are paying you and just really, really hoping you don’t bring up politics.  My former barber, a noted political pundit, used to cut hair wearing a pistol on his hip. You can be assured that when he said, “Tilt your head for me,” I didn’t mess around. But it’s a little harder when your “customer” is actively trying to grab your scissors and put them in his mouth.

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Herbert Spencer: John Dewey before John Dewey?

Just read a fascinating book about ed history:  Getting it Wrong from the Beginning, by Kieran Egan.  “Ah, an autobiographical work!” one of Egan’s colleagues quipped on hearing the title.  I found this book online somewhere, and quickly ordered it as part of my ongoing quest to understand the thinkers and the thoughts that have shaped modern education.  With Egan’s book, I wasn’t disappointed.

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Vermont: Leading the Nation in Proficiency

Here’s a new piece that’s been going around the Vermont ed community. It’s an article by two Vermont educators (both of whom I know casually) about the future of proficiency-based learning.

My first thought was — it’s refreshing that someone’s actually talking about proficiency based learning (PBL) again. This was the — no joke — revolution in teaching and learning we spent four years trying to wrap our minds around and sell our communities and ourselves on but for the last two years, it’s felt like everyone collectively moved on.

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On Being Back in Harness

I read this phrase once: to be “back in harness.” I liked it — even if it sounded as though it was missing a “the” — and now that I’m back full-time teaching again this year, I find the phrase fits me.

Last year I wasn’t “in harness” — or at least, I was in a different kind of harness — and it was surprisingly uncomfortable. We always talk about how we’d love to make our own schedules, come and go as we please. But would we really?

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Talk Learning, Not Logistics

Here’s my newest teaching mantra: Talk learning, not logistics.  

That means when you’re talking with students, don’t talk just about what questions they need to do, how much time they have, or how they need to quit watching car videos on their computer.  Sure, you need to tell them that too sometimes. But try to minimize it. Instead, try to talk to students about more important stuff — what they’re learning, what they’re not learning, what sense they’re making of the material, what information they need to move forward.  

Talk learning, not logistics.

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On Receiving Feedback from my Students

One thing that I’m proud about coming out of my fellowship last year is the newfound confidence that I have as a teacher.  Perhaps it’s related to the validation associated with receiving such a prestigious honor as a Rowland Fellowship, but I believe it’s more likely that this new confidence is more a matter of learning to see my job, and my role as a teacher, in a completely new way than before.

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Let It Rain is Sold Out

The other day I went down to the basement to retrieve three boxes of guidebooks to ship out to a supplier.  As I was rummaging around in the dark corners searching for the once-ubiquitous cardboard boxes bearing the name “Malbaie Press” (my invented publishing company), it began to dawn on me:  there aren’t anymore left. Aside from a few boxes I’d set in my office to keep for posterity, that’s it. Twelve years after publishing my whitewater guidebook, Let It Rain, I’m finally sold out.

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The best book about schools ever written

It took a year of being a school reformer, tasked with making change in my profession, to turn me into an incrementalist.

The most fascinating book ever written about education, to me, is 1995’s Tinkering Toward Utopia.  Written by Larry Cuban and David Tyack, two Stanford education professors, this book — from the first chapter — hell, the first page — smacked me, a would-be school “reformer,” right between the eyes.

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Parenting Your Seven Month-Old

Over the past few months, my wife and I have been embarking on what I’m sure is the most important battle we’ll face in parenting:  regaining our sanity. I’m talking about sleep training. The principal technique I employed was “being an awful person.”

Of course, we started by trying the most humane method: “co-sleeping.” This is where you share a room or even a bed with your child.  It didn’t work. Babies are loud. Co-sleeping would be like if you had a broken alarm clock that went off every 20 minutes and you said to yourself, “You know what, maybe the place to put this thing is in the bed right next to me?”

Soon we opted for the other extreme:  the “cry it out” method. If co-sleeping is compassion, cry-it-out is tough love.  You set your baby in a crib in a different room, close the door, and hope for the best.  It’s hard. Your baby is all alone in a dark room, screaming like he’s being attacked by geese.  He needs you. He needs someone to comfort him and feed him every 11 seconds and mumble soothing words, such as, “Why can’t you go the f to sleep?” But you can’t.  If he learns that crying makes an adult appear, he’ll never sleep alone.  You have to let him “cry it out.” But you feel like an awful person.

My wife, who possesses traits such as compassion and empathy, struggled to resist.  Only a series of textbook open-field tackles by me kept her hand from the nursery doorknob.

I, on the other hand, had no trouble being the bad guy.  Apparently my parenting style is modeled on the evil prison warden Samuel Norton in “The Shawshank Redemption”: “Oh, he’s crying, is he?  Put him in solitary, in the nursery!  Eight hours!”

But it worked.  Hours of screaming shrank to minutes.  Then, magically, he was asleep. Now, he barely grazes the crib and he’s passed out like it’s a NyQuil commercial.

Sometimes a little tough love goes a long way.


It’s not unusual for my wife and me to have lengthy conversations entirely dedicated to describing bodily fluids.  There’s probably a day coming soon when we accidentally forget, and — sitting at a dinner party, sipping wine and making polite conversation about Elizabeth Warren’s immigration proposals — blurt out, “Well, I’m all for migrants’ rights, but right now I need to migrate to the toilet.  The last time I pooped was six hours ago, and if I wait any longer, we’re going to need to do an outfit change, if you know what I mean.”

“Don’t worry, honey, I packed you a spare onesie.”

Even if we don’t slip up in public, at home in private, we find ourselves talking a lot about bodily functions.  But what words to use? Poop and pee are little kid words.  I feel like one of those kindergarten teachers who gets home and forgets she’s not still at work: “Sweetie, before we go out to the club, do you need to make a doody?”

So what other words to use?  For starters, you can’t use bro-ish euphemisms.  Your baby doesn’t have to “take a leak.” He’s not pledging Alpha Delta Phi.  You can’t call out across a roomful of in-laws, “Hey, can you check his diaper and tell me if he took a dump?” Clearly, no.

Of course you’ve got your polite euphemisms, but new parents don’t have time to be polite.  We need specificity. Six month-olds don’t “go to the bathroom” or “visit the restroom.” (Chances are he has already “visited” his diaper.)

I suppose you could go with comic pop-culture phrases.  “Son, do you need to take the Browns to the Super Bowl?” But let’s face it: the Browns will never go to the Super Bowl.

So I have taken to using fancy Latin words instead.  They’re polite, but specific (and make you sound like you’ve been reading Norman Mailer).  Someday my son is going to be in preschool, telling the teacher, “I have to micturate. Don’t worry, already defecated.”


Here’s another parenting decision I’ve had to make.  

With my son riding in the car with me now, I have tried to cut back on cursing at other drivers.  Just what we need on his first day of kindergarten.  Some nervous five year-old walks in front of my son on the way over to the carpet for circle time, when suddenly: “Hey, did you just cut me off, you f—ing s—head?  Where’d you learn to drive? Trump University?”


Speaking of which, can you imagine the pressure on kindergarten teachers?  My wife and I are going to be a mess in our first parent conference: “Alright, what’s our ceiling, here?  Are we talking off-the-charts genius? Or that weird kid who makes bird noises during math? You’re not saying anything.  Should we be thinking Berkley, or low-level TSA? What about mid-level?”

Being a high school teacher is much easier.  By the time kids get to me, their parents have pretty much heard it all.  

“Uh, hi, Mrs. Smith, just wanted to let you know that your son Johnnie . . .”

“I know, I know, he’s a little shit.  We’re literally counting the days until we turn his bedroom into an office.”

Hopefully my wife and I will have some idea before we go to that first conference, but I have a feeling we’ll still be sweating.


Last point.  

It is hard for me, an introvert, not to hope my son turns out to be an extrovert.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate the gifts introverts possess — inner fire, reflectiveness, an affinity for deep conversation and intense friendships.  I do. But life is unmistakably easier for extroverts. It’s our culture. Garrulousness is currency. Introspection is suspect; “reserved” is a pejorative term.  The need to escape people (to recharge) is usually confused with disliking them.  

Better to be uncomplicated, an extrovert. An optimist, too, if possible.


Those are my hopes now at seven months. Now if you’ll excuse me, some f—ing jerk just cut me off . . .

Why do Schools Have Sports?

What do you think the most important class is in school?  Math? Science? Social studies? How would you know, anyway?  Because I don’t mean the class that seems the most important.  I mean the class that the school and the community demonstrate, through their actions, is the most important.  There’s one way to know: You’ve got to follow the money.

There are two places we spend money on classes:  time (which is money in schools) and staff. So to locate the most important class, you might start by considering which classes 1) Are given the most time during the school day, or 2) Are best staffed (have the lowest student-teacher ratio).  Sound fair? Let’s look.

Consider two typical classes at an American high school:

  • Class A meets 38 minutes per day, with a student-teacher ratio of 20-to-1.
  • Class B meets 120 minutes per day, with a student-teacher ratio of 10-to-1.

Which one’s more important?  That’s not even hard. So what are they?  What two classes could be so imbalanced, with one so clearly valued over the other?  Does this really happen in modern schools?

The answer is yes.  It happens in almost every school in America, right now.

Class A is English.  Class A is math, or science, or social studies.  Class A is any core academic course.

Class B meets right after school.  It’s two hours long. There are no interruptions.  There are usually two, sometimes three coaches, for a small number of students.  Parents flock to watch Class B. Kids in Class B are celebrated for their accomplishments around the school and community.  Class B can sometimes get them special scholarships to college in ways that any individual class like math or science cannot.  Class B is clearly a lot more important.

Starting to see the picture?

Class B is after-school sports — the most important class in American schools.  

It’s true.  We say we value academics, but the numbers don’t lie: sports get more time and staffing than any academic course.  Every day kids spend more time on the basketball court or the football field than they do in any one academic class.  Total it out over a year for a multi-sport athlete, toss in time spent driving to games and practicing in the summer and it’s not even close.

Teachers know.  Ask any poor English teacher who’s had to run writing groups with a half-empty room because twelve of his students had to leave an hour early for away games.  Ask any principal who has ever strolled into a packed basketball gym and run into a half-dozen parents who’ve ducked parent-teacher conferences for a decade. They know.  Here in America, we love our sports.


But should our schools be the places to house them?

This is the question posed by a fascinating book I just read, Schools That Do Too Much, by Etta Kralovec, published in 2003.  Kralovec believes that sports, expensive and time-consuming, drain public school resources better spent on core academic programming.  Not only that, but Kralovec believes we’re better served by pushing the responsibility for funding and directing sports out to community organizations.

Kralovec traces schools’ stewardship of competitive sports to the early 20th century, when Americans were increasingly utilizing compulsory public education to “Americanize” large numbers of newly-arrived immigrants.  For a time, competitive sports were the purview of student-run athletic associations, until reformers, concerned about the “rowdiness” of student leagues and “driven by the anti-immigrant sentiment of the day” began to insist sports come under the control of government-run schools:

“Believing that sports would be a great way to teach the American virtues of hard work, fair play, and competition, civic and school officials began calling for sports clubs to be housed in public schools.  A public campaign was launched denouncing student-led leagues as unsafe . . . and this was the birth of the institution of school sports.”

To this day, Kralovec writes, sports are so entwined with public education that it’s almost impossible to read a school budget and determine the cost of athletics.  Most Americans don’t even question the arrangement.

But we should.  

Why?  Because, as the title of her book implies, American schools are overburdened.  I agree. It’s starting to become clear to me that early 20th century progressive reformers, who not only saddled public schools with Americanization but with curing social ills, might just have overplayed their hand.  If you make big promises, you just might be held to them. In the wake of both the 1957 launch of Sputnik and 1983’s “A Nation at Risk,” responsibility for America’s perceived lack of international economic and technological competitiveness fell squarely on the shoulders of its schools.  This was never fair, and we knew that; later, when the economy boomed and innovation flourished, public schools received none of the credit. It was simply that the increased importance reformers had trained on public schools made them easy targets when things weren’t going well.

But it’s not as though school reformers had made the case to an unwilling public.  In fact, the opposite. As Michael Katz argues in his essay “Public Education as Welfare,” unlike many European countries, we’ve long offered education as the primary social support in lieu of government welfare programs:

“In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while other nations were introducing unemployment, old age, and health insurance, the United States was building high schools.”  

According to Katz, in contrast to American ideals of equality, which have always been about “a level playing field where individuals can compete unhindered by obstacles” and in which “education has served as the main mechanism for leveling the field,” European countries “focus on group inequality and the collective mitigation of handicaps and risks that, in the United States, have been left for individuals to deal with on their own.”

Rather than building a social safety net, we built schools, confident that education — along with American virtues of thrift, hard work, and ingenuity — are the most viable escape from poverty and hardship.

In other words, if ed reformers oversold what schools can do, their arguments fell on receptive ears.


All of this supports Kralovec’s argument: by doing too much, schools do little well.  It’s time, Kralovec argues, to rethink our educational goals and to carefully examine what we devote precious time and money to.

What should we do?  Get engaged, says Kralovec.  Attend school board meetings.  Review the budget. Ask to see how much money is spent on competitive sports.  Then ask, how does this money support the goals and mission of the school?

After all, how many students really do play sports?  I don’t think I realized until I became a teacher how few students continue playing competitive sports all the way through high school.  Where I work, by roughly tenth grade, the middle class kids are well on their way to captaining sports teams, padding their college resumes, and being applauded at state championships and at sports banquets.  Meanwhile, the poorer kids are turning in their cleats and jerseys for a 3-9 shift at Shaw’s bagging groceries. They’re not gearing up for the college admissions arms race, and they’d rather have a car than a high batting average.

But sports are expensive.  I looked at the budget for one central Vermont high school.  They spent $741,000 on co-curricular activities. That’s $1,000 per student!  That’s also more money than is spent on Social Studies ($647,279).  Of that money, about $608,000 was spent on sports alone.  Now, add in the $518,983 spent on P.E. and you’ve got $1,126,719.  That’s about 8% of the total school budget. How many kids are actually playing sports?  What’s the cost per student? These are good questions to ask.

And what about the educational value of sports?  This question is raised every year by students I teach who ask, “Why do I still have to take PE classes if I play three sports a year?  Can’t I get PE credit for being on the soccer team?”

This question pits a district’s PE goals, which usually include building habits of lifelong health and wellness, against a competitive sport’s, which are not subject to local or state educational standards.  When was the last time anyone even had a conversation about the learning goals of our sports programs? Where would that even happen?

Here’s how I see it.  I think we view competitive sports as merely an extension of the PE department, although not graded, and not supervised directly by PE teachers.  Sports are enrichment, let’s say — the way the debate team is enrichment. You must take a minimum number of PE classes, then sports exist if you want to further your physical education.  

Fine.  But let’s take a hard look at what that says.  We know that sports often dictate schools’ use of time.  The firmest argument always given to starting and ending school when we do, which we know is developmentally too early for teenagers, is because of sports commitments.  Not to mention all the kids who miss class because of away games. Think about that: Our entire school schedule is dictated in large part by the enrichment activities of one department, paid and administered by the school, but run largely outside of the dictates of local educational standards by coaches who are not required to be licensed educators.  Every school in America does this. When you walk into most schools you see a trophy case full of sports awards, not academic celebrations. It’s interesting to think about.

Also interesting is the surprising extent to which high school sports are already being run by non-school organizations.  Travel soccer teams and AAU basketball teams are more and more common. A few years ago I was taken aback to hear high school students in my class discussing how inferior the play was on the school’s varsity team than on their privately-run travel team.  Perhaps, in the way that other after-school programs are often outsourced to community organizations, someday sports will follow suit. This is what Kralovec advocates.

That said, I don’t see it.  For better or worse, sports are important PR for schools.  They’re a way for the community to feel pride in an institution.  They’re also a powerful “recruiting” tool: many are the young men whose primary attachment to the school is their sense of accomplishment on the football team, their feeling of belonging on the basketball court.  Once a week in the fall they get to wear their game jersey in the halls and feel like a conquering hero, not a remedial math student. There’s a reason most high schools have “spirit weeks” and a reason so many of them train in on sports-centered pep rallies: social climate is important in schools, and sports are a great way to foster pride and connection to the school among students and community members.  Could we accomplish this sense of belonging in other ways in schools? Perhaps. But sports have grown into that space so fully that it’s hard to imagine schools without them.

Schools That Do Too Much asks important questions about values.  What do we spend our time on? What do we spend our money on?  What should be the focus on a school? How much should schools take on given their limited time and money?  Where does this need to take on so much, including competitive sports, come from, historically?

It’s a great read that’ll make you think. I highly recommend it.