Just a quick follow up from my last post. This evening, another blog post popped up talking about Eva’s recent Skyping session; it also includes a short film clip from the classroom’s perspective. Renee Boss, who arranged the event, shares my passion for creativity in learning. She has some cool things to say on the topic. Check it out!
I’m here today to report on Eva’s experience at the North Dakota Teachers’ Association conference in Fargo last week. She had a booth in the exhibitors’ hall, squeezed in between McGraw-Hill textbooks and a pseudo-”healthy”-non-caffeinated coffee booth run by a couple of moonlighting teachers. Nice folks all the way around (though I stuck with my Starbucks).
Sadly, though school is not in session during the two days of the event, the teachers’ conference isn’t well attended. Teachers aren’t required nor are they compensated for being there, and with travel time, out of pocket expenses, and the allure of having a couple of days at home with their families, the conference has a difficult time competing. Exhibitors who have been around awhile talk a lot about the good old days not too far back when all this was different – teachers were required and compensated, and the place was packed, abuzz with conversation, networking, and of course, sales.
Still, even with the sparse attendance, the event was well worth attending. Eva sold ten books, and had conversations with several teachers about the possibility of speaking with their students about writing. It looks like she may well Skype into a classroom about four hours from us, up in the northeast corner of the state. And our friend at McGraw-Hill gave us some good suggestions for other conferences we should attend as exhibitors. So good stuff all around.
Mostly, however, this event was great for pumping Eva full of energy, excitement, and focus. On the long drive home, we talked a lot about all this. She wants to have two distinct focuses in her writing work: the first, which I deeply respect, is the hard work of improving the quality of her writing. The second is her work inspiring other kids through her videos and classroom visits. She enjoys working with kids, but wants to make sure that she is equally respected as a writer and knows this can only happen if she works on her craft. I am impressed by the maturity of that observation, and am determined to find her further opportunities such as writing workshops, mentorships, etc.
In all this, the secret to success is following Eva’s lead. If pushed too fast or in directions she isn’t excited about, she’ll burn out and get stressed out. This is especially true about public speaking. She’s so good at it, and is normally energized by her experiences. Her success often opens up additional opportunities, and this is the part we have to carefully balance.
Last spring, she was invited to apply as a speaker to a TEDx event in Washington state. I’m such a TED geek that I jumped on board immediately. Eva, in her desire to please me, thought she would do it. But it was clear that the idea gave her a lot of anxiety. When I finally wised up and told her that it really would be ok if she never did another talk again, she immediately bowed out, her anxiety lifted, and a dark cloud left her little brow. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I want this to be good for Eva, no matter what it looks like. And when she’s given control, she finds incredible sources of courage and self-confidence. She’s even considering applying for the TEDx event next year. We’ll see. If she changes her mind, that will be ok too.
I’d like to hear from other readers too. How do you handle this with your own children? Do you give them much control over their hobbies, pursuits, and creative endeavors? What kinds of conversations do you have with your kids? How do you walk that careful balance of pushing your children to stretch themselves and try new things and listening to their opinions and wants?
A lot of people think that because Eva can get up in front of a classroom and speak to kids about her books, she must be a very confident individual. Sometimes this is true. But sometimes, she is playing a part – an actor on a stage – and her on-stage persona can be quite different from how she feels day-to-day.
This isn’t so unusual. We all know (or are) the quiet kid in the class – the one who tends to wait for someone to reach out to him or her. Who is a “good” student, because they don’t want to rock the boat or draw attention to themselves. For all of Eva’s past public speaking, she’s not a fan of being the center of attention, and though like all people she desires meaningful friendships, it takes a lot out of her to approach a kid and start a conversation.
This lack of confidence has been building on itself ever since our relocation last summer. We bought a cute little house with an unfinished attic that will be renovated into an art studio for me and Eva. But contractors are backed up, and we’ve had to wait our turn. As a result, most of Eva’s art supplies have been boxed up in the garage since last spring. This has weighed heavily on her, as creating art is her safe space – if she’s without direction in her day, she always migrates to her art area and makes something. After several months of not being able to do this, she is finding herself adrift and unsure.
Not to worry, because construction begins in about a month, so there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But in the meantime, I decided to address her confidence issues head-on. I created a class in her homeschool day that I called “Confidence Building.” We began by watching a fabulous TED talk (included at the end of this post) about bio-feedback. The talk is amazing, and you should definitely take the time to watch it, but one of the things that stood out for us the most in it was the study they did with two different groups of people. They took a saliva sample from each group before and after the test to monitor two hormones: one that tends to give a person confidence and one that takes away a person’s ability to cope calmly with stress. Group A was told to take “power poses;” in these poses the participants took up increased space in various ways: standing tall, arms back or stretched out, legs spread out, etc. Group B was told to do the opposite: these participants were told to hunch down, cross their arms and/or legs, droop the head – in short take the pose one takes when they’re feeling small and unsure.
The participants held these poses for only 2 minutes. And the results were astonishing. The power posers had an increase in the confidence-boosting hormone and a decrease in their stress hormone. The small-space posers had a decrease in their confidence-boosting hormone and an increase in their stress hormone. After only two minutes!
Eva and I began our work by discussing the implications of the talk. We then began a daily exercise in which we do power poses. We stand on couches (a normal no-no), and stretch our bodies wide and talk as loudly as we can. We raise our eyebrows and widen our eyes. We yell at the top of our voices that we are confident and strong, that we have wonderful imaginations, that we are EPIC. Holy cow, folks – this is powerful stuff. It’s like a shot of caffeine and adrenaline mixed together. The difference I’ve seen in Eva just after one week of this exercise is dramatic. And heck, I’ll admit it: the difference in my own attitude has also been dramatic. I feel better.
I am working on other parts of our confidence training in addition to this exercise. Some of it is personal imagery: I ask Eva what kind of person she wants to be – not just what she does, but how she feels and interacts day-to-day. The more she imagines this strong part of herself, the more she’s able to grasp it. We’ve talked about our diet, and are trying to move away from all the starches and carbs and more towards fruits and veggies and nuts. We’ve talked about the importance of exercise, and have begun taking long brisk walks through town. And we’ve analyzed traits she admires of her favorite fictional characters (especially Harry Potter characters). Luna Lovegood is her favorite, primarily because she’s so unique and doesn’t really care what people think of her. I’m also trying to give her books with kick-butt female characters in them.
This Thursday and Friday Eva will once again be in front of the public. She’ll have a booth at the North Dakota Educators Conference in Fargo, ND, promoting her books, writing videos, and classroom presentations. She plans to power pose in the bathroom before the event begins.
Well, in the midst of all our boxes and packing and trucking our material lives across town into our new house, we’re still educatin’ and advocatin’ over here at the Ridenhour abode. We met with the high school principal yesterday about having Ian do an additional subject grade skip and take two high school band courses as a 10th grader. Once again, years of positive advocacy seem to have paid off, and the principal not only agreed to recommend his enrollment to the higher ups, but encouraged us to look at the various science and math courses that the high school has to offer. As we left, he told Ian that he was “breath of fresh air.” We couldn’t have been more pleased.
That was yesterday. Today, Eva is Skyping into two sessions of the North Dakota’s Teaching and Technology conference. She is being featured as a model for using Skype in the classroom to connect children with authors and other professionals. She just finished her first presentation, in which she talked about how her Skype sessions work. The next one’s up in about a half hour. Hopefully this will lead to more opportunities for her to connect with kids and encourage them in their own writing endeavors.
And now for the move… two days and counting (assuming all the lenders can get their paperwork wrapped up in time!). Next post up: engaging kids in creative summer learning/exploration. If you have thoughts about this or awesome plans already in place, let me know, and I’ll share some of them here!
But until then, please enjoy Ian’s rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” videoed last weekend. The boy’s got pipes.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of walking around the mall of Washington, DC after my conference at Mom Congress 2012 this week. I took the extra day for a little down time and the opportunity to unpack all I had learned and begin thinking about what ideas and plans I was going to bring home. A delightful day. I saw the main monuments that everyone visits while in DC, but I also took time out to enjoy the amazing art exhibits in the National Gallery of Art. I stood nose to nose with works by Raphael, da Vinci, Rembrant, van Eyck and Degas (among others). Every time I turned a corner, I was taken aback anew at the masterpieces I was getting to enjoy, and even photograph.
But I will admit, the piece I was most excited about wasn’t one out of the history books. Ron Mueck is a modern artist whom my husband and I discovered on the web a couple of years back. He is a sculptor who plays with scale to bring new perspective to the human experience. I don’t want to go into too much detail about him here; if you’d like to learn more about him (and you should), you should google him. The point is, it has become a life goal to see one of his pieces in person. And, as it turns out, Mueck’s “The Big Man” is owned and currently on display at the Hirschhorn Museum, right there on the Washington mall. I made a beeline. I felt like a kid at Christmas as I roamed the halls searching for him.
I finally found him hiding behind a partial wall in a spacious room that featured large modern canvas works of black and white. It is my understanding that many museums place him like this – tucked behind walls – so that patrons discover him quite unprepared for the experience. If I’m wrong, then well, they should. Because he’s shocking.
A hyperrealist, Mueck creates pieces that provide a rare chance to experience the rawness of humanity. I stared at The Big Man (who is scaled perhaps two or three times the size of a normal human) for about 20 minutes, examining everything from the broken toenail and cramped toes to the veins and age spots that dotted his skin, to the moisture on his lips and the incredible intensity of his eyes. There is nothing softened, tucked, or photoshopped here; he is not beautiful, yet he is exquisite. He is a perfect combination of the sacred and profane if you will. Like life. Like all of us.
Which brings me to authenticity. Sometimes people comment that they are amazed by how perfect our homeschooling life seems to be. This makes me laugh, because of course I blog about the highlights. I don’t like to complain a whole lot myself, and I like to protect the true vulnerabilities of my children. I have no problem telling you what they do, but I’m more guarded in sharing the details about who they are, especially the unfavorable bits. My DC host Amber asked me about this last night, and suggested that perhaps a more complete experience is more beautiful in its wholeness. Like The Big Man.
While all of this has been happening to me in DC, on Monday my kids carried out a day full of 25 minute presentations at Marketplace for Kids, an entrepreneurial fair for grades three through six. As former participants who have pursued their projects beyond the fair (Ian with his trading card game Animal Attack, and Eva with her books), they were invited to talk to kids in hopes to inspire them to do the same. Now, you might think that for my seasoned public speakers, this was no big deal; it would be a walk in the park for them. But this was not how it went down.
This was the first time the kids had presented together, so the experience was new. In their first Marketplace session, I was in a Mom Congress session. Here are the texts that husband Jamie and I exchanged:
Jamie: “1st presentation just started. Ian’s killing it.”
5 minutes later: “Eva’s up now. Not doing so well.”
Me: “Give her time. She’ll warm up as long as she doesn’t break down.”
Jamie, 10 minutes later: “Ok, breakdown. Ian’s doing this one alone.”
Jamie, about 40 minutes later: “Now she’s kicking ass during the third presentation. This child.”
My kids are both intense. They are, you might say, turned up to 11. But this means that lots of things are turned up to 11, and for Eva, this includes emotional sensitivity. She is a powerfully strong young woman, and experiences powerfully strong emotions. She is learning at a young age how to cope with feelings and thoughts big enough to bring a grown person to their knees. It floors me.
This is what happened: Eva floundered through the first presentation, and the Q&A bombed. Jamie made a couple of suggestions afterwards, and while Ian found confidence in this, Eva felt crushed and panicked at the thought of doing more presentations; she kind of fell apart. Ian covered both portions of the second session, talking about both his and Eva’s projects. After calming down, Eva and Jamie rejoined the session but stayed in the back of the room. However, one of the kids had questions about Eva’s books that Ian couldn’t answer. Feeling safe and unpressured, Eva felt renewed, and voluntarily rejoined Ian to finish that Q&A. Jamie said the final three sessions were amazing. Both kids were confident and articulate, the presentations were well-paced, and the Q&A lively.
And this is the authentic experience. Homeschooling my kids is an amazing process, full of joy and learning and pleasant surprises. It’s also exhausting and often lonely, especially for me. Dealing with the intensity of not one but two children 24/7 takes a profound amount of energy, and I’ll be frank with you: I haven’t had it in me to give it my best these past few months. But I’m leaving DC refreshed and renewed with a notebook full of ideas and plans. And summer’s around the corner.
And oh yeah, while I was gone, we bought a house in the downtown area, and we’re all very excited about that. Another page is turning….
Here’s more on The Big Man:
I’m happy today to introduce you to Adora Svitak, though many of you may already know her. I’m going to take the liberty here to share TED’s short bio of her:
A voracious reader from age three, Adora Svitak’s first serious foray into writing — at age five — was limited only by her handwriting and spelling. (Her astonishing verbal abilities already matched that of young adults over twice her age.) As her official bio says, her breakthrough would soon come “in the form of a used Dell laptop her mother bought her.” At age seven, she typed out over 250,000 words — poetry, short stories, observations about the world — in a single year.
Svitak has since fashioned her beyond-her-years wordsmithing into an inspiring campaign for literacy — speaking across the country to both adults and kids. She is author of Flying Fingers, a book on learning.
“A tiny literary giant.” Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America
Like Isabella Taylor, Adora was kind enough to talk with me about her own unique education, and I’m excited to share that conversation here. But first, please enjoy her wonderful TED talk. And don’t forget to check out her webpage!
Adora, you have experienced a wide range of educational models, including a brick and mortar school, online classes, and the school that your mom set up. Can you talk about these experiences? How do you feel about the various modes of learning? What are your favorites, and what hasn’t worked, and why?
The school that my mom set up, Seeds of Learning, took place at my house; some other neighborhood kids joined us for afterschool lessons, and classes were never larger than 10 people. As a result, we all got very personalized learning, and each student could be working on a different project, all in the same room. I loved the fact that we were able to form great relationships with our teachers, who usually taught us for 2 years or more. Definitely I would say the Seeds of Learning experience was ideal—individualized learning, small classes, good teachers, involved parents.
My online classes offer me flexibility and the rigor of a planned curriculum with teacher support, but I don’t feel quite as close to my online high school teachers as I did to teachers at Seeds of Learning (unsurprising, considering that the teachers at my online school have to teach hundreds of students where teachers at Seeds of Learning taught ten). I feel that there are some things that just can’t be replicated easily online—hands-on group work, science labs, et cetera—without losing some of the tremendous value of face-to-face interactions.
Going to a brick-and-mortar school gives me a chance to meet diverse groups of people and better learn how to work together; it also introduces me first-hand to what it’s like sitting inside one of the “typical classrooms” I’ve mentioned often in my speeches. I do definitely see a lot of problems that need to be fixed. I feel that the brick-and-mortar school model needs to shift away from the focus on obedience and order that pervades everything, from how students are seated and told to behave, to the use of passing-hour bells; after all, if you were teaching someone at home, would you get up and ring a bell every hour to indicate that they should get up, leave, go to the bathroom or talk quickly, and then come back for a different subject? It would seem ridiculous. Yet this is what we train students to do at school. I think there has to be a better way to arrange school schedules and teach kids that is a little less military drill-evocative. Overall the biggest problem I see with brick-and-mortar schools is that for the most part it’s still a very 19th-century model.
Taking mostly online classes lets me bring my studies with me; however, it definitely has been a challenge to balance work and school. I’ve fallen behind a few times and sometimes have to catch up over weekends and breaks. Honestly, often I’ll sit down to write an essay for school and in the back of my head I’ll be thinking, “Remember that you have three speeches to write, two presentations to edit, and a blog post to write”—and whenever I work on one of those, I’ll be thinking about the next thing. I think it all depends on how you manage your time—unfortunately for me, I’m a terrible procrastinator (I’ve stayed up past midnight to write speeches for the next day). I know that I wouldn’t be able to do it all without the help of my amazing mom, who schedules events for me and manages requests for my teaching. In general, managing a busy life needs good time management…in absence of or in addition to that, great parents.
How much in charge do you feel of your own education? Do you help make your own goals? How much control do you have in what you pursue?
Like many other students, I feel a little powerless on the issues that really matter. Even as someone who speaks widely about education and blogs for Edutopia and the Huffington Post on school-related issues, I can’t do anything about an ineffective teacher in my classroom or a course that doesn’t challenge me. The important thing is that my classmates have insights to share that are of equal value, yet there are no good ways for us to submit feedback to our teachers and administrators and see rapid change taking place as a result, a problem I’m working to change.
I definitely do make my own goals, but there are often differences between my career goals and my academic goals, and sometimes I feel that my learning in school doesn’t always further my career goals. For instance, it’s difficult for me to miss more than a week of attendance at my brick-and-mortar school to go and travel, yet in the long run probably that week giving speeches will benefit me more than the hours sitting in the classroom. I would love to have more control in what I pursue—in the ideal world, I’d be able to work closely with teachers to design more independent studies for myself in various courses, calling on teacher support when needed (actually, something I think all students could benefit from). Right now I can choose which courses to take at school, but I don’t have a voice in what is taught or how it’s taught.
What have your parents done for you to help you pursue your creative passions?
My parents have done a great deal to help me pursue my creative passions—by providing the unique educational experience for me so that I would have access to high-quality, challenging learning from a young age (I was lucky to be able to sit in creative writing classes with seven- and eight-year-olds when I was just three years old), and also by taking my dreams seriously. When I declared to my mom, “I want to publish a book!” at six years old, I didn’t realize how rare and precious her support was.
Talk a little about your varied work. You are an author, you teach kids about writing, have coordinated a TEDx conference, and have guested on countless news programs. It’s clear what you’re teaching in all this – you’re giving back to so many people, both kids and adults. But what are you learning from the process? In other words, how are your activities a part of your own education? How are they preparing you for your own future?
This is one of the most unique and intriguing questions I’ve received about my work—thanks for the different perspective!
In my education talks, I always bring up the importance of being a teacher and a learner; a favorite quote of mine is John Cotton Dana’s “Whoever teaches, must never cease to learn.” As a teacher and a student, I understand this very clearly through my own experience. If I had stopped learning about the art of teaching by deciding that I had learned everything there was to learn, when I first began teaching students about writing, I would be a pretty ineffective teacher today. There’s nothing that saddens me more than teachers who have given up on constant self-assessment and improvement of their own teaching practice and do no more than go through the motions year after year. I am incredibly lucky to have my mom around—as an observer, she’s able to give me feedback on my teaching that I can use to improve.
Through my presentations and speeches I’ve learned about many important skills that relate to how I interact with others, whether through a video conference camera or on a stage. I’ve learned how to address different audiences, how to walk the fine line between supporting revolutionary ideas and offending traditional views (particularly difficult when it comes to talking about education or youth voice), even how to deal with people you don’t like.
In the more academic sense, my speaking, teaching, and organizing has greatly improved my writing by keeping me practicing constantly. When I write content for a presentation, I have to balance the amount of material I want to get through with a need for conciseness and clarity. When I write emails to various companies about sponsoring TEDxRedmond, I sharpen my real-world persuasive writing skills and how to get my point across using as few words as possible (considering that my email’s readers are likely busy executives who read email on their phones). The social, writing, and business skills I’ve learned from my career have been tremendously valuable to me throughout my life.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’ve been really lucky to have many opportunities throughout life because of people’s support—the adults who believed in me, the students who listened to me, the readers who read my writing—but even if you think, “I don’t have any speeches lined up or books written, I can’t really do anything,” remember that your life is what you make of it. You can create your own opportunities. Get informed and decide on issues you care about and then advocate for them tirelessly—on your social network, at school, among friends. You can set up groups of your peers to plan events (that’s what I did to organize the youth conference TEDxRedmond) or watch TED Talks and have discussions about meaningful issues. You can submit writing to magazines or start your own. And the important thing to remember is, whenever you first experience success, make sure to thank those that helped you along the way and give back in whatever way possible. That’s what I try to do through my teaching and advocacy.
Lately we’ve moved away from our more traditional school scenario to embrace the busyness of the spring season. We’ve moved upstairs and typically work in the den and dining room, using our patio door as our white board. Stacks of books and piles markers are beginning to clutter up the ends of our couches, piano bench and dining room sideboard. Our class schedule has morphed into a list of daily objectives – more like a to-do list than a course outline.
I’ve had to back off of blogging to keep up with the kids and ensure that the family retains some sense of balance while we’re off to all our separate activities. Such is the way of life – ebb and flow.
Ian’s new band Hex Radio is already taking off – they have a gig next week at the high school, and they’ve been selected to open for Hairball (self-proclaimed “Bombastic Celebration of Arena Rock”) in June at the Civic Center. Not bad for a group that’s only performed together one time. I had to break down and get Ian a texting plan so he could keep up with all the rehearsal scheduling, etc. He’s also begun working with the middle school concert band on his composition “After the Storm.” He’s busy altering scores this morning.
Eva spoke at another Career Day for 6th graders and both kids have been asked to offer 25 minute presentations at Marketplace for Kids (an entrepreneurial fair coming up in May). Though Ian is forever the extrovert and ready to go, Eva has decided she’s had enough for now. She’ll skip on Marketplace and instead focus on her book release; she’s feeling the need for simplicity these days, and I get that. Sometimes you just want to play with your legos and be a kid, you know? Again – it’s all about balance and adjusting and readjusting. And adjusting again.
This week we are excited to host poet Erin Keane, who is in town to share her excellent and eccentric book of circus-based poetry, Death-Defying Acts. My husband Jamie has coordinated the event, which will include a poetry slam and a reading at the local artist co-op; the artists have created and filled their gallery with artwork based on her poems. We will even have circus-themed cupcakes. It should be a wonderful evening.
Though the kids won’t be able to attend the readings themselves this time (due to late nights or their own activity conflicts), we love bringing poets and writers into our home. Jamie, having a job that allows him to coordinate these fantastic events, has brought in many wonderful artists and thinkers over the last several years. We’ve hosted editors, musicians, composers, poets, writers, and (though Jamie didn’t coordinate this one) even a Buddhist monk who was in town to create a sand mandala over the course of several days. Each occasion is an eye opener for the kids. It’s good to be around people with passionate ideas and creative hearts. It’s good to be around people from such different backgrounds and experiences. And it’s good to see first-hand what is possible in the arts and humanities, especially since this is what our kids want to pursue.
While Erin is here, the kids will still be doing their own stuff; Ian has Science Olympiad regionals this Thursday, followed by a Hex Radio rehearsal. The poetry is a little on the mature side for Eva to attend, but we still plan on stopping by the artist co-op reading at the beginning simply to experience the feel of something so wonderful – all that art, and all those beautiful words. All that celebration of the lovely and strange.
And just because our lives weren’t full enough, we’ve decided to attempt to move into town. This has been a goal of ours for awhile; we’d like to be closer to community and better able to take advantage of the wonderful goings-on in Bismarck. Though we’ve enjoyed the grand open space, peace, and wildlife of the country, we’re ready for a change and feel that ultimately this move will both simplify and enrich our lives. Wish us luck.