Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Secret To The World's Best Education

Autumn always means school whether you are six, or sixty.  And with the start of school, comes the annual deabte, in-fighting, and discussion about what is the best educational choice for our children.  The private school snobs who snear at us public school people, or the public school rejects who feel forced into private school because of a local system that doesn't meet their needs.  The arguments go both ways, everyway, and all around the issue.  I find it disheartening that everyone misses what is important in these discussions.
Eight years as a GED examiner for the state of Oregon (plus 18 credits college level education classes), has taught me much.  Through my profession, I have seen EVERY reason why kids don't succeed in school, from the military "brats" who can't bear to start yet another new school their senior year of high school, to the home-school kid who let his mom do all the talking, to the home-school kid who was in a nutshell, spoiled.  When I say we have seen every reason for NOT succeeding in school, I am not mincing words.  From pregnancy to personality conflicts with a teacher to conflicts in the family to prison; we have heard it all.
So let me share a secret, as I listen to parents argue, sometime vehemently, for their choice of education and why it is so damn awesome.  The secret to the best education for your child is.....be involved!!!  I can hear the groans: people want to hear about a particular school or program that will crank out the next Albert Einstein. They want an easy answer with no thought behind it.  They want to pay their tution and call it good.  But after seeing dozens of program graduates walk through my door, I can tell you that NOTHING replaces a good parent. 
Being involved can mean a hundred different things.  It can mean working full-time and making sure you check homework at the end of the day and making sure there is engaging conversations at the dinner table.  It can mean being a stay-at-home parent, and volunteering in your child's classroom.  Sometimes it means home-school for kids who need more attention, and it can mean public school for those trying to meet friends from a new neighborhood.  Maybe for your family it means private school education so your kids get a lesson in the values you cherish most. 
Being involved DOES NOT mean forcing kids into a top-notch program they aren't ready for, because you heard great things.  It doesn't mean doing your kids homework, so they have the best grades.  (On a side note, ask me about the number of straight A students I have seen fail.)  Being invovled means looking at our children, knowing their personalities, knowing what we really want for our families, and making a decision that may not work for the rest of the world.  That takes a whole lot more work than simply sending our kids off to harvard and hoping for the best, because even Harvard has it's failures-they just don't like to talk about them. 
Parenting is a tough gig.  You take work home with you AND on the road, the job description changes CONSTANTLY, and not much appreciation, but the worst part is the never-ending criticism we give each other.  The people who should understand the best, as they are in the trenches with me, seem to be the ones quick to question what I am doing.  I understand why-the job is filled with self doubt!!!  But I wish we could rise above it and be more supportive of each other.
So what is the secret to the world's best education?  The parent, the parent, the parent.  Long, hours, no pay, and little reward for 25 years.  The world's best job, eh?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Works For Us

If you think I am going to bash the Boy Scouts, guess again.  I have seen too many fine young gentlemen come through that program, and there is no way I can begrudge them, nor their parents, for making a decision that worked for their family.
I also add yet another disclaimer to yet another blog-I reserve the right to change my mind yet again.  I have been flip flopping about whether the Boy Scouts is right for us, since Asa turned four.  As of today, I have flipped yet again:  this time to no.
As a parent, trying to get my male child invovled in the great outdoors, the Boy Scouts has held a certain appeal to me.  Camping, hiking, and lots of other honorable goals, all in a nice, neat tidy package.  And while a lot of people ask me if I am concerned about the recent spat of molestations, I would argue that ANY organization and ANY family is at risk for that insidiousness anywhere, anytime. (Ask Catholics how safe they feel now?)  As the person who would be volunteering to be the pack leader, I am not worried one iota for Asa's safety in that arena. 
What saddens me most, is the continued REFUSAL to accept self-identified homosexuals into Boy Scouts-especially after we have learned who the real predators are.  I am not angry about it, nor will I make a big stink.  That may surprise a few people, considering who I hang out with.  A lesbian is up for taking guardianship of our children, should anything happen to Nick or I.  But honestly, since no one in our immediate family identifies as homosexual, what harm would there be in joining a group that offers a lot of benefits to my kids?   I am also the first to say that organizations have the right to pick their membership.  As a Jew, do I really want pro-Nazi's among my members?  As a bumper-sticker carrying omnivore, do I really want a vegetarian sitting next to me at my next make-believe club meeting?  When we talk membership to certain groups, you have to realize it goes both ways.  If I am being selective, I can't fault others for doing the same thing.  All valid points, when I keep thinking about joining.
However, recently I was reminded of incident my mom told me about.  In the autumn of 1958, my aunt was a freshman at U of O, and like many young woman before and since, she wanted to be in a sorority.  This sorority however did her the honor of blackballing her-because she was Jewish.  Because she wasn't allowed in, some of her friends opted not to join either.  Because of this, the sorority reversed its position of Jews in their House and my aunt broke the "religious barrier", becoming the first opne Jew to be in that sorority.  And no-I don't know the name of the sorority.  What I do know is that wonderful things happen when friends stick up for one another.
At the end of the day, when I look at the Boy Scouts, all I can keep thinking, is that this is our turn to stand up and say "sorry, since my friends can't join, I don't want to either".  Maybe one day they will reverse this position and allow ALL worthy people in, or maybe one day I will realize that this isn't the time nor place to take a stand.  However, on this day, at this time, we will say no thank-you, and find something that works better for our family. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Let My People...Go Outside

I have to admit it, I am being a curmudgeon in this post.  You know-getting all grumpy about A)something I can't control, and B)something that really doesn't matter.  But sometimes it feels good to get jiggy with my curmudgeon side, so today I am rolling with it.
Facebook, and chain e-mails, seems to love sending around the "remember when" ditty's.  Rememeber when gas was a quarter?  Remember when the sexiest thing on tv was "Love Boat"?  Remember how we actually had Christmas Vacation and not Winter Break?  Remember how we smoked during pregnancy AND snacked on lead paint chips?  I usually roll my eyes or jog down memory lane for just a wee bit, even though most of these are not to interesting.  However, there is one that always frustrates me.  Remember when we actually played outside and the street lights going on meant it was time for home?
I can't change the price of a loaf of bread, and I wish we could go back to the days of LESS reality tv, but seriously, if you want to see kids play outside, LET YOUR KIDS OUTSIDE!!  Seriously, we can solve this one. I hear people lament about this one all the time, about kids not going outside anymore, and it frustrates me because it is so easily solved.
Ohhhh, I know what people will say.  The possible bee stings, broken bones, or fights from bullies.  Kids can get bit by dogs, scratched by cats, or chased by rabid possums.  They could get weird germs from playing in the gutter, or the dog poop in my front yard.  What if they eat the weird berries, or worse, someone tries to abduct them? 
The truth is, statistically, kids are safer than ever before.  With bicycle helmets, immunizations, and sunscreens, kids today have protections most of us over 40 never dreamed of.  And while I wish abductions never happened, the truth is, most children are taken by someone they know.  So why are we so damn scared to let our kids out?  Every headline seems like our backyard.  The worst you can imagine may have happened half way around the world, but still, it happened, scarying us into fat kids who view the outdoors as the worst place to be.
Just because statistically kids are safer doesn't mean you have to let your guard down.  I don't send my kids out to play in highway traffic with hunting knives because hey, statistically they are safer now then 20 years ago.  I still go with my 6 year old to the restroom at the mall, and I never let my kids out in the front yard unless I am out front too.  Statistic might relieve my mind, but my heart still has to see those horrid stories about kids not coming home due to a predator.  However, what I can do as a parent is make sure I am giving my kids the opportunities I had.  I go out front so they can.  I let them play in my fenced in backyard, even though they could break something.  I watch them make up weird games, and sometimes pretend I don't see them poking at the dog poop so they can snickeer about it later.  And I would challenge any parent concerned that their kids weren't getting to watch the street lights come on in the summer, to do the same.  Childhood is calling...go enjoy it.  So there.........

Friday, May 11, 2012

Scout Properties

Regarding the Long Range Property Plan:

I have been a Girl Scout member since 1978 (an adult member since 1990).  My credentials are such that  I worked as a resident counselor at Arrowhead for four summers,  spent one summer doing Brownie Camp at Mountaindale, and I am currently gearing up for my fourth summer as a day-camp counselor.  In addition, I worked at outdoor school here in Oregon, and Pennsylvania, and spent a summer as a day camp counselor for Campfire.
My original intention was to comment on Homestead; the scout property closest to my service area.  After reading the report however, I find that I have several comments to make.
Considering the leadership that Girl Scouts had regarding outdoor programming in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, I am incredibly dismayed to discover so many of our properties with deferred maintenance issues.  Even the “best” of our camps, have adequate facilities at best.  Considering the role Girl Scouts has played in outdoor education, I find that leadership has let us down to have so many properties needing so much attention.  Particularly disturbing was Marilyn’s Place at Mountaindale.  Despite the apparent age of the facility, it is actually quite “young” compared to facilities at numerous other camps and yet there are already significant drawbacks to programming and general usage.  As we consider the future of our program, and what we have to offer, I hope that mistakes of the past, either mismanagement or poor planning,  can be avoided.  Buildings constructed should not be considered “past their prime” within a few decades.  Properties should not be allowed to disintegrate, and then hope they can be spun-off because of upgrading costs.  All of our membership deserves more than that. 
For decades, most outdoor opportunities for girls and young women was through the Girl Scouts.  Now that we have achieved so much, it seems as if scouts wants to push us back.  Our council sits on prime sites-either because of their ruggedness, or proximity to urban areas.  We have the ability to be leaders once again in this arena.  I would argue that we work to save all sites regardless of our personal thoughts.  Obviously I  will be biased to the ones closest to me, but I would argue that some of the sites I am unfamiliar with have their supporters as well.  Re-alignment is barely two years old.  Most of us are still grappling with the idea that Grants Pass, Newport, and Portland are all of the same council.  We should be given more time to explore some of these areas that are so new to us.  We should take into consideration the expected influx of “new arrivals” to the Pacific NW in the next twenty years, and especially look closely at ALL properties by urban areas. 

The question always remains, how to provide AND pay for the things we wish to accomplish.  The obvious answer is that IF there are in fact no properties in the entire council area that NO ONE has emotional ties to, it should be sold, or otherwise dealt with accordingly.  I have already stated I have low hopes for that being the case, but if I am wrong, I support a sale.  I would also argue about the type of programming we can offer at these sites.  Most of the sites are poised for excellent outdoor education-from simple to extreme.  The first time hiker with a daisy troop should find access readily available, but some of the older girls would enjoy learning wilderness rescue, extreme camping, and outdoor survival.  And while outdoor education is always a positive, there are other ways to utilize these properties.  In the mid-1980’s, I attended an overnight in The Dalles with the sole purpose of completing a badge.  Our council overnight facilities can be used for this again.  Also let the membership know that girls from Portland might love to know where overnight facilities are in the Medford area, just as girls from K. Falls would love an opportunity to learn about the Columbia River Gorge.  Encourage troops to do educational trips to these “exotic” locales.  Council needs to “sell” these trips.  Maybe instead of “Wider Opportunities”, we do “Local Opportunities”.  Mini-trips planned around the location of the scout houses.  I myself can envision a four night trip to The Dalles to learn about the geology of the Gorge, or maybe a three night stay at the Albany or Eugene house for seniors in high school, to check out colleges in the area (Univ. of Ore., Ore. State, AND Western Ore. Univ. are all within an hour’s drive of each other).  There also might be opportunities for girls to partake in upgrading the facilities.  While building a brand new lodge is probably not realistic, older girls might relish the opportunity to learn how to build a new Adirondack at Arrowhead or Whispering Winds; saving money AND teaching useful skills.  Trail building, healthy forest management, painting simple outbuildings, are all activities that can be appropriately managed for different ages and skill levels.  We need to look “outside the box” of what the great outdoors is, and re-define it to be more acceptable to the 21st century.  We need to do the same with how we can utilize the valuable sites we have.

In regards to Homestead specifically, I find it disheartening that once again, a property on the east side of the Portland-metro area is in danger of being let go.  We in this area seem to have to fight for a space to send our girls.  And it certainly isn’t because we aren’t interested.  Arrowhead saw healthy numbers of participants, and yet was still allowed to disintegrate, seemingly with the hopes the membership wouldn’t want to spend money to preserve it.  The number of visits days Homestead is visited is listed as 105, a misleadingly low number.  That is not even half the days of a given year.  However, it does represent almost every single weekend, which shows the immense interest in this valuable site.  Those of us who live near this site are willing to take an active role in its usage and preservation.  We have shown our utmost dedication by actually using this site, repeatedly.  If this site is taken from us, where would we have the kind of access elsewhere?  The committee stated it was willing to make sure girls had access to other areas, if one site became unavailable, so where would east county go?  While Mountaindale and Arrowhead are both great areas, they are not as close in proximity as Homestead, nor are they as convenient for smaller programs.  I ask again, what would replace Homestead?

 I would bet that any service area would fight for the sites it deems emotionally valuable.  Council, and the committee, need to let us, the membership take an active role in not only Homestead but every site we have ownership of.  Because the girls are repeatedly begging for different opportunities, and we have the possibility to provide them, it needs to be done.  But we need new thinking, and new ideas, to get these properties ready for the future, and declaring them to decayed and bothersome, is not the way to do it. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Outdoor School

The disclaimer to this blog is: I am 100% behind efforts to keep the Outdoor School Program (any Outdoor School Program) up and running, so this blog is biased.  This is not some balanced piece explaining both sides; this is a disgruntled club memeber upset the club might be closing. As a 6th grader who attended Outdoor School in the Fall of 1983, as the Junior Counselor 3x over between 1989 and 1990, AND as a Resource Counselor in the Pennsylvania Outdoor School System in 1998, you might ask yourself why I feel qualified to right this blog?  I feel qualified because I have been there, and Outdoor School is beautiful.  However, my love affair with Outdoor School actually began in 1981, as a 4th grader listening to a presentation by the 6th graders who had just returned from their Outdoor School experience.  Their stories of resources lessons, sleeping in cabins, and campfires, had me hooked.  As a two-summer veteran of summer camp, Outdoor School sounded like my kind of place.  (Since my love affair with summer camp has lasted decades, it is easy to see why I was such an easy sell!)
By the time I made it to Outdoor School 2 years later, I was a four-summer veteran of summer camp, so many of the things teachers want us to learn there went right over my head.  Eating in a group setting where everyone gets firsts before you get seconds, being independent from home and thinking for yourself, being in the forest, learning about animals, etc.  I had been there, done that-repeatedly.
However, even in my experienced state, I managed to take away two very important lessons.  I had camped several times through Girl Scouts and with my family, and had never realized that forests, like other habitats, is a science.  The web of life, watersheds, animal homes-it is all part of what we were/are.  The forests wasn't just for camping and hiking; it had/has PURPOSE.  The second thing I learned was that not everyone was like me economically.  Of course I knew that in theory; by the 6th grade we had done many projects to help those that were disadvantaged.  But no one in my neighborhood fit that category, and neither did any of my friends, ergo not in my backyard, right?  Being with kids from different areas taught me a thing or two about what disadvantaged was. 
The reality was though, I didn't walk away from Outdoor School a totally changed person.  The things I learned are important, and I am grateful for them, but I can't lie and say I became The World's Most Empthetic 6th Grader.  I was 11; not the most shining year I ever had.  However, there is another side to Outdoor School that rarely gets mentioned.  It is not in the PR I have seen, and outside the Hallowed Trees of Learning, few people realize that there is a whole another set of people learning important things at Outdoor School.  I speak of the Junior Counselors (JC for short).
Not all Outdoor Schools are run the same.  In the Portland-metro area, Outdoor School is made possible by the hundreds of high schools students who, every Fall and Spring, miss a week of regular school to make the magic of Outdoor School happen.  They receive no pay, get to make up all the homework they missed, sleep in the cabins with a bunch of 6th graders, plus teach a resource .  There are 4 Resource Subjects the 6th graders learn, and that the JC's must pick from to help teach-Water, Soil, Plants, and Animals.  (The 6th graders rotate so they get one day for each, while the JC's stay with that subject the whole week.) For the record, I spent one program week on Water, before I switched and did my last two program weeks with Animals (Granola was HOT-all the girls wanted to be on Animals!)  (And yes, we all had camp names.)
I swear on the keyboard I am using to write this: I learned more at Outdoor School as a Junior Counsleor, than I EVER learned as a 6th grader.  Of course being on Water and Animals, I can tell you all about Watersheds, and that there are eels in this area.  I got up close and personal to Helga the camp possum, and even stuck my finger in her pouch.  Yes, I am way cool.  Turkey Vultures are scavnegers that keep the forest clean, and clean water is the cornerstone of a healthy forest.  Yes, yes, yes:  Woodsy Owl and Smokey the Bear love me.
However, there is more at stake than being able to lead the best camp song at campfire:
*There are 2 JC's per cabin at night; my co-JC left midway through Outdoor School because she missed her boyfriend.  I learned about repsonibilty, follow through, and what happens when people count on me and I let them down.  (In all honesty she was a bitch and I wasn't sorry to see her go despite the added responsibilities.)
*I was the leader on the dead animal walk-an animal corpse with lots of maggots and beetles that had purposely been left near the trail so the kids could see decomposition at its finest.  (Funny thing; no JC but me was excited to lead this walk!)  However, one group of boys, who I thought would totally be into my subject, refused to stay on task.  Finally out of exasperation, I asked what was so darn interesting, besides this really cool, dead corpse.  Every single one of them answered, "the crickets."  I got pissed, and in my sternest, teenage voice declared they could look at those at home; we had a lesson to finish.  The quieter ones, followed me, but both the bolder two boys shook their heads and one of them said "no we can't; we don't have crickets at my house."   These kids were from North Portland.  Not only were crickets a rarity; going outside at night to see them wasn't done often either.  Lesson here was live animals trump dead ones, don't interrupt the learning excitement wherever it may come from, and never under-estimate the coolness of nature. 
*One little girl cried EVERYDAY that she was homesick.  When Friday rolled around, she cried that it was time to go, and was upset at all she had missed by moping for home.  I learned that time passes whether I am happy or sad.  Sharing feelings is fine, and acknowledging when I am upset is good too, but if I don't watch out, good times will pass me by when I am not looking. 
The list of lessons learned is endless:  the music expertise of one of the Resource Counselors; the special needs class that loved EVERYTHING we did; the songs that kids sang over and over and over AND over again; watching turkey vultures soar through the air; the JC that came to Outdoor School with a chewing tobacco addiction; trying to whistle after eating a saltine cracker; what happens when it rains everday; celebrating Halloween outdoors with virtual strangers.  I could go on and on, dredging up a lot of good memories.  However the reality is, there are very few experiences like this one for high school students, and it would be a damn shame to end it now.  I understand why the perception Outdoor School is a 6th grade program.  The middle schools pay for it; not the high schools.  But to limit Outdoor School to only the one demographic age, is to short change a program that benefits hundreds of students, of multiple ages, across the area.  We as a society should be looking at how the cost benefits ALL students at Outdoor School, regardless of age, and realize the price tag isn't so steep.  We also need to realize how Outdoor School benefits us all.  Year after year, 6th graders and high school students headed off to Outdoor School, grew up, and became voters in this area. Portlanders have a reputation of being pro-environment; something that I doubt happened by accident.

We learn at Outdoor School, in the Soil Resource, that there is no such thing as dirt.  Rather there are different layers of sub-strata, all with a different function but working together to form Soil.  Soil provides the basis for plant life, which in turn supports animals and air.  Outdoor School is the same way- the 6th graders are simply one layer. We need to see that there are numerous layers of Outdoor School, all working together to provide a program that supports other programs down the line.  The numerous parties involved in Outdoor School, 6th grade and high school alike, become the stewards of each other, and the planet we live on.  Not a bad exchange for anyone. 
And my camp name was, and remains, Zinka.