Lasts and Firsts by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Welcome to the 2014-2015 school year.

Senior year has finally arrived in our house. Ever since Adam entered his preparatory school, we’ve been counting backwards from Class VI. And now here we are among the parents and members of Class I. For Adam and us, his parents, it will be a year of lasts and firsts. This will be the last time I launch a child of mine into the school year from our home. The next stop is college. This will be the last time I attend a back-to-school night; I won’t meet his professors in college. This will be the last year I cheer from the sidelines during one of Adam’s cross-country races. He probably won’t be running competitively in college.

But it will also be a year of firsts for Adam. Most notably he’ll be going through the arduous process of applying to colleges. We’ve done the prerequisite legwork of the college applicant, dutifully making our way to look at schools. There’s no clear favorite, although parents and child have their opinions. Having gone through this before, I try very hard to keep my opinions to myself. I work on remembering that this is Adam’s life and that I must wholeheartedly support him much the same way I do during a running meet.

Grace—I think that will be the watchword to which I return over and over this year. The grace to understand that, perhaps for the first time in his young life, Adam must have significant control over his decisions. The grace to appreciate the decisions he makes. The grace to accept those decisions. Grace is an odd word for a Jewish parent. Ask a Jew if grace is an overtly Jewish concept and the answer is most likely no. But in Judaism, the idea of grace is bound up in G-d’s infinite mercy. Rabbi Rami Shapiro who wrote a book on the subject of grace in Judaism notes that grace encompasses, “G-d’s unlimited, unconditional, unconditioned, and all-inclusive love for all creation.”

I’m surprised that my thoughts have turned to G-d in this essay. What does G-d have to do with the college process—G-d who has bigger and more important issues to which to attend. But I must confess that I saw flashes of G-d’s grace in the required autobiographical essay that Adam wrote for his college counselor. Note this is not the common application essay—the autobiographical essay was strictly written as informational for the people writing his school and teacher recommendations. And yet, it was profoundly eye-opening for me.

I knew that Adam and Anna got along well—in fact I have often marveled over how close they are. They are, in many respects, best friends. But this was driven home for me when Adam’s essay described the way Anna influenced many of his decisions ranging from playing soccer and singing in the school choir, to the way she treats people. As the older sibling, Anna has had a profound influence on Adam’s derech eretz—literally, the ethics that he holds dear in life. He wrote, “My sister showed me that it is sometimes more important to listen to your friends than talk. She was nice to me and in turn encouraged me to be nice as well. She taught me how to retort with wit, how to lose with grace and how to generally function as a person. She taught me how to be a confidant, by placing her trust in me, and in turn never told my secrets. “

After reading Adam’s words about Anna I thought, yes, Ken and I have done our jobs as parents. As I read on, I was buoyed by Adam’s descriptions of his late night talks with Ken about science. “My father and I had this tradition when I was younger,” Adam writes. “He would sit in the rocking chair in my room and talk about science with me. He would entertain my questions about space and anatomy, which I used to think were the only important parts of science. He fostered in me a scientific curiosity that remains to this day. I credit him with my infatuation with all things scientific. He encouraged me to always ask questions and to learn what was really going on around me.”

I think I was most surprised about Adam’s observations of me. It did not escape Adam’s notice that I have a difficult relationship with my mother. But he lauded me for sticking with her and doing my best to make her comfortable and happy. I was touched that, as young as he is, he appreciated that, “my mother never told me to distance myself from my grandmother. She told me to always love her and respect her. She taught me how to be patient.”

Adam’s essay reflects the best of lasts and firsts. Through his observations, I understood that this may be one of the last times that his parents have such a primary influence on his life, But it’s also a first—the first time that I recognized my son had the grace and empathy of the adult I hoped he would become.

 

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The New SAT by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Adam saw the cover story of the New York Times Sunday Magazine a couple of weeks ago, he groaned, “Too late for me.” The headline that upset him, “The Story of the SAT Overhaul,” announced that a new version of the SAT was coming out in the spring of 2016.

Adam had just come off of taking the nearly four-hour exam the day before and he was not a happy camper. Ask Adam what he thinks of the SAT and he’ll happily give you an earful on the subject. “The SAT is quite possibly the worst way to gauge a student’s ability to perform at a college level,” he says. “The vocabulary is unnecessarily obscure, the reading analysis asks the most random questions, the writing section indoctrinates students to lose all sense of creativity and style and the essay is judging a student’s ability to write in a time limit not suitable for a well constructed paragraph.”

SAT
Of course, that’s one kid’s opinion, but I suspect many of his peers share it as well. It appears that the College Board has been listening too. For the second time in ten years the Board is thoroughly revising the way it tests college applicants. According to David Coleman, who took over as head of the College Board in 2012, the changes will go far in democratizing the test for all students.

In effect, Coleman is acknowledging the SAT’s dirty, open secret – families with access to wealth, education, a good school or all three have an unfair advantage when preparing for the test. The new SAT will be more aligned with what a college-bound senior should have learned in a common core curriculum. Before coming to the College Board, Coleman was a key figure in the development of the Common Core Standards. Those standards, with their emphasis on analytical thinking as well as key math and writing concepts, will be reflected in the new SAT. As it stands now, Coleman acknowledges the test is “disconnected” from the high school curriculum.

Some of Adam’s criticisms have been dealt with in the test that will be administered in 2016. The section that is currently labeled critical reading will merge with multiple choice writing questions from to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Thankfully, current questions known as “sentence completion” will be jettisoned, addressing Adam’s complaint about defining “unnecessarily obscure” vocabulary.

The College Board will include more science, history and social studies questions for further analysis on the exam. New among those passages will be source documents from American luminaries like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The math section will focus more on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics touching on more advanced mathematics. As it stands now, calculators are allowed throughout the math sections, but they will be barred from certain portions in the future to determine math fluency.

The mandatory essay, an innovation of the 2005 SAT, will be optional in the future. Students will now have 50 minutes to analyze evidence as well as an author’s argument. Currently, test-takers have only 25 minutes to answer a prompt that doesn’t require them to verify facts or worry about accuracy.

The change that I am most excited about in this whole SAT business is that it has the potential to level the playing field when it comes to test preparation. Gaming the SAT is a $4.5 billion-a-year industry that preys on parents and kids alike. To end this madness (and yes, my kids took prep courses, so I got caught up in the frenzy too), Coleman has partnered with Khan Academy, which offers free online tutorials on myriad subjects ranging from literature to calculus.The academy was founded in 2006 by Sal Khan, 36, who left his job as a successful hedge-fund manager with the goal of bringing a world-class education to anyone with an internet connection. With that same can-do, egalitarian spirit, Khan Academy will offer its trademark free videos on preparing for the new SAT.

The new SAT will also hopefully make books like the newly published, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier feel anachronistic. Stier is a suburban New York mom who decided that the only way to gain admission and win a scholarship to college for her B average son was to help him achieve a perfect 2400 on the current SAT. Thirty years earlier, Stier had done poorly on her own SAT exam, so in her quest to beef up her son’s academic profile she took the SAT as an adult – seven times in seven different test centers. She went to tutoring companies, engaged pricey private teachers and generally drove herself nuts. She didn’t achieve a perfect score – her verbal scores steadily improved but she never scored more than the mid-500s in math – but she learned a thing or two about the unfairness of the system along the way.

As for Adam, he says that SAT has too much power in teenagers’ lives. He’s doubtful whether a new version can come close to reigning in that power. He may be right. Yet after all is said and done, most college admissions officers note that grades, not SAT scores, are the best predictors of success in college.

Recognizing Signs of Abusive Dating Among Teenagers by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I wish February had been Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month when I was growing up. I might have realized that in the era before e-mails or cellphones, my boyfriend’s demand that we speak on the telephone every night was unreasonable. I was in college and my life revolved around those phone calls.

At 18, I thought his behavior demonstrated intense love for me. Young and inexperienced, it never occurred to me that he wanted to control me. In my mind, this was love and love always hurts, doesn’t it? All I had to do was listen to a pop song or watch a soap opera to see that a love worth having was often portrayed as painful, or at the very least, something mostly difficult to endure.

To read the rest of this post please click on : http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/15/recognizing-signs-of-abusive-dating-among-teenagers/#more-43701

You Are Not a Test Score: Some Advice for the College Applicant

With much anticipation and a shot of dread, it’s time for some families of high school juniors and seniors to enter the college sweepstakes. Once a kid is knee-deep into her junior year of high school, the mostly self-imposed requirements to apply to colleges come fast and furious: SATs, SAT tutoring, subject test tutoring. AP classes, exams – midterms and finals. Everything is magnified in search of the Holy Grail at the end of sending out college applications—acceptance to a school you actually want to attend or bragging rights to the kinds of schools that accepted you.

Applying to college in rarefied circles—solid to upper middle class—is a virtual blood sport. The grueling psychological competition is explicitly and humorously laid out in a book I really liked called Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. The author, Andrew Ferguson, is a self-deprecating realist who manages to poke fun at, as well as take seriously, the business of shepherding your child to the threshold of his college dorm.

The fact is that 70% of high school seniors in the United States will go to college. Most of those seniors will not have cured cancer, written an opera or started a Fortune 500 business by the time they apply. They’ll be just like the zillion other candidates they’re up against at Fancy U. But bear in mind that 80% of college kids will happily matriculate at non-selective colleges—schools that offer automatic acceptance if you meet the minimum requirements. As my father used to say, “You can get a great education anywhere.”

The rest of us well-meaning parents will shell out thousands of dollars for at least one of the following: SAT tutoring, regular subject tutoring, college coaching and application preparation. Here’s how it works at one extreme: An application boot camp can cost $14,000 for four days of marathon essay writing and interviewing strategies. If you’re willing to empty out your 401K you can hire a private counseling service. The Cadillac of private college coaching can run up to $40,000.

SAT tutors in the Boston area can charge up to $200.00 an hour to prep a kid for “the test.” I’m glad I don’t live in the New York metropolitan area. SAT tutors in the Big Apple charge up to $425.00 an hour. In a New York Times article reporting on the fierce competition for perfect grades in high school, an anonymous parent at a tony private school in New York admitted to paying up to six figures in a given year for extra help in regular school subjects. That doesn’t count the steep tuition she already pays. I think my husband may be sitting on a pot of gold. Over the years he has saved us a bundle by tutoring our children in everything from calculus to biology.

Ferguson is at his wryest when he talks about the kitchen people—the folks who gather in the kitchen at a party to share war stories about their kids applying to college. In these clandestine conversations a parent would rather reveal the annual family income than her child’s SAT scores or GPA. Speaking of SATs—this is a test originally administered after the First World War to veterans with college aspirations. Somewhere along the line the SATs garnered the power to make or break a college career.

I could go on about the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. This is the list that admissions offices love to vilify yet secretly pray for a top 20 spot. There’s the college essay, which demands an epiphany so wise, so rare, that most 17-year olds simply don’t have the emotional maturity to have earned it.

Overwhelmed yet?

In the spring of junior year, usually with a guidance counselor and with grudging parental input, a student creates “the list” of schools to which she might apply. The list is usually a mix of colleges for which a kid is a leading candidate and schools that are designated as “a stretch.” As a parent you may look at up the admission statistics for your alma mater and shake your head in wonder at how you ever got into college.

At the core of every college application, job interview or personal relationship is the fear of vulnerability. Yet it’s vulnerability that gives us courage and compassion. Vulnerability begets connection; it keeps us honest. Vulnerability is important to show whether it be in the college essay or the alumni interview. Be human. You are multi-dimensional. And yes, you are not a test score.

I can remember Anna telling me that she didn’t need a campus full of valedictorians to feel academically fulfilled. During the process she was also also wise enough to demonstrate to her mother that lists, whether it the US News & World Report or the college lists she generated–should be used sparingly and mostly for things like groceries.

 

 

My Nest

Here’s a joke that I recently heard. An optimist sees the glass half-full. A pessimist sees the glass half-empty. An opportunist drinks the water. Not all that coincidentally, these describe the various emotional states of my half-occupied nest. Sometimes it’s half-full; sometimes it’s half-empty. Although there is more time and space in my house since Anna left for college, I’m still shocked that she packed up and moved away a five hour drive from me. Bearing in mind that our daughter wakes up every day almost 300 miles away, here’s a very short list of what’s changed at my house.

The bedroom. Be careful what you wish for because it may come true. Before she left for school, we blasted Anna’s room, clearing over eight years of detritus. We were sorting stuff that dated all the way back to 4th grade. There was that book project Anna couldn’t part with or that oh so pretty party dress that she wore on the bar mitzvah circuit six years ago! Six years ago?! Mind-boggling. In fact, Parents’ Weekend at Anna’s school falls on the fifth anniversary of her Bat Mitzvah. The quiet, clean bedroom matches the quiet, sort of clean house. I don’t mean to say that Anna is loud. But there is a liveliness, a spirit of wonder and a megawatt smile that she brings into a room. And with her departure for college, I’m now the only girl in the house. Even the dog is a boy and like the men in this house he could care less about the fabulous sweaters and pocketbooks that I find on sale.

The car. Anna never made the deadline we gave her for getting her driver’s license. Even her learner’s permit has expired. This means that Anna needed rides early and often. The longest ride we had together was between her school and Adam’s. I’ll admit I was almost always grumpy about the prospect of driving 15 miles in traffic between schools. But my annoyance evaporated when Anna got in the car and we had a half-hour to ourselves. We put the time to good use. We’d talk about the books she was reading, the people she was hanging out with, the latest doings at Student Council. The car ride was the teenage equivalent of lying down with her before she fell asleep. When she was a little girl that was the time that I learned what was near and dear to her heart, or conversely, what broke her heart.

Mealtime. Anna’s acute dairy allergy shaped who she was and, consequently, who we became as a family. Over the years Ken and I worked to help her advocate for herself at a birthday party or a restaurant. It turns out that Anna’s allergy also informed our Judaism. Since we had such little dairy in our house and we had made the commitment to send our kids to Jewish day school, it was not such a big leap for us to start keeping kosher. At first, we practiced keeping kosher using our non-kosher dishes. That is to say, we didn’t buy new plates or get a second set of plates to separate meat from dairy more fully. The fully stocked kosher kitchen was a natural outcome of our kitchen remodel. Everything was new including a dishwasher with two drawers—one for meat and one for milk. Nevertheless, we mainly lived a meat and pareve existence. When Anna left for college, I was sure that we would have a dairy fest every night in the house. I’ll admit that for the first couple of weeks we went wild and crazy with cheese tortellini and traded some of our Mother’s pareve margarine for a tub of butter. But it wasn’t as fun as we thought it would be. There was something disloyal about indulging in all that dairy and so barely realizing it we went back to our pareve life.

The brother. In many ways, Anna’s departure has been hardest on Adam. When it became clear that Anna was indeed going to college he got downright depressed at the thought of being the only child at home. He’d mumble under his breath, “I can’t believe I’m going to be stuck with those two. “ Those two, in case you haven’t figured it out, are Ken and me. I tried not to be insulted and chalked up his rudeness to anticipatory anxiety. It’s been six weeks since Anna settled into a dorm room with posters of Coldplay and the Beatles, and Adam still can’t believe he’s stuck with the two of us. I thought he’d be thrilled to be picked up on time and have unfettered access to parmesan cheese. It turns out he was just making noise about those things. He’d rather have Anna home.

When it’s all said and done, this half-empty nest, or depending on a given day, half- full nest, is ultimately emotional limbo. I’m not exactly pushing Adam out the door, but I’m kind of curious about what being an opportunist feels like.

How Children Succeed: An Interview with Paul Tough

Parenting books – love ’em or leave ’em. Most times, I leave them after perusing the table of contents. I don’t like the one-size-fits-all approach that so many of them take. But Paul Tough’s excellent new book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” rises to the top of the parenting book pile for its deep exploration of failure and the ways in which it builds character in our kids.

First a word about character. It’s as unique to each person as her DNA. Tough offers the revolutionary concept that character, unlike DNA, is not fixed or completely innate in a person. It is, in a word that recurs throughout “How Children Succeed,” malleable. I confess that I was initially very uncomfortable with the word malleable for its implication of weakness and undue influence. But read Tough’s book and you quickly learn that malleable is an asset.

Tough talked about character in a recent interview with [start ital.]The Advocate[end ital.], citing a chain of charter schools called KIPP and its dedicated founder David Levin. KIPP schools dole out report cards for academic performance and character assessment. “Dave is doing new and important work,” Tough said, adding:

“He has a new vision for character and it’s quite scientific in that he’s trying to figure out which character strengths make a difference in a kid’s success. And at the root of his research and thinking is the assertion that character is … a set of qualities that [enables] kids to change themselves and qualities that parents and teachers can instill.”

Tough presents living examples of low-income kids who have had the opportunity through mentoring programs, family members or discerning teachers to pause and look inward to shape and reshape their character. Kewauna Lerma was such a student. On the fast track to derailing her life, Kewauna did an about-face during her junior year of high school. She still lived at the poverty level on the South Side of Chicago, picking fights at school and struggling academically. But a spark was lighted inside of Kewauna through a mentoring program and encouragement from her mother and great-grandmother.

“Kewauna,” explained Tough, “became motivated to be a different person. It was very telling that she changed in that it came from her clear vision that she had of herself. That vision was further clarified in the program she was in as well as by her family.”

There is no question that kids mired in poverty have it tougher than children of affluence. But Tough admirably teases apart the hazards of having it too good without falling into the “poor little rich kid” syndrome.

For wisdom on the challenges faced by kids who seemingly have it all he turned to Dominic Randolph, headmaster of the tony Riverdale School in Riverdale, N.Y. – a well-off section of the Bronx. Randolph was initially the subject of a [start ital.]New York Times Magazine[end ital.]article that Tough wrote last fall. In that article, Tough explored Randolph’s claim that failure and character lead to academic success.

Advocating for failure is a radical step for a head of school where the majority of the class goes on to Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges. But that’s exactly what Randolph did when he came to Riverdale in 2009. Tough noted:

“[T]here is this way that certain high-pressure academic environments can stress kids out. They are on this treadmill versus climbing a mountain. At KIPP kids are climbing a mountain and it’s a bigger challenge than staying on that familiar treadmill. I think that’s why KIPP kids get out of college with more success and character. It’s the way you get on a life path, not the actual life path you end up on, and that makes all the difference.”

Tough points to the documentary “The Race to Nowhere” as a prime of example of affluence undoing kids. Vicky Abeles, the mother of three kids who were scorched by the heat of extreme academic competition, framed her film as a cautionary tale. I’m not a fan of the film because I think it’s slanted toward sensationalism. Tough thinks it’s a helpful example of the importance of establishing a good relationship with failure. “Affluent kids,” he said, “are in suspended animation throughout college without every hitting road bumps. Then they hit an obstacle in their 20s and they don’t have resources to deal with it.”

I think that Tough is on to something big here. We talked about post-college choices that kids who have graduated competitive colleges have made. He asserts that ironically their fear of failure steers them toward investment banking and management consulting jobs.

I wonder if our adult kids’ pervasive fear of failure hasn’t returned them to their childhood bedrooms, dissatisfied and unemployed. Yes, it’s a tough economy out there, but have we made them afraid to take chances, to bypass meaningful engagement and social justice opportunities?

Which brings me back to where I started. Perhaps character is not destiny, that it’s malleable enough to forge the kind of future that can fulfill our kids.

The Race to Nowhere

Vicki Abeles means well. She is a mother who wanted to give her three children all the advantages she never had as a child. As a result, she and her children weathered long school days followed by a daily onslaught of extracurricular activities. Sound familiar? But somewhere along the way her best intentions went awry and she realized that she and her children were running in, what she descriptively calls a “race to nowhere.”

Out of frustration, Abeles picked up a camera and made a movie, her first, about the never-ending marathon in which we have inadvertently sponsored our children. The resulting film, The Race to Nowhere, alternates between a cautionary tale and an overreaction to what happens when kids and parents are trapped by their own ambitions.

When it came out two years ago, Abeles’ film was screened in various upscale locations followed by question and answer periods. The high-achieving Boston suburbs where I live are the perfect laboratories to test Abeles’ theories. In the question and answer period I attended, a group of educators in the audience said how unfair it was to adjust their lesson plans simply for the sake of delivering high MCAS scores. “It is,” said one of the women, “like putting the cart before the horse.”

There are no surprises in Abeles’ film. Dedicated teachers are thwarted by school boards. One exemplary English teacher felt so beleaguered by the Oakland, California school system that she left teaching altogether. The woman openly wept on camera about leaving her students to fend for themselves in a mediocre school system.

The camera pans to a Stanford University freshman confessing that he regurgitated information for tests in high school only to be woefully unprepared for his freshman year of college. Then there are the befuddled parents and students who have no idea how to get off this exhausting treadmill. Fewer activities, an adjusted academic schedule? If only it were that easy.

In the middle of all this angst is a heart-breaking interview with a mother whose 13 year-old daughter Devon committed suicide after getting a bad grade on a math test. I think back to a column I wrote about Amy Chua, the original tiger mom, wouldn’t accept anything less than an A from her daughters. The Tiger Mother roars and her cubs fall into line. And yet I have to believe that it was more than poor test results that tragically sent Devon over the edge.

I worry about my children and the academic loads they carry. Anna was a three-season athlete in high school and often didn’t get to her homework until after dinner. Nothing annoyed her more than when I ask her how the homework situation is. She’d tell me the work is there and she would get through it no matter how long it took. Most nights I didn’t think she had an unreasonable amount of homework for a student as committed as she was. Yet I still fret about sleep-deprivation and the onslaught of emotional challenges she’s beginning to face as a college studentl.

Adam is no stranger to buckets of homework. His school prides itself on creating young men of character and discipline. Part of cultivating that persona is a full curriculum. For example, most nights he’ll be assigned up to 25 math problems. Although I hate homework as much as the next parent, I don’t think his assignments are busy work or aimed at “survival of the fittest.”

Sara Bennett is among those advocating education reform in Abeles’ film. She co-wrote a treatise with the self-explanatory title: The Case Against Homework. Like Abeles, she was a concerned parent who saw her children struggling against the overwhelming tide of worksheets and reading assignments in middle school.

According to Bennett’s research, a child needs to do only 5 math problems to catch on to a concept. Tell that to Amy Chua whose older daughter was once bested in a math competition. Chua’s solution was to have her daughter complete 200 (no there is not an extra zero) math problems a night for 10 days. That’s 2000 problems. That’s a lot of math. That’s a long race.

I wasn’t surprised to see Wendy Mogel make a cameo appearance to warn about the myriad ways our kids are stressed out. For Abeles and company, Mogel’s latest parenting book, The Blessings of a B-, is an island of calm in the madness of running after perfect SAT scores and padding resumes to resemble the CV of a Nobel prize-winner.

As parents we all too often walk that tenuous line between encouraging our children to be their best and demanding perfection from them. What goes loudly unsaid throughout the film is that entrants in the “race to nowhere” are more often than not socioeconomically privileged. All I can say in the face of these tense times is to hug your kids often. Set a realistic course that takes them towards a fulfilling, healthy future because the alternatives are too upsetting to contemplate.