how to hold the attention of 38 kindergarteners

Today, I stared down three-dozen-and-two five and six-year-olds, and survived.

It was “Creativity Week” at my children’s school, and I had been asked to come in and speak to the kindergarteners (and the second graders) about how I use creativity in my work. One of the teachers took this photo this morning, and I thought I was pretty calm throughout my presentation, but pictures don’t lie: I am clasping my hands together tightly enough to make diamonds. My knock-knees also suggest a certain unease. What you cannot see in this picture is my flop sweat. I tend to sweat a lot whenever I perform (or audition, unfortunately), and I guess today’s presentation was a similar adrenaline-raiser, because I seriously had stains halfway down to my waist on both sides afterwards. I was supersized-spinning-class sweaty.

Thanks to all of you, though, and your excellent suggestions last week, I think I did pretty well. I went to the kindergarten first, and talked about what happens when authors were stuck for ideas. Some of them were apparently a little let down that I wasn’t talking about life in Hollywood, because when I opened up the floor for questions, this was what I got:

-when people are eating in a movie, are they really eating?
-when people fight with swords in a movie, are they really swords?
-when people wear crowns in a movie, are they really metal?

The answers, in case you’re wondering, are yes, sort of, and only if it’s funded by a major studio.

Then we moved on to a “brainstorm” art project, one of but many excellent suggestions from my awesome readers. This one came from Lynnelle, an elementary school literacy teacher (hope I’m getting that right Lynnelle) who blogs at Bohemian Teacher. Lynnelle’s blog is full of amazing ideas for teachers– and moms with bored kids– but the one I used was the “hand brainstorm,” which Lynnelle attributes to Donald Graves’ book “My Quick Writes: For Inside Writing.” 

All you do is trace your hand, then brainstorm all the things your hand has touched, or felt, or done. I loved this idea for kindergarteners because they could either write or draw their ideas, based on where they are at in their literacy journey. Here’s the hand brainstorm I showed them:

It lists playing the piano (I used to), water skiing (once in high school), and my less successful visit to their class last month to make gingerbread cookies, among my other notable achievements. After a few hiccups with children in tears that they couldn’t trace their hands prettily enough, and me gritting my teeth a little that that was not really the point of the exercise, everyone made their “hand brainstorms,” and then those who felt so moved shared with the entire group. 

I suggested they follow up with one of these ideas for their next “journal entry,” which happens every week or so.  Their teachers seemed pleased by that idea. Then I was on to second grade, and this post is already long enough, so I won’t go into detail– except to say that my 8-year-old gave me a big hug in front of his whole class afterward, which thrilled me, since I wasn’t sure he’d even acknowledge my presence. So I figure that MUST have gone well.

Have any of you been “guest speakers” in your children’s classrooms recently? How did it go? 

how to teach creativity to kids: if anyone has any idea, please let me know

You’re creative!” wrote my children’s principal, in a cheery email to me a week or two ago. “Won’t you join us for Creativity Week?” Well, that sounded fun! I may not be the mom you want around for gingerbread man-making, but I’m a artistic sort! Sure, sign me up! I responded, figuring I’d be helping pass out the cray-pas to the second graders some afternoon.

Here, a lesson: read all fine print before signing any contract. It was only after my casual acceptance that I learned what the honor of being chosen for Creativity Week really meant: my second grader’s teacher hands me the reins for  thirty minutes, during which I creatively teach seventeen children about being creative. “Let me know if you need anything,” that teacher said kindly at pickup yesterday, and I wanted to say “um, a lesson plan would be good,” but I get the sense that I’m supposed to show up with one of those.

Then I got an email last night, saying my other son’s kindergarten class would love to have me also. Then this morning at dropoff, the kindergarten teacher told me that the other kindergarten would be there as well, and wasn’t that a great idea? That’s THIRTY-EIGHT CHILDREN in one room, which is such a bad idea, actually, that they have two kindergarten classes to keep the numbers under control- except for half an hour during Creativity Week, when they are someone else’s problem. 

I don’t think my kids’ teachers are going to LEAVE, necessarily. (God I hope not.) I do think they are putting way too much confidence in my abilities. I’ve worked some tough crowds- dads on Blackberries, moms who have downed a pitcher of margaritas each- but never forty five-year-olds who haven’t played outside very much lately. 

Sure, it can be done.  Little Bill’s dad spoke to his son’s class, and turned what Little Bill feared would be a yawn-fest about life as a housing inspector into a fascinating exploration of the three little pigs and their citations for structural infirmities. But if you watch Little Bill, you know that he basically has like three other kids in his whole kindergarten class, so clearly any similarities to real life stop right there. 

Panic leads to procrastination, so I don’t have much so far, but I’m thinking for the second graders, I’ll talk about how to make room for creativity in a life with way too much screen time, and then have them do a writing exercise or something. But the kindergarteners are harder: they can only “write” with one-on-one adult assistance, and we will be approximately thirty-four adults short. That means we will have to do “theater games,” which I give five minutes tops before they devolve into “let’s say ‘poopy'” games. Hack choice, but always hilarious. Then I’ll never get ’em back. 

Anyone care to give me some words of advice about speaking to their kids’ classes? 

no truce in the Tiger Mother wars yet

Despite Obama’s stirring call for civility this past week, the battle rages on: those who are aghast at the Tiger Mother, and those who defend her principles at all costs. An anonymous commenter appeared on this blog just yesterday to throw down this gauntlet:

Say what you want, but the fact remains, asians score higher SAT scores, achieve more in college, and have a lower level of serving prison terms than most other “cultures” in America.

Taking personal responsibility for ones own success, as well as failures, certainly is almost unfathomable to the typical american mindset, and that’s why the asian stats will remain superior to all others in the foreseeable future….

Having a fat kid should be the same as having a kid who is smoking pot, since the eventual rendevous with a brick wall by the addict, is essentially the same. Parents who consistently “break down” and buy their kids happy meals are weak…. You’re weak. Your kids are fat. Your kids are mediocre in school. You don’t have the will to make it change. Just be honest and say you’re overwhelmed, or deal with it.

Don’t point fingers at your betters and say, “well, they aren’t as happy as we are,” because on closer, honest examination, this will be a lie, and as many of you have experienced, families that lie, eventually disintegrate.

Support your family. Stop lying. 

OK! OK! *sob* I have been lying. My kids are weak, fat, and mediocre in school. 

Kidding. Actually, my 8-year-old can do 20 perfect pushups, my 6-year-old is so skinny you can see through him, and my 3-year-old runs her preschool (and the Upper West Side) with an iron, princess fist.  All three of my children are strong, intelligent, and just-so sized. All of this has happened without me calling them names or depriving them of joy. All three of them are exactly where they should be, neither pushed nor pulled (except when it’s three minutes after eight and they don’t have their coats on). 

Here’s what I don’t buy: I don’t buy you either have successful, berated children, or loser, well-loved ones. I was the valedictorian of my high school class, and I have the softest pillow of a mother. I never strived to do better because I thought she’d break my dollhouse if I didn’t. I was  self-motivated. I was happy. I believe kids can be both. 

I also don’t buy that having a kid who plays Carnegie Hall, or goes to college when he’s eight or whatever, is ipso facto better than having a kid who doesn’t do those things– and that is where the Tiger Mothers and the rest of us will probably never see eye to eye. 

Ms. Chua has spent the last week furiously backpedaling on this essay, claiming that the excerpt is not the whole story of the book, and that some of it was meant to be a joke. I know too well what can happen when a news agency gives something you wrote a way-off, sensationalist title and throws you to the wolves. But when that happened to me, and I started getting the hate mail, I didn’t try to argue “you didn’t get it, I was just kidding.” For better or worse, I figured that I wrote what I wrote. I needed to let it stand as is and take the heat. Saying “I was only joking,” as the  inimitable Seth Godin has explained, is “an incredibly lame excuse for a failed interaction.” Plus, as Kate Zernike pointed out in her overview of this whole kerfuffle in the New York Times this past weekend, Ms. Chua’s writing doesn’t actually sound like she’s kidding, and in interviews, she has seemed “unresolved” at best. 

Part of me feels sorry for Ms. Chua, since she’s apparently getting death threats, and part of me thinks she is crazy like a fox, since her book is currently #5 on Amazon.  We’re all talking about it, clearly people are buying it, and that conversation would not have happened if she hadn’t thrown a grenade into the weekend section of the Wall Street Journal. Anyone who writes about parenting can tell you that such writing usually gets the eye roll.  It might get a nod in the family section, but it’s not going to be reviewed, and it’s certainly not going to be given such prominent real estate in our nation’s leading financial newspaper. The sad takeaway from this controversy, for authors, is that if you want to sell a book, you have to dial up your rhetoric, scorch the earth and point fingers, sensationalize and create controversy. The opposite of what all of us should want. If Chuck Schumer and Tom Coburn can sit together at the State of the Union, then mothers should be able to feel good about their parenting priorities without ripping down someone else’s to get there– or to get their book read.

(I must add a side note here to Ms. Zernike, should she read this: please acknowledge the authors of the blogs you quote in articles like this. Yes, they’re great punchlines. But someone worked hard to write them. They’re not anonymous scribblings, there for the taking. In fact, they’re probably copyrighted.)

don’t count your snow day before it… snows

We were so totally supposed to have a snow day here in NYC today. I mean, it was going to snow all night, starting at 7 pm, and not finishing until noon today. No school FOR SURE, right? Outside chance of a two hour delay. But I mean come on.
I became a little too pre-attached to this outcome last night (always a mistake for a mother) and sold the kids hard on the whole inside-out and backwards pajamas thing.  It is a belief widely held among kids of this generation that if you flip the jammies, a snow day will come. I love anything that has my kids believing in magic and hope and wishes really coming true. Therefore, since the weather reports had me certain Santa Snow would come through, I made them all change into their lucky pajamas as soon as we got home from school, scratchy backward collars and all. Then we pre-planned our morning: pancakes, Star Wars Monopoly, hot chocolate, Legos. 

Maybe getting outside eventually, if and when we felt like it. 

When my husband got home, he was so taken by our exciting snow day preparations, he declared that he would play hooky from work and take a snow day with us, since it would succeed! Yes, it would, indeed! 98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed!
I woke up around 6:15 am, the first in the house. Looked out the window. Huh. Not a LOT of snow. And not currently snowing.
Then I checked my Notify NYC text messages, which I love having on my phone because I get school closing info half an hour before the news channels are reporting it:
NYC public schools are open. All field trips are cancelled.
Field trips? No! But- no! There must be some mistake! I turned on the TV only to hear the announcer say, with a raised eyebrow, “New York City public schools are open today.” 
Even then I wasn’t sure. I kept watching in case, you know, she’d get handed a piece of paper from off camera and say “we have breaking news! A further snow emergency has been declared…”
Connor shuffled into the kitchen. One look at his face and I knew: he knew.
“There’s school,” I said.
“I knew as soon as I looked out the window,” he said. (Much less in denial than I was.)
“I’m going to work,” David sighed. Magic morning? Cancelled. 
I don’t know why I’m so bummed that I didn’t get a extra winter’s day of three kids stuck in this apartment, rather than the pleasant silence I am currently enjoying before preschool pickup in fifteen minutes. I guess it’s that the magic let them down– and by extension, so did I, since I encouraged them so hard to believe. 
There’s one reason to keep hope alive, at least: according to this “Talk of the Nation” story, you’re supposed to do the inside-out pajamas, NOT backwards, plus lick a spoon and put it under your pillow. I didn’t know about the spoon. Next time we’ll get it right.

Why this Chinese mother says she is better than the rest of us

CAU coverI don’t usually look to the Wall Street Journal for a dose of parental perspective-skewing, but they printed a doozy over the weekend: an essay by law professor and mom Amy Chua explaining, for the record, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. I never felt like they were, necessarily; I can’t say I gave it much thought at all. But Ms. Chua is here to tell us moms like her (Chinese or not) are right, and the rest of us are wrong. To wit:

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable– even legally actionable– to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty– lose some weight.”

Don’t you wish you could do that, Western moms? Isn’t that so clearly superior to the way you might do things?

By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image.

Right. Whereas if you just berated and shamed your child yourself, rather than letting society do it, she’ll still have an eating disorder but your own personal shame will prevent her from getting that embarrassing therapy, yet she’ll be skinny enough to be perceived as perfect. Can you not see how much better that is?

How about grades? Are you screaming and tearing your hair out when your child comes home with B’s? Well, WHY NOT? Get on the superlative Chinese program: 

If their child doesn’t get [A’s], the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to sub-standard performance is always to excoriate, punish, and shame the child.

This essay is full of bons mots like these that will have you flipping back to the front of the paper to make sure you aren’t reading The Onion. Yes, Ms. Chua’s daughter has played Carnegie Hall. She also never went on a playdate or watched television. EVER. Not once. According to Ms. Chua. Wonder if the kid thinks it was worth the cost.

But let’s not make the Chinese mother the enemy, because Ms. Chua thinks that’s totally unfair: 

There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests.

Yeah, you authors, stereotyping Chinese mothers! Cut it out!  There’s no need for you to vilify mothers like Ms. Chua. She seems to be doing a pretty good job of it herself.

Thanks to for including this blog in its roundup of the blogosphere’s response to  Ms. Chua’s essay. Check it out- more interesting reading…