Monday, September 16, 2019

What Your Kids Need to Know Before They Move Out

As a recent “empty-nester” I could have used something like the list I am sharing with you as my wife and I prepared to send both of our kids out the door to adulthood!  A lot has been said about our generation of parenting, quite a bit of it negative in terms of making our kids too dependent on us.  To a large extent, I agree with the criticism and have worked hard as a dad to prepare my kids to take care of themselves.  Some of it has taken hold, but some has not.  Tim Elmore, in his blog Growing Leaders, shares a list of 14 skills he believes we must instill in our children to prepare them to become independent, self-sufficient adults.  You may want to create a checklist from this and let it guide you over the course of the next few years.  I know that as I looked it over I still have some work to do!

14 Skills Your Kids Should Have Before Moving Out

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Thoughts About the Gymnasium Uberlingen Exchange — Part II

Shortly after I arrived and spent a couple of days in Uberlingen, I sent an email back to my administrator colleagues at NFV entitled Universal Truths!  We had gone on one of our outings, and I had just spent a good chunk of the morning at Gymnasium Uberlingen, with an opportunity to observe students and teachers, and to talk to my principal colleague, Hans Weber.  I also had a chance to talk with a teacher that we will get to know much better in the future, Ute Kramer, as she will travel on the next exchange to NFV.  In that small snapshot of time, I made some determinations, perhaps a little too soon or without adequate evidence!

First,  female students at Gymnasium Uberlingen dress very much like girls in our school, with shorts shorter than a conservative old foggy with a young daughter like me are comfortable with.  They do not have a dress code, but there were some observations made by a couple of their teachers that would indicate that many push the boundaries of what is acceptable in a school setting.  The boys, on the other hand, dressed a lot different than our’s.  First of all, sports are not nearly as large of a part of their culture as ours, and thus that kind of apparel influence was for the most part nonexistent.  No long baggy shorts, and not nearly the number of t-shirts.  They wore shorts and jeans, most of them other than blue denim, that were a lot more form fitting.  The point is that you could not tell the difference between American and German teenage females, but you most definitely could between the boys.

Kids do not do homework!  Teachers from the gymnasium expressed deep frustration that a high percentage of their current students do not do homework.  We see a lot of the same, to the extent that researchers have dug in trying to figure out why, and others in the field have spent a great deal of time determining what is valuable homework and what is not.  I was particularly surprised to hear this from gymnasium teachers because of their tiered educational system.  Those kids attending their school will take some very intensive exams at the conclusion of their final year of high school that will determine whether or not they will get into college, and then what college.  Talk about high stakes!  Perhaps it is indicative of this generation of young people that they haven’t internalized the concept of putting in the time to learn before you are assessed.  There are differences in motivation between our students and theirs due to the difference in school systems, but none the less students are choosing not to do homework.

Teachers from Uberlingen and our district claim that students are coming to school less prepared, and that parents are not as supportive of the school’s handling of student issues as in the past.  The same has been said in our nation’s schools as well.  In fact, schools have gone to great lengths to teach and provide services that are traditionally the responsibility of the family.  We have some great parents in our community, and I am sure that there are in Uberlingen as well, but like a lot of things, a “loud minority” often grabs the attention and focus of others.  Problems tend to receive more attention than things that are going well.  However, teachers in both places complain about giving up instruction time in their content area to teach things that should have been taught at home by parents.  

Something that was a bit of a surprise was that teachers do not feel appreciated, which is the same in our schools.  It has been well chronicled how teachers in our country face incredible challenges in the face of overwhelming criticism from a variety of different sources, and changes made by politicians.  A number of studies have determined that teacher morale is at an all-time low.  What I heard from teachers over there is primarily connected to changes in the school system made by the government.  The educational program is a lot more centralized in terms of curriculum that must be taught and assessments that have to be given.  Gymnasiums are the highest level schools for students in the country and designed to prepare students to go on to a university.  In recent years the government has relaxed admission standards and basically have taken the position that if parents want a child to go to a gymnasium, then they can, regardless of the child's academic level.  That is a drastic change, and means that there are kids in their schools that do not have the skills to succeed, and teachers are being asked to do more to see that they do.  It is a dramatic shift in expectations for teachers, and many are having a great deal of difficulty making the adjustment. 

Gaming online is a main competitor for student’s time outside of school, just as it is with some of our young people, as well as time spent on social media.  It seemed like as soon as we walked into a place that had free WiFi, out came all of the phones!  Fortnight is every bit as popular among German teens as it is with our’s.  One thing I did not see were phones in hand when students were moving through the halls at school, but at the same time, they were not carrying laptops either.  Keep in mind, however, that in their schools students stay in the same room and the teachers travel, thus the devices may have been left in the room.  Teachers expressed a similar frustration that students come to school tired in the mornings after late nights of gaming.

Over the years as I have traveled across our country, visiting schools and talking to educators, I have developed the belief that kids are kids, regardless of where they come from and live.  Now, having experienced a little bit of another country up close, this belief is further confirmed.  In this “smaller world” referenced in a previous article, technology has removed a lot of the unknowns.  More of the American way of life has seeped into the daily life of the areas we visited.  Technology has also caused change, and regardless of who you are or where you are, change is difficult.  Some of the challenges are the same for educators, both here and in Germany.  The more we communicate and work together, perhaps we can find positive ways to deal with them.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Thoughts About the Gymnasium Uberlingen Exchange — Part I

We recently completed the 19th exchange between our school and Gymnasium Uberlingen from southwest Germany.  In my time at North Fayette Valley I have been part of five exchanges, and this year was my first as a participant that traveled to Baden-Wittenburg, and the community of Uberlingen on the shores of the Bodensee, or Lake Constance.  It was an incredible experience, and I actually started to write this article on one of the “off days” we had early in our visit.  I was quite reflective that day, and already blown away by the experience up to that point.  Now that I am back in West Union, I have had more time to reflect on the experience and the exchange.  Over the course of the next few months in this blog, I will share different thoughts I have had relative to this experience.  Hopefully, some of what I write about will resonate with you, and if nothing else, give you a little more insight into the exchange that has impacted so many lives in our school district.

While this was the first time in Europe for me, my wife has traveled there before, and I remember a conversation with her about how surprised she was in regard to how much Europeans knew about our country.  And, on the flip side, how little we really know about Europe, other than a few things we learned in high school history classes.  Jay Leno used to do these “quizzes” on the street that were often about topics from history, primarily in my opinion to show how ignorant some people were about the world we live in.  He got some laughs and other people used those short clips to point fingers at school systems or “kids these days.”  What I found out in my time in Germany reinforced my wife’s view, and I was actually quite surprised how much people knew not only about our political system, but also about our economy, culture, and basically what goes on in many aspects of our society on a daily basis.  Yes, most of the time I was with highly educated people, but even when we had experience with others, this seemed to be true.

A number of years ago I read Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, and in different settings I have referenced a number of things that I took away from that book.  Without going into a full-scale review or summary of the book, one of the fundamental points he makes is that due to technology and advances in communication we live in a “smaller” world.  We are a few keystrokes away from knowing what is going on, or being able to communicate with someone anywhere in the world.  In many ways there are not as many “mysteries” about places foreign to us because we can easily find out about them on the Internet.  Our students who have participated in the last two or three exchanges have communicated extensively with their German partners before even meeting them, and then more between visits.  A lot of this is done via social media, and so the kids were very tuned in as to what to expect when they arrived in each other’s homeland.  They were also more informed about each other’s interests, families, likes and dislikes, than in the past.

This smaller world also presented itself with signs, literally and figuratively, of the United States all over the place.  Our host drove a Skoda Citigo, a Czech manufactured vehicle.  I never heard of it, and as I started car watching on our walks and drives, I noticed a few other manufacturers I did not recognize.  At the same time, I saw a number of Fords, though they were all smaller compact cars.  We also saw a number of brown UPS trucks, though in Germany they were Mercedes Benz!  In many communities there was a McDonalds restaurant, and at the checkout in grocery stores one saw a number of familiar candy bars, such as Snickers and Kit Kat.  There was a Levi's store in a mall we visited, and a lot of people wearing Nike shoes.  We also went to an Aldi grocery store.  Oh wait, that is a German business that happens to be the faster growing grocer in the United States!

Something else that has happened is that because more information is available quickly, and because the United States is the dominant country in the world, people in other countries are hungry to know as much as they can about us.  They are very tuned in to our political situation, and many that I spoke to have established very strong beliefs about the President and current policies of the Republican Party.  More than one person remarked that based on recent foreign policy decisions, it will be decades before they trust our country if the GOP is in control.  I found that concerning, as I did the parallels that some of the people I met were drawing between the white nationalist emergence in our country and similar movements in the eastern region of theirs.  That was directly addressed by our tour guide during a visit my wife and I took to Dachau, the notorious concentration camp created in the 1930’s by the Nazis.  In fact, there was a very high level of concern expressed because our nation is viewed as a leader and if things like this are happening on our soil, they rationalized that it could happen anywhere.  

Taking all of this in, my “worry-ometer” has kicked in and I am truly concerned about how little our students know about the world, and for that matter many of us adults.  We do not have much of a global awareness or understanding compared to the average German.  They know how our economy works, and are very current on market trends in our country that have an impact beyond our border.  As the campaigns for the 2020 election are gearing up, some have studied the various Democratic candidates as much as any of us.  They are very tuned in to the migrant problems at our southern border, and easily compare it to similar situations in nearby countries.  I mention this because who among us can even name the major political parties in Germany, and outside of Angela Merkle, who are other political leaders in that country.  For that matter, beside Teresa May, Vladimir Putin, and Emmanuel Macron, who are the other leaders of European nations?  What countries belong to the European Union and what ones do not?  The people we talked to know a great deal about the various leaders in our nation, and have very strong opinions as to what they believe needs to happen.  

The United States is a model for the rest of the world, and while it may sound kind of goofy, in many ways, people want to be like us, or at least have many of the things we have.  Because of that they are very aware of most things American.  At the same time, the last thing that can happen to us is to continue this path toward isolation.  We must recognize that we are dependent on other nations, and in order to better work with them, we need to know more about them.  This exchange is a very small step toward that end, and while the fact that we have twenty kids share a couple of months with a German teen every two years does not lead to dramatic changes in the world order, it does make a difference in how some people view the world, or at least part of it.  It may matter more in the future when they are adults and have a vote, and perhaps make a decision to run for political office.  This smaller world is different from what it was in 1982 when this exchange started, but the mission is the same: to develop understanding and relationships among young people from different nations.  That mission is still very important and very much alive.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Prisons Are More Important Than Schools

I hope you disagree with the title of this article, because I certainly do.  However, if you look at the amount of money spent on both institutions over the past 33 years, there is no question that among politicians, and perhaps some other members of our society, it is more important to fund prisons than it is to fund education.  When one looks at how much a state spends on a prisoner compared to how much it spends on a child attending school, more money is spent in this country on the prisoner than the child.  According to a report by the personal finance site GoBankingRates, fifteen states spend at least $27,000 more per prisoner than they do per student, with California having the biggest gap, spending $64,642 per inmate compared to $11,495 per student.  That difference of $53, 146 is astounding!  In Iowa, the cost of educating a student is a bit under $10,000, while the cost spent on each inmate is over $30,000.  Just think what kind of education could be provided to our young people if those dollar amounts were flipped!  Or for that matter, find the average and fund them the same!

There is no question that our nation has a problem with incarceration, and perhaps some of the conversation about prison and sentencing reform you hear about every so often will come to fruition in the near future.  It is astounding that in the richest country in the world, while our country accounts for 4.4% of the world’s population, it also accounts for 22% of the world’s prison population.  The crazy thing about that statistic is that there are many other countries in the world that have far more restrictions on their citizenry and yet, do not have as many people confined.  Maybe even crazier is that in the United States, incarceration rates have tripled in the last thirty years despite crime rates falling!  How does that add up?  We are spending an incredible amount of taxpayer money, in some respects keeping for-profit, private prisons very much in the black, and at the same time short-changing the education of young people.

Within this inequity of spending, there exists some very interesting correlations between education and incarceration, students and prisoners.  The most obvious is that uneducated people are much more likely to end up in prison.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, 66% of state prison inmates have not graduated from high school, and for one demographic group in our country, black men aged 20-24, those without a high school diploma are more likely to be in jail or prison than to have a job.  It is not complicated, earn a high school diploma and stay out of jail!  Heck, we have examples in our own community of this!  Dropout of school, do something stupid because you do not have access to a good job, go to jail.  We read about these individuals in the police report all of the time!  According to former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, a 10% increase in high school graduation would result in a 9% decrease in criminal arrest rates.  Where should we put our money if we truly want to impact our future?

Another interesting statistic is that in our country it takes one prison guard to supervise an average of 5.3 prisoners, while each American teacher supervises an average of 20.8 students.  Of course that makes it more expensive simply looking at labor costs.  Toss in the fact that there are extreme shortages of educators in some parts of this country, even to the extent that teaching positions are going unfilled, and can you see where our focus is at?  Based on this, our nation places a higher priority on people giving attention to prisoners than to students.  It is more important that we have a lower guard to prisoner ratio than teacher to student!  How about we work to level that out a little bit?  I’m not saying move those prison guards into schools (though some may argue that would be helpful!), but I suspect being a teacher would be much more attractive if they did not have to deal with as many of the problems that they face on a daily basis.  That could be dealt with if schools had resources for mental health professionals and counselors to provide services to young people who bring all kinds of social and emotional issues into the building each day.

When one in three Americans of working age have a criminal record, that is a problem.  Not only does it create barriers to employment, it certainly does not bode well for an economy in need of workers.  Statistics tell us that if more people graduate from high school, fewer will become criminals, the number of prisoners will decline, and less money will be needed to operate jails and prisons.  So how about we invest up front, allocate money to education and mental health programs, and give our young people an opportunity to earn a quality education, rather than continuing to see our costly prison system expand.  Makes sense to me.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

She Wanted a YouTube Worthy Proposal

When I read this headline in the Des Moines Register January 8, 2017, I said to myself, “I am so sick and tired of all of this public proposal crap!”  I am sure that I also rolled my eyebrows and probably mumbled something like “you have to be @!#*@#! kidding me!”  The translation for this reaction is “Why are people obsessed with attention?  Why are people screaming ‘Hey!  Look at me!’”  I find it incredible that people actually stage moments in their life to get maximum exposure.  It’s kind of like average Americans have become their own hype-machine determined to make sure they get their 15-minutes of fame!  Give me a break!

At what point did we become so self-absorbed that brides-to-be, or yes, her suitor, feel it necessary to script out a proposal so that is “worthy” to be on Youtube?  Is there a Youtube proposal board out there that makes a decision on what proposal videos are worthy of being posted on the website?  Is a person’s marriage doomed if the proposal is not at the Oscar level of performance?

I tell you what I cannot wait to see.  I want to see some guy in one of these staged proposals in front of hundreds or thousands of people he does not know, get down on a knee and ask his significant other to marry him, and get a head shake and an audible “No.”  Total heartbreak!  Of course, the now rejected suitor will most likely switch course, recognizing that he has the sympathy of a large percentage of those who witnessed it, both when it happened and afterward on social media.  Self-spinning a negative into a positive their self-directed hype machine can once more kick into gear and that 15-minutes of fame is still in reach.

The perfect Facebook life is basically the same thing.  A good friend of mine made the comment a couple of years ago that no one shows pictures of their kid after they got rejected for admission to college, when they were just cut from the basketball team, or after they were arrested for doing something stupid.  People naturally post good things that are going on in their lives, things they are proud of.  And, for some people scrolling through Facebook on a regular basis, an unrealistic view of life develops in their mind, thinking that things are great for everyone else and questioning why things are not so good for themselves.  In essence, a sanitized view of life is being presented where all is good with me and everything is great!  Not that long ago a horrible tragedy took place in Colorado where a husband and father murdered his wife and two children, yet when authorities were looking through the deceased wife’s Facebook account, a beautiful, perfect life was being portrayed, rather than incredible financial hardship, an affair, and a great deal of dysfunction in the home.  Look at how great our life is!  Look everyone!

Why this obsession of being seen?  Why this quest to have the perfect event?  I blame reality television for at least part of the problem, specifically I blame those shows where people have become famous for absolutely nothing other than they were on television.  The whole Kardashian brood falls into the category, as do those who appear on shows like The Bachelor.  I assume there are those who see all of the attention those people get and wonder “why not me?”  

I also blame my generation of parents.  We have carried video cameras and now cell phones that take high quality pictures with us since our kids were born!  We have attempted to document their entire life in through images.  The result is our kids have developed a “look at me” mentality.  We have sent the message that regardless of who they are they are deserving of attention.  We have also have also taught them that they are “special,” and because of that, they believe they are entitled to having the attention of others.  There has been a growing sense of oneupmanship with this generation.

Our kids are living much more public lives than ours, due in large part to all of the social media they use, as well as the proliferation of other forms of media.  My generation was raised based on the principle of being humble and not drawing attention to oneself.  That was seen as bragging.  There were definite lines drawn between what was personal and what was public.  Today, those values have changed.  People welcome the public into their lives.  My concern with this is the standard that it sets as people will continue to chase something bigger and better, which is not a reality.  Perfection cannot be attained, and while some people get a positive feeling from attention, that is almost like an addiction that cannot be fed.

I have no idea how my kids’ lives will play out, but what I can tell you is that I hope I don’t go to a ball game some day and see one of them on the video board either giving or receiving a proposal and sharing it with thousands of people they do not know.  I’d much rather hear about it some evening at dinner, or even during an excited phone call.  Things like that should be shared with those who are closest to you, the people that care.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

You Are Losing to a Game!

I have written before about students who are addicted to gaming, and shared that we have sleep deprived students at North Fayette Valley High School who are sometimes staying up most of the night playing games with friends.   I know that some people scoff at the idea that kids can become addicted to a video game, or to their cell phones.  If you are one of those, then it probably does not matter what I share in this article, though I would encourage you to do a little research online.  There is a tremendous amount of it out there that paints a pretty scary picture about what it happening to the gamers in our lives.  We see the impact on nearly a daily basis as we have students that cannot stay awake while they are at school and admit to our teachers that they have been up playing games.

I am falling back on an article from Growing Leaders for this piece.  A lot of this rings true to me as I have seen first hand some of the very things described in this article.  For those of you with teenage boys in particular, I strongly recommend you take control of screen time at home, and if that means taking physical control of gaming devices, then do it.  

Parents Are Losing Their Kids to Video Games

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Wrestling and Girl’s Basketball: They Made Iowa Great!

Here’s a little history lesson and perhaps a bit of personal bias snuck in!  Over my lifetime I have had opportunity to meet with educators, coaches, and athletes from all over the country, as well as some journalists that cover sports at various levels.  When talking with folks from other states, more often than not, when I mention I am from Iowa, I commonly hear some form of “wrestling’s really big there.”  They don’t talk about football or basketball, or any other sport.  Honestly, our state is not thought of very highly from a national perspective for having quality high school basketball or football programs, or for that matter, any other sport except for wrestling.  Then, when you get into any kind of conversation about girl’s sports it doesn’t take long until someone says something along the line of “didn’t they play some kind of half-court type of basketball where there six girls instead of five?”  Nowadays I tell them that game disappeared for good in the early 1990’s, but do say that back in the day the girl’s state tournament easily outdrew the boy’s and a lot of those six-on-six players became legends in the entire state.  Since girls started playing the regular game of basketball there are still people in the gym every Friday night in the winter that remark how much “better the game used to be.”

In truth, these two sports put Iowa on the map in the 20th-century.  Wrestling had an incredible history in the State of Iowa with young men from Clarion, Cresco, Eagle Grove, Waterloo, and many other places becoming legendary figures in the sport at the highest levels.  Names like Gotch, Peckham, Gable, Brand, Yagla, Davis, and Zalesky are just a few from the incredible list of outstanding wrestlers who were born, raised, and competed in Iowa high schools, as well as on the world stage.  One of the Olympic teams from the early 1900’s was made up almost entirely of Iowa born wrestlers!  Wrestling is to Iowa what football is to Texas and basketball is to Indiana.  There are some that may very well refer to it as our State Sport!  And, a number of years ago Sports Illustrated declared the the Iowa High School State Wrestling Tournament was the premier sporting event in our state, and the best in the country.

Iowa girls were given opportunity to play high school sports long before their sisters in most others states when in the early 1900’s a few high schools sanctioned basketball teams.  In 1925, a group of school superintendents formed what would become the Iowa High School Girls Athletic Union, and basketball soon became the crown jewel and remained so well into the late 1900’s.  For most of that period of time the game was dominated by teams from small towns as the urban areas were slower to add girls sports to their school programs.  Denise Long, Jeanette Olson, Deb Coates, Lynne Lorenzen, and Connie Yori were “Iowa Girls” and became household names due to the intensive media coverage given to the Sweet Sixteen teams that played in the state tournament.  Back in the day the girls tournament was a production worth of Hollywood or Broadway.

Now that were are just shy of twenty years into the new millennium, it seems to me that a lot of the luster on these two sports — the sports that made Iowa famous — is not quite as bright and shiny.  Neither of these sports are as popular as they once were.  Iowa’s population is higher now that it has ever been, yet these two sports have seen a definite decline in the number of participants.  Wrestling peaked in 1980 with 12,800 high school wrestlers, but the most recent numbers from the 2016-17 season show that the sport has lost almost half the number of participants since that time, dropping to 6,586.  Yes, there are fewer schools in Iowa than there were in 1980, but not fewer students.  Wrestling is a tough sport, yet I would guess there are a number of other factors that explain this drop.  It is particularly frustrating for wrestling fans and competitors to see teams that have more open weights and forfeits than they do varsity wrestlers.  Yes, at the state tournament the finals still sell out and most of the sessions are packed with fans from all over the state.  The state media outlets still give the sport a lot of attention, particularly in February.  However, below the surface the sport is struggling and is currently the fifth most popular boys sport in Iowa behind football, track, basketball, and baseball.

Girls basketball seems to have lost even more luster than wrestling.  The concept of the Sweet Sixteen disappeared when the IGHSAU made the decision to divide schools into classes, and now that we have five of them in basketball there are actually 40 teams that make it to the state tournament.  In the eyes of many it is not as “special” when over twice as many schools make it to state.  Another factor with that many teams is that the media is not able to give as much attention to each team.  There is no doubt that the change to five-on-five changed the sport as the play of the girls is more easily compared to boys and a lot of games are very low scoring compared to the six-on-six days. It truly is a different game.  When one looks at participation, in 1981 14,146 girls played basketball in Iowa high schools.  That has dropped to 7,576 in 2016-17, ranking the once most popular sport for girls in Iowa fourth behind volleyball, track, and softball.  Closer to home, for some schools in the Upper Iowa Conference and Northeast Iowa Conference, the low number of participants is concerning.  Five schools in the UIC and one in the NEIC started the season with just 15 girls out for basketball, including NFV and Decorah.  That makes it impossible to play three levels — 9th grade, JV and Varsity — and very difficult to  build a program to compete at the 3A level.  

If you listen to some, the number one reason that basketball has dropped in popularity is because of the emergence of volleyball.  In the glory days of girls basketball in Iowa, volleyball was not a sport that was played, though the growth of the sport started picking up before six-on-six was abandoned.  Now it is the most popular girls sport with over 11,000 Iowa girls participating.  As it has grown in popularity, girls not only play high school volleyball during the fall season, many also join club teams and play in the winter . . . the same time high school basketball season is going on.  At NFV in recent years it is not unusual to have over forty girls play volleyball during a season when they also have a choice to run cross country.  And once basketball season rolls around, the past three seasons there have been twenty or fewer players.  This is the same at a lot of schools.  What is equally discouraging is that the crowds have also declined despite the fact that these players work just as hard as their male counterparts.

I do not see either of these sports going away but it is interesting what has happened to the sports that made Iowa famous.  People will hold on to memories and take pride in the legacy that has been built, but I am a bit saddened that our student-athletes who battle on the mat and mix it up on the court no longer get a chance to have that special feeling that comes with that bright spotlight on them.