Monthly Archives: March 2014

What Do You Think?


Projects and Teamwork Develop Real-World Skills


Who hasn’t heard their child at one time or another expressing frustration in their learning?  When will I ever have to use this in the real world? is a statement that comes to mind. I remember saying it in high school – about Trigonometry.  The response I have come up with for my kids is something along these lines:

Regardless of whether the task you are learning seems relevant or irrelevant in the real world, there is value in making sense of and mastering a task.

You have to admit: succeeding at new or challenging tasks feels good, and feeling good instills confidence.  When I try a new, more complex recipe and I receive compliments on my cooking, I feel good and I’m more likely to make it again.  I’m more apt to try other, unfamiliar recipes, too, due to my growing confidence.

Kids who learn how to master tasks – doing laundry, pumping gas, cooking a meal, learning long division, figuring out why the printer won’t print – are developing self-efficacy —  the belief in one’s ability to succeed in a particular situation.

Applying formulas and remembering names and dates from a period in history can be difficult for some kids, hence I will never use this in the real world-type statements. Of course, many students love and can easily solve complex math problems. And other fortunate students have no difficulty remembering names and dates. (They’ll excel at Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit).

It makes sense that teachers see the value in student projects and presentations. Parents may not love the idea of time-consuming projects, but they just might if they realize these projects are mini versions of real-world thinking.  Think of projects in light of kids developing these real-world skills:

  • Time management (Do I work a little each day or leave it all for the days prior to the due date)
  • Problem-solving (How and where can I get the materials?  If one material doesn’t work, what else can I use?)
  • Decision-making (What information should/should not be included? What’s most important?)
  • Motivation (Should I do just what’s required for the project or should I go the extra mile and make it outstanding?)
  • Perseverance (Can I keep at it without losing stamina or interest?)
  • Assertiveness (Can I ask for help if I don’t understand something or need advice/special supplies?)

My kids used to participate in the Science Fair when they were in elementary school.  This was a great opportunity for young kids to practice those skills mentioned above while inventing something or carrying out an experiment.  Adults would volunteer their time setting up tables, serving snacks, and playing the role of judges (interviewing students and evaluating their projects). Each student would receive a score from three randomly assigned judges. You could see the pride and relief in the children’s faces, for completing a large project and for finishing the presentations.

Although some school projects and science fair projects have clearly received help from an adult (we all know the ones!), the real test is whether the student can explain the project meaningfully and answer questions posed by teachers, peers, or judges.  What a skill!

But nothing encapsulates real-world learning like a group project or presentation.  Why?  In most cases, working in the real world requires interacting with others: getting along, dividing up tasks, sharing the workload, setting goals, managing time, problem-solving, dealing with varying personalities, and handling success or failure…

All types of groups – sports teams, instrumental groups, choral groups, theater groups, yearbook committees, cheer leading squads, debate teams — require that members show up prepared, follow rules and follow through with their responsibilities in order for the group to function smoothly.

* * * * *

I was happy to read in our town paper about a sophomore I know whose robotics team at Boston College High School met with success.  This extra-curricular team meets outside of school hours in the high school’s basement to build robots.  Now in its third year, BC High’s robotics team participated in a challenge presented by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) at the Granite State District event on March 1.

Each team that participated was given a time frame of six weeks and a kit filled with parts to use to assemble a working robot.  The challenge at the event was for robots to be able to play on a team and score as many goals as possible by throwing and catching a ball with other robot teammates.

Remember those real-life skills of getting along, problem-solving and time management? This robotics team of 20 had six weeks to collaborate — not just to design the robot but also to reach out to sponsors for funding, to trouble-shoot when the process wasn’t working, and to persevere during the long hours of time spent working, in addition to doing schoolwork.  Oh, and there were a couple of snowstorms during that time, creating additional challenges.

BC’s High’s robot, named “Schrödinger’s Cat,” won the Imagery Award for attractiveness in engineering and outstanding visual aesthetic integration.  Not bad.  Apparently none of those obstacles could dissuade BC High’s robotics team from reaching their goal.

The skill sets these young men are developing and refining will undoubtedly help them become engineers, inventors and other types of scientists in fields that are making big changes in the world.  Already, robots do intricate surgery, drive cars (supervised), go into dangerous settings in place of police and fire fighters, and search in some of the deepest waters of the ocean.  In Japan, a 4-foot robot babysits children while their caregivers shop. I’m excited for the future of robotics.  (Maybe some day a robot will sort and fold my laundry).

For now, I will encourage my teens to work hard at any task, large or small, no matter how irrelevant it might seem.  The more tasks they master, the more confidence they will possess.  The more confidence they possess, the more tasks they will try to master.  The future is looking brighter already.

You Watched What? — TV and Movies


The Disney Channel aired its final episode of Good Luck Charlie this week and I have to say, I’m a little disappointed it’s over.  Good Luck Charlie found a way to harmlessly poke fun at typical family issues, exposing each character’s weaknesses in a very humorous way.  I feel like I know those characters well and I wouldn’t mind hanging out with Amy Duncan, the flighty but loving mother to five Duncan kids.  I have a feeling  Good Luck Charlie was written for parents as much as for kids.  What’s not to like about watching imperfect parents and imperfect kids — It makes me think we’re all in this parenting thing together.

I was skeptical that any show on The Disney Channel could make me laugh out loud.  I’m not a fan of most shows on that channel with their fake-looking sets, silly story lines and characters that just don’t resemble the real world or real teenagers.  But I have to remind myself to lighten up… Just because I don’t care for the Wizards of Waverly Place putting magic spells  on each other to get what they want doesn’t mean the show doesn’t deserve its followers.    Many kids love and need the fantasy that these shows deliver.

I’m thinking that the Disney Channel might be starting to lose its appeal for my tween and that’s okay with me.  Our tastes in what we view change, depending on our age, our interests and our moods.  I am currently addicted to Downton Abbey but I also like to sneak in an episode of Barefoot Contessa when I can, so I can get a few cooking tips.  Others in my house currently like Friends reruns and Walking Dead.  To each his own.  As long as my kids are busy with other activities for a good portion of their days, I don’t mind too much about the shows they watch.   Back in my college days, I would see guys as big as linebackers curled up on dorm couches, eyes fixed on Saturday morning cartoons like they were life-altering news stories.  At the time I couldn’t believe it.  Now I realize:  Everyone  needs a little mindless escape from time to time.

Recently a friend on Facebook was asking for movie suggestions that she and her husband and kids, ages 10 and 13, could watch together.  She wanted something funny, similar to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – some movie that promised to be entertaining for both kids and adults, but without vulgarity or those scenes too embarrassing to watch in mixed company.  I have to say, it’s not easy to find good clean movies for that age group.

When my two oldest kids were young teenagers, I suggested we watch Sixteen Candles together.  I wanted to see if they would laugh out loud at scenes I remember being so funny when I saw it in the theater.   To my horror, the very first scene showed a girl showering, fully exposed, in the high school locker room. How did I not remember this scene? (Maybe I was at the concession stand getting popcorn).  My kids still laugh about that movie night, not because of the content in the opening scene, but because of my screaming and carrying on about not being able to find the remote control to stop the show.

I don’t think I’m the first one to share that kind of story.   It’s been 30 years since I saw Sixteen Candles at the movie theater and the scenes I remember clearly are very funny ones.  The scenes I remember less clearly (or not at all) apparently are the inappropriate ones.  It proves to me that if I want my kids to experience my favorite movies, I probably should watch the movie again, beforehand.  But I also need to relax.  At some point in time, kids will see and hear inappropriate images and language, either at the movies, on cable TV and DVDs, or maybe even on the school bus, but in all likelihood they will not be scarred for life because of it.

A couple of years after the Sixteen Candles fiasco, it came up in conversation with my daughter that she had seen the Sex in the City movie at a friend’s house.   Once again I was embarrassed — this time by the thought of her viewing a certain scene in that movie, a scene that my friends and I were taken aback by when we saw it in the movie theater.   Sigh.

To be fair, I myself sat through An Officer and a Gentleman at age 15, when my friend and I lost interest in whatever movie we were seeing at the time.  (Sneaking from one movie into another at the theater was my friend’s idea, by the way).  Yes, I was slightly shocked by a certain scene in An Officer and a Gentleman but it also gave me some information I wouldn’t have known otherwise. (My mother sighed when I told her the story many years later).

My tween is approaching 13 and is starting to be exposed to more, thanks to PG-13 movies and being younger sister to 16- and 18-year old siblings.  I’ve noticed that she voluntarily leaves the room if she thinks (or knows) a questionable scene is coming onto the TV screen.  That’s okay.  She’ll watch when she’s ready to watch.  (Nothing in our house is too outlandish, I assure you).  I do remind her, on occasion, that some of the shows she watches are not reality.  Real high school is not like High School Musical where kids break into song and dance and Sharpay Evans types sashay down the halls looking like dressed up Barbie dolls.  Real high school students don’t think up complicated strategies to win the spotlight in the school musical.  That behavior just isn’t real, although it is entertaining for tweens to see.

For now, my tween and I can watch reruns of Good Luck Charlie, the perfect mix of sarcastic humor and believable characters and story lines.  There are no wizards nor is there nudity, which is a plus for both of us.

When she’s older, I can watch one of my favorite teenage movies with her.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend Say Anything (1989).  This movie meets all of my criteria for a great teen flick.  The main character, Lloyd Dobler, played by John Cusak, is an average high school senior. He’s not sure what he wants to do with his life, but he’s big into kickboxing, and he’s determined to not screw up his date with Diane Court, the beautiful class valedictorian whom he has worked up the courage to ask out. Diane doesn’t usually date because she invests so much of her time to her studies.

What makes this movie so special is that the characters are believable.  Unlike a Disney show, the relationships in Say Anything are complex just as real life and real people are complex.   Problems in real life are not always  solved easily.  In fact, at the end of Say Anything, viewers are still unsure of the future for Lloyd Dobler, despite the obstacles he and Diane have overcome.  I felt hopeful for him, the way I do for all kids who have a good heart.

I had the pleasure of watching Say Anything with my 18 year old not long ago and she loved it.  I’m pleased but not surprised by this.

Now, if I can gently convince her that after she graduates from college, she probably won’t be moving into a city apartment with her pals and living like the actors Friends, I’ll have done my job.