First Person

Parent blog: Promoting your child's passions

Boulder mom of three and psychologist Suzita Cochran reflects on helping your kids find their passions. In this case, a friend’s son found  his in the barnyard. 

On our vacation to the East Coast last summer, I spent time with my childhood friend Virginia and her four kids. Her oldest child Micah had just turned 15 when I saw him. I don’t usually expect 15-year-old boys to be great conversationalists. And for the most part Micah was succinct, though polite, when talking about his life…. Until I asked about the animals he’s raising: 40 chickens and four goats. When talking about his farm animals Micah’s eyes lit up and his speech became animated. He seemingly could have gone on forever about buying his goats “at auction” and his quickly expanding chicken business.

Boy with farm animals, BigStock photo

When Micah was 10, his family had moved to the country from the suburbs. Although Micah doesn’t live on a farm, many small farms surround his neighborhood. Soon after moving, Micah met a neighbor who owned a brood of hens. He was hooked.

Virginia reminded me that she and her husband had little experience with or interest in farm animals. She admitted that they’d put off Micah’s request to raise chickens for a year or so. But like many of life’s real passions, Micah’s didn’t ebb over time. Eventually his parents relented and soon they were sharing their bathroom with 12 fluffy chicks for the winter.

Over time Micah built his flock up to 40 chickens. He also amassed a group of regular egg customers, learning about finance along the way. Once he’d saved some money he began floating the idea of adding goats to his farm operation. Soon after Micah bought the goats, his grandparents asked what he wanted for his birthday. Micah informed them that he needed a shed. How great is that? Not an iPad or an iPhone, but a shed for his animal supplies.

Encouraging innovation

Although Virginia said it hasn’t always been easy for her, she and her husband have done for Micah what Tony Wagner advises in his book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. As parents they have supported Micah’s passion. After interviewing over 200 experts on innovation, Wagner concludes that it is not important what college major or serious interest a young person chooses, only that they follow something about which they are passionate and then delve deeply into their field.

For parents like Virginia who may find themselves explaining their child’s unusual pursuit to surprised extended family members more than they wish, Wagner explains that the Internet has changed the working world in their favor. Greater communication and less rigidity in the world of work now mean there are many paths through which to enter a career.

Wagner writes, for example, about a girl who majored in art and went on to become a computer simulation programmer. When she was subsumed in her art studies during high school, her parents supported her but worried she would have trouble making a living from her passion. While pursuing an art major in college, she became involved in a computer simulation project and fell in love with this work. In this new realm she drew on an artistic background in ways other programmers could not.

“Study what you have a passion for and change the world on your terms,” one of Wagner’s interviewees urged.

The magic of mentors

Wagner observes that parents are in a unique position to notice what our children are passionate about and help them expand their knowledge base. When I last spoke with Virginia she said Micah had begun spending time with a retired veterinarian named Bob who now raises sheep on a nearby farm. After meeting Bob herself, Virginia introduced him to Micah and encouraged a potential mentoring relationship. Now Bob regularly takes Micah to local talks on goat and sheep farming and has taught him how to test his animals for parasites using sophisticated lab equipment. This may not be for most kids, but Micah is on cloud nine.

As Virginia intuitively did, Wagner reminds us to support our kids’ passions with mentors whenever possible. When a child takes a class somewhere, even on a subject he or she is fervent about, she is one of many in the room. But when a child talks to a local beekeeper, fabric dyer, bike racer, geographer or novelist, he gets one-on-one encouragement. This unique support is often what moves young people to the next level of an interest.

Sparking innovators at home

Creating Innovators was quite inspiring. Of course while reading it my mind immediately focused on how I could better promote the passions of my three children. But here’s the rather unfortunate reality. My kids seem to be, how should I say this, between passions at the moment. Such a disappointing realization after gathering so many strategies to encourage their passions!

I can say that two out of my three kids have demonstrated strong passions, which now seem to be on temporary hiatus. I would have said all my kids have, except when I really look at our third grade daughter, Annie, I think I was mistaking her passionate personality with having a passion. Just because you are an intense and excitable human does not translate directly into having a passion. Not yet, at least.

When I admitted this to Virginia she helped me feel better by telling me that her other three children have not yet happened onto their passions either although she thinks one might be close to finding it in foreign languages.

Clearly not all children follow a linear progression into their life passions or purpose as Micah has.  Parents of kids who take a more circuitous route to discovering their passions need more patience and perhaps endurance. But Wagner would tell us that it’s important to keep using our intuition to expose our kids to things we think they could be interested in.  And we need to let them quit an activity that has not taken hold after a good amount of time, or from which they are ready to move on.

My personal commitment

So I vow to keep introducing my kids to the exciting neighbors I meet at the annual block party; taking them to talks around town, such as the free Peace Corps presentation at our local REI store or the demonstrations by science professors in town called the CU Wizards; and accompanying my kids to community events like sustainable building fairs or artist open houses.

During these activities I’ll be ready to notice whether my children’s eyes light up at certain parts of the presentation, or if they are enthused all the way home as we discuss what we learned. And finally, on the home front I will try to discern the activities my children tend to lose themselves within and come away from feeling refreshed.

Come to think of it, I believe I will put extra attention into noticing these areas in my life as well.

What passions have you supported in your child?  How did you go about this? Leave a comment!

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.