Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Edible Schoolyard

There was a little bit of shoving in the Highlands produce garden early last Friday morning, jockeying for position. Maybe a little hoarding.  The kids worked it out between themselves before it came to fisticuffs, the older, stronger, faster ones deciding to share with the more timid.

I hid my laughter, my delight, my surprise behind my second venti cup of not-local, not-organic coffee of the morning. All the commotion?

It was about the peas.

The spinach and lettuce were easier to come by, sitting ducks, easy targets. But the peas were more primal, hiding in their wild curly tendrils. The peas needed to be stalked. And the kids pounced when they saw one.

I spent a lot of time in this garden last summer and this past fall, helping to get it established. I wanted to be a part of the project, because my oldest son is allergic to peanuts and soybeans, and I am seriously worried sick about our industrial food production system.

You can watch our garden grow here. Notice the knee-high sea of weeds in one of the photos? We installed the garden beds last summer, then planned to wait for the students and teachers to arrive for planting in the fall. Big mistake. We decided not to let that happen again this summer, so a couple of us moms are hanging out on Friday mornings with a group of students who are eager to tend to our outdoor learning spaces—not only the produce garden, but our rain garden and our new butterfly garden as well.

I could tell you all about why Bloomington Public Health and the Statewide Health Improvement Program granted us the $5,000 to get the garden started. I could go on and on about a complex and a growing movement to reconnect children and nature, and about how many Highlands teachers are at the cutting edge of this movement, making all kinds of meaningful curriculum connections for students in this garden.

But really, all you need to know is that I watched as  kids scrambled over each other to pick the peas that they themselves planted this spring. I watched their joyful, greedy need to rip those pea pods open and eat them up, unable to wait for the 10:30 snack break. I watched them throw their pods into the compost bin, along with the weeds they were pulling. And I was hopeful. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When being “above the state average” is not a good thing

The Edina Sun Current arrived on our doorstep today (June 16, 2011), and my heart swelled with pride as I gazed at a photo of a sea of Edina High School graduates in their caps and gowns on page one. The image brought to mind our sons’ graduations from EHS several years ago, and how excited we were that their performance at this top-ranked high school had landed them spots in top-ranked universities. Since our kids’ first years in the Edina Public School System, we’ve tracked headlines touting our school system’s superiority as measured by standardized tests in reading and mathematics, advanced placement testing, ACT testing, National Merit Scholars, and, of course, sports. All this excelling that Edina is noted for makes me proud to be part of the community.

But below that page-one photo was a news story about how Edina students rank above the statewide average on another measure: substance abuse – specifically, alcohol use, binge drinking and marijuana use. These results are from the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey which was completed in the spring of 2010. This is a self-reported, voluntary survey administered to Minnesota students in grades 6, 9 and 12 every three years. The Sun Current noted from the survey results that 53% of the Edina senior class of 2010 reported using alcohol in the past 30 days; the statewide average was 41%. Similarly, binge drinking and marijuana use rates in Edina were above the statewide average as well (see chart). 

Generally, it’s a good thing to exceed outstrip the state results, but exceeding the statewide average in school-aged substance abuse is not what we’d like our community to be known for.

Fortunately, school and community representatives have been working together on strategies to combat this problem for about a year now, and their recommendations will be presented to the school board in July for implementation this fall. And Edina Police Chief Jeff Long, the article notes, is making the issue of under-aged alcohol use a priority for the police department as well. These major efforts are encouraging, important and essential.

Edina High School raises awareness of the effects of drunk
driving at their annual Mock Crash event.
But, as the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” So, my fellow Edinans, what do you think contributes to the higher-than-average substance abuse rates for our teens? Is it parental attitudes? Do we expect too much from our teens, creating a pressure cooker environment from which they seek escape? Do students have too much discretionary income? Are alcohol and illegal drugs more accessible here than in other communities? Is peer pressure more potent here than elsewhere? Whatever the causes, what can each of us contribute to turning that situation around? For a start, I’m hoping to attend more alcohol-free graduation parties this year.

What do you think? I invite you to add your suggestions in the comment section below. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Stop and Smell the Roses

My kindergartener and second-grader hop, hop, hop up the bus steps, take their seats and wave furiously through the window. My son flashes those irresistible dimples. My daughter's ponytails bounce up and down. 

There are only a handful of days left of hop, hop, hopping up those bus steps. School ends this Friday.

I put my 2-year-old in the bike trailer and head out to Lake Harriet. Although I am truly excited about the summer, I admit that a level of anxiety starts to set in. During our ride, my head starts to clutter. The sound of birds chirping gets replaced by a flurry of highlighter and scribble marking our family summer calendar. 

As of June 10th, life around the Dewing house will become a whirlwind of activity: baseball practices, swim practices, soccer games, camps, my work schedule...the list goes on. Getting everyone where they need to be will be an art form. Many miles will tick up on my trusty minivan odometer, those smooth-sliding doors opening and closing each day innumerable times. 

I am Driver. I am Equipment Manager. I am Cheerleader. I am Playdate Coordinator. I am Calendar Chief. I am Lunch Packer. I am Kiddy Pool Life Guard. I am Hugger. I am Chef. I am Nose Wiper. I am Potty Trainer. I am...TERRIFIED!

But just as my head is clouding up with too much worry, I am sent a message! I look up and spot the "Rose Garden" sign near the lake. My panic melts and I know just what I need to do: STOP AND SMELL THE ROSES. 

So, I have promised myself not to let the everyday summer stresses of coordinating schedules, driving everywhere, locating missing shin guards, cleaning up pee-pee pants, etc. get to me. And, when I'm yelling, "Hey kids, let's get in the van, we're late!" I vow to remember the message I was just sent. 

I will think of those roses. And I will smell them. And I will smile. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Every Day I Need Attention

I’ve lived in Edina since 1972, when my parents built their modest dream home on Tifton Drive on the west side of Highway 100, complete with a purple-shag-carpeted bedroom I could call my very own.   It was the '70s, after all.  Along with that resident status came years of enduring the typical Edina razzing from people living outside our community, including my all-time favorite question, always delivered with a proud smile by someone thinking they were the first to ask:  Do you know what EDINA stands for? 

Why yes, I do.  Every Day I Need Attention.

And I’m not ashamed to admit it.  As the mom of two children, ages 11 and 14, I have appreciated the attention given to my kids on a regular basis within the Edina public school system, and will be eternally grateful to the unsung heroes who have been so considerate toward our family. On this last day of school I reflect on our experiences of the past year, and know we will never forget the attention paid from… 

… Lee Stalwick, the patient bus driver who knows where we live and takes the time to glance toward our house before he drives on in the morning to ensure we aren’t making a mad dash out the front door - shoes and breakfast in hand - because of a missed alarm.  

… Mrs. Nuckley, a favorite eighth-grade South View science teacher, who recognizes when a student needs a morale boost (or a break from the lunchroom jungle) and invites them to a VIP lunch in her classroom.

… the motherly lunch ladies who know the limits we have set on our kid’s accounts and gently remind them they can’t purchase more than one giant chocolate chip cookie each day. 

… Mr. Sigmund, a dedicated government teacher at South View, who volunteers his time after school for months upon months so that any ninth grade student wishing to take the AP Government test will be adequately prepared to so, and then treats all those kids to a pizza lunch to celebrate their hard work after they complete the exam.

… Elton Johnson, the custodian at Highlands who remembers that the lone black boot with the pink stripe in the lost-and-found bin belongs to a certain fifth grader who is prone to losing things, and who tucks it back into her locker before she even knows it is missing.

I could go on and on, and hope to do so in future editions of the Edina Mill.  Not because I need attention, but rather because I believe there are special people who exhibit everyday kindness in our school district and who deserve the spotlight.  How lucky we are to now have a forum to give them the attention they deserve.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Measure of a Child

Before the January report cards came the emails and notices, full of reminders that “our students are held to high expectations” and “the most important thing is that students work to their ability.”  We received messages about report cards numerous times: an email from Concord, e-mails from each of our kids’ teachers, links in the weekly online newsletters.  Our kindergartner came home with a semi-personalized message, the Dear __________ filled in with her wobbly MOM and a backwards “d” at the end of the DAD.  This letter’s pre-printed text reminded us that she was lovable all the time and not defined by her report card, or words to that effect.
While the first communication felt informative and provided context for what a 3 vs. a 2 or a 4 meant, by the time that last letter arrived, with our kindergartener’s signature, we were beginning to wonder. As newcomers to the Edina Public Schools, my husband and I shared an uncomfortable laugh, wondering if perhaps students all over our newly adopted town were being taken to task by a bizarre Edina version of the Tiger Mom, baring her fangs, irate over anything less than a sheet filled with “4 (Advanced-exceeds standard with independence).” The multiple notices felt like too much protest, as if the powers-that-be have seen so much overreaction to grades that they needed to prep the parents to be the grown-ups.  Is this what it means to be living in a town with a nationally recognized school district?  Where the administrators have to make sure that parents keep report cards in perspective?

I recently received the newsletter from our previous elementary school, a quintessential neighborhood school nestled in a small suburb of Boston.  I stay subscribed to this weekly bit of community because the principal often opens the newsletter with a few short paragraphs of heart-string-twanging humanity.  A few weeks ago, he wrote about the stress caused by the constant testing and evaluating of our students. 

He writes, “Iʼm here to say, with anger and frustration, that many (maybe most) students are beginning to believe that their (testing) score is a measure of themselves as individuals—that it somehow helps define their value to a watchful and anxious adult world.”  He goes on to advocate not sharing testing scores with your children, and instead to communicate that you love your child just as they are, that you wouldn’t change a thing about them.

He ends by saying, “Children will recover from every conceivable snub, mishap, incident, and tragedy except one—the belief that they are a disappointment to their parents.  The stress from that belief is unresolvable.” 

I found his words powerful, and a much-needed reminder to leave the grading and testing to the school.  Our message needs to be consistent: “Do your best.”  And our responsibility to our children is to communicate that their best is defined by much more than the numbers on a page from school.  Their best includes all of their talents, their compassion and loyalty and friendship to others, their sense of wonder at the world, their effort.   

So much more than those numbers.

Alisa Skatrud

Friday, June 3, 2011

We are the Ones Who Make a Brighter Day, Just You and Me

I woke up this morning humming “We are the World”--the old-school 80's version. I’m not sure why the tune greeted me this morning, but it put in me in a rather contemplative mood. As I pondered some heavy topics, I found myself drifting to a little tale that actually takes place in my own household.

You see, there is a very old Springer Spaniel named Lucy and a very young parakeet named Daffodil. Both are loved by a family. Sometimes, though, the family is gone for a stretch, leaving the pets alone together. Because the parakeet has made it clear that she prefers to be where the action is, her cage spends most days on the coffee table in the front room. Lucy, the dog, is almost always keeping watch in the bay window in that same room. The lonely times spent together apparently brought these two creatures closer than the family realized.  It was not until the family took Daffodil to get her wings clipped and let her out of the cage that the family saw how much Lucy and Daffodil meant to each other. The bird was skittish around the humans, but immediately went to the dog in the bay window. The dog did not mind. She allowed her feathered friend to sit very close to her. The two sat together for over an hour. Each time Daffodil is brought out of the cage, the dog and the bird stay together.  They have a special bond. 

I’ve seen this play out at school as well. Whether it’s the tallest boy who is BFFs with the shortest boy in the class, or the little girl in her frilliest pink tutu rocking out a serious enactment of “Star Wars” with the boys on the playground, children tend to find commonalities in many different fellow beings. That is, until we adults get a hold of them. I caught myself at one point asking my daughter why she doesn’t play with this girl or that girl.  I found myself concerned that she only played with the kids I saw as outcasts. I saw this girl and that girl as the mainstream kids and was unnerved by the prospect that perhaps my child was an outcast herself.  My daughter matter-of-factly answered, “I like my friends.”  In that moment, I realized there was no room for my adult worries.  My child was not just fine, she was happy.     

We could all take a cue from Lucy and Daffodil and our children. Despite the presence of fur or absence of feathers, despite our perceived differences, we do have things in common. If Quincy Jones can get Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan in the same room singing the same song, we too can find common ground with those who might seem very different.     

  In case you are too young to remember the 1980’s, or want to take a trip down memory lane, check out the “We are the World” video here.   If you want another heart-warming tale of two very different creatures finding friendship, check this out.