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Media Monday: The War on Kids

by Elena on Nov 30th, 2009

At one of the schools documented in Cevin Soling’s new film, The War on Kids, an 8-year-old student was arrested for pointing a chicken finger at another student and saying “Pow!.” In the ten years since the massacre at Columbine High School, school shootings have unnerved parents and educators. Filmmakers and activists have repeatedly asked why violence in schools has increased, and schools have poured money into preventative measures. The War on Kids explores the ramifications of those measures.

Soling’s documentary, now playing at the Quad Cinema in New York, argues that public schools are instruments of fear and oppression in the lives of children. Reviews in both the New York Times and Variety are quick to note that the film’s reporting could be more balanced, but neither dismisses its claims as outlandish, either. The film uses shocking images–of which you’ll get a taste in the trailer–of armed guards, police dogs and handcuffs to emphasize its points. It drifts, too, into analysis of other ways in which children are oppressed by adult institutions–namely, the over-prescription of drugs like Ritalin. Clearly, efforts to keep children–or adults, for that matter–healthy and safe can all too often lead to passivity and fear.

Watch the trailer below and, if you’re a fan of the Colbert Report, watch Soling’s appearance on the show tonight at 11:30 on Comedy Central.

The War on Kids [Official Website]
The War on Kids Review [Variety, 11/17/09]
The War on Kids: What Ails Public Schools? Better Ask, What Doesn’t? [The New York Times, 11/18/09]

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The Kids Are Alright

by Elena on Sep 24th, 2009

Since learning more about Harlem Children’s Zone and its revolutionary Baby College, we’ve been wondering about how parenting is learned and taught, and how the skills of a good teacher and the skills of a good parent overlap. Recently, the Style network has been airing episodes of Supernanny, the ABC remake of a popular British parenting reality show, in bulk. Jo Frost, the show’s campy British star and childcare expert, bustles into the homes of American couples whose children scream, draw on the walls and won’t go to bed. Watching Frost work her magic is highly satisfying, and it’s obvious that parents and children alike respond positively to her commanding presence and no-nonsense tone. In this way, Frost is a lot like the best classroom teachers.

Though Frost observes every family closely before “implementing” her “techniques,” the techniques aren’t in and of themselves varied or complex. She coaches parents–often painstakingly and repeatedly–on how to set house rules and enforce consequences when they’re broken. She uses visual aids reminiscent of all of our elementary school classrooms, like big whiteboards with “House Rules” in bubble letters at the top. Good parenting, according to Supernanny, is a science, and the Wischmeyer mom–who you can watch struggling to get her children to go to sleep, below–agrees: “The bed technique is wonderful,” she says. “I think it should be manually written, handed out at birth, to every mother and dad in the world.”

Of course, there are subtler aspects to parenting and family that Supernanny addresses but ultimately glosses over. When Frost sits down with families for the first time, she’ll often make sweeping, arm-chair psychology assessments of “why” a mother can’t discipline her daughter or “why” a father focuses on his son’s negative qualities. But in the end, those deeper questions about how parents and children relate to one another emotionally go unanswered by a show like Supernanny, and it’s probably just as well–it’s much more pleasant to see a good set of house rules do their work. Those readers looking to probe the issue a little more should check out Alfie Kohn’s recent piece in the New York Times on whether parents should love conditionally or unconditionally–a riddle it might take the combined efforts of Mary Poppins, Jo Frost and Fran Drescher to solve.
Supernanny Official Site
When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do as I Say’ [NYT, 9/14/09]
All Unhappy Families Need Mary Poppins [NYT, 1/17/05]
Getting Parents Involved [Taking Note, 6/1/09]

categories: Ed Beat, blog~media, parenting

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In The Zone

by Elena on Aug 28th, 2009

It’s hard not to feel positive about Harlem Children’s Zone.  It is by definition a buzzworthy concept, and it feels like a social reform bandwagon that everyone has jumped on, including President Obama.  In a much-quoted campaign speech, then-Senator Obama claimed he wants to replicate the Zone in twenty cities across the United States.  If his presidency sees the realization of that goal, it will really be something to talk about.A dad at baby college

The Harlem Children’s Zone is the brain-baby of Geoffrey Canada, and the subject of journalist Paul Tough’s in-depth reportage in a recent book, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.  The basic idea behind Canada’s program is to combat urban poverty through intensive work with children, particularly during early childhood.  Harlem Children’s Zone’s goal is to get each child in a 100-block section of Harlem through college; the idea is that every child will have been in HCZ’s care since before birth.  This kind of holistic, community-wide approach to education reform is touted by many, but Canada’s program is, so far, unique.

Last week, This American Life re-aired a piece on HCZ, produced by Tough before the release of his book.  If you’re looking to get inspired by Canada and his vision, the radio piece is a great introduction to the theory behind the Zone.  Tough hones in on the phase of HCZ’s program called Baby College, where new and expecting parents are trained to think differently about child-rearing.  Over and over, Tough reiterates that the concepts being taught in Baby College are ideas that have proliferated over the past decades among middle- and upper-middle class suburban families.  Tough frames the birth of HCZ as the direct product of Geoffrey Canada’s  mid-life move to the suburbs, where:

…there was a ton of new research on the importance of stimulating your child’s brain early on, and apparently, every parent in the suburbs had heard about these studies, because they were obsessed with preparing their infants.

Canada’s vision, then, is–among other things–to hand down the values of affluent parents and families to families living in poverty:  the parents who attend Baby College are encouraged to read to their children every night, and to reconsider their ideas about corporal punishment.  If all goes as Canada plans, Harlem will produce a generation of high school graduates quite similar–at least in values and training–to today’s suburban teens.  One wonders, given the sometimes dismal vision of suburban affluence portrayed in pop culture by shows like “Laguna Beach,” for instance, what these future citizens will be like.

That said, Canada’s project is quite amazing and deserves all the attention it is getting, and more.

Harlem Children’s Zone
“Harlem Renaissance”
[This American Life, 8/16/09, "Going Big"]

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Educating the Whole Child - At Any Size

by Amanda on Jul 17th, 2009

The good news is that a little over half of NYC public school students are maintaining a healthy weight. The bad news? According to a new report from New York City’s Health Department and Department of Education (DOE), 21% of kindergarten through eighth grade students are obese, and an additional 18% of the City’s students are overweight. And, for the pickle: physically fit students outscore their peers who are less-fit on academic tests.

obesechart

During the 2007-2008 school year, students who scored in the top 5% on their NYC FITNESSGRAM assessments outscored the bottom 5% by an average of 36 percentile points on standardized academic tests.

That childhood obesity is an epidemic in NYC should come as no surprise — Americans have steadily been getting fatter since the 1970s. Fitness has been proven to promote a longer, healthier life, and childhood obesity is an indicator for many serious diseases. But will this strong association between fitness and academic success provoke any changes in schools?

The  DOE says there is an “urgent need to ensure that school-age children receive nutritious meals, high-quality physical education, and ample opportunities for physical activity.” Just this July, a panel composed by the Institute of Medicine released a list of 100  topics that it said should get high priority by the Obama administration, and included the need to look at the effectiveness of school programs to reduce childhood obesity through means like bans on vending machines. Parents continue to advocate for healthier school food and an increase in physical fitness programs. For our students’ health AND academic achievement, here’s hoping we can do it.

Read the Full Report

School Nutrition Association

Panel Suggests Medical Priorities [NY Times 7/1/09]

A Manhattan Mother’s  Battle Against Junk Food [NY Times 6/15/09]

categories: Ed Beat, parenting

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Media Monday: No Tray Left Behind

by Learning Matters on Jul 13th, 2009

850,000 styrofoam trays are used and discarded each day in New York City public schools. That’s 4 million non-biodegradeable styrofoam trays a week!  To draw attention to this frightening issue, students in a 3D Studio class at Parson’s New School for Design created a sculpture entirely out of styrofoam trays taken from local New York City public schools.

Aside from the obvious environmental implications, styrofoam actually poses serious health risks as studies have shown that styrene, its main chemical, may leach into and contaminate hot foods, especially those high in fat (which seems to be most school cafeteria food).

According to the instructor of the course, Debby Lee Cohen:

McDonalds stopped using Styrofoam food containers in 1990. Brooklyn Council Member Bill De Blasio has introduced legislation to prohibit the use of polystyrene in New York City agencies and restaurants.

So why are NYC public schools still using styrofoam in schools?

Watch the video chronicling the students work and follow the links to learn more and get involved:

The Styrofoam (Used) Tray Project: No Tray Left Behind [project website]

Brooklyn School nixes Styrofoam carriers in lunchroom [Brooklyn Paper news story]

VIDEO:  4 Million Trays a Week [NY Times City Room blog]

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