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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Work@Character

Yesterday Laura and I had our last face-to-face teacher conference of the academic year for our younger son Isaac. Next year he will join his older brother at one of the best high schools in New York City, and this conference was bittersweet for us.

Both our children attended the Bank Street School for Children starting as three-year-olds. Aaron graduated two years ago, and I’m on the parents’ committee for Isaac’s graduation in two months. Bank Street has been a remarkable school for both our children, and it will be hard to leave it.

But what struck me was how Laura and I reached this point, with two similar, yet also different kids, both who work hard and possess unique abilities, but who also needed to overcome specific challenges. My kids are excellent students at their schools; they have scored at the highest levels in standardized tests to reach their goals. Both are avid readers of very different books, yet Aaron and Isaac share a sense of humor that is light years beyond mine. Do I even have a sense of humor? I am their strict, mercurial father.

What is obscured by this bit of bragging about my kids —who are not kids anymore but young adults— is the years of hard work of parenting to help Aaron and Isaac become the best version of themselves. I believe in learning by doing, Bank Street’s philosophy, but also Aristotle’s. I never did my children’s homework. On the contrary, in recent years, I have hardly seen what they have worked on after coming home from school. But when they have a question or a problem, I teach them how to find the answer for themselves. When they are stuck, I prompt them with questions to guide them to their own revelations.

We provide the space and time to focus quietly on their schoolwork. Friends who are wild or rude, I tell my kids, are not welcomed in our home. When Aaron and Isaac start wavering on the good habits we have encouraged, when they watch too much TV, or have not chosen the next book to read in bed, then yes, I am the heavy. I draw the bright line too many parents fail to draw: to turn off the TV, or to make finding a new book a priority, or to rewrite what they thought was ‘good enough.’ Real pride in your work is when you learn to do it yourself —not when somebody else does it for you— and when you know the work you accomplished was excellent. But often children have to be guided to get there.

Case in point. A few weeks ago, Isaac had brought home two short papers in which the teachers had given him only average marks. Isaac knew it wasn’t very good work, and he showed me the papers with what seemed a mix of fear and shame in his eyes. I read the papers, and yes, they were lightly researched, and his arguments were unsupported and often unclear. I remembered when he had worked on these papers, and I knew he had not given them the time they required, or the focus. Isaac is a bright kid and a good writer, but perhaps that week he had worried too much about succeeding at Oblivion on the Xbox, and too little about the failures of Reconstruction after the Civil War.

We talked about it, and we decided he would ask his teachers if he could rewrite both papers over the following two weeks of Spring Break. I told him it didn’t matter if his teachers didn’t give him different grades, but what did matter was that he should do his best work. And this wasn’t his best work, was it? No, he said, it wasn’t. Yes, I was a bit the heavy. I also told Isaac he wouldn’t play the Xbox over Spring Break, nor watch any TV, until those papers were rewritten, and well.

Isaac asked his teachers about rewriting the essays on the Friday before Spring Break, and they agreed. The teachers also decided to extend that offer to all the kids in the class: if anybody else wanted to rewrite their papers, they could. But, as far as I know, only Isaac would rewrite his papers during this vacation.

Now let me tell you about what happened over Spring Break. Isaac worked from morning until afternoon, for five days straight, rereading and expanding his source material, outlining his arguments, and reconstructing his essays. Sometimes he would ask questions. Occasionally he showed me what he had written, and I gave him my honest opinion. He rewrote page after page.

Whether he was motivated by his desire to get to Oblivion before his vacation ended, to please his mean old father, to show the teachers what he could do, or a combination of these, I don’t know. But Isaac worked independently, and ferociously. I was in awe, and prouder than any father could be.

Weeks later, at the conference, Isaac’s teachers noted how remarkably better the second go-around of his Civil War papers had been. They had given Isaac the highest marks for his rewrites. That was the work they had been accustomed to seeing from Isaac. Moreover, the teachers happily noted that on an in-class essay after Spring Break Isaac had again written a beautifully coherent essay on the Civil Rights movement.

Perhaps the teachers suspected that I, the writer-father, had ‘helped’ him on the rewrites during Spring Break, but the in-class essay confirmed it was Isaac who had done the work on the rewrites. And indeed it was. I just set the bar high. I did not allow him to lower it because I knew he could reach it. I gave my son advice to prompt him to think for himself when he needed it. Isaac learned by doing it, the hard way, the only way. The way toward good character.

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