Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tone down the urgency: Constant competition isn't helping our kids

From today's Briefing:


Some days it feels like everything in Frisco is a competition.
Who can sign up quickest for the coveted middle school STEM camp?
Who can find the best time to show up to buy candy-coated donuts without waiting an hour in line?
Who can secure teen driving classes via an online calendar system before every other 15-year-old in town?
I sense the urgency on the streets, especially in the afterschool hours, when families are taxiing children to dance, soccer, gymnastics, cheer, volleyball, swimming, lacrosse, baseball, basketball, guitar, voice, math, taekwondo, robotics, coding, violin and/or fencing lessons. We’re competing with traffic and stoplights to get our children to competitive training on time.
I hear the urgency among high school students, especially among those with the top GPAs, the kids who know how many hundredths of a point separate one scholar from the other, who know exam scores of all their friends and frenemies, who take Advanced Placement courses not just for the extra rigor but also, maybe exclusively, for the extra points.
I see the urgency on the fourth-grade playground, especially with the basketball kids, who play each game as if they’re in the Final Four. Every few weeks I blow my whistle, gather the competitors and deliver a speech:
“This is recess basketball. This is not select basketball or tournament basketball or AAU basketball. This is supposed to be fun. This is for anyone who wants to play. You’re playing with this intensity. (I place my hand high above my head.) You need to play with this intensity. (I place my hand at my waist.)”
Frisco didn’t invent this madness – it’s simply where I experience the madness daily. It’s the community I’ve embraced for 15 years, even when I don’t always agree with prevailing opinions or motivations.
City services and facilities are reliable and clean. Neighborhood schools are student-centered and stocked with volunteers. Families reflect a growing diversity of cultures, backgrounds and religions. 
These families, generous with their time and resources, want the best of everything for their children, which works well when you’re collaborating toward a common goal, such as building a park that accommodates children with special needs or approving funding for the arts. It’s less appealing when the race to the top pits child against child, parent against parent.
I don’t advocate for participation trophies or “we’re all winners” in place of keeping score. There are appropriate outlets for healthy competition. But, as often noted but rarely practiced, moderation is key.
Over spring break, our little family combined sightseeing with college tours, as we tiptoe in to university shopping for sophomore Cooper. Student ambassadors at all three schools spoke about the importance of collaboration.
The courses are tough, shared an engineering student at Georgia Tech, and you learn to rely on each other to study and complete projects. We heard the same at Auburn University and the University of Tennessee.
“You take tests by yourself,” our Auburn tour guide told us, “but the rest is done with your group.”
It was reassuring to learn that our future problem-solvers, students who competed to secure seats and scholarships, have embraced a collaborative spirit.
We didn’t limit our tours to campuses; we sought out nearby nature. We hiked to the top Stone Mountain in Georgia. We explored boulders and creeks at Chewacla State Park in Alabama. We walked trails at Ijams Nature Center in Tennessee.

Wherever Cooper spends his college days, he wants access to land he can explore, trails he can run, rocks he can climb. He’s savvy enough to know he can’t avoid jostling people altogether – and wise enough to know he needs an escape plan for the roughest days.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

This complicated state of ours

From today's Briefing:

If you ask my fourth-graders for a quick history of Texas, they’d tell you something like this, give or take a few facts:
***
Thousands of years ago, people crossed the Bering Strait, following giant animals, into what we call North America. Some of those people settled here, on the land we call Texas.
They lived on their own for a long time, until the Spanish traveled across the sea and planted a flag and said, “This is our land.”
The Spanish flag flew over this soil for a while, until the French arrived and claimed the land. That lasted for about five years, until the Spanish reclaimed Texas and said again, “This is our land.”
Spain ruled until Mexico declared independence in 1821. Then Mexico said, “This is our land,” and the Mexican flag flew over Texas.
Mexico invited settlers from America in to Texas, to develop and protect the land. Then Santa Anna became president, and the Texians who had moved in didn’t agree with his new rules, so they fought for independence and eventually won at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Texas became its own republic for about 10 years, until the United States annexed us as the 28th state of the Union. The U.S. flag flew over Texas from 1845 until 1861, when Texas seceded and became part of the Confederacy. When the South lost the Civil War, Texas rejoined the United States.
***
Their story would end there, because that’s as far as we’ve progressed. You’d likely see a lot of sweeping hand motions and dramatic planting of flags. (Some would ignore “quick” and take off on a tangent regarding Karankawa Indians or the Battle of Alamo.) The cattle industry, discovery of oil and Dust Bowl are still to come.
If you ask my fourth-graders for their opinions of Texas history, the answers would be less rehearsed and more emotional. Learning about history is complicated.
My students struggle with the conquering.
They don’t understand how one group of people can show up, plant a flag and take over. They sympathize with the American Indians who were killed by European diseases and later pressured to give up their land, their religion, their language and their way of life, forced to conform at Spanish missions and later at the hands of Texas officials.
Together we struggle with “good guys” vs. “bad guys” in history.
They learn best when I dramatize the Texas Revolution as the good guys (Texians) vs. the bad guys (Santa Anna and the Mexicans). Indeed, we draw many parallels between Santa Anna and Darth Vader. Yet the facts are more nuanced.
Texas settlers did break agreements made with Mexico. They had agreed to adopt Catholicism and the Spanish language, yet they were reluctant to keep those promises.
There’s no doubt that Santa Anna was a power-hungry tyrant. But the men following his orders: They couldn’t be all bad, could they? And what do Mexican children today learn about our fight for freedom? Are we the bad guys?
Plus, Mexico was opposed to slavery, a position that helped push pro-slavery Texas settlers to fight for freedom. So, why are the “good guys” supporting slavery?
Speaking of which, my students struggle most of all with slavery. They are indignant. At times, even, uncharacteristically speechless.
When they regain words, they ask about the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which they know contains these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”
These 9- and 10-year-olds are sharp. They make connections across the centuries. They question decisions. They wonder about turning points and potentially different outcomes.

One day their stories will merge with our bigger history. They’ll grow up to be disciplined,  leaders – or, at the very least, citizens who hold their leaders accountable.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

More and more prepared: Being a Scout mom has helped me learn to trust my son

From today's Briefing:

What happens when you layer parenthood atop worst-case scenario kind of thinking? Nonstop worry from womb to, well, perhaps forever.
I’m pretty much an expert in the field.
What happens when you layer Boy Scouts atop nonstop worry? The opportunity of personal growth.
I’m getting there.
In fact, last week I was able to sit through an hour-long parent meeting about an upcoming high adventure camp without batting an eye. I wasn’t remotely fazed by warnings of injuries, floods or bears.
Cooper’s already survived all three.
Two summers ago, he and his troop spent a week on the Atchafalaya Swamp. After kayaking for a couple of days, they found respite on a small island. The boys were using various blades to chop bamboo. Cooper, for reasons I still don’t understand, used a machete.
It was a powerful tool. So powerful, in fact, that he sliced straight through bamboo and his shin. He accidentally nicked about an inch of skin.
Because they’re Boy Scouts, his people were prepared. They cleaned the wound and closed it with butterfly strips. The next day, a boat arrived at the island to take Cooper and adult leaders to dry land. Their next stop was the emergency room, to check for possible infection and the need for stitches.
Cooper came home with a story, a scar and a nickname. “Machete,” of course.
The next year, a group of Scouts ventured to Oklahoma for backpacking. Severe weather blew in, creating raging streams. Boys and dads relied on one another, savvy maneuvering and well-placed logs to cross increasingly dangerous water.
They came home with a story, know-how and appreciation for nature’s fickle power.
Last summer that same group spent two weeks together at Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico. It’s the pinnacle of the Boy Scout experience. Backpacking through the Rockies with everything you need for survival, scaling mountains, sleeping under unadulterated stars. Each day offers an opportunity for a new adventure.
One day the boys stopped hiking for spar pole climbing. (I know, only because I’m a Scout mom, that this includes scaling a tree, stripped of its branches, with the aid of a harness, some rope and blades on your boots.
While one boy is climbing, his buddy is in the charge of the rope on the ground.
Cooper’s buddy was halfway up the pole when a deer shot through the grounds. Then he heard a rustling noise. He turned around to see a black bear, just a few yards away.
Multiple accounts confirm that he sputtered, “B-b-b-bear.” And then the creature waddled away.
Cooper returned home with stories for days, incredible memories and motivation to return.
Way back when Cooper was a tiny first-grade Tiger Cub, I could have never imagined giving thanks for small accidents and near-misses. My job was to shield him from trouble.
Yet every mistake, every change in plans, every weather event, every animal encounter offers the chance to grow stronger – physically, mentally and emotionally.
He’s learned that preparation and teamwork are shields in the face of danger.
Boy Scouts has been just as valuable for me.
I’ve learned to trust my son and the people around him. I’ve realized that denying a child the ability to take risks offers zero protection for adulthood. I’ve been reminded again and again that problem-solving skills are best acquired when you’re actually solving problems.
Cooper has joined a crew for a return trip to Philmont in 2018. I look forward to more stories and his confidence found in succeeding – though I’d be content with no new accident-related nicknames.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. You can reach her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

One march, many voices

Who am I?
I am a child of the 1970s. My parents divorced when I was 7. I attended Texas public schools, where at times I relied on a reduced-cost lunch plan. Teachers and librarians were my superheroes.
We didn’t practice religion often, though there were a couple of years we spent Sundays at an Assemblies of God church.
My domains have included apartments, modest suburban homes, more than one duplex, and a trailer house in the country.
I worked two or three jobs every day I was in college, paid my own way and graduated in four years (with mediocre grades).
I was engaged once to the wrong person for me.
I’ve never used illegal drugs, though I grew up around them. I’ve never tried a cigarette or been drunk (addiction scares me).
 I accumulated entirely too many speeding tickets from age 16 to 25.
I married the right person for me at age 22. I was baptized that same year in the United Methodist Church.
My work history includes fast food, retail, a half-dozen newsrooms, a megachurch and two elementary schools. Today I have three jobs – classroom teacher, freelance writer and tutor-for-hire.
I have volunteered in schools and churches for more than two decades.
My dreamboat of a husband and I had two children together. Our son is now 15, our daughter 11. Their daddy died when they were 8 and 4, after living for a year and a half with brain cancer.
Next to my children, books and travel are my passion. I wish I had more time and money for both.
I don’t exercise enough. I worry too much. My housekeeping skills are lackluster.
I love fiercely and unapologetically, yet I’m an introvert so I fear that I often appear aloof.
I have voted in every major election and a whole bunch of little ones since I was eligible in 1990. I discuss politics in a small circle and work daily toward tolerance for all who do no harm.
And on Jan. 21, 2017, my best friend and I drove to the state capital for the Women’s March on Austin.
I was fully clothed (some outlandish reports make it sound like everyone was running around in birthday suits). I carried a mild-mannered sign (“Strong women, strong country”). I sang “This Land is Your Land” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” along with the crowd.
Never, not once, not for a single moment, did I think of shaming women who weren’t there.  And I certainly didn’t walk the crowded downtown blocks because I thought I was speaking for any particular group.
I marched because I believe in equal rights for all, because children deserve strong communities and strong public schools, because healthy families are crucial to a healthy country, because small voices are often drowned.
I marched because we live in a country that protects speech and assembly and because democracy must be practiced beyond the voting booth.
I marched because I have relied on the kindness of strangers and even the generosity of our government.
I marched because I’m devoted to Micah 6:8, an Old Testament verse: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
I’m not defined by that one march or who I did (or didn’t vote for) or any single moment over the past 44 years. I’m like every other soul, an amalgamation of millions of moments, decisions and interactions.
I continue to pray that we all look beyond the easy – and deceptive – labels, that we ask “Who are you?” with genuine curiosity. I pray that as we acknowledge our differences, we find the courage to make peace on our much greater common ground.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

(Published in today's Briefing.)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Don't wait too late to make a final impression

From yesterday's Briefing:

Every weekday afternoon, I stand at my classroom door and say goodbye to each individual student.
“Farewell, young man.”
Adios, my friend.”
“Enjoy your evening, dear scholar.”
I offer side hugs to the huggers and high fives to the rest.
I often throw in “I’m proud of you” or “Love you!”
This habit began because I’ve learned the hard way that we never know which goodbye is final.
In my first year of teaching, we returned from spring break to an empty desk in my homeroom. There was a custody issue that resulted in a student moving across the country with no notice.
I worried about him the rest of the year.
How would our curriculum align with his new one? Did I teach him well enough to help him transition? Was he making friends at his new school? Did I tell him often enough that I was proud of his efforts?
What troubled me most: How did I say goodbye to him that Friday, when everyone was watching the clock and eager to leap out the door and into the sunshine?
I’m certain it was uneventful – forgettable, even. My habit was to wave to students as they walked away and I shuffled on to carpool duty. I’d throw out an all-purpose, “Goodbye!” or “Study for your states quiz!”
That missing student changed my ways. The next year and each year since, I’ve stood sentry at the door, insisting that students line up and walk out the door one at a time.
I’ve tried to change my ways at home, too, though I’m not always successful.
By the time I’ve showered, dressed, dried my hair, made breakfast and packed lunches, I have about 2.5 seconds to bid farewell to my two children. I manage to cram in some version of “Have a good day! Make good choices! Be safe! I love you!” as I dash into the garage, balancing a piece of toast atop a to-go cup of coffee in one hand, purse, lunch bag and keys in the other.
We often miss hugs and thoughtful exchanges.
I’m thankful each evening when we’re all reunited.
When I think about the people I’ve loved and lost over the years, I think of our final time together.
My grandpa had been ill, and we suspected his time was limited. When I said goodbye for what would be the final time, my heart knew.
When my grandmother fell ill about three years later, I said goodbye, but I don’t know if she understood. Alzheimer’s disease had long before stolen her memory. When was the last time that I said goodbye to her and she knew who I was? I can’t pinpoint it.
My mom had been bed-ridden for years, and every time I visited her nursing home, I braced myself, preparing for what might be our last conversation. She and I made an effort to make each goodbye meaningful.
When my husband’s time was near, we both knew. He suddenly could no longer speak, so my sister scribbled the alphabet, and he pointed:
“I love you. Thank you.”
Not long after, his body fell into a sleep-like state. Twelve hours later, he took his final breath.
We’re not always so fortunate. We can’t predict the future. We don’t know how much time will pass until we meet again – if at all. I plan to keep working on making all of my hellos and goodbyes and the moments in between meaningful. Every moment counts.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. You can reach her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Am I ready to the be mom of a teen driver?


There were plenty of tears when we drove baby Cooper home from the hospital. I shed every single one.

I was exhausted from childbirth, in awe of the little human suddenly in our care, eager to get home and, most of all, terrified of the cars and trucks zooming by. I sat in the backseat, hovering over our newborn, acutely aware of our charge to protect him in an unpredictable world.

I thought of every worst-case traffic scenario during that drive home, all the while falling more in love with our chunky, dark-haired, blue-eyed pumpkin.

The whole scene was a pretty good preview of parenting in general, with alternating moments of hyperactive worry and intense bliss.

For example, when Cooper became mobile:

He's crawling! He's standing! He's walking! This is so exciting!

Oh, my goodness. He's going to hit his head on the coffee table. He's going to slam cabinet doors on his fingers. He's going to tumble down the stairs.

Repeat when he ventures outside:

He loves to run barefoot through the grass.

Fire ants will attack him!

He's so friendly, running to say hello to neighbors.

Stop running across the street without holding my hand!

All these years later, the pattern continues.

Cooper rides his bike about half-a-mile to and from school each day. He wears a helmet (most of the time) and obeys traffic rules (as far as I know). I'm not worried about his behavior as much as I am the drivers around him.

He navigates a four-way stop, often manned by crossing guards, but sometimes he goes in early or stays late, and then he's on his own, at the mercy of folks who don't always pay attention or stop when they're supposed to.

Sometime in the next year, that bike is likely to be replaced by a car (a sensible, used car, to be sure). In anticipation of that monumental shift, Cooper is taking driver's education, working toward a learner's permit to be followed by hours of practice behind the wheel.

My worst-case scenario tendencies are in overdrive.

A motorcycle screams by on the Tollway. A sports car swerves in and out of lanes. A pickup truck ignores a stop sign.

My first thought in all of these cases: How would Cooper handle this as a brand-new driver? My second thought: Do teenagers really need to drive? Followed quickly by: Maybe we should move way out to the country, where cattle outnumber vehicles.

I'm not necessarily concerned about his abilities (though he hasn't actually operated a car yet, so that worry may be mounting). It's all the other stuff that troubles me: lanes closed for construction, distracted drivers, thunderstorms, fog.

I consider the split-second decisions we all make as drivers — how much distance to allow between cars, when to start applying brakes, crossing traffic without a light, yielding, changing lanes — and wonder how a teen's brain processes it all and makes sound decisions.

I think of my own early driving years, in my own used (and completely unreliable) car. I recall all those times my 1975 Audi stalled simply because it was raining. I remember the first time I drove on the Tollway — accidentally because I was in the wrong lane of the service road. I sometimes drove too fast, rolled through stop signs, turned right on red when I shouldn't have.

I made mistakes. I learned from them. It's what I hope for my own children.

Way back in July 2001, I had no idea how many times parenting would lead me to wrestle with fear and elation all at once. Even today, I'm unsure of how many more tears will fall, but experience assures me that the joy of new beginnings has the power to dwarf all the worries.


Tyra Damm is a Dallas native, veteran journalist, fourth-grade teacher and Dallas Morning News Briefing columnist since 2008. She lives in Frisco and writes about family life and parenting. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The gift of grace at Christmas


From last week's Briefing:

I didn’t grow up with staunch Christmas traditions.
We moved a lot. Not every house had a chimney for Santa. Some Christmas mornings were at home, others with my grandparents. There’s no dish we always had to eat, no particular order to opening gifts, no storybook or Scripture we had to read.
So, as people are wont to do, I set out to create my own staunch Christmas traditions when I became a parent.
We tell stories about the sentimental ornaments we hang on the tree. We see the same Santa – the real Santa for photos in December.
We sing “Silent Night” at Christmas Eve worship services and leave out a plate of cookies for Santa and two carrots for the reindeer.
On Christmas morning, we open stockings, eat baked apple French toast casserole and then open gifts, one at a time.
After years of creating and maintaining these traditions, I’ve discovered the most important element of all, the greatest gift I can give myself, the key to stress-free celebrations:
Grace.
Sometimes ornaments break. Sometimes cookies are from a tin, not my kitchen. Sometimes one child’s stocking seems more generously stuffed than the other’s.
I give myself grace.
Ten years ago, I was a stay-at-home mom with a hard-working husband, a toddler, a kindergartener and a few freelance projects. I had time to decorate the staircase with garland, woven with berries and fastened with ribbon. Cooper and Katie owned multiple coordinating Christmas outfits, and I took photos of them all over town, trying to capture the perfect image for our annual card.
We were building our traditions, and it was glorious.
It was the last “normal” Christmas we’d celebrate as a family of four.
The next year, my hard-working husband was hospitalized as doctors tried to determine the nature of a mass discovered in his brain stem.
The year after that, Steve’s body was deteriorating, suffering the effects of chemotherapy and secondary infections related to his brain cancer.
The year after that, we were a family of three, holding on to our tenuous traditions as we navigated a new normal none of us wanted.
Ever since, I’ve required bucketfuls of grace, not just at Christmas but every single day. Being lenient with myself, loosening expectations about the little things (and most of what we worry about is little) has been essential these past nine years.
Grace means we don’t always unpack the Christmas plates and glasses.
Grace means I shrug off guilt the years that Christmas cards don’t get created.
Grace means we don’t always decorate a gingerbread house or attend a performance of The Nutcracker.
Ten years ago, Steve and I had no inkling that we were celebrating our final “normal” Christmas together. I hate to think – though I’m certain it’s true – that I wasted moments of that season worrying about ribbon or photos or cookies.
Our time together on this earth, no matter how much time we have, is precious. It’s silly to waste it fussing about inconsequential details.
Will we sing tonight of shepherds and angels and peace? Absolutely.
Will we rejoice tomorrow morning, reflecting a complicated mix of secular happiness and spiritual joy? Of course.
Will this Christmas be perfect? Nope. None of them are.
Imperfect Christmases are a tradition around here, and I’m thankful for every single one I get to celebrate.

Friday, December 09, 2016

My baby girl is growing up

From tomorrow's Briefing:

My Christmas wish is silly, shallow and sentimental: I want one more year with smocked dresses, matching hair bows and patent-leather Mary Janes.

Instead, my Katie is borrowing my boots and jewelry. There's not a Peter Pan collar in sight. Add the shift in wardrobe to the long list of signs that times are changing around here:

The American Girl dolls seem lonely.

There are fewer impromptu performances featuring stuffed animals.

Picture books are rarely in the nighttime rotation.

Girl-sized socks and tights have been necessarily tossed.

We are completely uneducated about any Disney Junior or PBS Kids programs developed in the past couple of years. (PJ MasksNature CatElena of Avalor? They're all mysteries.)

Katie's Christmas wish is one word: Books. Not a single plaything or licensed character or item that requires assembly or batteries. Because she's the second child and because I read mountains of parenting advice, I've tried to soak up every fleeting moment.

I relished dress-up days, with butterfly wings and layers of tulle and sparkly slippers littering her bedroom floor. We read piles and piles of books before and after naptime. Olivia, Skippyjon Jones and the Pigeon were some of our closest friends. I indulged her artistic whims and fought my own fear of paint and glitter on the kitchen floor.

I'm sure there were moments I wished time would go faster (such as potty training, age 2, bouts of insomnia, age 8), but I was almost always genuinely present and aware of the gifts of the moment.

She won't always be this tiny.

She won't always pronounce "glasses" as "gla-gu-sess." She won't always choose a dress based on its twirling capacity.

And here we are. She's almost as tall as I am. We wear the same size shoe. The television show we watch together involves zero animation. She gobbles up books. She's an amateur expert in Greek mythology. She writes with passion and precision. Just last weekend, she embarked on a new phase: Babysitter.

Katie took the job seriously. She scoured our playroom, identifying the best possible activities. She packed a tote bag with contents including a jigsaw puzzle, Spirograph and Christmas storybooks. She walked three houses down and across the street to report for duty. For three hours she took care of Zaza, a neighbor we've known since birth. They played and created and giggled. Zaza begged her to return soon.

Then Katie walked home and climbed into her own bed, crowded with a narwhal and bear, puppy and tiger. I tucked her in and turned out her light, leaving behind a bedroom still filled with youthful treasures (tiny purses, Winnie the Pooh, sheets of stickers, a mischievous gnome).

My little girl isn't gone. She's adding on layers, shedding a few, holding on to those most dear.

I expect she'll always express herself with a little drama and flair. She'll seek books that teach and entertain. She'll create art with words and pencils and paints. She'll work to make others happy.

The gifts she offers are much greater than I ever imagined, and they grow more meaningful each year. 

Times are changing around here, and though my heart sometimes aches for the past, I know there's little to fear and much to embrace in the weeks and months and years to come.


Tyra Damm is a Dallas native, veteran journalist, fourth-grade teacher and Dallas Morning News Briefing columnist since 2008. She lives in Frisco and writes about family life and parenting. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Preparing for life's big changes

From Saturday's Briefing:

It's not even Christmas, but we're planning Spring Break 2017, and the same question keeps running through my head: How did we get here so fast?

This year's spring break will be a road trip devoted to visiting college campuses for my 15-year-old, halfway through his sophomore year of high school, eager to find an engineering school that fits.

Is Cooper ready for full-fledged college independence? Not yet.

He's struggling to wake up to an alarm clock. He's tried sleeping with the clock next to his bed, but he would turn it off and fall back asleep. So he moved it across the room, presumably forcing him to get out of bed and perhaps wake up enough to stay out of bed.

Nope. Instead, the new location prevents him from hearing the alarm at all, and he sleeps through incessant beeping until I open the door and wake him.

We've got two and a half (super fast) years to find a solution for the alarm plus some time management and priority issues.

The good news: He's got a whole bunch of other life skills down, partly the product of years as a Boy Scout and living in a home with a single mom. He can prepare simple meals and, if pressed, take care of laundry. He takes out the trash, changes light bulbs, moves furniture, can access the attic on his own.

This week Cooper noticed that my tire light was on. The next day he was in the driveway, checking the pressure on each minivan tire.

He's a problem solver with initiative. He can carry on a conversation with adults. He can advocate for himself.

We've casually visited a few colleges already, more as tourists than as prospective student and parent. These days, he fits right in, standing 6-feet-3, walking and speaking with confidence.

To strangers, perhaps Cooper already looks like college material. The two of us ate dinner out last weekend, and the waiter offered him a wine list. (We both declined and enjoyed sparkling water instead.) He ate caviar for the first time and instantly approved.

After, we attended a Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert. All those years of children's theater performances - and expectations about staying seated, staying quiet and applauding politely - paid off. He has impeccable concert manners. Years of music instruction have paid off, too. He knows more about music than I do, and filled me in during intermission.

Am I ready for him to leave? Not yet.

Everyone tells you that the time flies by, and I totally believed them all, but nothing compares to actually experiencing it.

The shift from total dependence to near independence somehow happens gradually and all at once. This evolution is especially poignant during the holiday season, when my memories of toddler Cooper, mesmerized by the magic of Christmas, blur with teen Cooper, on whom I now rely to decorate the very top of our tree.

The well of holiday memories is deep - annual visits with Santa, candlelight at Dallas Heritage Village, Children's parade downtown, strolls through NorthPark, Christmas Eve with grandparents, gifts and baked French toast on Christmas morning. Some of those traditions we've outgrown, others we'll continue long after our schedules aren't defined by a school calendar.

How did we get here so fast? With little moments we no longer remember and lessons that scaffold with each passing year and big moments we'll never forget.
Are we ever really ready for the next big step? Our readiness is irrelevant - they happen regardless. We adapt, we live the new normal, and we eventually celebrate the memories we've created. We keep moving forward.

Tyra Damm is a Dallas native, veteran journalist, fourth-grade teacher and Dallas Morning News Briefing columnist since 2008. She lives in Frisco and writes about family life and parenting. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com


Friday, November 11, 2016

There's more to group projects than meets the eye

From tomorrow's Briefing:

The longer I teach, the better I understand that the classroom offers a bundle of lessons beyond the district curriculum and my plans -- for both student and teacher.
Take this week, for example, as my fourth-graders have been researching extreme weather events.
I divided students into groups of three, four or five and assigned a topic: tornado, tsunami, earthquake, flood or hurricane. For homework, each student gathered resources, and the next day they received questions to guide their research.
I allowed each group to divvy up roles. Students decided who was responsible for researching causes, effects or safety precautions. I stepped back and listened.
Some groups divided tasks quickly and wasted no time getting to work. Others negotiated, wheedled, demanded and whined, eventually settled on roles, then started reading and taking notes.
Without fault, after tasks were claimed, every single group worked cooperatively. They shared books, articles and video links. One student, responsible for causes of earthquakes, found an interesting long-term outcome and eagerly shared it with her teammate in charge of effects. Some groups couldn't contain their curiosity and attacked all the questions together.
Officially, they were practicing nonfiction skills: setting a purpose for reading, making connections, asking questions, summarizing, synthesizing. Less overtly, yet just as crucially, they were practicing their collaboration skills.
These 9- and 10-year-olds are working toward a common goal. They want to perform well as individuals (almost all of them are conscientious about following directions and earning all available points on the scoring rubric), yet they also support one another and revel in shared discovery and success.
They represent families who are native Texans and families who immigrated in the 21st century. They all speak English, and many speak or understand at least one other language. They represent at least four major faith traditions.
Some are athletes; others chess players. Some dance competitively; others spend most of their free time playing video games.
They squabble about the rules of four square and freeze tag. They irritate one another. They compete for first in line for lunch. They have started to sort themselves into cliques.
Give them a problem to solve, though, and they are all onboard. They don't necessarily set aside their differences; instead, they capitalize on them.
Some students have background knowledge about hurricanes because they've lived near a coast. Some have relatives who've been affected by flooding or earthquakes. Many have grown up terrified of -- or fascinated by -- the tornadoes that plague North Texas every spring.
Some fourth-graders are online research whiz kids. Others are lightning fast with an old-fashioned table of contents and index, narrowing in on topics faster than you can boot up your laptop. Some record extensive notes in precise handwriting. Others scribble efficient (and sometimes incomplete) phrases.
These young people, all 41 in my charge this year, inspire my optimism for our future. They are the antidote to the vitriol and doomsday declarations from both extremes in our country.
These children -- and millions of others just like them across our nation -- remind us that kindness bears civility, that compromise is possible, that strength lies in our differences, that we are greater together than we are torn apart.
Our children -- every single one, without distinction -- deserve a country in which the adults take notice and start to model our behavior on theirs.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.