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.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

When you run short on time, make your own

From Saturday's Briefing:

My Katie aspires to publish poetry and books.
It's the career goal that's endured the longest in her 11 years, outlasting paleontologist, veterinarian and artist.
I offer advice while she's still amenable (before the full-on teen years hit). I encourage her to read voraciously, practice writing daily and visit with as many people as she can. I promote taking risks and trying new approaches.
I tell her to prepare for the cold, dark writing winter -- the days haunted by a lack of ideas or coherent thoughts -- by gathering ideas and details all year.
"Store acorns for the days you desperately need food," I occasionally tell her. "Act like a squirrel."
Much more often, though, she hears from me words like:
"Move with a purpose."
"Don't dawdle."
"Let's go!"
We have meals to make and eat, laundry to clean and fold, homework to complete, words to study, songs to practice, deadlines to meet, people to see. There's little time to mess around or look around.
There are moments every now and then when she's putting on shoes or brushing her hair or eating a quick meal from the comfort of the minivan because we've simply run out of minutes to complete those necessary tasks in the home.
There are evenings when all three of us collapse in the family room, exhausted from the running around that comes with being engaged and involved and possibly slightly overcommitted, and we take turns describing our day, with nary a mention of respite or relaxation.
Therefore I've become an unwitting contradiction, imploring my children to enjoy each day as a gift while also imploring them to keep up the pace (and plotting ahead to the next possible morning that we can all wake without an alarm clock).
Katie's living a full life, which will certainly offer fodder for writing, but does she have enough time to reflect on it? Does she have time to gather and sort acorns?
Apparently she's making time on her own.
A friend and neighbor recently shared with me how Katie walks to school in the mornings. She strolls. She ponders. She examines tiny details. She absorbs the world at her feet and fingertips.
I'm forever finding little notes around the house. She writes encouraging phrases on the chalkboard near her bed.
She's doing a little plotting of her own. She talks about living in a tiny cottage near the coast and the mountains, preferably in Oregon or Maine. She's invited me to live nearby, though not in the same home because she doesn't want anything too big and she plans to have a family of her own.
Last week, she and I were admiring the moon from our quiet, flat suburban street, when she sighed and remarked, "I need to live where I can stare at the moon through a canopy of trees."
She's soaking up details and storing them away. She's finding time to daydream and consider and observe. It's too early to predict what career path she'll ultimately take, but I have no doubt that whatever she chooses, she'll pursue it with passion -- and at her own pace.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.