Marilyn Englander

MarilynEnglander

Over the years I have learned a great deal from my adolescent students, even though they thought I was the one teaching them.

The principal work of the early teenage years is learning to manage change, saying goodbye to a former self and gracefully slipping into new skin. Both kids and their parents lament: This is not the way we did it last year, his old friends have moved into new circles, Spanish verbs are confusing. They campaign to continue doing things the way they always have, in familiar terrain. But 14-year-olds need to learn to tough out a few hours of hard work. Those about to enter high school have to figure out how to connect to a new set of friends.

I think about this as I look at my own changing life. I wince when old friends divorce. The local Italian restaurant closes its doors. My sister and her husband sell their home of 40 years in San Francisco and move back east, far away. The friendly old guy next door passes away. The kittens we adopted when our kids were young now need help to get up onto the bed.

Change is often painful, disorienting. It makes us want to howl at the universe. Waking up in the wee hours, I contemplate a foreign landscape. I resist getting accustomed to new ways.

But a Thai restaurant opens up nearby. The new neighbor shares her homemade cookies. I recultivate the art of writing letters to faraway friends.

Learning is struggle. I saw this all the time in my young students. But watching is not the same as living the challenge.

There is an old saying,” The barn burned down: now I can see the moon.”

I recall Pete’s tortured efforts to learn to write. I remember how hard it was for Dirk to learn to throw a ball straight, for Gail to master the geography of Asia. My old students are my new mentors as I forge ahead, appreciating a different view of the sky.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is an educator in the North Bay and founder of REAL School Marin.

Marilyn Englander

A thank you note is a talisman of appreciation for another person. Simple, yet powerful .

In my classroom, we focus on gratitude by practicing the art of the handwritten note. So humble, such clout, the letter of thanks in a person’s own hand.

I require students to master friendly letter form. They protest. They already thanked the field trip drivers in person. The museum docent was just doing her job. The person who organized the speech tournament was paid. But the guest speaker spent a couple hours preparing his presentation, woke up early, put on special clothes, drove 30 minutes, gave up a morning for us. We honor his gift by spending five minutes penning words of thanks. The kids can’t figure out a good objection to this argument, so they dutifully write their notes.

Ah, and the letters need to be done with care. The writing straight, no crossed-out mistakes, the word “sincerely” spelled correctly. No binder paper, but real cards. Written in ink, with more than just the words “thank you,” and including a few original details to make the gratitude feel personal.

The thoughtful gesture of a handwritten thank you radiates goodwill both directions. And it packs a wallop.

A dad comes to pick up his son and mentions how impressed he was to get written thank you’s. The visiting librarian calls to say she has hung all the notes in her kitchen. The tournament organizer mentions his delight with our cards in the competition newsletter. My students beam.

A card is much more powerful than a text, an email, a voice message. It has presence. We hardly register the computer-generated thanks sent by charities who have received our donations. A text or an email is lost in the crowd of other messages zapped at us.

But in the anonymous mess of junk mail that arrives daily through the mail slot, a small envelope of thick creamy paper, addressed by hand, a real stamp in the corner — this catches our eye. We slit the seal and feel attention, care, reciprocal generosity. Magic.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander lives in San Raphael.

Marilyn englander wide

She was my best student in history, but unsure of herself. She worked hard, really wanted those A’s.

Now it was the final exam. She dove right in, typing furiously on her laptop. I roved among the students. Every time I came towards her desk, she squirmed in her seat, changed the angle of the computer screen. My teacher radar went off. I kept circling the classroom, peering over shoulders, until I knew for sure.

After the exam when everyone else had left, I explained what I had clearly seen her doing, toggling to her stored notes. I ripped up the print-out of her exam.

It was a terrible moment for both of us. But I was the adult. I owed her the truth of right and wrong.

As a teacher, I see the difficult terrain teenagers negotiate as they establish a sense of self, assembling personal values and ethics. Parents may not have the stamina to teach the really painful lessons, and the digital world where teens live is an echo chamber where cause and effect, acts and consequences are obscured, if not hidden. There are no referees. Meanwhile, they see the shortcuts some take to get ahead.

They do something wrong because they saw other kids do it and “nothing happened.” Or they think: “No one will find out. Everyone does it.” No one discovers the school denied a diploma to the senior who plagiarized. Parents fight disciplinary action when their student “tells just a little lie.”

Talking face to face about ethics, defeating the idea that a bad act can be “technically” okay, is critical. Adults dare not be polite.

I sat beside my student, feeling miserable too, but remembering that teaching right and wrong is the central work of all adults, and especially teachers. We are training the next generation to do the right thing.

After she finished sobbing, my student looked at me teary-eyed and blurted, “Thank you.” For stopping her, now.

Years later, she still stays in touch.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is an educator and writer who founded REAL School Marin.

MarilynEnglander

My teenage students weren’t enthusiastic as we battled morning traffic. They were happy to skip class but this food bank volunteering thing had gotten old.

Their attitude: People are hungry. Yeah. Why do we have to fix it?

Our first stint had been such fun. In the cavernous, chilly warehouse mountains of donated food waited to be sorted. For three hours we pawed through an astonishing array of cans, boxes and jars. Cereal got tossed into one bin, beans over there. Kids ran around with armfuls of groceries, skidding up to pallets to dump their loads. The crazy stuff people contributed — rhododendron tea, chili-pomegranate jelly, a half-eaten box of Oreos. It was a treasure hunt.

But ever since then we had been bagging rice; week after week, measuring exactly 16 ounces into each plastic bag, slapping on cooking instructions. The glee of ditching class faded to weary resignation. Even clowning around in our hair nets and latex gloves got old. Boring, uninspiring work.

But on this morning it changed.

“What’s so special about 16 ounces of rice,” my student Evan whined.

I explained: It’s dinner for a family of four. The label says how to cook it to taste good. A hot meal to end the day.

The kids looked stunned. This is dinner?

I nodded, “Yes, if you’re hungry.”

There was a little silence.

Evan piped up again. He’d done seven bags, dinners for a week. A second boy yelled when he hit 30 bags, dinners for a month. For the rest of the morning, they raced to meet a goal that had become urgent to them. If we could fill 365 bags by noon, we’d have fed a family for a year. They flew through the work.

They walked out of the food bank proud to be helping the 20% of our neighbors who don’t have enough to eat.

In the end, my students asked to volunteer again.

Also, to learn to cook rice.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is an educator and writer who founded REAL School Marin.

Marilyn Englander

Sometime over the past 20 years, education became a relentless race.

A vogue developed for having one’s very bright pre-schooler jump ahead to start school early. It became a mark of distinction: “My child’s so bright, he’s a prodigy. He should leap ahead!” I’ll say it very clearly: what a mistake that is most of the time.

By middle school, teachers often see the dismal outcome of such well-intentioned yet ill-conceived efforts to rush children towards “success.” Teachers see 8th graders, especially boys, who can’t keep track of their assignments or their sweatshirts. Their manners are bad, their hygiene often worse. They’re brainy, but still dependent on adults.

So here’s a new idea: a year off for these precocious but awkward 8th graders — a gap year — the gift of time to grow up, learn to manage their own lives, before they hit the whirlwind of high school.

As kids mature, there are moments of soaring, but they are accompanied by moments of crawling. We can’t predict which skills children will develop, while others languish for months. Star-struck parents of a four-year-old who can read may not realize he hasn’t mastered sharing the ball on the playground. The nine-year-old who has memorized the state capitals may not be able to write legible ABCs. The 13-year-old math prodigy lacks a social conscience.

Humans need many skills to function well. The narrow competence covered by academics is just that — very narrow, limited. When we hurry children along by observing solely their intellectual strengths, we are blinded to the full range of what they need to grow straight and true.

The root of the word ‘education’ means “to lead forth, to bring up.” Racing through learning, young people are denied deep knowledge.

Let’s not be in such a hurry to have our children spewed out into the world. A gap year offers the gift of extra time to mature, expand, blossom. Nature can’t be hurried. Education is not a race.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a teacher and head of school at REAL School Marin in Larkspur.

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I listen to the news. So many angry cries: “My way is better!” and “I alone can fix this if you elect me!” “Those other people have it all wrong!” The discussion is uncompromising. Everyone seems to be dug in. It does not feel like we are a united people.

Feeling despondent, I picked up a little booklet given to me by a friend who recently immigrated to the U.S. It makes for terrific reading, and I recommend it to everyone: The Constitution of the United States.

Just 20 or so pages long, the Constitution is a rule book for governing cooperatively through compromise and power-checking. It provides guidance for negotiation and resolution. Even after more than two centuries, its deliberate and careful systems show us a way to find common ground.

Our Constitution begins:

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” This acknowledges how difficult being united can seem at times.

“…to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility..” This means to work towards civility and peaceable coexistence.

“…provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare…” This is a promise to work together for the well being of everyone. We are reminded we chose to be in this together.

The Founding Fathers had serious differences as they wrote the Constitution. They disagreed on how to balance the power of large states and small ones, how to accommodate the needs of both the agricultural South and the commercial North. Their debates were so contentious that the record was sealed for 30 years. But they found a way.

The Constitution is worth studying again for its wisdom, even though our times are so different from the late 1700s.

The goal in uniting as a nation was to work together for a greater good while acknowledging many different voices. The Constitution lays out a brilliant road-map. It does not say a single thing about “it has to be my way.”

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a teacher and head of school at the REAL School Marin in Larkspur.

image

Sometime over the past 20 years, education became a relentless race.

A vogue developed for having one’s very bright pre-schooler jump ahead to start school early. It became a mark of distinction: “My child’s so bright, he’s a prodigy. He should leap ahead!” I’ll say it very clearly: what a mistake that is most of the time.

By middle school, teachers often see the dismal outcome of such well-intentioned yet ill-conceived efforts to rush children towards “success.” Teachers see 8th graders, especially boys, who can’t keep track of their assignments or their sweatshirts. Their manners are bad, their hygiene often worse. They’re brainy, but still dependent on adults.

So here’s a new idea: a year off for these precocious but awkward 8th graders — a gap year — the gift of time to grow up, learn to manage their own lives, before they hit the whirlwind of high school.

As kids mature, there are moments of soaring, but they are accompanied by moments of crawling. We can’t predict which skills children will develop, while others languish for months. Star-struck parents of a four-year-old who can read may not realize he hasn’t mastered sharing the ball on the playground. The nine-year-old who has memorized the state capitals may not be able to write legible ABCs. The 13-year-old math prodigy lacks a social conscience.

Humans need many skills to function well. The narrow competence covered by academics is just that — very narrow, limited. When we hurry children along by observing solely their intellectual strengths, we are blinded to the full range of what they need to grow straight and true.

The root of the word ‘education’ means “to lead forth, to bring up.” Racing through learning, young people are denied deep knowledge.

Let’s not be in such a hurry to have our children spewed out into the world. A gap year offers the gift of extra time to mature, expand, blossom. Nature can’t be hurried. Education is not a race.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a teacher and head of school at REAL School Marin in Larkspur.

MarilynEnglander

Speaking in public generates enormous fear in most people. Nearly everyone dreads getting up in front of an audience and being judged.

So, learning public speaking presents an ideal opportunity in education, a kind of boot camp for facing seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Planning and practice, humility and patience, self-forgiveness and bravado — all are part of the lesson plan.

When I began teaching public speaking to teenagers, I thought of it as a useful skill. It quickly became a template for tackling all hard work.

By age 12, all kids can figure out new skills through trial and error. It's the stuff of growing up. Public speaking is no different, except that adults have lost that agility for learning and they charge performance with stigma.

First we build proficiency at memorizing, stage presence, eye contact. Everyone is lousy at first. The initial assignments are simple: introduce a classmate, explain how to make cookies. The group listens, commiserates, and importantly, applauds. Applause is required, as is attentive listening.

As the weeks go by, the assignments become more complex: review a new movie, argue for a fine for not recycling. The group critiques each speech. They all are giving speeches too, so everyone comprehends mercy.

Public speaking becomes "what you do," not a terror. So, students dig in and improve. Then, miraculously, the skills begin to transfer to other areas. Students begin to feel they can write, too. They will try the potter's wheel or Spanish. The model is "give it a try and see how it flies". Criticism isn't lethal.

And so, public speaking is a model for approaching every other challenge. Students learn to get in there and do it. Forget the drama. Follow the form. Work your way up to competence under the stage lights.

Adults could do this, too.

With a Perspective, I'm Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a teacher and head of school at REAL School Marin in Larkspur.

MarilynEnglander

I teach adolescents from families who are secure. The kids are healthy, own lots of toys, travel widely.

Yet, curiously, their parents try to shield them from hardship. Stress is a dirty word.

Parents introduce their students: My child has —- fill in the blank —-dyslexia, hypotonia, difficulty writing. Testing proves it. Please don't push him to do what he can't. The parents are sincere.

It is a parent's job to nurture the child. But growth is stressful. Parents wince at the heroic struggle required to mature into a strong person. Their message is clear: my kid struggles. It's not fair. Tell him he's fine just as he is.

But the world will smack him in the face. A diagnosis is simply a sign — "Road Work Ahead."   The world won't wait for a child who repeats, "I can't." It shrugs and moves on without him.
Yet there is power in believing, "I can."

When my children were little, struggling with every new skill, I dredged up a song my dad used to sing for me, "High Hopes," about an ant moving a rubber tree plant. Feeling foolish, I shared it with my own kids to encourage them when they were sobbing with frustration. To my amazement, it worked. Even today, if I say "can-do ant" to my 20-something kids, they smile and stop complaining, about tax forms or putting up shelves.

Teachers focus on "You can. You are learning how." If we don't encourage struggle, we will have created a generation of kids who are like the caterpillar that is cut free of his chrysalis. Without the struggle to emerge on his own, he won't strengthen his wings. The new butterfly will be too weak to fly, our kids too weak to thrive.

Teachers prod and inspire kids to face the strain. We chant, "You can do it! You're tough! Work harder! Don't fear the struggle!" We encourage high hopes. Practice, repeat, push. Step by step, pain subsides, muscles strengthen, mastery is acquired.

Summer — a perfect time to practice "I can."
 
With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a teacher and head of school at REAL School Marin in Larkspur.

MarilynEnglander

When my first child was born, I had big plans for him — world leader, great scientist. Then my sister sent me part of a poem by Kahlil Gibran. I have never forgotten its words:

Your children are not your children.

And then,

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
They have their own thoughts.

Especially for parents whose children are in the final months of middle or high school, the words of that poem are poignant. Spring is high school and college admission season. Very soon the yes or no will arrive, a verdict that seems quite final.

There is such angst over getting into the perfect school. Often, there is silent anger; even grief as parents come to see they did not get the child they ordered, so to speak. Every spring teachers see parents enraged that the fashionable school did not welcome their student. Parents mutely consider their children failures because they don't fit the "headed for Stanford" mold. Peers whisper about who doesn't have a chance at getting into a "first tier school."

Teachers watch the joy in learning wither as students receive rejection letters. The light in their eyes goes out as they have to settle for what their social group calls second best.

High school, college: these are only the beginning of the journey. Admissions tests measure one kind of intelligence and ignore others. Some young people putter along, only to discover their genius at age 25. Some thrive in the unruly mix of a big public school where it is safe and exhilarating to try on different selves. Some students know early their calling is working with their hands. There are infinite ways to contribute, to live a meaningful life. Admission to the "right" school is not a prerequisite.

Our children move towards a future that we can little imagine. As we shepherd them through the growing up years, we must remember our dreams are not theirs to fulfill. We may have launched them, we can guide them guide, but their direction is their own.

With a Perspective, I'm Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is head of school and teaches at REAL School Marin in Larkspur.

MarilynEnglander

Bullying. Mean girls. The world of teenagers, right?

But it's not inevitable. It's a lack of community. My work with teenagers convinces me that teens are passionately interested in justice.

In my small school, teens solve problems and dispense justice through a simple and fair consensus process called Council. Beginning in the fall, students and teachers gather in a circle. First we get to know each other: What do you like? Where do you live? Then, what are your hopes? Your fears? Later, we call Council when we have a problem.

The rules are simple:

Look at each other. Speak from the heart. Listen with the heart. Everyone holds a piece of the truth.

In Council, teenagers listen to each other. There are no derogatory comments or dishonesty because the next speaker will call you on it. Everyone gets heard.

We once had a long Council about graffiti in the bathroom. Students began, "I sure wouldn't do that," and so on, but then speaking from the heart kicked in. "I can imagine if I were really upset…" Or, "If I felt alone, I could strike out like that."

Slowly the community drew together. The culprit realized we could understand his misstep. Eventually, he confessed. Teens thanked him for coming forward. Someone said, "I get it." The group then moved on to justice, and assigned him to scrub and repaint the bathroom in his free time.

I was astonished by this experience. As the teacher, I was poised to suspend the vandal. But his peers came to a superior understanding. They restored him to good standing in the group. It was humbling to see these young people figure out a higher justice than adults ever could.

The key is our commitment to community. There is no avoiding Council. But where there is safety of community, teens feel confident in justice and few refuse a chance to be heard. It takes work, but the investment mitigates bullying, social isolation and cruelty.

Sitting in Council, we see a microcosm of the larger world we must learn to understand and negotiate to survive.

With a Perspective, I'm Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is head of school and teaches at REAL School Marin in Larkspur.