Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Readership Award



Thank you DragonSpark, for the Wonderful Team Member Readership Award nomination. I am honored, especially because it's coming from someone with highly impressive writing skills and fantastically creative storytelling. His thought process and ideas defy his young age. (He also happens to be a wonderful reader!)

Per the nomination process, I must define what it means to be a great reader:

A great reader is a lot of things, fluid and versatile yet challenging to define in one particular way. First and foremost, for me, being a reader and being a listener go hand in hand; they both require effort and patience, are impressive when done right, and the end result of acquired knowledge make both totally worth it. When a great reader gets through an article, an essay, or a book they have traveled in time to other dimensions, other worlds and met an array of people who have offered her or him, an opportunity to live their lives alongside them. A great reader has empathy, curiosity, and high intelligence. She or he asks questions without interrupting; without judgment, she or he absorbs information in a nonpartisan manner, and has lived a thousand lives without ever looking up from the written text. That is magic in its more surreal form.

Luckily there are a ton of great readers in the world we live in. The majority of us are so fully absorbed between the pages of our latest book that we fail to notice much of the drama that unfolds around us. This is both good and bad depending on your perspective. I’d like to think “we” great readers are not alarmists; considering we’ve lived every tragedy, drama, and world changing affair via all the classical literature, great novels, and pieces we’ve read. The idea is that once you’ve read Shakespeare, current events don’t seem as impressive. A great reader is also diplomatic, somewhat respectful of rules of grammar (or at the very least in awe of the great possibilities language offers us) and a creative thinker.

P.S. I am currently reading 2 books: A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking and Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis. I don’t normally approve of reading two books at once but they are so vastly different and both due back at the library soon, so I had to speed things up.

Since the majority of my friends are great readers, but don’t have blogs, I am branching this outside the blogging world and tagging their fabulously nerdy selves on Facebook.

I hereby nominate the following 5 people for Wonderful Team Member Readership Award:

1.      Amber Morabito
2.      Mary Ellen Massa
3.      Joan Velazquez
4.      Diana Pinkett
5.      Elizabeth Tam Helmuth


Please see below for the rules:

1.      Define what it means to be a good reader (on your Facebook status)
2.      Nominate or tag who you think deserves this award
3.      Add a PS to what you are reading. 




Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Parisian Affair



The language classes offered at my below average high school were either Spanish or French. The concept of an easy A had not occurred to me at the time, so I went ahead and matriculated for French 101. On that first day, I remember the classroom being filled with a beautiful voulez-vous, oh là là melody of sounds which I reveled in, dreamily taken to a corner café where I sat smoking long cigarettes looking oh so European chic. Almost immediately I took to wrecking the language with my hard, Caribbean Spanish accent. I couldn’t quite grasp the different vocal sounds French required, and the whole time I tried to emulate the soft, throaty phonetics all that came out was an awkward, guttural sound that sounded far from the sexy language my teacher was speaking.

I gave up my desire to learn a new language until university, when I found myself deciding between several idealistic majors i.e. anthropology, ethnic studies, humanities. Once I finally got all the general education classes out of the way, declaring a double major in Spanish and Italian was like having an academic orgasm. I could finally sit around reading old texts and learn a new language without regard to its usefulness whatsoever. Italian was a fluke since all the Portuguese 101 classes were full by the time I got my registration date, and French for some reason was long forgotten in my mind. From the start, Italian was an easier experience, a more palatable language for me, the words easier to decipher, the grammar more comprehensible, and when I finally understood my first Italian poem (Scattered Rhymes by Petrarch) I knew I had made the right decision. I’ll always remember my professor, a blonde Florentine woman, whose passion for sonnets and dead poets was contagious.

Every now and then, I would recall my brief rendezvous with French.

Many moons later we visited Paris as a family. The city turned out to be colder and grayer than I had imagined it, but to be fair, we visited in March when much of Europe still echoed harsh, winter skies. Contrary to everyone’s advice, I spoke English to every French person I met and surprisingly everyone I met was very friendly, a far cry from the French snobs they are reputed to be. It was an expensive trip though. The chocolate croissants were 4 euros ($7 under current exchange rates, and we devoured a whole basketful so you can imagine our surprise upon seeing that bill) but they were the best I ever had, so I suppose very much worth it.

After a nonstop walking frenzy, trying to sight see an entire city, in less than 6 hours with a toddler who refused to walk, I was looking forward to our evening flight on to the next European city. The plane was warm and there were very few passengers, enough for us to spread out. The girls fell asleep beside me, and I looked back to see my husband passed out, so I quickly gave in to the delirium respite from a wonderful but exhausting family adventure.    

Despite the empty plane, two French lovers sat behind me, and for the rest of the flight they were deep in - what seemed to me - an exquisite sounding conversation. I should note that the boyfriend did all the talking while his girlfriend was either as captivated as I was, or completely bored out of her mind. Who knows? The language sounded as beautiful as it had 20 years prior in my French 101 high school class. The layers of low, nasal sounds and phonological harmony streamed into my inner consciousness and played with my dreams for the duration of the flight.

I was hoping that I would wake up fluent upon arrival. This had happened to a friend of mine, when she fell asleep on a road trip from San Francisco to Tahoe. The driver had just gone through a bad breakup and put the same song on repeat for 4 hours straight (Unbreak My Heart by Toni Braxton); when my girlfriend woke up, she was surprised to know the entire song by heart. I realize learning a new language using this method is a stretch, but at the very least I expected the Frenchman, whose voice was now embedded in my dreams of language, would turn out to be a darling supermodel Casanova, a pretty boy straight out of the glossy pages of French Vogue. Neither was the case. I hadn’t understood one word in that conversation and the French cover boy I had pictured was not really my type. When my sultry Italian husband came over to ask how I slept, it more than made up for that disappointment.

One day, I might attempt a new language, perhaps even try French again. Like Italian, it’s not very useful unless you have an interest in old classics and an equally old culture, but to me learning a new language is not about usefulness, it’s about opening my horizons to other trains of thoughts, other streams of consciousness, and other types of poetry.

Paris in March is cold.




Sunday, August 17, 2014

Schooling the Children

There is no denying the importance of a good, solid education, all parents can attest to that.  We all want our children to succeed, academically and in life, to love learning and prosper intellectually. How we prioritize that differs from family to family.

I first became aware of the “school wars” early on in my first pregnancy. Unsolicited advice came from all directions, urges to get on a specific preschool wait list because there was a minimum 3 year wait, suggestions to not bother with another preschool because their pedagogy was not aligned with best outcomes, and then frequently frowned upon because I wasn’t following the hype. I took it all in, passively at first, but like any caring parent, it quickly turned into angst ridden confusion. Pedagogy at 2? I had no idea that even existed. Even among my most well intentioned friends there was an air of self-righteous competitiveness because our children attended different preschools.

I didn’t really comprehend the gravity, or participate in alarmist conversations too extensively until my daughter entered elementary school. We lived in a city that had a public school lottery system. Otherwise known as one of the most stressful parenting processes ever, it’s based on a purportedly random algorithm that is supposed to take into account residence, socioeconomic family status, and the race, ethnicity, and language of the child.

According to the San Francisco Unified School District website:
“Students are assigned to schools through a choice process designed to provide equitable access to the range of opportunities available in San Francisco’s public schools.”

The fact of the matter is the best public schools, or places with true equitable access, have a fraction of viable seats, and parents that have the finances end up going private instead. It’s easier to pay and get a guaranteed spot in a good, quality school. There is also the added benefit of meeting families with like minded interests and what you hope will be the best behaved kids. It’s a very alienating system that inevitably leads to segregation on many levels.

We got our first choice, but since we didn’t pick the most popular public school it wasn’t surprising. Basing my entire research on “feeling” rather than test scores and statistics, we had listed a neighborhood school that was up and coming, with a Spanish immersion program. Though we were relatively happy to get in, we quickly found ourselves defending our choice. Some feared it would be full of gang banger kids, others thought drug dealers. While the matriculated families were very diverse, some indeed coming from rough backgrounds, the majority were warm and highly educated. The judgment that elementary aged kids could be that dangerous was an insult, particularly because the school was mostly comprised of black and Latino families.

The school worked on paper for my daughter, but not so much in reality. I didn’t analyze the education too much because I still thought a 4 year old could take her time with that, but in retrospect it was a bit compromising. For unrelated reasons, we ended up moving across the country, and surprisingly found ourselves in another controlled choice boundary. The only difference was that the state standard seemed so much higher and my daughter subsequently made leaps and bounds. But we were still not happy. After yet another change for my daughter, we finally found a nurturing school with a rigorous academic program that challenges her. But this digression just leads me to the point that no school is perfect.

Like any relationship, we all have our likes, dislikes; we all have certain tolerances and of course absolute limits. Perhaps I think about it too much as a parent. I know my parents didn’t give it this much time. We were all sent to the nearest Catholic school and not given an opinion on it. Nowadays there is so much existential questioning on the child’s happiness and pedagogical growth.

Overall, I believe in public education. Even if I did not have children I would gladly pay more taxes to improve this country’s education system. I’m all for school reform and raising the bar. What's more, I do not oppose the new common core. Critics say public schools teach to tests and create robots. From what I see there is much creative and critical thought process going on in the classroom, and if a kid is nurtured at home and at school, they can really soar. Would I like to see more art, music, and a science lab installed in every classroom? Of course. Would I also like to see more hands on projects, and a tailored approach to each child? Ditto. But, is that realistic? Not in the least. All I can do is simply be an active parent, support my child’s teacher endlessly, and continue to foster my child’s intellectual growth.

But I am left questioning still. Despite our satisfaction, despite the fact that my child is flourishing, I wonder is there a possibility for more? How much would she soar if I perhaps home schooled?

Per the Florida Department of Education there are over 75,000 students that participate in a home school program, a somewhat staggering number until you see in percentage it only represents 3% of the PK-12 enrollment population. This 3% figure is also indicative of the United States generally, as deemed by the U.S. Department of Education; with states each averaging roughly 2.5%.  

There are many reasons families choose to home school of which I won’t delve into here but I have to admit it’s something I’ve been considering for quite some time. I love the idea of designing my own curriculum tailored to my daughter’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests. I love the idea that she could really delve into poetry, music and literature while exploring all her great engineering ideas and crazy scientific experiments. I don’t worry in the least about the social factor because there are so many fantastic enrichment programs that she is missing out on because of her busy school schedule. I could enroll her in ceramics, tap, and permit her to take on that second instrument she’s been vying for. Florida even makes it rather simple, requiring just a form, an email and Et voilà! Les jeux sont faits! Do all states make it that easy, and should I consider this a sign from a higher being? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

There are several factors holding me back. The biggest one is my concern of how much it will consume us a family and ME as the mother.

Just so you know, I’m not the PTA President, sign me up for every committee, all up in the office, everybody knows my name type of Mom. I am the mom that quietly assists the teacher, silently participates in the school events, and buys – not bakes – my contribution to the PTA bake sale. No fanfare needed here. Aren’t home school Moms a different breed entirely? Either they are incredibly chill and able to adjust their schedules to life, or they are one of these Super Wonder Bring It On Higher Being Moms. I care about my daughters’ education, but don’t think I want that cape or that crown.

I got as far as ordering several home school books from the libraries, filled with fantastic ideas on how to do it. I researched, sat down and wrote out what a typical day would like. It filled up our entire day. But that’s insane, I told myself. I know several home school Moms and they all tell me they are done by noon, give or take. I am obviously not an expert here. I am obviously not quite ready either.

The beauty of children is that they are pretty flexible and resilient. My daughter seems to be fine either way. We will continue to talk and ponder, check in and assess. Does this assume that I will take no part in her education? Of course not. I am well aware that the child is educated first and foremost in the home. She is an avid reader because she sees her Mom devour books all day and night. She is a natural engineer because she makes, takes apart, and builds contraptions with her Dad all the time. Even if your school is perfect, your job as a parent is never done, in essence you are already a home school Mom.

My little one, the natural scientist.




Sunday, August 10, 2014

Birthing

Believe in affirmations, not in the delusional sense but in the very real, what you give is what you get sense.   

When I first found out I was pregnant, my first reaction was one of fear. The ills of the world suddenly weighed heavy on me as I contemplated all the possible things that could go wrong with the pregnancy, the fetus, the birth, and then the child. It was self-torture and negative thinking at its finest hour. Why I then chose to affirm these thoughts with hours of Discovery Health pregnancy horror documentaries is beyond my rational thought process. There was a part of my consciousness that wondered whether being put on bed rest and having an early delivery might have been caused by my own thinking, but I dismissed it. When I took my baby girl home I felt this immense love and gratitude that though she was preemie and tiny, she was also healthy and thriving.

4 years later, our family of three had this very profound feeling that there was a presence missing from our lives. I often caught my daughter looking longingly at her friends’ siblings, and then sweetly vocalize to us her desire for a baby sister. Considering my previous pregnancy complications, it felt like a risky path to take, but we all agreed not to dwell too much on the what ifs and just go for it. It was then that I discovered how thoughts can also change a person’s trajectory.

I discovered hypnobirthing, conscious childbirth, and alas even orgasmic labor. Have you ever heard of an orgasmic birth? If not, please watch:






As women, the majority of us have been ingrained with what a pregnancy and a birth should be like. Society says your pregnancy will most probably be afflicted with uncomfortable symptoms ranging from nausea to fatigue. Then the labor will be so painful, so unbearable you will need intravenous injections in your spine to handle it. Never mind that women have been laboring naturally for years and have never lacked the strength for it. How many cultures have you read about whose women simply go off into the bush, squat, and come back with a precious newborn suckling on their breast?

Before I could even get pregnant again, I had to conquer my fears and discover the power of my body. Luckily I had started a health regime sometime after my first daughter turned 3. I was in the best shape of my life, and had even turned vegan 6 months prior to my second pregnancy. Physically, I felt amazing.

The body can be easy to shape, but what of the mind?

My house filled with books and affirmation CDs on all the different types of peaceful birthing techniques out there. The only thing I knew at that point was that I wanted a Vaginal Birth After Cesarean (VBAC). To be successful with a VBAC the woman must do everything she can to avoid hospital interventions, especially epidurals. Every woman chooses what is best for her but the decision making process is more complicated when VBAC is the goal. After endless hours of research and reading, I realized that an epidural could potentially cause more harm than its worth. To mention just a few, it could obscure the pain of a uterine rupture, prolong my labor, or affect the baby’s heart rate which would inevitably result in another cesarean. Though I was prepared to do what was best for my baby, the road I strived for would preferably be an all natural path.

Of course, I really wanted an Orgasmic Birth. Who wouldn’t want such a thing? But something in me – albeit perhaps a bit closed and negative minded - something in me denied that this could be my personal experience. My view of labor though is very intimate, as intimate as the act of conception, as having an orgasm. This is why we chose not to have a midwife or a doula with us. I did entertain the idea of having my daughter present, but in the end my husband and I decided to undergo the journey as privately as the moment we conceived it.  

It’s a hell of a bitch to labor naturally and walk through the hospital corridors trying to stay in the zone. It felt like an internal battle zone amidst a sea of Buddhas on spa day. Practically all the women on the floor had opted for pain relief and they appeared to be in a sphere of paradise. I’d pass their candle scented rooms, and glimpse them lying in their beds looking like glorious goddesses, sipping tea, and giggling with their family members.

But I persevered and channeled all our ancestors to get through it. And just like the books said, my body knew. It knew what to do and how to handle each stage so naturally I almost levitated above in disbelief at how easy it was. Internally, I interpreted each contraction as a surge, visualizing it as a wave of love that would bring my baby closer. When it was time, my body knew when to push and how to push; once that time came it was over in 20 minutes. For all the moments leading to that point, the one thing I held onto was a certainty that my body was capable of this, regardless of what my mind might say.

My second daughter was born looking in awe of her passage. It was amazing. I held her to my breast while my gynecologist showed me my placenta and analyzed its wonders with me. My husband overwhelmed with joy, ran to get our oldest daughter so we could have our first family reunion. And I came to understand the true power of a birthing affirmation.   

To read more about VBACs please visit: http://www.vbac.com/



Sunday, August 3, 2014

Raising the Multilingual Child

Are you doing your child a disservice by raising him or her multilingual? This is the question I’ve been asking myself lately. We’ve all read the research, probably even cited some scholarly papers, but how much of the day to day makes you question whether in fact it is in his or her best interest. There is a ton of information on how to raise a bilingual child; many articles list the steps you must take as a family to ensure its success. If you don’t speak a second language, fret not, many major cities and some not so major ones have recognized the importance of polyglots and incorporated immersion programs into their curriculums. You can send your child off to a Spanish, French, or Cantonese language school, many even public.

Our family’s process was a bit more organic. My native language is Spanish; my husband’s native language is Italian. We didn’t have any formal conversations about it, but we both instinctively knew that we would each speak our own language to our future children. Inevitably, people always have something to say, concerns were raised on how confused our children might be, the potential detriment to learning and communicating effectively, and the possibility that it would result in mediocrity of all three languages.

We didn’t take our approach lightly; I did extensive research that could support our trilingual approach. Neither my husband nor I had experience in this, perhaps I more than he since I had been raised in a country that spoke a different language from my own; but he was raised in a monolingual family, society, country. When I was pregnant, I found a single article on trilingual children; the vast majority focused on bilingualism.

Nonetheless our daughters became our guinea pigs. My first daughter was a natural observer, not too much of a talker. Her pediatrician never thought it an issue, and neither did we. But when she started preschool at 2 her lack of English words became painfully obvious. Some of the kids were so verbal they seemed to already recite Shakespeare with the confidence I at 30something still lacked. Mind you their parents were working professionals, many in the field of law and business so it’s not surprising their children would be so cognitively advanced. But at each school play, each event, no matter how minor, our fears were manifested that perhaps raising a trilingual child was not so well thought-out. She always got the wallflower role, whatever non speaking contribution the teacher could come up with.

I know I shouldn’t compare kids; it’s not healthy however way you look at it. But it’s a natural human habit. We thought a Spanish immersion program would really highlight her strengths, and at 4 she started kindergarten. In retrospect it was an incredibly young age but it was the law in California at the time. Regardless, the Spanish immersion program had a pretty even distribution of kids in the classroom, 1/3 were monolingual in Spanish, 1/3 monolingual in English, and 1/3 in both languages. What became evident to me then was her English wasn’t that great, but neither was her Spanish. Wow, am I messing this one up I thought.

We continued our language immersion at home and luckily our families supported our efforts and sent us books, CDs and other materials in our respective home languages. This helped us fill the gaps the school left.

There is an important concern parents of multilingual children have, and that is whether their child will perform as well in school, particularly whether they will test as strongly in English. This is not an essay denouncing the evils of standardized testing; there is no escaping its eventuality. Whether your child takes them now or as part of the college entrance process, sooner or later he or she will be confronted with vocabulary tests, reading comprehension, and other testing paradigms. He or she will have to demonstrate their mastery of the country’s dominant language irrespective of their capabilities as a multilingual child. And those scholarly papers? They all agree that bilingual kids’ vocabulary size and accuracy are impacted.

There are many factors that can influence how well your child performs on these types of tests, but primarily a child who has been fortunate enough to grow up in an environment that uses rich English vocabulary and is exposed to diverse experiences, benefits and typically performs above average. If your child attends public school this is great news because he or she will be tracked into a higher achieving class. Their results might even offer them an opportunity to be tested and placed into a gifted program.

When there is so much at stake, it seems a formidable path to put your child on. Is teaching them your home language instilling them with precious cultural value but negating their opportunity to excel as well as the monolingual child?

You might mention that many monolingual families believe in bilingualism and choose immersion programs for their kid, but I argue that it’s not the same. The child is getting a world of dominant language exposure and a fraction of a second language, so while they may learn the second, their first language is not compromised in the least. They have simply added to their array of extracurricular experience.

At 8, my daughter is now impressive with her language abilities. She can speak, read and write all three. It took her longer, but she has flowered into a verbal chatterbox and expresses herself quite beautifully. Are all three languages equal? No. I don’t know whether this is even achievable, not to mention the challenges it takes to stay on top of all three when her school, her friends, her whole outside world is in English. She reads at an astonishing rate and level for an 8 year old, but these measures are in English. On our last trip to Italy we bought her age equivalent books and she complained that she could only understand half of the content. It was a tad disheartening but sort of expected. I think any of us that speak more than one language, if we are truly honest, admit to mastering one. It’s taken me years to admit that I prefer to read and write in English. I’ve become accustomed to loving in Italian and relating my strong familial bond in Spanish, but it’s really English I think and analyze in. My dreams are another variety.

I wonder whether my daughters will continue our weave of linguistic uniqueness on to their children. I suppose it is fine either way. Coming to terms with what is best for your child at that moment in his or her life is appreciating their sense of identity, and allowing them to encompass the transformative traits of a global citizen. In essence, that is the point of being multilingual. Well, that and the love for languages.