Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Another Great Aspect of Home School—Self-Taught Side Yard Science Class

My heart pounded and I hastened my pace to a frantic jog while searching the house at 7:00 am for my 9 year old son. “Did I forget to lock the doors last night?” I wondered as I mentally recounted my nightly house closing procedure. The irrational side of my brain repeated relentlessly, ‘he’s been kidnapped’, ‘he’s been kidnapped’. I pushed aside the thought of that possibility while continuing to search his favorite inside hiding spots to no avail.

And then, by remote chance, I glanced out the second story window to the yard below and witnessed a sight that will be forever engrained in my mind. There he was, (in stark contrast to my state of near hysteria), sitting cross legged and peaceful on a small bath towel, posture erect with his science notebook on his lap. He seemed to levitate in the glow of the early morning sun and he had managed to find inspiration in a place I seldom visit--the side yard of our home. I was overcome by a feeling of relief and gratitude as I watched, completely intrigued by the forces that were holding him captive.

He gazed repeatedly towards the rising sun and then down to his science notebook….up at the sun, and then down at his book, scribbling furiously each time. I left him there a few moments in his state of “divine inspiration” before daring to join him. I approached cautiously, attempting to mask my combined sense of panic and awe. “I do this sometimes, mom,” he casually responded to my inquiry. “I climb through my window with my towel and my notebook to think about chemistry and nature. It’s just so beautiful out here in the morning. I wake up looking at the sunlight coming through that tree and it’s like it’s inviting me outside,” he explained. “I think about the plants, and how we can keep the pollution from hurting our planet,” he shared.

My grandfather, an artist and great observer of human behavior, used to comment that my son seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. After witnessing this early morning attempt at “pollution resolution”, I couldn’t help but think how accurate his observations were. I also couldn’t help but recall fond memories of my grandfather’s very similar endeavors as he sketched intently in his sketch book. “It must be deeply engrained in the genetic code,” I thought.

My inquisition continued. Evidently, these sessions allow my son to study nature and theorize about the chemical structures and processes that exist in delicate balance in our world. He shared pages and pages of chemical theories and equations that he had been calculating, and theories he was developing that might lead to resolution of the problems as he understands them. Were his equations correct? Maybe, maybe not, but it didn’t matter, because the process of self-directed learning was ultimately more valuable than correct answers.

I was dumbfounded but not surprised. We have been reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and my son is learning first-hand through examples and stories of Franklin’s own telling, how he relentlessly pursued self-education throughout his entire life. From this, my son was able to connect the dots and realize that one doesn’t need a teacher or a classroom to learn. School is wherever you make it—even if it is a self-taught side yard science class.

He proceeded to show me a drawer he had cleared in his desk to hold “his required materials” and demonstrated his methods for escaping the confines of his room to embark on these early morning adventures. I was inspired beyond words at the mental capacity and gestalt learning children are capable of when given the chance to explore and develop their interests.

Of course, I am proud of what I am seeing, as all parents are when their children uncover a new talent or reach a major milestone. I share this story with great humility. The expanded moments of inspiration happening with both my children now that we are home schooling, are contributing to an emerging theory I have about self-directed learning which is that children need structure and repetition, but they also need freedom to pursue their own emerging interests and challenge their creative and problem solving abilities.

This, for me, is one of my favorite aspects of home schooling—fanning the flames of creativity and inspiration and watching them become an intense, raging fire!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wanted! A little good old-fashioned, genuine authenticity!

“Authenticity” has been at the forefront of my mind for a few weeks and I have been thinking about its role my life. This week in home school, we are learning about “success” and “failure”. The speed at which the proverbial “rug” has been yanked out from under many unsuspecting folks due to the global economic crisis has left more than a few of us confusing bad luck and extenuating circumstances, with personal failure.

As our economy crumbles and our government continues to abandon common sense and founding principles, my world has been shaken to the core like a 10 point earthquake. As a result, I have stopped trusting what I once trusted, I have stopped believing in things I once believed in, and stopped assuming that everything will be okay if I work hard and plan well. The last time I remember feeling so “shaken up” and uncertain about the future was after 911. That’s a scary place and many of us, unfortunately, are here again.

We all have our own ways of dealing with crisis. I have found myself resorting to my favorite coping mechanisms; protectionism, personal accountability, and self-reliance, topped off with a healthy dose of prayer and positive thinking. I am creating my own personal “stimulus package”. At the coverage of the nationwide tea parties, I noticed a woman with a protest sign that read, quite simply, “I can stimulate myself, thank you!” It was just priceless and so well stated. And what must one do to stimulate oneself? I know what you are thinking, but this is the G rated version.

About two years ago, I realized that the lifestyle I had spent decades creating, wasn’t working for me anymore. My habits, my focus and my day to day life no longer reflected my AUTHENTIC priorities and values. In fact, the gap between the two resembled the Grand Canyon. What could I do? I decided to be like Madonna, and reinvent myself. After a thorough and “authentic” self-audit, I was left staring dazed and confused at a blank canvas called “my new life”. This confronting scenario triggered a temporary onslaught of fear, panic, anxiety, stress, sleeplessness, nausea, procrastination, denial and avoidance topped off by a strong (but unfulfilled) craving for brightly colored little pills.

Being an artist by nature who has faced a few of these blank canvases, I have learned to view them as divine opportunities to create something of beauty that will inspire others. This requires a certain mindset about success and failure and a belief that life is simply a reflection of a series of choices.

The words “success” and “failure” are the labels of meaning that we assign to the results we produce in our lives. Sometimes, the results are tremendous and we delude ourselves into thinking we are “da bomb”! Sometimes those results are horrific and we delude ourselves into thinking we are deserving of “da bomb.” Either way, the danger of labeling a result as either a “success” or a “failure” is that it directly influences our often fragile egos. If we have “succeeded”, it may go to our heads which causes a false sense of security and complacency. Likewise, when we fail, it goes to our stomachs causing discomfort and disease. We become paralyzed with fear, and have a difficult time functioning. “Analysis paralysis” thrives in this environment. That is the state in which many of us have found ourselves. Deep breath…

In order to bypass my own delicate ego, I am learning to remain emotionally detached from the results I produce. I don’t mean to imply it is okay to deny or avoid the consequences, (especially the negative consequences) of my actions. Ultimately, to be the best I can be, I must accept full responsibility for what I create in life. I simply mean, that I am learning not to view my own results in terms of “success” and “failure.” When I manage to do this, I can take a more “authentic” look at my life, make better choices for myself and progress confidently in a new direction.

A business associate who is reinventing himself recently asked me for some coaching on how to best position himself during his own “reinvention”. He was of the opinion that he needed “smoke and mirrors” to enhance his credentials. My advice to him felt very “Faith Popcorn-esque” as I shared my observations about the growing trend towards authenticity that is appearing on everything from food labels to cleaning products and the clothing we wear to the books we read.

It went something like this… “Almost everyone, from the poorest of the poor to the wealthiest of the wealthy has been affected by this crisis. Having been cheated, deceived, beguiled, mislead, and duped; either by ourselves or by others, we are now wary of formerly “trusted advisors”. Nowadays, if people sense even the slightest hint of personal misalignment, confusion or lack of clarity in another, they will “dis” (disengage and disassociate) and move on. In other words, if they can’t clearly understand what is on the label and inside the package, they simply don’t want it.

We are skeptical and impatient, desiring a return to simplicity and truthfulness. We are being challenged by deteriorating personal and global circumstances to rise to a new level of authenticity. While this may be painful in the short term, it’s a glorious chance for redemption in the long term. Don’t let a good crisis go to waste. Be authentic, beginning with yourself!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

If Everyone is Talking, Then Who Exactly is Listening?

This week was an education for me in more ways than one. I jumped head first into the world of social media, specifically, micro-blogging. Yes, I am officially “face booking” and “twittering”. Experts say that upwards of 208 million people belong to these sites now (April 2009) and they project as many as 1 billion users by 2011. As a twenty year marketing veteran, I admit that I am shamefully behind on this. I am still evaluating the pros and cons of social media, but my immediate observation is that there is an awful lot of talking going on and not a lot of listening.

Our home school lesson on listening couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Being deeply engrossed in the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which recounts 50 years of the life of a man with great capacity to influence and persuade others, I wondered what he would think of “social media.” What would Benjamin Franklin tell his son about listening, and what advice would he impart about the role of social media in our 21st century culture?

I believe he might begin by telling his son that “listening” is a precious gift that we give to one another. Think about it… when someone wants to be heard, what they are really craving is significance. For just a moment, they desire the attention and acknowledgment of another human being. When we choose to actively listen, devoting 100% of our focus to another person, a positive exchange begins. And respectively, when someone really hears us, we recognize and appreciate that gift. Before we know it, we are ready to return the favor. This reciprocation can continue ad infinitum and real honest communication takes place. It is the very foundation for genuine and lasting relationships.

Benjamin Franklin might tell his son that active listening requires that one be in an ideal “listening state”. Being angry, impatient, worried, or distracted is not conducive to listening. One must be calm, present and open to really “hear” someone. Therefore, learning to listen means we must first learn to control our emotional state. Someone much wiser than me said “seek first not to be understood, but to understand.” This statement, to me, epitomizes effective listening. It suggests that a better result will be obtained if we silence our mind and open our ears before engaging our mouth. Even when we are in disagreement, we will be better able to manage our state and move to a positive resolution if we follow that advice.

Next, I think Benjamin Franklin might share the idea that listening, like writing is a learned skill which must be practiced regularly in order to gain mastery. Give and take is an essential component of conversation. This is where the nourishment of the soul and strengthening of bonds occur. If you have been caught in a “one sided conversation” with a “listening leach”, I imagine it has left you speechless, empty and unfulfilled. True relationships are founded on give and take, verbal and otherwise.

As humans, we have an inherent need for significance and will go to great lengths to get it. On this crowded but often lonely planet, is it possible that the need for significance is driving the explosion of social media? What are the long term repercussions of a world where so much of our effort is focused on personal branding and so little on authentic listening? Will talking AT each other heal the planet or hurt it?

For me, the jury is still out on the long term consequences of social media. It’s difficult to ignore a potential 1 billion user trend. However, I believe Benjamin Franklin might advise us to partake at our own risk, to maintain a healthy distance, and to allocate the lion’s share of our time and energy to opening our ears and connecting with one anothers’ souls. He would suggest that we aim to build the kind of genuine relationships that can withstand MUCH more than a power outage, computer viruses, and technical difficulties.

What role is social media playing in your life? Is there any genuine listening going on in your circles?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Benjamin Franklin and the Art of Persuasion. (Part one)

My children and I are reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin as part of our home grown leadership program. His writing style is simple, elegant, concise, and humorous. This manuscript is written to his son, and he shares the story of his life as if he is sitting in the room with him, casually conveying the intimate details of the defining moments of his life and the lessons he learned from them.

I thought I knew quite a bit about Benjamin Franklin and his achievements as an inventor, a diplomat, a printer and an author. I was not aware however, that underlying his undisputed genius, was an intense, self directed passion for the art of persuasion. I am inclined to believe this provides a simple explanation as to why his talents and contributions were so vast and legendary and why, during his own time, and even to this day, he is viewed as one of our most pre-eminent “thought leaders”.

The guiding principles of his life seemed to be to observe, to listen, to improve and to persuade, and he enthusiastically applied these principles to each of his notable endeavors. The first three principles, while significant, would have been fruitless without the fourth. He could observe, listen, and improve, but if he hadn’t developed his powers of persuasion, his improvements (i.e. inventions, literary works, and diplomacy) might not have been embraced.

I am finding it invaluable to encourage my children to see beyond the significant accomplishments of the leaders we study to the underlying principles which guided them. In the case of Benjamin Franklin, exposing my children to the persuasive part of his nature is like studying the basic ingredients for life mastery. Instead of following the lessons of a poorly written 5th grade reading and writing primer, they are learning first-hand, from the words actually written by him, in context of a the past which has shaped our culture as we know it.

As a mostly self-educated man, his autobiography reveals that he was an excellent listener and observer of events around him and that, having no formal curriculum; this is what motivated and directed his education. When he saw awkwardness, failure, or shortcomings in human nature or process, he called upon his guiding principles. The stories of his ingenious and self-directed methods of learning, and his sly attempts to get published, provided humor and examples of pure ingenuity. I could see the wheels turning in my children’s heads as they were listening with intensity. Instead of minds closing from boredom, they were opening from inspiration. It was a poignant lesson that they should move beyond “writing for the sake of writing,” striving first for thought leadership, and then for the mastery of persuasion.

Persuasion, whether written or spoken can be used for good or evil, to create or to destroy, to hinder or to heal. God has given us the gift of thought, and I believe we have the responsibility to take great care in crafting what we say and choosing the ideal communication format, be it poetry, prose, oration or conversation. I have spoken before about the importance of helping our children transcend knowledge to gain wisdom. For me, this kind of learning (straight from the source, so to speak) bridges the gap.

Regarding his view on the power of persuasion, Benjamin Franklin wrote…

… “and as the chief ends of conversation are to inform, or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well meaning sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive assuming manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us”…
And of his methods for learning he wrote…

“I continued this method for some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence, never using when I advance anything that may possibly be disputed, the words, certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive, or I apprehend a thing to be so or so, It appears to me, or I should think it so or so for such and such reasons, or I imagine it to be so, or It is so if I am not mistaken.”

There are memorable lessons to be learned in these passages that apply to forming compelling thoughts and then arranging our words into persuasive communication. Benjamin Franklin confesses he didn’t naturally possess these skills. He studied, practiced and mastered them, and the stories he shares convey important concepts such as:

Repetition is the mother of skill.

Seek first to understand, not to be understood.

Men should be taught as if you taught them not.

My intent is not to recount the entire autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in this essay. If you are interested, I highly recommend this edition from the Easton Press for it was carefully and beautifully printed from the manuscript as Franklin wrote it, including his preliminary outline. Thank you, Mom and Dad for the beautiful gift!

The important message is that without his propensity and mastery of the powers of persuasion, this great man as he was known by his contemporaries, and as we remember him generations later, owed much of his success to his communication skills. Even when we are all grown up with our degrees adorning our walls and our business cards, it is my feeling that the world would become a better place if we would all continue to improve upon our communication skills. And, we cannot ignore the fact that in a world where “noise” comes at us from all directions, our children, even more so than ourselves, need to master the art of persuasion, for they are the thought leaders of tomorrow.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on how Benjamin Franklin would view our new world of social media.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Failing Table Rules in our House! What Do You Do to Make Mealtime Special?

Wisdom of the Ages has been weaving through our home school studies in the subject areas of leadership, world history, American history and science. I have been amazed that, while aspects of day to day life have changed dramatically over the centuries, the basic philosophies pertaining to human nature are remarkably consistent across continents, cultures, and civilizations. Sometimes, I believe we have lost all connection with and respect for the wisdom our predecessors. Either that, or the rules of modern culture are changing so quickly that we often put aside basic decency and forget how to treat each other. I know this is true in my house and now that I have become more conscious of it, we will work on bringing back some good old fashioned values—beginning with table manners.

Today, we were reading aloud a poem entitled "Table Rules for Little Folks" from William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. I asked my daughter to read it aloud and watching the look on her face as she uncovered the error of her mealtime ways was just priceless. But, the transgressions at dinner time in our home do not solely exist with my daughter. Our whole family has put my mother to shame when it comes to adhering to acceptable table rules. And I should know better, because my mother was a master of protecting the sacred ritual of the family meal!

The poem goes like this…

In silence I must take my seat,
And give God thanks before I eat;
Must for my food in patience wait,
Till I am asked to hand my plate;

I reflected on the fact that our family has meal time is riddled with ADHD-like behavior and members rarely enjoy the food over which I have slaved. As I often sit alone in wait, I begin picking at, and then inhaling my food, rationalizing that at least one of us should enjoy it while it’s hot. By the time everyone has staggered in, the act of “giving thanks” has gone by the wayside. I am not proud. I have seen the error of my ways, and meal time is going to take on a much different tone around my house beginning this evening.

I must not scold, nor whine, nor pout,
Nor move my chair or plate about.

My daughter, head still down, peeked through her bangs with a priceless expression of guilt. She suddenly recognized that game of musical chairs that usually ends in ferocious “negotiations” and sometimes tears, left much room for improvement in our house.

With knife, or fork, or napkin ring,
I must not play, nor must I sing.
I must not speak a useless word,
For children should be seen, not heard:

This elicited a sarcastic side comment from my son directed at my daughter who is notorious for dancing and singing her way through life, often to the extreme annoyance of my son.

I must not talk about my food,
Nor fret if I don’t think it good.
I must not say, “the bread is old,”
“The tea is hot,” “The coffee’s cold”;
My mouth with food I must not crowd,
Nor while I’m eating, speak aloud;

She jumped on this cue, for it was readily available opportunity to retaliate against my son who is notorious for “food whining” and “speaking with crowded mouth.”

Must turn my head to cough or sneeze,
And when I ask, say “If you please”’;
The tablecloth I must not spoil,
Nor with my food my fingers soil.

Another volley from son to daughter, for my daughter is often called by her middle name –“Viking girl”, when she bypasses the utensils and opts for her fingers during our mealtimes.

Must keep my seat when I have done,
Nor round the table sport or run;

Game, set, match and Mom wins! There was an audible silence from both of them as they reflected upon their personal contribution to this problem.

When told to rise, then I must put
My chair away with noiseless foot’
And lift my heart to God above,
In praise for all his wondrous love.

The power of the family meal has been somewhat lost in our chaotic, overscheduled culture. I was embarrassed that it took a children’s poem to remind me that I needed to raise my standards in this area. Togetherness at mealtime, even one meal a day, is an opportune time to take a step back and focus on how fortunate we are and to connect to our family members over a lovingly prepared meal. I believe our predecessors had it right—and good manners are simply an acknowledgment of the importance of the ritual. If the quality of your mealtime experience has been diminished, don’t settle anymore as I have been doing. Reclaim and enjoy it!

How does your family do at mealtime? Please share some of your mealtime traditions and rules with those of us who still need help!