Monday, November 10, 2014

Checking in

Well, it has been a while, but I thought I would check in and maybe get the ball rolling again by sharing two articles.  The first is an essay I wrote for a conference dedicated to my former teacher and mentor, Miriam Hansen.  It takes up her notion of vernacular modernism and relates it to the Dead End kids films of the early 1930s.  I include it here because it gives a preview of the work I am doing on the figure of the urban child.  I am currently writing a book (or trying to!) called Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child which aims to consider neglect as a common trope for the urban child but also considers the power of neglect as enabling -- as letting kids have freedom and mobility.  And it pits earlier models of parenting and what we can call benign neglect against contemporary models of helicopter parenting, to consider what's been lost for kids. It includes chapters on the Dead End Kids; Shirley Temple, Jane Withers and Little Orphan Annie; mid-century texts such as Harriet the Spy and Eloise and films like Kramer vs. KramerPretty Baby and the Little Fugitive; African American representation in The Quiet OneThe StreetThe Planet of Junior Brown, and Cool World, as well as Fat Albert and Sesame Street; and discussion of helicopter parenting in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; with an epilogue about dystopic texts like The Hunger Games.

This essay only takes up a very small part of the argument but will give you an idea:

The other article I wanted to include is one that was in yesterdays Sunday NY Times.  This essay on "The Mommy Problem" takes up the failure to neglect (my words) as a problem for women who are expected to be "all in" at all times, and to forget their selves and their desires when they become moms.

If you read either of these and send a comment I promise I will try and blog more often.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


One of the cool things about my kids' school is the way the kids are graded.  When they were little, they never got letter grades, just 1s, 2s, and 3s.  For each class, there were about a dozen or more skills that the kids would be graded on -- able to read complex sentences, able to recognize and recall new vocabulary words, able to say colors in Spanish, able to manipulate small tools,  etc.  Each one was marked with either a 1 for "excels," 2 for "progressing," or 3 for "needs work."  Now, in middle school, they get letter grades but their teachers still think in terms of competencies and can still break down their performance into parts.  In math, for example, rather than do larger comprehensive tests, they test "standards," 30 or 40 across the year.  Each standard is a different skill -- a step along the way. 

I like this idea of thinking in terms of competencies and individual skills.  I am not sure I can apply it to my own classes, but I have tried to break down my grading into parts, so that with papers, I give a specified number of points to the introduction, the structure, the evidence, the style, etc.  It makes grading seem less amorphous and, I think, harder to argue about.  It helps students think more concretely about the work of writing an essay, too.

I have been thinking about my own competencies.  Against my usual self-perception as not-quite-a-grown-up, when I list my competencies, I can see certain grown up traits.  I am:
able to pay my bills
able to drive a car safely even with a 100 mile commute in often terrible weather
able to teach students about film
able to publish
able to organize conferences
able to feed my family
able to get my kids to school on time
able to do laundry and never have anybody run out of undies
able to play tennis (well, I get a 2 for "progressing")

On the whole, I am a fairly competent parent.  I managed when they were little never to have them fall out a window, be left behind in a mall, be driven in a car seat on the roof of a car, or be given poison for snack. Now, what counts as competency is both easier and more complex.  It is less about keeping them safe in a baseline way -- although we still have to worry about cycling in the city, seatbelts, etc. - and more about trying to figure out what is age appropriate. Like, how able are they to handle racy material?  How much knowledge is too much?  What movies are okay for kids who are almost 11 and almost 13?  The barn door has been left open at our house for a while but there are still moments when I feel the need to shut it again -- when the kids started watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, for example.  Or when my daughter wants to watch Game of Thrones, having read the books. Too much sex, too much nudity, too Showtime, I think. I know it may not be too much for them and that they probably know more than I think,  but it is too much for me.  I am not ready to have them see and know quite so much.

The biggest and most exciting challenge is figuring out when and how to let them show their own competencies.  And especially their ability to be alone and independent in the city.  At home, we leave them in the daytime and have started having short nighttime dates without a babysitter.  We are working up to longer ones.  The kids do fine and barely notice that we are gone. Their friends Mr. TV and Ms. iPad keep them company.   A bigger goal is to have my almost 13 year old start going around the city on her own.  She is doing classes this summer that are an EL ride away.  She and I both want to have her start taking the EL on her own -- or actually, with a friend (I am ready for them to be co-independent but not solo).  Knowing the free rein I had as a kid, I know it is silly to be concerned, but nowadays kids do not have the mobility we had and it requires training.  She will need to do a few run-throughs with me or the other mom.  And I will need training, too.  To breathe and trust and let her grow.  My grade on this, right now, is a 3 -- needs work -- but I am hoping to progress.