First Person

Parent blog: Promoting your child's passions

Boulder mom of three and psychologist Suzita Cochran reflects on helping your kids find their passions. In this case, a friend’s son found  his in the barnyard. 

On our vacation to the East Coast last summer, I spent time with my childhood friend Virginia and her four kids. Her oldest child Micah had just turned 15 when I saw him. I don’t usually expect 15-year-old boys to be great conversationalists. And for the most part Micah was succinct, though polite, when talking about his life…. Until I asked about the animals he’s raising: 40 chickens and four goats. When talking about his farm animals Micah’s eyes lit up and his speech became animated. He seemingly could have gone on forever about buying his goats “at auction” and his quickly expanding chicken business.

Boy with farm animals, BigStock photo

When Micah was 10, his family had moved to the country from the suburbs. Although Micah doesn’t live on a farm, many small farms surround his neighborhood. Soon after moving, Micah met a neighbor who owned a brood of hens. He was hooked.

Virginia reminded me that she and her husband had little experience with or interest in farm animals. She admitted that they’d put off Micah’s request to raise chickens for a year or so. But like many of life’s real passions, Micah’s didn’t ebb over time. Eventually his parents relented and soon they were sharing their bathroom with 12 fluffy chicks for the winter.

Over time Micah built his flock up to 40 chickens. He also amassed a group of regular egg customers, learning about finance along the way. Once he’d saved some money he began floating the idea of adding goats to his farm operation. Soon after Micah bought the goats, his grandparents asked what he wanted for his birthday. Micah informed them that he needed a shed. How great is that? Not an iPad or an iPhone, but a shed for his animal supplies.

Encouraging innovation

Although Virginia said it hasn’t always been easy for her, she and her husband have done for Micah what Tony Wagner advises in his book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. As parents they have supported Micah’s passion. After interviewing over 200 experts on innovation, Wagner concludes that it is not important what college major or serious interest a young person chooses, only that they follow something about which they are passionate and then delve deeply into their field.

For parents like Virginia who may find themselves explaining their child’s unusual pursuit to surprised extended family members more than they wish, Wagner explains that the Internet has changed the working world in their favor. Greater communication and less rigidity in the world of work now mean there are many paths through which to enter a career.

Wagner writes, for example, about a girl who majored in art and went on to become a computer simulation programmer. When she was subsumed in her art studies during high school, her parents supported her but worried she would have trouble making a living from her passion. While pursuing an art major in college, she became involved in a computer simulation project and fell in love with this work. In this new realm she drew on an artistic background in ways other programmers could not.

“Study what you have a passion for and change the world on your terms,” one of Wagner’s interviewees urged.

The magic of mentors

Wagner observes that parents are in a unique position to notice what our children are passionate about and help them expand their knowledge base. When I last spoke with Virginia she said Micah had begun spending time with a retired veterinarian named Bob who now raises sheep on a nearby farm. After meeting Bob herself, Virginia introduced him to Micah and encouraged a potential mentoring relationship. Now Bob regularly takes Micah to local talks on goat and sheep farming and has taught him how to test his animals for parasites using sophisticated lab equipment. This may not be for most kids, but Micah is on cloud nine.

As Virginia intuitively did, Wagner reminds us to support our kids’ passions with mentors whenever possible. When a child takes a class somewhere, even on a subject he or she is fervent about, she is one of many in the room. But when a child talks to a local beekeeper, fabric dyer, bike racer, geographer or novelist, he gets one-on-one encouragement. This unique support is often what moves young people to the next level of an interest.

Sparking innovators at home

Creating Innovators was quite inspiring. Of course while reading it my mind immediately focused on how I could better promote the passions of my three children. But here’s the rather unfortunate reality. My kids seem to be, how should I say this, between passions at the moment. Such a disappointing realization after gathering so many strategies to encourage their passions!

I can say that two out of my three kids have demonstrated strong passions, which now seem to be on temporary hiatus. I would have said all my kids have, except when I really look at our third grade daughter, Annie, I think I was mistaking her passionate personality with having a passion. Just because you are an intense and excitable human does not translate directly into having a passion. Not yet, at least.

When I admitted this to Virginia she helped me feel better by telling me that her other three children have not yet happened onto their passions either although she thinks one might be close to finding it in foreign languages.

Clearly not all children follow a linear progression into their life passions or purpose as Micah has.  Parents of kids who take a more circuitous route to discovering their passions need more patience and perhaps endurance. But Wagner would tell us that it’s important to keep using our intuition to expose our kids to things we think they could be interested in.  And we need to let them quit an activity that has not taken hold after a good amount of time, or from which they are ready to move on.

My personal commitment

So I vow to keep introducing my kids to the exciting neighbors I meet at the annual block party; taking them to talks around town, such as the free Peace Corps presentation at our local REI store or the demonstrations by science professors in town called the CU Wizards; and accompanying my kids to community events like sustainable building fairs or artist open houses.

During these activities I’ll be ready to notice whether my children’s eyes light up at certain parts of the presentation, or if they are enthused all the way home as we discuss what we learned. And finally, on the home front I will try to discern the activities my children tend to lose themselves within and come away from feeling refreshed.

Come to think of it, I believe I will put extra attention into noticing these areas in my life as well.

What passions have you supported in your child?  How did you go about this? Leave a comment!

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.