POLICY FOR PLAY SAID WHAT?…Play: Children’s Default Setting

PinkW01

When I tell people I teach preschool for a living some reply, “What a great job. You get to play with children all day.”

My response? “You betcha.”

Play is not to be trivialized and is largely misunderstood. For young, capable and developing minds, play is serious business.

Adrian Voce author of the book, Policy for Play reminds readers in this extract that play for children is instinctual and imperative and being given the freedom and appropriate space to do so is their right.

Policy for Play

In this adapted extract from Policy for Play: responding to children’s forgotten right, Adrian Voce summarises the importance of play and the barriers to its full enjoyment that modern children face. This extract was first published on the Toy Industries of Europe’s Importance of Play website.

PinkW01While the precise nature of play remains elusive and indefinable, several academic disciplines – from evolutionary biology to developmental and depth psychology and the emergent neurosciences – each agree in their different ways that children’s play is central to who and what we are. It seems clear from these various studies that playing has a vitally important role, both in individual development and in human evolution, but that its primary purpose is simply to be enjoyed.

The great play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith famously said, ‘the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression’; the act of playing brings about ‘renewed belief in the worthwhileness…

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I SAID WHAT?…Standardized Testing; My Case for STILL Opting In

LifeSavers

Brace yourselves.

The 3rd-8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) and Math Common Core standardized tests are coming. You know the ones; the high-stake assessments pitched by politicians as guaranteed to close the achievement gap, ensure children are college and career ready, and monitor the health of school districts.

Ten years ago, as a fourth grade teacher, I had the experience of administering and grading the state ELA and Math tests under No Child Left Behind in the same school my children attend today.

Last April, my then third grader took the Common Core version for the first time. Many of his peers and an estimated 20% of children statewide did not. Their parents “Opted Out.”

Those who joined the Opt Out Movement poignantly expressed concern citing that the current, mandated state assessments cripple public education, compromise the professionalism of teachers, steer time away from creative, meaningful curriculum, suck the joy from learning, and kill young spirits with its developmentally and grade level inappropriate language and length.

Despite the fact that I agree with these points, am a supporter of education historian and activist Diane Ravitch’s platform, and believe the assessments in their existing form offer no diagnostic value for teacher or student,

I Opted In.

It wasn’t because I’m worried about the loss of district funding or the perceived reputation of my son’s school, nor was it because I’m a data hungry mama.

Truthfully, if I felt his learning needs weren’t being addressed, I may not have exposed him to a testing environment that requires nine year olds to sit several hours over a 3-day period for two consecutive weeks. Furthermore, if my school district had Opted Out, I would have obliged.

As a public school student, my son is automatically a pawn in the conundrum of educational reform; ammunition in a grown up battle.

But he doesn’t know it. And that’s good.

He is fortunate to attend a child-centered school that takes pride in their programs.  Inside the classroom, teachers do their best to thoughtfully integrate test prep into an already rich curriculum. Since state testing commenced some 15 years ago, the school district has stood behind their mantra; standardized assessments are a snapshot in a child’s day.

Buzz does not exist.

Outside the school, administrators publically voice concern about high-stakes testing.  Board of Education members travel to the state capital to fight for school district rights and have been known to stand firm outside the Chairman of Education Committee’s office until the senator answers their questions.

Advocacy is a priority.

Out of respect for my son’s innocence, love for his teacher, our leaders’ efforts, and in keeping with the belief that anxiety breeds anxiety, I don’t express my testing distaste at home and I don’t initiate conversation with my child about the “big state test.”

He knows it’s happening.

Had I Opted Out, my son would not only know it is happening, but also be acutely aware that he’s stuck in the middle of a movement that effects the quality of his education. And in my opinion, a nine year old does not need this additional burden thrown upon his shoulders.

So like the time he fell off the playground swing and looked to my reaction for his, I bit my lip and played it cool as the test date approached.

As such, when he came home after the first day of the English Language Arts test last spring, this is what he told me…

“Today was the big state test. The teacher put our desks in a line, the old-fashioned way so we could have space. She gave us gum to help us focus. I didn’t like the flavor so I didn’t have any. We took the test for about an hour. Then we got two recesses. During one of them, I played Knock Out and took second place against a 4th grader. We don’t have any homework; I have no idea why, but we don’t. It was a great day. Can I have a snack?”

My response? “Good for you.” I did not ask test specifics, how he worked, whether or not he finished, or how he performed. “Yes, help yourself.”

The morning of the Math test a week later, his primary concern was to make sure he packed orange flavored Life Savers in his backpack. “Mom, sucking on them helps me focus.  Plus I like to trade them with friends.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

The 2016 standardized tests are being administered in less than one month. Now what?

I don’t believe the elimination of standardized testing is realistic and the likelihood that I will Opt Out my child this year is slim. But I do believe a compromise is necessary.

Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News said, “Back in 2009, the old state tests showed 77% of students statewide were proficient in English. The next year, the pass level was raised and the proficiency percentage dropped to 57%. A few years later, Albany introduced Common Core and the level plummeted even more; to 31% statewide. Same children. Same teachers. Different test.”

Step one: Ensure the learning standards are based on principles of childhood development.

Step two: Reconstruct the test.

Developmentally appropriate standards and tests are the foundation for a balanced educational landscape where learning is more joyful than not and standardized assessments play a small but meaningful role in shaping a young person’s school experience.

The Opt Out movement and those who support it are effecting change, but there is much work to be done. So instead of having a casual conversation with a board member or reading education experts’ blog posts, I need to get proactive and stand alongside them.

But I’ll be sure to leave my son home; to play Knock Out, sample Life Savers, and enjoy his final year of elementary school because that’s his job.

Advocating for a sensible public school education is mine.

Take Away One

Courtesy Little Rock Family

Courtesy Little Rock Family

ML_published_badge_red_Mamalode

“I hate Thursdays,” Bubbe barked.  “I wake up early for band, go to school, spend two more hours in religious school, come home, and do homework.  I need a break.”

“You’re right,” I sighed.  “But education is not an option.  Band is a commitment and you need to finish what you started.  Please put your clarinet away, get one homework sheet done, and pack a snack for Hebrew school.  We’re leaving in twenty minutes.”

Later that evening, I scrolled through registration emails for the upcoming season’s optional extracurricular activities:

Baseball: League 1 and/or League 2.  Travel team.
Tennis, soccer, swim, lacrosse
Martial Arts
CrossFit Kids
Lego Engineering
Hip Hop
Drama, drawing, Junior Chef…

and thought about the last line of my response to Vicki Abeles’s New York Times’ Sunday Review piece, “Is School Making our Children Ill?”

Let’s resolve to take a step back and give children back their childhood.

In my Letter to the Editor, I complimented the Irvington High School community in Fremont, California for taking steps to rescue students from their high-stakes childhoods by limiting homework requirements and encouraged parents of young learners like me and those of my students to be brave, take ownership and embrace such efforts by curtailing after-school and evening enrichment in an effort to preserve the social, emotional and physical health of our children.

I often fantasize about what might happen if children, from toddlers to teenagers who live in a community laden with a multitude of well intended non-school related activities gave them up.

Would the children be lost; bored and confused by the lack of structure?  At first, until they learned how to organize and occupy themselves.

Would they stare at screens instead of reaching out to each other?  Probably, until an observant grown up or precocious peer stepped in.

Would their resumes suffer, leaving them unable to prosper in a society fixated on success, competition and career?  On the contrary; extra time and space would give them a chance to practice the socialization, thinking, and problem solving skills needed to thrive later in life.

After the initial shock wore off, I think the children would forget how busy their lives once were.

I imagine they would pack the playgrounds and

Courtesy of Getty Images

Courtesy of Getty Images

pick up the sport they previously raced off to play with whoever was nearby. Put on shows,

Courtesy Bored Panda

Courtesy Bored Panda

hang from trees,

Paul McDonough Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, NYC

Paul McDonough Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, NYC

visit with friends,

Coney Island Teenagers Harold Feinstein

Coney Island Teenagers Harold Feinstein

relax with family,

Courtesy Getty Images

Courtesy Getty Images

get more sleep,

Courtesy Bored Panda

Courtesy Bored Panda

and take that necessary break.

And I’m pretty sure the adults in their lives would come to welcome the change.

Perhaps if these young people had scaled back schedules, their schools would not have to revamp homework policies like in Fremont, delay start times to accommodate the sleep deprived like in Seattle, and implement mindfulness training to battle the growing epidemic of childhood anxiety and depression as did New York City.

While the educational system has a responsibility to promote childhood wellness, we parents and guardians do as well.  Children schlepping from class to practice to workshops and back again offsets the effort made by teachers and administrators and puts additional stress on kids and families.

Still, my under-scheduled fantasy is a daunting reality for this worried mom.

What if my boys are the only ones who opt out?  They’ll feel excluded and alone.

What if they lose a competitive edge?  How can they impress college admissions let alone make any high school team?

Doesn’t formal exposure to the arts, technology, and team play breed well roundedness?

It’s healthy to take risks; sample new and different things.

Besides, Bubbe and Skootch seem happy when they are busily in the mix.

But their childhood is not mine, nor is it about my parental goals, expectations, angst or insecurities.

With that, I marked the registration emails as unread and approached Bubbe.

“Here’s the deal,” I explained.  “You know school and band are a given.  Think about the three other activities you participated in this time last year.  Rank them.  Keep the top two.”

“I definitely want my tennis lesson,” he said.  “And I’d like to try baseball again.  So I guess I’ll stop CrossFit for now.”

I cringed.  Bubbe nixed the one extra I believe physically and mentally benefited him most and chose a sport that requires a greater weekly commitment.  “Okay,” I said.  “Sounds like a plan.”

Gaining a free afternoon may not reflect the childhoods of yesteryear, but it’s a start.

Let’s bring back rest, play, and old-fashioned fun.  This season resolve to take away one.

I SAID WHAT?…My Letter to the Editor in The New York Times

Evan McGlinn for The New York Times

Evan McGlinn for The New York Times

I wrote to The New York Times after reading Vicki Abeles’s Sunday Review piece, “Is School Making our Children Ill?”  Today, The Times ran my response in the printed paper as well as online.

The link to today’s Letters page: Reducing the stress on students

Here’s what I had to say:

Kudos to the Irvington High School community in Fremont, Calif., for taking steps to rescue students from their high-stakes childhoods such as limiting homework requirements and implementing pass-fail grading in some classes.

As an early childhood educator and mother of elementary-school-age children, I think we parents of young learners also need to be brave, take ownership and embrace such efforts by curtailing after-school and evening extracurricular activities like sport travel teams, dance, music and STEM workshops in an effort to preserve the social, emotional and physical health of our children.

A multitude of these well-intended additions eats into down time, rest and unstructured play and creates stress for children and families. With a new year upon us, let’s resolve to take a step back and give children back their childhood.

JENNIFER REINHARZ

Pleasantville, N.Y.

What Children Need in Lieu of Mindfulness

Mindfulness quote

The practice of mindfulness has crept its way into elementary and preschools.

Biologist, Jon Kabat-Zinn, coined the term “mindfulness” in the 1970s to describe the act of “paying attention on purpose” to the present moment, with a “non-judgmental” attitude.

Mindfulness techniques are being used in the classroom to help children cope with stress and anxiety as well as to help them calm their mind, find center, and focus attention.  Advocates believe designating school time to such training leads to improved behavior and academic performance.

As a teacher, I appreciate learning the art of mindfulness to enhance my classroom management repertoire.  As a mom, I welcome a daily dose of meditation as a respite for harried parenthood.  But I am a grown up.

Teaching preschool and elementary school aged children mindfulness is both redundant and a band-aid.  Why?  Because they are mindful by design and their stress is not self imposed.

Children live in the present.  Watch a 4 year old mix a leaf, grass and stone soup for the missing class tortoise or his classmate run wildly away from an invisible queen across the school yard.  Stop to observe a pair of nine year olds twirl until dizzy or a crew of fifth graders so engrossed in conversation they forget to heed a busy crossing guard and it will become apparent that children are led by heart and body in the moment.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget concluded children’s understanding of time and capacity to think in abstract terms are driven by cognitive development.

A preschooler’s foundation for time begins with a sense of what happens before and after a concrete experience.  His understanding of duration and the future does not match that of an adult.  That’s why a child under 4 is confused by words like “tonight” “later” “today” and “tomorrow,” and will often create ones like “yestertime.”   Even a child nearing Kindergarten will understand the phrase, “we are having lunch after I pick you up from school” over “we will have lunch at 12 o’clock.”  By elementary school, a first grader learns to tell time only to the hour and half hour.  Minutes are not introduced until second grade.

While children between ages 7-10 have a more mature sense of time, abstract, hypothetical thought is not fully developed until age eleven.  Up until early middle school, young people still benefit from a personal connection or concrete experience in order to make sense of a sophisticated idea.

For example, after reading Crenshaw, a middle grade novel which tackles the theme of homelessness, my ten year old went on to ask questions about our family’s financial condition and whether we have enough money to pay the rent in an effort to make sense of this cruel reality.  Even after I reassured him, the boy worried.

Encouraging my son to read a book I, the adult with my adult view of the world, thought would benefit his growth only produced anxiety.  He was not cognitively ready.

Adults can minimize the stress we create for and impose upon children by limiting its source.  But with poverty, trauma, and violence not as straightforward and repairable as developmentally rigorous academic standards, competitive athletic expectations, over scheduling, and the pressure to be well liked, well rounded and successful, we need to nurture their emotional health while simultaneously addressing the larger issues.

But meditation, deep breaths, and mantras are not the answer.

Children need love.

A veteran teaching colleague recently reminded me it is consistent love from a trusted adult whether it is a parent, relative, community member, or teacher that makes the difference for a child regardless of external forces.

Even as the family in the story Crenshaw struggled through hunger and financial hardship my son observed, “Living in a van didn’t seem so bad because the family loved each other.”

Children need time.

Time to move, play and socialize; time to create, discover and stretch their imagination; time to get from point A to B, be bored and to wonder.

The time scheduled for mindfulness  in school should be allocated to these activities because this is how children find their center.  This is what helps them focus.  This is what teaches body and environmental awareness.  This is how they were intended to manage stress.

Children are inherently present, non judgmental, and stress free.  So let’s give them love.  Give them time.  And then, let them be.

BEND LIKE A BRANCH SAID WHAT?…It’s More About Cupcakes Than You Think

pinterest back to school cupcakes

I recently went back to one of my favorite places; the classroom. I’ve had the good fortune to teach children between the ages of two and twelve during my career. This time, my “students” are four years old. The way they play, interact, create, and think is marvelous and magical.

Spending my mornings with them reminded me of this essay which flashed across my Facebook feed some time ago.

If grown up expectations took a back seat and these young people were given a chance to slow down and enjoy the basics, I think we would all be better off in the long run.

Bend Like a Branch

A few weeks ago, while reading the comments on a story about our broken educational system, I came upon a response that basically said, well, all that parents care about are cupcakes and that’s the real problem. I suppose what was to be interpreted from that line is that parents aren’t really interested in the educating of their children because they are too interested in no longer being able to serve cupcakes at school parties, or ever actually. After all, cupcakes have nothing to do with a good education. Or do they?

My own history of my own education is a much different history than my children are creating. Growing up in the ’70’s and ’80’s my education was much more rounded. Not only could we freely have cupcakes, once a week our treat was a bottle of grape pop. We had recess and gym every single day. Not a…

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RED’S WRAP SAID WHAT? – 5 Things I Remember About Middle School That I Bet Are Still True…

middle school locker

Whether it’s 30 years or 50 years, Jan Wilberg’s universal truths about middle school ring true today.

I read her post and flash backed to the cans of Aqua Net arranged on my nightstand, the pages of Teen Beat that lined my locker walls, and how I seemed to be in love every other Tuesday. And although I would NEVER want to do it again, I must admit thinking about pubescent electricity made me smile. Thank you, Jan.

Red's Wrap

Middle school was a critical juncture in my life.Of course, this is only occurring to me now, fifty plus years after the fact. Here are five things I remember about middle school which I bet are still true today.

Changing classes meant I could change, too. In Science, I sat with my partner and prayed for invisibility. In English, I was reprimanded for interrupting and being sarcastic. In Art, I believed the teacher when she said it didn’t matter what my piece looked like. It was all about the technique. Each class in the day was a chance to shake off what had happened in the previous class, good or bad, start over, put on a new hat. I loved this because I’d spent the last months of elementary school waiting (in vain) to be called on to give a report on the Roman God Janus, each day was…

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HOW TO RAISE BENEVOLENT DICTATORS SAID WHAT?…“The Importance of Lying About Food.”

'Mommy has made this astonishing cake just to get you to eat your peas and provide valuable insight for your therapist in twenty years.'

‘Mommy has made this astonishing cake just to get you to eat your peas and provide valuable insight for your therapist in twenty years.’

I recently read an article that appeared on The Mid and Huffington Post Parents called, “Six Words That Will End Picky Eating.” The author offered a sensible approach to reigning in the habits of sensitive eaters. I was pleased to learn that I was on the right track with my child and his persnickety palate.

Later the same day, I read the below article, “The Importance of Lying about Food” and I thought, now that’s more like it.

Common Core Testing; My Case for Opting In

IMG_4091

Let us all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

The 3rd-8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) and Math Common Core standardized tests are over.  You know the ones; the high-stake assessments pitched by politicians as guaranteed to close the achievement gap, ensure children are college and career ready, monitor the health of school districts and in my state, dictate the quality of teacher instruction.

Ten years ago, as a fourth grade teacher, I had the experience of administering and grading the state ELA and Math tests under No Child Left Behind in the same school my children attend today.

In April, my third grader took the Common Core version for the first time.

Many of his peers and an estimated 15% of children statewide did not.

Their parents “Opted Out.”

Those who joined the Opt Out Movement poignantly expressed concern citing that the current, mandated state assessments cripple public education, compromise the professionalism of teachers, steer time away from creative, meaningful curriculum, suck the joy from learning, and kill young spirits with its developmentally and grade level inappropriate language and length.

Despite the fact that I agree with these points, am a vocal supporter of education historian and activist Diane Ravitch’s platform, and believe the assessments in their existing form offer no diagnostic value for teacher or student,

I Opted In.

It was not because I’m worried about a potential loss of district funding or the perceived reputation of my son’s school, nor was it because I’m a data hungry mama on a mission to mold my child into an international marketplace competitor.

Truthfully, if I felt his learning needs weren’t being addressed, I may not have exposed him to a testing environment that requires nine year olds to sit several hours over a 3-day period for two consecutive weeks answering sophisticated and language heavy reading, writing, and math questions.  Furthermore, if my school district had Opted Out, I would have obliged.

As a public school student, my son is automatically a pawn in the conundrum of educational reform; ammunition in a grown up battle.

But he doesn’t know it.  And that’s good.

He is fortunate to attend a child-centered school that takes pride in their general, special, character, and arts education programs.  Inside the classroom, teachers do their best to thoughtfully integrate test prep into an already rich curriculum.  Since state testing commenced 15 years ago, the school district has stood behind their mantra; standardized assessments are a snapshot in a child’s day.

Buzz does not exist.

Outside the school, administrators voice concern about high-stakes testing and its implications in the local newspaper.  Board members write letters to the Board of Regents seeking change and travel to the state capital to fight for school district rights, standing firm outside the Chairman of Education Committee’s office until the senator answers their questions.

Advocacy is a priority.

Out of respect for my son’s innocence, love for his teacher and community, our leaders’ efforts, and in keeping with the belief that anxiety breeds anxiety, I don’t express my Common Core testing distaste at home and I don’t initiate conversation with my child about the “big state test.”

He knows it’s happening.

Had I Opted Out, my son would not only know it is happening, but also be acutely aware that he is concretely, conspicuously stuck in the middle of a movement that effects the quality of his education and the future of his teacher’s job.

And in my opinion, a nine year old does not need this additional burden thrown upon his shoulders.

So like the time he fell off the playground swing and looked to my reaction for his, I bit my lip and played it cool as the test date approached.  I made absolute sure he had a decent night’s sleep the nights before each assessment, breakfast in his belly the morning of, and plenty of down time in between.

As such, when he came home after the first day of the English Language Arts test, this is what he told me…

“Today was the big state test.  The teacher put our desks in a line, the old-fashioned way so we could have space.  She gave us gum to help us focus.  I didn’t like the flavor so I didn’t have any.  We took the test for about an hour.  Then we got two recesses.  During one of them, I played Knock Out and took second place against a 4th grader.  We don’t have any homework; I have no idea why, but we don’t.  It was a great day.  Can I have a snack?”

My response? “Good for you.”  I did not ask test specifics, how he worked, whether or not he finished, or how he performed. “Yes, help yourself.”

The morning of the Math test a week later, his primary concern was to make sure he packed orange flavored Life Savers in his backpack.

“Mom, sucking on them helps me focus.  Plus I like to trade them with friends.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

The “Opt Out” or “Opt In” choice for the 2014-2015 school year has been made.

Now what?

I don’t believe the elimination of standardized testing is realistic and the likelihood that I will Opt Out my child next year is slim.  But I do believe a compromise is necessary.

Juan Gonzalez, journalist for the New York Daily News recently made this valid point,

“Back in 2009, the old state tests showed 77% of students statewide were proficient in English.  The next year, the pass level was raised and the proficiency percentage dropped to 57%.  A few years later, Albany introduced Common Core and the level plummeted even more; to 31% statewide.  Same children.  Same teachers.  Different test.”

Step One?  Reconstruct the test.

  • Decrease the length. Requiring nine year olds to sit for 60, 70, and 90 minute stretches will only demonstrate how a child performs when fatigued.
  • Make the reading passages grade level. This year, it was reported that at least one 3rd grade English Language Arts test passage registered at a 5th grade reading level.  The 6th grade test apparently included vocabulary that could stump a grown up.
  • Offer a combination of concrete and inference ELA questions as well as Math problems rooted in mathematical concepts void of unnecessary language. Children develop differently; some minds are not ready or grounded enough in the language to tackle a multitude of higher level thinking questions.
  • Reduce testing frequency. It is possible to monitor a child’s general academic progress without subjecting him to standardized assessments for 6 consecutive years.  As former President Bill Clinton quoted in The Washington Post, “I think doing one test in elementary school, one in the end of middle school and one before the end of high school is quite enough if you do it right.”

Do. It. Right.

By creating fair tests, maybe we can begin the return to a balanced educational landscape where standardized tests play a small and perhaps valuable role in shaping a young person’s school experience.

Those who support the Opt Out Movement have outlined their future demands to state government officials.  Let’s see what happens.

In the meantime, instead of having a casual conversation in town with a board member or reading articles about my district administration, I need to get proactive and stand alongside them outside that stubborn senator’s office.

But I’ll be sure to leave my son home; to play Knock Out with friends, sample Life Savers, and enjoy his final years in elementary school because that’s his job.

Advocating for a sensible public school education is mine.

From Sidelines to Service

photo credit: Sarah Fedorchick

photo credit: Sarah Fedorchick

Veterans Day 2014 started out no differently than any other; with good intention and marginal action.

Each November 11th, I’d think about my grandfather Joe, a World War II Navy Veteran.

The thought was typically followed by an appreciative email or indebted Facebook post.  Some years I’d even make the old fashioned phone call.  Soon distracted by child rearing logistics and household priorities, I’d call it a day and opt out of making the 45 minute drive to pay a visit.

This time however, I had left Skootch’s red accordion at Joe’s house a few days before and much to the child’s dismay, had only the purple one at home.  So in an effort to temper a peppering five year old, the boys and I piled into the Outback and joined my grandfather for lunch.

Joe greeted his great-grandsons at the door, offered respective kisses, and held them on the landing.

“Did you see my American flag?” he asked.

It was no surprise and nice to see that despite having recently lost his wife of 65 years, Joe remembered to dress the pole he had raised between a patch of hedges adjacent to the front stoop to commemorate the holiday and a defining time in his life.

“Do you know how to do a soldier’s salute?”

My grandfather faced the flag, modeled the salute, and instructed the boys to pay the toll.  “Now you do it.”

Bubbe smiled shyly and gave it a go.  The Skootch puffed his chest, cupped his palm and looked at it.  Joe helped the effort along.  The group crossed the threshold and stopped in the front hall.

“Do you fly one at home?” he asked.  Joe didn’t wait for an answer.  “Here take these.”  He snatched a pair of parade flags from a collection stored in a nearby bucket.

The Skootch marched up to the second floor apartment, waving his new toy.  The parade was short lived.  Toddler sized penguins and a Santa Claus were performing center stage in the living room.  He dropped the flag.

My grandfather rescued it.  “No.  Never let it touch the ground.  Out of respect and honor, the American flag should always point toward the sky,” he explained.  “Let’s put it in a safe place.”  He tucked the base into a puffy coat curled up on a Captain’s chair.

Bubbe followed suit; partially to secure the flag but mostly to search for his great-grandpa’s Kindle Fire and Oreos in a nearby hutch.

On route to the cookies, he noticed a glass display case perched near the front of the hutch shelf.  It was filled with mounted, decorated ribbons laid out like a Holland tulip field.

“What are these?”  Bubbe wiped away the dust.

“Those are my war medals,” Joe said and went on to explain them one by one.

“American Campaign…

European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign…2 bronze stars

Asiatic, Pacific Campaign…2 bronze stars”

There were six in total.  He circled back to the top row.  “These are my dog tags.  I wore them around my neck the entire time I was away.  Do you know why soldiers wear two tags?”

“No,” Bubbe said.

“If a solider dies, one stays on the body; the other gets sent home.”

“Oh.  I get it.”

Eavesdropping from the kitchen I thought,

Will he ever really get it? 

When my children are grown, what will service, sacrifice, and country mean to them?

It is wonderful that we have a proud, willing veteran in our family to share experiences but unfortunately, I can count on one hand the number of service men and women we know.  Outside of my grandfather, Bubbe and The Skootch have had only the opportunity to interact with veterans or those in active duty during elementary and religious school programs.  And as Op-Ed columnist, Maureen Dowd recently noted, with “one percent of the population voluntarily enlisting in the service,” it is likely that in the future, my boys will be exposed more regularly to comic book heroes than to everyday ones.

Thankfully sacrifice, service, character, and citizenship are still being communicated in schools, through extra-curricular activities, at houses of worship and in our homes.  Still, teaching young people the value of contributing to the greater good feels piecemealed, fit in, and a vehicle for resume padding.

The potential for further disconnect in these formal settings seems imminent now that such lessons are being muscled from the spotlight by college, career readiness, English Language Arts requirements and STEM.  In my state, there is even a motion to de-emphasize Social Studies.

Israeli citizens get it.  Out of necessity, conscription exists for most of the country’s Jewish Israeli population.  Upon turning 18, men and women are obligated to serve in the military for three and two years, respectively.  As a result, my 65 year old friend can relate directly to the experiences of an active soldier as well as identify with the five year old who knows he will one day fill those shoes.  There, generations of citizens connect through collective responsibility and common experience.

In 2010, my husband Mac’s Letter to the Editor was published in The New York Times in response to the article, “The Way We Treat Our Troops” which in part offered support for a mandatory draft.  The guy was onto something.  He wrote:

“If the good problem arises where we have an abundance of young people in the military during peacetime, they could be deployed toward other national services like helping the elderly, the indigent and the disabled or for cleanup after national disasters, mentoring children and so on.  America is a terrific place to live; if young people gave something back and worked alongside other Americans from all walks of life, it would tie us closer together as a country.”

In February 2013, New York State Congressman Charles Rangel introduced a most recent version of the Universal National Service Act to the House of Representative’s Armed Services Committee.

The bill requires all persons between the ages of 18 and 25 living in the United States, citizen or otherwise to perform two years of national uniformed or civilian service.  Those choosing uniformed service may also be inducted during wartime, a national emergency, or a contingency operation.  This CrossFit junkie would add that prior to selecting a service type; able-bodied participants attend basic training in cohorts.  There is something to be said for intense, group exercise.  It fosters camaraderie, physical and emotional growth, and team pride.

To date, the bill has not moved in Congress.

Yes.  I realize the devil is in the details and that bigger government doesn’t necessarily translate into better outcomes.  Yes.  We do have a responsibility to teach our children in our families and community about service, sacrifice, and selfless giving.  And yes, I too wonder about the mandatory component of such a program in a free society.

Regardless, I think it is time to take meaningful action.

Perhaps a national service requirement will shift expectations for and alleviate pressure on high school students, change the way the college admissions process is managed, reduce some of the direct financial burden on families trying to pay for higher education, and offer guidance for college graduates looking to take the next step.

More importantly, perhaps it will build awareness and understanding for soldiers and veterans suffering trauma, make care and reentry a priority for when they return home, and simply bring us closer as a nation.

“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women

in the service of our country can never be repaid.

They have earned our undying gratitude.

America will never forget their sacrifices.”

-President Harry S Truman

There is a way to repay veterans like Joe.

Poppie in the navy

Let us step away from the sideline to work in tandem with those on the front line in an effort to strengthen and preserve the solidarity of an already great nation.

Let us pay the toll.