Helping Your Student with Math

Here at Life Tools Tutoring, over half of the students that we work with are struggling in math.  The parents that call us are anxious and frustrated.  Many have attempted to work with their child at the kitchen table, only to have the session end in arguing or tears.  Some of our parents had negative math experiences when they were children, and others have labeled themselves ‘bad at math’ which effectively, in their minds, lets them off the hook. 

We can all agree that a certain level of math proficiency is essential in today’s world, regardless of your chosen profession.  Skills like being a wise shopper, understanding the real cost of loans, completing simple construction projects, etc. all require math knowledge.  In addition, many occupations use math every day, including engineering, accounting, insurance, finance and many positions in the medical field, to name a few.  As we mentioned in a previous article, math proficiency rates in the state of Wisconsin are hovering below the 30% rate.  Most of our kids are graduating high school without the requisite understanding of math to be successful.

So what can we, as parents, do to assist our students to become proficient in math and possibly even enjoy math?  For some parents, the first step is to stop and breathe.  Of all the dragons you will be required to slay as a parent, math class will not fall in the top ten; more importantly, God put you in charge of your child, so you have the skill sets and intellect required to guide your student to maximize his/her math potential.

That having been said, math curriculum, even at the youngest elementary school levels can be unique and unrecognizable in some cases.  Some school districts have adopted visual learning strategies to help young people see how numbers relate to real world scenarios and how to manipulate numbers in a variety of ways. The problem here is that many of us are not familiar with these new strategies; moreover, as homework has become a thing of the past for many schools, parents may be in the dark regarding how their students are being taught, and how they can help. 

Parents, we need to be proactive.  If the teacher is communicating well, outlining curriculum and providing ‘how to’ instructions for new math strategies, we to need fully engage with these tools.  We must take the time to learn these strategies and work with our students in the evenings to make sure they are understanding and keeping up.  If the written instructions are confusing, the internet will most likely have video explanations for you to follow.  (Check out the Life Tools Tutoring YouTube video to learn about ‘box multiplication’).  For teachers out there, actively engage your parents in the process; although it will require more effort in the short term, your students will find much more success utilizing this army of at-home educators.

Again, we must remember that education begins at home.  Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division flash cards are an excellent way to reinforce what your student is learning in the classroom.  Five minutes of practice in the evenings should be more than enough time to develop proficiency.  If your student is struggling with a particular concept, reach out to the teacher and ask for additional worksheets or practice problems that you can work through with your student.  Be sure to make this time together with your child relaxing and enjoyable; include snacks and don’t sweat it if some nights are more productive than others.  Make up real-world problems or questions that involve your child’s favorite cereal or use playing cards instead of flash cards.  As an aside, please also teach your young people about the value of coins – you might be surprised how little they know about them. 

As the middle school and high school years approach, parents become more and more intimidated with the idea of keeping up with their student’s math curriculum, much less assisting in the process.  We challenge you to step toward the problem; cast fear and/or laziness aside and do what needs doing.  Reach out to your student’s teacher to see what’s coming up in math class this month.  Borrow your own hard copy of the math textbook and self-teach if you need to.  “I was never good at math”, or “I don’t have the math gene” are comments that should not be verbalized, particularly in front of your student.  Although the internet is full of dark and dangerous spaces, the number of free math videos that are well-produced and easy to follow is simply staggering.  Or if the math is beyond your ability, search out a tutor (or a smart neighbor) to give your student a boost.

For those of you who are responsible for choosing math curriculum and textbooks for your school or district, please keep parents in mind.  As Life Tools tutors students from many different school districts, we can tell you that much of the math curriculum is confusing.  Moving forward, let’s try to find textbooks that teach the students how to work through a new concept and then provide four or five example problems to reinforce the concept.  The Socratic method (asking students questions until they come up with the right answer) is a great teaching technique for some subjects, but absolutely not for math.  Teachers, please provide digital slides from your lectures for students and parents to reference if needed.  When presenting a new concept, provide 20 or so problems on that concept for the student to work through so that they are able to lock down the strategy.  Mixing six or more math concepts on every homework assignment is confusing and demoralizing. 

We can get our students back on track with math and other subjects, but we as parents must step into the front lines.  Teachers are overwhelmed with challenges in the classroom, and they need our help.  Start today by asking your student what they are learning in math…and do it with a smile!


Mike and I were blessed to be able to send our children to the Catholic grade school in Kaukauna (now St. Ignatius).  Because the school was smaller – approximately 200 students – and because the school budget was very tight, parent involvement in the school community was a necessity.  If new playground equipment was needed, a group of families would get together to raise the necessary funds and then call volunteers to complete the work.  If the 7th grade girls were going to have a basketball team, one of the parents or grandparents would need to step-up to fill the role of coach.  The Home and School (aka PTA) was busy planning dances and other fun activities for the students as well as supporting the teachers with meals and other tokens of appreciation.  Parents were welcomed into the classroom to assist with a project, to help monitor an energetic classroom and to help with reading and math.  Many parent and student gatherings were planned for after the workday to welcome new parents and to provide an opportunity for parents to meet staff and one another.  There were many opportunities for after-school sports and clubs, including basketball, volleyball, track, Lego club, computer club, Boy / Girl Scouts, Spanish Club and many others over the years; again, all led and organized by parents or other St. Ignatius community members.

The focus of the teachers, staff, and administrators was to provide the highest level of academic achievement possible for the students under their care.  With parents and other community members managing the ancillary activities, the teachers were free to focus on educating our children, which is most definitely a full-time job.  Our children received an outstanding education, and we are forever indebted to those individuals for their passion, their compassion and their expertise. 

St. Ignatius was far from perfect; because people and kids were involved, there were struggles and conflict. However, because we were part of a community, we utilized those parent relationships and lifelines to help our students through difficult times.  If a student was being bullied on the playground, parents would reach out to each other first to fix the problem.  If a student was being excluded or was going through a tough time, we were made aware of this by other parents, and we would then sit with our kids to encourage them to be part of the solution.  Parents were on the playground, in the lunchroom, and in the classroom, so very little went unnoticed.  Obviously, teachers, administrators and staff were always available as well when needed, but they were just one part of the wider St. Ignatius community.

As many of us know, education in the state and in the country has been in a steady decline over the past few decades, with math and reading proficiencies hovering at the 30% mark.  Teachers and administrators desperately need parent engagement to get our students back on track.  There are definitely challenges to creating a sense of community with larger public schools.  With large enrollments, many teachers, large campuses, and government red-tape, getting involved in your school may seem intimidating. 

Begin by identifying your strengths.  Do you have some experience playing sports?  Were you a Boy Scout or Girl Scout?  Are you mechanically inclined or skilled at IT?  Maybe you have some time during the day to work with students who are struggling with 3rd grade math or 1st grade students who are just beginning to read. What could you do to assist your school to create that sense of community?  Can you create a parents’ network on Facebook or social media to keep parents informed about school activities or challenges within the school?  Is there a welcoming committee at your school to bring new parents into the fold and to provide a friendly contact for questions and concerns?  Do teachers have access to parent resources they can reach out to if they are undertaking a complicated science experiment or going on a field trip or managing an unruly student?

Engage with your students as well.  Have them walk you through their school day.  You may be surprised by what you hear.  Mike was recently working with a 6th grade student who shared with him that very little math learning took place in her math class for a six-week period due to a group of disruptive students.  This is tragic and unacceptable; what can you do to be part of the solution?  Is your student receiving homework on a regular basis?  Mike and I are big believers in homework to reinforce what is being taught in the classroom.  Engage with your student in completing their homework, and reach out to other parents, teachers, or Google to get yourself up-to-speed if needed.  If your school has a no homework policy, perhaps you need to reach out the school administration or join the school board to make your opinions known.

“But I don’t have time,” you say.  “I have a full-time job; I’m raising my kids and chasing them around to activities in the evenings and on the weekends.” 

These are desperate times, and your involvement is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity.  Many employers offer flexible scheduling to allow for time away during the traditional workday.  This may require your working at home after the kids are in bed.  You may have to give up time at the gym or nights out with friends to take on the junior soccer league, but the work is very rewarding.  Finding parent volunteers to staff a committee may not be easy, but the relationships you create may last a lifetime.  Take it from parents of kids that are pretty much grown: time moves amazingly fast; you will never regret time spent on your children and their education.  Do it today.

Failing Literacy and Math Proficiency Rates – Where Do We Go From Here…

In the aftermath of the school shutdowns during the Covid outbreak, there has been much discussion regarding the negative academic, social, psychological, and emotional impacts on our young people.  Although the scale and depth of the impact may not be fully understood for years to come, the devastation on state and national proficiency rates is fully apparent.  Moreover, in looking more closely at the reading and math proficiency rates in Wisconsin over time, the fact of the matter is that these rates have been alarmingly low years before Covid reared its ugly head.

We can all agree that the attempt at remote learning during the covid year was ineffective at best and an utter failure at worst.  Even though many teachers and administrators poured their hearts into making the most of that very difficult situation, and most parents engaged to the best of their abilities, little to no learning was accomplished during the 2020 / 2021 year for the schools that remained virtual.  So, the 7% decline in literacy proficiency rates, and the 10% reduction in math proficiency rates during that time period was somewhat predictable.  What is much more concerning is the fact that proficiency rates were hovering at the 44% rate in English and at the 43% rate in math, back in 2017, and either decreased or held steady for 2018 and 2019.

That means that fewer than one out of every two students in the state of Wisconsin are grade level proficient in reading and in math.  What’s even more startling is that Wisconsin fairs better than average relative to the other states in the union.  Aside from covid, then, why are academic proficiency rates so low across the state and across the country, and what can be done to achieve proficiency rates of 75% or higher – rates worthy of this great country of ours.

Some will attempt to discount this state of emergency by blaming it entirely on the pandemic and assuming all will become good again over time.  The data simply does not support this argument, so be very careful not to be lulled into a false sense of security.  Others will tell us that there is not enough money in education; again, the data dramatically refutes this red herring as educational spending in this state and across the country has doubled and tripled over the past handful of years, with the average cost of educating a student having risen to $13,000+ per school year. 

One of the main reasons that educational standards and proficiencies have plummeted is that we as parents have abdicated our responsibility as primary educators of our children.  Many of us have become far too comfortable dropping our children at the school’s doorstep and assuming that the teachers and administrators will take care of things for us.  Do you know what your children are doing during the school day?  Do you talk with your kids about what they learned in math class today?  When your student’s teacher sends home a summary of their curriculum for the week, do you take the time to read through the details?  If you have some thoughts or concerns about a how a particular subject is being handled (or mishandled) at your school, do you take the time to respectfully follow-up with the teacher and/or the principal?  If your student has homework, do you take the time to get engaged if needed?  We are our children’s teachers, and we must not and cannot surrender that critical role.

Another reason that academic proficiency is down across the country is that overall educational rigor has decreased significantly over the past 30 years.  The next time your students comes home from school, ask them to break down how much of their day was spent being taught a subject and how much of their day was ‘work time’ or ‘flex time’ or ‘movie time’.  You may be surprised.  In an effort to keep as many students ‘on board’ as possible, there has been a conscious decision in education to dumb down the curriculum and the overall workload.  Inordinate amounts of teachers’ days are spent managing unruly students, in an endless cycle of reprimands and disrespect. In addition, as some parents may not be able or available to help with homework, the decision has been made to eliminate homework to ‘even the playing field’. 

We must immediately and aggressively reverse this devastating mindset.  We must raise the bar of expectations for all of our students.  Teachers and administrators must focus on filling the class time with instruction and information exchange vs free time, group work, or work time.  We as parents need to support our schools in taking a more serious approach to our children’s education and then prepare our kids with clear expectations and respect for their education.  We need to volunteer in the classroom; we need to work together in ‘mom networks’ and ‘dad networks’ to support teachers, parents and students who might be struggling or who just need assistance.  We need to get back to the basics of teaching phonics, ‘regular’ math, science, history, technology and financial literacy, and leave the social experimenting to other organizations.  If there are students in the classroom who continuously disrupt the class, a new setting must be found for these students apart from the mainstream classroom, so that real learning can take place every day.  We need to get back to the days of no food, proper dress, and now, no cell phones in the classroom, so that our children begin to develop a proper understanding of the value of education in their lives. 

We must cultivate smart, passionate young people, especially in the STEM subjects, to become teachers and then provide work environments that are conducive to serious learning.  We will need to pay these teachers well, so the choice to teach does not significantly impact their earning potential; likewise, we must release some teachers who are unqualified or who are confused about their role in the classroom.  Most importantly, we as a community need to re-prioritize academics in our schools above sports, building needs, and social engineering.  This will allow our teachers to again re-discover their true mission and our students to reach their true potential.

The Greatest Bedtime Story of All

Luke Ch. 3; Matthew Ch. 1 and 2.

Now, this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, an upright man unwilling to expose her to the law, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention, when suddenly the angel of the lord appeared in a dream and said to him: “Joseph, son of David, have no fear about taking Mary as your wife. It is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child. She is to have a son, and you are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this happened to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin shall be with child and give birth to a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel,” a name which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had directed him and received her into his home as his wife.

In those days, Caesar Augustus published a decree ordering a census of the whole world. This first census took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone went to register each to his own town. And so, Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to David’s town of Bethlehem – because he was of the house and lineage of David – to register with Mary, his espoused wife, who was with child.

While they were there, the days of her confinement were completed. She gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged.

There were shepherds in that region, living in the fields and keeping night watch by turns over their flocks. The angel of the Lord appeared to them as the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were very much afraid. The angel said to them: “You have nothing to fear! I come to proclaim good news to you – tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day, in David’s city, a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord. Let this be a sign to you: in a manger you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes.”

Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in high heaven, peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us.” They went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the bay lying in the manger; once they saw, they understood what had been told them concerning this child. All who heard of it were astonished at the report given them by the shepherds.

After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of King Herod, astrologers from the east arrived one day in Jerusalem inquiring, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” At this news, King Herod became greatly disturbed, and with him all Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him. “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the princes of Judah, since from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Herod called the astrologers aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them: “Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report it to me so that I may go and offer him homage too.”

After their audience with the king, they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them, until it came to a standstill over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

They received a message in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another route.

Mary treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, in accord with what had been told them.

From the Life Tools Tutoring family to yours, we wish you a blessed, joyful and peaceful Christmas season.

Career Exploration

There are few conversations more uncomfortable to witness than a well-meaning uncle or family friend asking a junior or senior in high school what they intend to do when they graduate. The vast majority of the answers are vague and impressive sounding: “My plan is to head off to Madison, but I’m not sure what I will be studying yet,” or, “For sure something in the medical field because I took a crime scene forensics class that I really liked.” Most of these answers involved very little research or introspection and were crafted for the benefit of the asker.

To be sure, some 17-year-olds know exactly what career they would like to pursue, and some have known from a young age. A percentage of these students have a very straight path from high school, through college or trade school, and into a successful livelihood. Even for these ‘lucky’ students, however, many of them find that the career field they knew they wanted was not everything they had hoped it would be, and they eventually decide to take a different path.

How strange that we, as a society, do very little to expose our young people to the ‘options’ that exist in the working world and yet stare at them expectantly when we ask them, “What’s your plan?”

This process can be a time of anxiety and confusion for many students, especially if we advise them to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans in order to figure out where they fit. In addition, a major reason that students are unmotivated in the classroom is that they have not identified what careers they might be interested in, and, as a result, are unable to connect the dots between high school academics and pursuing their career goals.

So how can we, as local communities, assist our high school students (and even our middle school students), to experience what career fields and specific positions the world has to offer? As a starting point, we need to avoid the temptation to put this urgent obligation on the shoulders of the schools. Most teachers and administrators would be very willing to be a strong collaborating partner in this effort, but as I wrote in a previous blog, the schools are already overwhelmed with mission creep, which is destroying proficiency scores. This effort should be led by the business community and parents and will ultimately provide many benefits for local community in the long run.

What might this Career Exploration program look like specifically? The first step in this process is to prioritize Career Exploration on-par with reading, math, physical fitness, and financial literacy. Career Exploration needs to be a significant part of a student’s ‘education’, even if it is not driven directly by the teachers. But what classes or activities would be sacrificed to make room for this addition? If we, as parents, have learned anything through the virtual leaning experience brought on by Covid, we are clear that there is ‘underutilized’ and in some cases ‘wasted’ time in our students’ school day.

Perhaps we can learn from some local communities who already have programs in place to give students first-hand exposure to work options. Many high schools provide hybrid school / work opportunities that allow students to learn in school in the morning and then investigate a trade by working part-time in the afternoons. The Kimberly School District has an innovative program that introduces students as young as elementary school to guest speakers from ‘the real world’, as well as comprehensive software programs that assist students in exploring their interests and abilities in the context of specific career fields.

Additionally, could we have our Sophomores and Juniors commit an afternoon a week to Career Exploration field trips that provide generic exposure to job opportunities or specific exposure to a targeted industry? What if every student was required to tour a local manufacturing facility to learn about operations, accounting, quality control, purchasing, logistics, management, and office administration? What if we provide our students with the chance to visit a local hospital or nursing home to visit with a nurse, a doctor, a lab technician, or an insurance administrator? What if we created a database of professional people who were willing to meet one-on-one for 30 minutes with a student who has narrowed his / her career search and is interested in asking specific questions to learn more? Even if this Career Exploration process only assists our young people to check the ‘No’ boxes (I’m not interested in that), how much further ahead would they be when the time came to choose a path forward.

I challenge community leaders, business leaders, parents, and school administrators to get the ball rolling by organizing a brain-storming session. As there have been some successes around this concept locally and nationally, let’s review best-practices and implement what works. The future of our country, the future of our businesses, and the future of our students are depending on us.

Love Your Kids by Loving Your Spouse

Over the past 40 years or so, the institution of marriage has had a tough road.  Nearly 50% of all marriages end in divorce; many young people are opting out of marriage altogether, choosing instead to cohabitate indefinitely or to simply move from one relationship to another when things get tough; Hollywood and big media have made a mockery of marriage, viewing it as temporary or completely irrelevant.

Many families very close to us have gone through the trauma and heartbreak of divorce.  Lives are uprooted, blame is placed, relationships are bruised, trust is lost, and home becomes a moving target.  In many broken families, parents are forced to cooperate in the raising of the children, which can result in many years of frustration, resentment, and scheduling chaos.  The divorced parents we talk with struggle daily to insulate their children from these repercussions.  In far too many cases, one parent decides to opt out of the marriage, leaving the spouse no choice but to sign the papers and attempt to rebuild his / her life.

The data is clear that with the breakdown of the family unit comes real struggles for so many of our young people. Poverty, increased anxiety and mental health issues (including suicide), and sexual promiscuity are just a few of the challenges that face children that grow up in chaotic family structures.

That having been said, some of the strongest and most courageous people we know are single parents, many of whom have raised / are raising some of the most determined, bright, and self-assured young people that we know.  These parents are committed and selfless, every day, no matter what, with no spouse to lean on when the storms come.  These single moms and dads are generally tough on their kids because they know life is hard and being successful personally and professionally requires strength of mind and character.  Although they seldom complain, most would not wish the challenges and loneliness of single parenting or co-parenting on anyone.

Strong marriages are the core of strong families, and strong families are the foundation upon which strong societies flourish.

As we raise our young people, we need to educate them on the importance and challenges of married life both in word and example.  As Mike and I made our way through the marriage prep classes offered by our church years ago, the seasoned married couples that lead the instruction made it clear to us that being married is hard and takes daily commitment.  Our young people need to know that entering into a marriage covenant means self-sacrifice, not self-indulgence.  A Deacon shared with us that our responsibility as a married couple first and foremost is to get our spouse to heaven. 

Give God a Try

Parenting is not easy.  There is no handbook.  The moment you feel comfortable and have everything figured out, your next child will throw a whole new set of complexities into the equation, causing you to stagger back a few steps.  Our children are susceptible to all types of challenges, including cuts and broken bones, sickness, anxiety, learning challenges, bullying, loneliness, and broken hearts, and our job as parents is to protect them from those hurts as best we can.  Our young people are faced with hundreds of small and large decisions every day from what to wear, to what to eat, to who to spend time with, to what to do with that time, and they look to their parents for guidance and example in making those decisions. 

As Mike and I are working our way through raising five children and running a tutoring company for over 10 years, we have commiserated with many parents who were in the midst of a struggle with one or more of their children.  In sitting with these parents and walking with them through their heartbreak, and then sharing similar experiences we may have had with our own children, we realized that there is generally not a one-size-fits-all solution to these challenges. 

Every family unit is so unique, personalities are so diverse, and individual struggles are so complex, that in many cases we could only listen and assure the parents of our prayers and support through those challenges. 

In dealing with these challenges, parents are often desperate and look to all sort of remedies.  Some parents look to self-help parenting books, some choose therapy for their children, others choose medications, some take a hands-off approach, and some take a helicopter-parent approach.  What most of these parents have in common, regardless of their approach, is that they live with constant doubt and are regularly second-guessing themselves; they often switch from one remedy to the next, as new suggestions or quick-fixes come their way. 

As our children dealt with those same struggles over the years, and as they deal with struggles yet to come, we have and will continue to depend on God to walk with us and to guide us through those challenges.  To be clear, God is not a vending machine, where you can pay with prayer or tithing and then receive the answer or the result you are looking for.  God is far too wonderful and in love with us to make our relationship purely transactional.  Our experience with God has been a friendship crafted in heaven; it is a friendship with Truth and Love Himself. 

As God loves our children even more than we do, we know that His direction and guidance will ultimately result in what’s best for them, even if that direction is difficult or requires patience. 

So how does one develop that relationship with God?  Unfortunately, there is no 5-step program or pill to take.  The good news is that you can begin today, simply by having a conversation with God.  Share your fears and your frustrations and do not be afraid to ask God for what you want.  Share your joys and your blessings, your triumphs, and your failures.  Then be still.  Be quiet.  Listen.  God is there, God is here, and he will answer your prayers.  Pray for the grace to be open to God’s guidance and the strength to do what he asks.  He has not failed us.  This does not mean that our lives and the lives of our children are perfect; however, in those challenges we are full of peace and confidence that we are guiding our children as God would. 

Allow your children to see you praying.  Share with them why you are praying and what your relationship with God means to you.  Encourage them to create their own relationship with God and to walk with Him during the good times and the struggles.  Find other parents and a church community who will support you as you walk with God and will witness to you how He has impacted their lives.  In a world that is full of uncertainty and chaos, give your children the constancy and the sure mooring that only God can provide.  Your children will still have their challenges and they will still suffer, but they will have the assurance that God is a friend that is bigger than all the world.  After all is said and done, your job is to get your children to heaven. 

If you have tried all the solutions the world has to offer, but are still feeling unsettled, give God a try.  He’s been waiting for you.

Reading, ‘Riting, & ‘Rithmetic

While watching the local or national news over the past ten plus years, one cannot help but notice that school boards and administrators have been front and center dealing with a whole host of controversial issues.  Those issues include:

  • “How much sex / lifestyle choices / gender issues should be included in health class?”
  • “Is the school district offering sufficient mental health support for children as the suicide rates continue to rise?”
  • “Should BLM posters be hung in classrooms or is that supporting a political ideology?”
  • “Will the local elementary school be providing the expanded federally-funded breakfast / lunch / dinner program?”
  • “Should ‘school’ include full-day childcare for my three-year-old?”
  • “Does forcing my child to urinate in a cup for mandatory drug tests infringe on her first amendment rights?”
  • “Should we spend $60 million on the new high school building with a pool and an indoor workout facility, or just $55 million with no pool?”

As the education professionals will tell you, the list goes on and on and on. 

All of these issues have one thing in common: they have nothing to do with the original mission of the public school system which is to assist parents in teaching our children reading, writing, arithmetic, and the ability to reason.

To say that the public school system in the United States has been forced into mission creep is the understatement of the past 150 years.  The reason mission creep should be avoided at all costs is that as each new area of focus is added, organizations take their eyes off their primary purpose.  The data is frighteningly clear that math and reading proficiency in the United States has been steadily declining and our young people will surely suffer as a result.  Administrators, teachers, and parents can all agree that school system personnel are pulled in far too many directions and as a result are unable to do any of it well.

So who is responsible for this mission creep and how do we reclaim the lofty and unique calling of the public school system?  As with most national problems, there is a complex matrix of causes and players, and many of those involved had the best of intentions in mind.  Over the past 30 years, as various problems affecting our students have been identified, elected officials have defaulted to the school systems to fix all of these ills for the simple fact that the schools already had many of the kids in their buildings.  But it does take two to tango, and the schools chose to dance.  Because billions of federal, state, and local dollars chase all of these issues, school administrators, school boards, and teachers unions viewed these dollars as an easy way to pad budgets and increase salaries.  In addition, some teachers who possibly should have chosen social work or community activism as their career choice prefer these causes to ‘just teaching’.  Lastly, and probably most importantly, many parents are far too willing to place all of the responsibility of raising their children onto the schools and the professionals who work there.

We as parents have the primary responsibility to rectify this steadily worsening situation; firstly, we must take back and own our duty as parents as the primary educators and caretakers of our children. 

The village can certainly provide a helping hand, but at the end of the day, the buck stops with the parent(s).  We need to do better. 

We need to re-learn algebra if necessary; we need to feed our kids a healthy breakfast before they leave in the morning and have them pack a healthy lunch to take with them; we need to shut off our electronic devices and talk with our children about their friends, their fears, their challenges and their dreams; we need to teach our children respect for and tolerance for all people and all opinions whether or not that view is popular or supported by the latest YouTube star or Hollywood actor; we need to choose schools based on the strength of their academic offerings and not on the number of state basketball championships. 

Politicians and communities need to encourage (and fund) innovative solutions to the challenges young people are experiencing; this will allow new organizations (governmental, non-profit, and for-profit) with separate teams and targeted missions to be charged with those responsibilities.  School administrators and teacher unions and school boards must also advocate for their teachers and refocus on their primary mission – education.  They must have the courage to say ‘no’ to mission creep, even if that means sacrificing the dollars that come with the ask.

Certainly, collaboration and mutual support are critical to achieve success for our young people, but the days of placing all the world’s problems on the front mat of our local schools need to be behind us.  This system is failing our kids.

Will You Let Me Answer Prayers in You

Every high school student that is aspiring to one day attend college understands the importance of community service on his / her resume.  Organizations like Key Club and National Honor Society have community service at the core of their missions and provide a variety of events and activities for students to positively impact their school and/or their local community.  Having been members of both of these organizations, our older children have been able to participate in ringing bells for the Salvation Army, volunteering for blood drives, teaching younger students local history at the Grignon Mansion and collecting food to feed families that are facing financial challenges.  Through these experiences, our children have learned to look beyond themselves and their daily wants and needs and to focus on the needs of others.

Many other religious and service organizations including local church groups, service organizations like Rotary and Lions, and not-for-profits also provide much-needed dollars and resources to struggling populations throughout the country and the world.  In addition, the United States is by far the most generous nation in the world, sending billions of dollars to countries and families that have been stricken with drought, natural disasters, war, or disease.  Let us stay focused to ensure that these wonderful philanthropic efforts continue and expand over time.

Although much good is being accomplished locally, nationally, and internationally, there is an aspect of ‘serving thy neighbor’ that is being swallowed up by the institutionalization of community service.  Specifically, what has been lost in this new idea of group service is the act of being present, one-to-one, to a person in need. 

Many of us can remember a neighbor lady bringing over some warm meat loaf or chicken noodle soup when a loved one had passed.  Or perhaps a team of family and friends worked together to make meals for a family with young children whose mother went through a difficult delivery and was home with a new baby.  Sometimes it was just a telephone call, or an old friend stopping for coffee to ‘see how we were doing’ during a difficult time in our lives. 

None of these acts of being present to another were news worthy.  Huge amounts of money were not raised through a crowd-funding site; no families were given a new house to live in; the Mayor did not give out any humanitarian awards for these simple deeds; and the Earth was not saved from utter destruction.  However, just the same, these acts of loving thy neighbor were, and are, extraordinary.  They are so easy to do, but so difficult, somehow, in our mail-a-check-for-poverty society. 

A friend of mine once said, “I don’t go to funerals because I don’t like them, and I’d rather celebrate a person while they are alive.  Another friend responded, “Funerals are not about you.”  Being present to others does require us to think outside of ourselves; however, the encouraging part of these tremendously valuable experiences is that you do not have to worry about what to say or what to wear or what to bring.  Generally, if you just show up, the heavy lifting has already been done.  Thinking back to the funeral or to that difficult time in our lives, do we even remember what that person said to us when they came to us, or what they were wearing, or what food they brought?  Probably not, but we do remember who was there to sit with us, to listen, to be present to us.

Many of us are praying to God for some sort of miracle in our own lives or in the lives of people we love.  Do you suppose that you might be God’s answer to some of these prayers? 

We may not be able to cure someone of cancer or bring a loved one back to life, but we can do even more wonderous things than these for the hearts of those we touch.  If all of us, when we wake up in the morning, would say ‘Yes!’ to God’s question of, “Will you let me answer prayers in you?”, what a different world we would be living in.  Maybe cut out the words below from the Servant Song and tape them to your bathroom mirror.  Your kids will learn through your example the true meaning of community service.

The Servant Song

We are pilgrims on the journey
We are travelers on the road
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load

I will hold the Christ light for you
In the nighttime of your fear
I will hold my hand out to you
Speak the peace you long to hear

I will weep when you are weeping
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we’ve seen this journey through

Will you let me be your servant
Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant too

The Benefits of a Classical Education

One of the few bright spots of the past twelve months of the experiment into on-line learning for the masses is that many parents were able to experience what their students were learning up-close and personal.  As many students struggled academically and psychologically during this time, some parents became de facto students again, having to learn along with their children so they could assist them in completing assignments or studying for tests.  Some of the curriculum offered was outstanding, but some of the material left parents with question marks.  In spite of their best efforts, most teachers definitely struggled with on-line instruction, so some of the substandard curriculum was a result of that struggle and a real effort to avoid leaving any child behind. 

However, the issues with the curriculum beg the question of how curriculum is chosen in a particular school district.

There is no single answer for that question. In some cases, administrations or curriculum directors will dictate curriculum, in some cases teacher cohorts will choose the curriculum, and in some cases individual teachers will make recommendations.  Many urban schools or larger school districts generally follow national trends, whereas many rural schools tend to offer a more traditional curriculum approach.  Unfortunately, new trends in curriculum are being introduced at regular intervals, in many cases driven by pressure from government or large curriculum providers, often without the years of research and proven effectiveness that should be required before instituting a new curriculum.

As a result of the tutoring we have done over the years, we have been exposed to many different types of curriculum, covering all subject areas, from school districts all over the Fox Valley. 

In our experience, the more traditional, cohesive, and focused the curriculum, the easier it is for our students to learn, to retain, and to utilize that information later.  We have seen many ‘new trends’ come and go, some having a negative impact on large segments of the student population. 

One type of curriculum that we are very familiar with and that we would whole-heartedly recommend for school districts throughout the country is Classical Education.  In full disclosure, our children have/do attend St. Ignatius Catholic School in Kaukauna, so we have seen the benefits of a classical curriculum for over five years now.  So, what is Classical Education, and why has it been so successful for so many years?

Classical education has been the traditional form of education for literally thousands of years.  As one leading classical institution explains, “We teach differently because we have a different perspective on the Child. We believe that she is nothing less than the Divine Image, an icon of the invisible God.  She must be taught personally, in relationship.”

Classical schools and educators are committed to cultivating wisdom and virtue in their students, creating great thinkers and great leaders.

The elementary years in classical education focus on knowledge – filling the students’ minds with information they will need later.  2 + 2 always equals 4, science facts and science theory are separated out, and the Socratic method (asking the students questions like, “How would you solve this problem?”) is not utilized at all during this phase of education.  All subjects are taught in relationship to each other and in relationship to the wonder of the human person. 

The history of world is taught, with all of its blemishes and challenges, as well as individual stories of courage and strength.  In addition, classical educators take responsibility for the western tradition: to receive it, to assess it, to preserve it, and to hand it on to the next generation.  Current events are introduced in later elementary school, but the curriculum is not concerned with the dictates or the happenings of the current age.  Classical education students become excellent communicators through exposure to formal writing instruction, Latin, public speaking, spelling, and vocabulary. 

Students are taught how to be truly human in relationship to their maker and in their relationship to others.  The expectations of students, teachers, and administration regarding conduct, dress, and interactions with each other are not driven by the culture of the day but by the realization of the dignity of the human person.  Students are taught to think outside of themselves and to put their struggles and challenges in context to the struggles of human history. 

Classical education is a tried-and-true teaching model that works for students of all backgrounds and all learning abilities.  As the trend to classical education continues to blossom all over the country and the world, we hope that all those responsible for curriculum decisions will look more closely at the classical model. 

For all of those inside and outside the school walls who are frustrated with the challenges of the current education system, there is definitely hope for our students in classical education.