Taking Initiative

Many mornings I pull back the curtains, gaze out onto South Main Street, and see two gals in matching, white, floppy hats on their morning constitutional. They stride along and then stoop mid-gait to pick up trash. I almost stopped them once while I was jogging up the unreasonably steep hill on South Main, but this asthmatic couldn’t break stride for fear of stopping altogether. So my curiosity has not yet been satisfied, nor have I thanked them for their initiative.

It’s difficult to verify if we Vermonters are, in fact, more community-minded than folks in other states—or if that is just part of our cherished shared lore. No matter; we’ve embraced the mystique. We promote ourselves a bit like the “America of yesteryear” where folks still help out their neighbors and perform that tricky dance of democracy in town meeting each March. Savvy marketing aside, there is truth to the stories we tell about ourselves.  19th century French writer Victor Hugo remarked, “Initiative is doing the right thing without being told.” I see examples of this daily in my community, and I wonder if someone will step up to wrestle with the issue of Gallery Walk.

The recent concerns about rowdy youth at Gallery Walk—and how they may negatively impact tourism—raise legitimate questions about the economic wellbeing of this town. But it sidesteps a more important question: How do we make Brattleboro more pleasant, dynamic and workable for the people who live and work here?  People do not want to feel harassed when they are out for an evening of art and entertainment. After general agreement on this issue, however, it becomes thornier; everyone has a different tolerance for chaos and disruption. Although I once enthusiastically supported punk music and sported my own mohawk, I’m now more inclined towards calm and quiet when I’m out. (This might have to do with the two boisterous young children who insist on living in my home.) As a former middle school teacher, I know that teens want to have a meaningful role. If invited to help shape Gallery Walk, they’ll employ their enthusiasm, excitement, creativity and irrepressible quirkiness. If the right people take the initiative, they’ll guide them towards positive participation.  They will be in great company, as residents all over Brattleboro have taken the initiative to improve the quality of life here.

Some initiatives are small in scope.  Alison Macrae, owner of Verde on Main Street, often weeds, plants and spruces up the garden beds of Pliny Park. She tends the gardens there because residents and tourists alike congregate in this pleasant spot to eat lunch.  Other projects are more ambitious. Just this week a small group of volunteers announced that after 15 years of hard work and pluck, they’ve established a public trail along the West River. And some projects are very grand indeed: Consider the group of investors who aim to bring the Brooks House back to its former glory. Regardless of size and scope, these initiatives matter to all of us.

Two volunteer groups in particular have recently caught my eye. One is the Exit 1 Gateway project, a group working to make Brattleboro’s entryway a lovely, landscaped area that will both reflect our civic pride and strengthen our community spirit. Martha Ramsey, a project leader, notes that many residents were displeased with the appearance of the town’s entryway, but they soon realized that, due to the towns more pressing concerns, nothing would change unless citizens undertook the initiative themselves. Ramsey speaks of the possibility of real change in manageable terms: “It only takes a few dedicated people—even just 2 or 3 to guide a positive development forward. Anyone can do this.”  Doug Cox, of The Neighborhoods Project (part of the West Brattleboro Association), also understands the importance of viewing people as a valuable resource. Cox and others in this West B group seek to strengthen personal neighbor-to-neighbor ties as a means to achieve other important stated goals: greater civic involvement; more efficient use of personal and community resources; and a stronger sense of belonging. The need for this project became distressingly clear when Tropical Storm Irene devastated West Brattleboro, cutting off sections of town. We simply need to know our neighbors.

Everyone I know rails against the constraints of our daily 24 hours.  And no one, with maybe the exception of Martha Stewart, possesses Hermione Granger’s Time Turner.  So we must find scraps of time at the edges and put them to good use. Many people are truly strapped for time and money in this soft economy. But we often tell ourselves that someone else has more time, and that’s why they are more involved. I’ve come to realize that this is usually not the case. These folks are just as pressed for time as I am, and yet they dedicate themselves to something that is important to them.

Morning strolls to pick up trash or improving our art walk cannot be likened to something as celebrated as Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march to the sea, but they still matter. The successful solution to rowdy Gallery Walk, and innumerable other local issues, will be homegrown and quirky. And the one who spearheads the initiative will carve out some time at the edges and enlist others to do the same.  They will live Gandhi’s exhortation to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Perhaps this person is you?

The Death of Kindergarten?

“What the hell has happened to kindergarten?” a friend of mine asked in a frantic email last year. She’d moved to the States after several years in London, and her son now struggled in his new academic setting.  Her note continued: “Where are the sand tables? When do they get to play? When did recess become a bad thing? What is going on?” And it ended with a desperate question: Can I do anything about it?

She is not alone in her concern. Kindergarten has changed. One teacher friend told me recently that it’s her life’s mission to “save kindergarten.”  Another confided that she left the classroom because kindergarten was no longer a place of self-expression and play for children. Most public school kindergartens truly do not resemble those of a generation ago. This is due to trickling down effects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and parental fears about academic preparedness. Schools feel tremendous pressure to meet the end-of-first-grade benchmarks, so now kindergarten students must perform, not play.

Although play-centered kindergarten might feel like something created in 1960s San Francisco by teachers in Birkenstocks, it was first developed by German educator Freidrich Froebel over 180 years ago. Froebel recognized that he could best meet children’s particular needs and capabilities through “free work” or play. Froebel’s student Margarethe Schurz imported his methods, opening the first kindergarten in the United States in her Watertown, Wisconsin home. Its play-based curriculum proved successful and enrollment swelled.  As noise and activity increased, her husband requested that she move her school down the street to her in-laws’ house.

Children are natural-born noise makers, but their exuberance is muted in today’s kindergarten classrooms. Elizabeth Graue—a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison highlights this shift. Graue asserts that even “free play” and “choice time” have drifted into the assessment zone.  Teachers often now choose the “choice time” activities for students and use “free play” as time to complete formal assessments instead of observing and guiding student activities. Many full-day kindergarten students spend approximately twenty-five minutes on literacy and math content for every five minutes of play because schools now “back map” the curriculum from the first standardized tests.

Kindergarten—once a foundation for learning—is now just a prerequisite for the tests to come.  This is a mistake. Innovative play inherently differentiates instruction and concurrently teaches multiple concepts. It also enables children to choose appropriate challenges for themselves while being stretched by other students in a low-stress setting.

We tend to think that because our children are more tech-savvy—and seem more worldly—than we were at that age, they are also ready for more challenging academic work. (I need only watch my young son’s facility with our digital camera’s delete button to get this sense.) But this notion is false.  Award-winning education writer, Laura Pappano, highlights a study conducted by the distinguished Gesell Institute in her provocative article Kids Haven’t Changed; Kindergarten Has. The Institute, a non-profit dedicated to researching and understanding child development, recently completed a study comparing child development milestones documented in the early and mid-1900s to those in today’s children. Ninety two examiners interviewed nearly 1300 three-to-six year olds in 56 schools across 23 states. They discovered what many educators have suspected: children today generally reach cognitive milestones at the same ages as their 1920s counterparts.  Marcy Guddemi, current executive director of the Gesell Institute reflects, “People think children are smarter and they are able to do things earlier than they used to be able to—and they can’t.” She cites “conserving skills” as an example. Most children do not understand the difference between counting 20 pennies and “conserving” them—knowing that they have 20 altogether—until the age of six. They can memorize simple equations at four or five, but they don’t understand the real meaning. There is a real difference between performing and knowing.

Kindergarten has been reconfigured to meet requirements of NCLB, disregarding the needs of our young children. When we require them to do work that is inappropriate and incompatible with their natural abilities and dispositions, we send the message that end goals are more important than the journey itself. Instead, kindergarten curriculum should tap into the innate exuberance, enthusiasm, curiosity and wonder of 5 and 6 year olds. Kids need to play—not just for their enjoyment and to release oodles of pent up energy—but because they learn about themselves. In the hands of a gifted teacher, play becomes a tool for honing social skills and emotional growth.

David Daniel, child psychology professor at James Madison University, stresses the importance of teaching age appropriate material. He says, “The four-year-old has a four-year-old brain and a six-year-old, a six-year-old brain.” Certainly there are a few students who can dabble in more serious academics, but most students are not developmentally or emotionally ready to learn it. And all too often it is the boys and kids of color in the classroom who are tagged for kindergarten retention or referred for testing.

Of course, kindergarten today must be a balance of the old and new. We can’t ignore the fact that schools have real pressure to meet federal mandates. Programs rich in vocabulary and math concepts are necessary and appropriate, but they certainly can exist alongside constructive play and exploration. My friend’s son was constantly under pressure to improve academically; he hated school by the end of kindergarten. His educational life is too important to be sacrificed to first-grade benchmarks.

The Whale and the Tick

If you missed the news, JPMorgan Chase, the disgraced investment bank, is in the news…again. No, not Goldman Sachs. That’s a different investment bank also marinating in scandal, although you can be forgiven for making the mistake. You could practically pull headlines from the past two years and substitute Morgan for Goldman and get a sense of the problems. But sorting out the pieces is another matter entirely.  Between bouts of castigating myself for difficulty comprehending the credit default swap market, I’ve achieved a trace of clarity about the mess at JPMorgan and what we can do about it.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, the largest investment bank in America (by assets and the total value of its shares) is scheduled to appear this week before the Senate Banking Committee about his company’s recent multi-billion dollar trading loss. When first announced, it appeared that JPMorgan squandered about $2 billion dollars on bad investments; now the damage appears to be more in the $6-$7 billion range. (That’s about a dollar for every single person on the planet.) The Committee will grill Dimon as it seeks to implement tougher Wall Street oversight through the Dodd-Frank rules. The problem is that the transactions are so complicated that it has taken the folks at JPMorgan weeks to “unwind” the trades to figure out what happened and how much money the bank actually lost. There is a very good chance the Senators and the regulators don’t understand them either. No, seriously. There are very few members of Congress who could qualify for Mensa affiliation.

JPMorgan’s current problem is tied to credit default swaps. Credit default swaps (CDS) are contracts that investors use to insure against a company defaulting on its bonds or securities.  You pay JPMorgan a small premium, and if the company you’ve invested in fails, JPMorgan pays back your money.  Here’s the catch—they’re unregulated—JPMorgan is not required to keep a cash reserve to pay you, they can legally cross their fingers and hope for the best.

CDS’s were invented on Wall Street in the 1990s and immediately proved very profitable in the short term.  According to Barry Ritholtz, a business columnist for the Washington Post, they obtained their “favored status as unregulated insurance policies” when Phil Gramm sponsored the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. This law benefited Enron and Gramm’s wife—who was a director of the board—because “the fast profit of trading energy derivatives…was much easier to achieve without those pesky regulations.”  Freed from reserve requirements, the CDS market flourished into a $25 trillion juggernaut.

One key trader in this mammoth market was JPMorgan’s Bruno Iksil. He was dubbed the “London Whale” because he made what Andrew Sorkin of the New York Times, called a “$100 billion derivatives bet” that made Morgan “virtually the entire market for a certain kind of derivative.”  Size alone has made it tough to sort out the extent of the failed wager. The powerful Iksil, who once earned Morgan $450 billion on a stake against a group of junk-bond rated companies, was harpooned last month, in part, by a tick.

A tick? Iksil’s boss, Ina Drew—the investment officer responsible for Iksil’s London group—contracted Lyme Disease in 2010, and the talented risk manager missed work due to her illness. As the New York Times has reported, her quarrelsome and combative unit, which she had successfully shepherded for years, broke down in her absence, making increasingly riskier trades. When Drew returned to work following her sick leave, she moved her office further away from the New York traders working with Iksil’s team. Susan Adams of Forbes has written that this unintentionally “signaled her step back from the day-to-day trading conflicts” and resulted in open clashes between her subordinates. Iksil’s group then made dodgier decisions that led to the now infamous trading CDS loss. It turns out, complex trading instruments are not the whole story; people and personalities still matter.

The London Whale’s transactions were so complicated that it’s tough to prescribe the remedy, but surely we can all agree that one trader at one institution should not be able to move an entire market. Despite CEO Dimon’s arguments that JPMorgan is already hamstrung by regulations, most analysts and politicians point to an obvious truth: credit default swaps are insurance products and should be handled as such. The CDS market must be regulated, and investment banks need stricter internal rules regarding what transactions are deemed hedges and which are bald speculative bets. But there is a danger in thinking that regulations can save us from ourselves.

Alexis Goldstein, a former Wall Streeter who now “Occupies” Wall Street, maintains that traders don’t view regulations as firewalls. They are simply impediments to be circumvented. She asserts traders will always invent more complicated, lucrative investment instruments because that is the culture of the business. It is a culture of risk, hubris and shape-shifting.  Many have asked why JPMorgan Chase’s internal regulators didn’t realize there were problems with the London Whale. While it’s true that Iksil’s three-tiered scheme to capitalize on the CDS market was absurdly complex, managers may have missed red flags because they themselves are so steeped in the market ethos of risk and big returns.

As citizen investors we must admit that we are connected to the Tick and the Whale.  When we encourage Wall Street to relentlessly bring us quarterly earnings we send a strong cultural signal that we condone shape-shifting and wild bets, even as credit markets tighten around us as a result.




Landing the Chopper

His paper read “…a realist ate end ever in the aria.” With furrowed brow, I puzzled over this garbled bit of writing for several long minutes. It was only when I mouthed the words quickly and then slurred them together that I finally deciphered what he attempted to write: “a real estate endeavor in the area.” The entire term paper was riddled with similar errors; I knew a very difficult conversation loomed. I was a graduate assistant in the history department of a large university, and the author of this term paper on Westward Expansion was a junior majoring in history. I can’t speak to the requirements of other majors, but a history major has to write well.

He appeared at my office hours later that week with his rolled term paper clutched in his hand, slumped into a chair, and then launched into a teary apology. “I’m so sorry,” he began. “I really tried my best. It’s just that my mom usually helps me with school work. I transferred here—and now she isn’t around to help me.” He felt utterly lost without her assistance in writing and editing his papers. During our wide-ranging conversation, I strongly encouraged him to visit the university’s writing center, but his body language told me this probably wasn’t going to happen. A few weeks later, the course ended, and I was on to another massive survey course with three sections to teach.  He was not the only college student I taught who had overinvolved parents, but he is the one I still think about.

It is conventional wisdom among teachers that families who attend parent/teacher conferences tend to have more academically successful children than those who don’t.  A meta-analysis of research on parental involvement and student achievement, conducted by the Harvard Family Research Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, verifies this connection. It also confirms that aspects of parenting that require a large commitment of time—reading and communicating with your child—and the more subtle facets, such as parental expectations, positively impact student performance. But in America we don’t tend to do anything in moderation. (Consider for a moment 7-11’s  64 ounce Double Big Gulp.) It’s not surprising that many of us take parental involvement to an unhealthy extreme.

Foster W. Cline and Jim Fay first coined the now ubiquitous term “helicopter parents,” in their 1990 book Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility, to refer to those who are overinvolved in their children’s lives. This cultural phenomenon is relatively new, but it is not unique to American parenting. The Scandinavians use the term “curling parents” for those who attempt to sweep away all troubles in their child’s path. Like their Scandinavian counterparts, American parents often overemphasize their child’s needs and their role in meeting those needs. Annette Lareau, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied this parenting phenomenon which she dubs “concerted cultivation.” Lareau asserts that middle class parents fear that their children will be academically or professionally successful only if they provide them with the right opportunities for social and intellectual growth. This often leads to intervention by parents on behalf of their children with coaches, teachers and others in institutional positions of power.

My mother-in-law has witnessed this as a college English instructor; parents call her to advocate for extensions or higher grades for their children. Recent media reports have exposed that some parents now show up at their children’s job interviews to negotiate for higher pay. And college administrators openly beg parents of in-coming students to stop daily monitoring of their children’s activities via Facebook or by cell phone.  Yes, parents are constantly barraged with the dangers lurking for their children.  Still, we’ve clearly gone off the rails. And although the media has focused on college age students, helicopter parenting doesn’t start when students head off to college or seek their first job.

Teachers all know parents who ask for “extra credit” opportunities for their children. This often happens right before the end of the term when a student realizes that his poor performance earlier in the year will, in fact, impact his grade. But I know multiple teachers who have had to explain to parents that a student can’t improve their grade for an assignment completed during  the previous school year. Obviously these parents mean well. They see their role as advocate and protector, but the constant intrusions into their child’s education has long-lasting negative effects.

A recent study from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga indicates college students who report having overinvolved parents are more likely to be medicated for anxiety or depression and less able to make independent decisions. Other research indicates that children of helicopter parents feel more neurotic, less in control of their lives, and have difficulty demonstrating self-reliance. Interestingly, parents also report having negative feelings as a result of their over-involvement; they view their parenting failures as directly tied to their children’s struggles.

Like the parents in Annette Lareau’s study, I know I have a tendency towards “concerted cultivation” —and my children are only 4 ½ and almost 2. When I feel my own chopper blades starting up, I think of On Children by Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”