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Talking with my children about the Greek debt crisis

With the Greek debt crisis constantly in the news, it should not have come as a surprise when a couple of days ago my daughter asked Mum, why is Greece in the news again and why are the banks closed?

I tend to explain things to my children in a straightforward and direct manner. I prefer to have age-appropriate conversations using facts than sugar-coat the real issues. I have been brave enough to hold conversations with them about growing up, death, domestic violence, terrorism, war and other global issues. Some of them are personal (death) and have triggered lots of questions. Others (such as war and terrorism) are serious and have made us discuss and research relevant topics. But war and terrorism is not really close to home.

With close family in Greece and a six week holiday in Corfu just a few days away, I struggled to find the right words. Indirectly, the Greek crisis is relevant to them as well. It affects some of their family and their friends. It will certainly has an impact on their holiday. As they interact with the locals, they will overhear people talking about their own experience of the crisis. Some people are angry and bitter. Others suffer quietly. A few have heart breaking stories to tell. Hospitals can hardly respond to the demand for healthcare. Living in uncertainty for so long, with little prospect for a brighter future takes its toll to anyone. Inevitably, children have become well aware of the difficulties that their families face.

One thing is for sure. This time around my children are going to finally realise that Greece is in trouble.

So when asked, I felt that it was my responsibility to explain what is going on, without instilling any fear or uncertainty. Surely, a little bit of sugar-coating would not do any harm, would it?

Greek_Flag

It turns out that explaining the Greek financial crisis to two children who have been unaware of it for so long and are raised in the UK can be quite a challenge. How could I possibly explain such a complex issue to a 7 and a 10 year old, while I am struggling to make sense of it all for myself?

So I decided that there was no point in getting into any details. The bare facts would do.

I did not discuss the referendum or how Greece got to such a mess nor about the country’s continuously failing and at times corrupt leadership. I certainly did not have to talk about attitudes, failed policies, European politics, chaotic financial networks. Nor the role of banks as an institution in modern economies or the responsibilities of every single citizen.

Greece is currently a poor country and requires help from other countries, I said. It is in the news because leaders of most of the European countries are trying to help. The thing is, that nobody knows what the best way to help Greece is. I think even the Greek leaders do not know how to help their country and the people.  Greeks are confused as they cannot agree on what needs to change to make their country stronger. Understandably, they are a bit worried right now and unfortunately there is no much money left in the banks. So they had to close and the government only allows people to withdraw up to 60 euros a day. This is about 40 pounds.

My son was relieved. Phew, 60 euros is a lot of money. I thought they were only allowed 1 or 2 euros a day.

My daughter though was more concerned. Are granny and grandpa going to be ok?

Yes, I said. They are fit and healthy and are looking forward to spending the summer holidays with you. She remained visibly concerned, but did not ask any further questions.

And so in the midst of yet another financial crisis, I felt that I had to compromise the truth to make sure that I did not cause unnecessary anxiety.

But having followed the never ending saga of this modern Greek drama for the last five years, I am beginning to think that after all my simplistic explanation may not be quite that far from the truth.

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Leisure

It is the season of reflection and New Year resolutions. So many expectations for the new year ahead, so much pressure – we should be doing more, we should be better, we should be setting new goals.

I hope you all make some time for simplicity and leisure.

Leisure

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare?—

No time to stand beneath the boughs,

And stare as long as sheep and cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

W. H. Davies

My name is …

Greek surnames can be hard to pronounce and even harder to spell in English. But I am fortunate to have the simplest and shortest Greek surname possible. Pappa – two characters (A and P) combined to make a five-letter name. Could it get simpler than that?

So I find it amusing when I see the different ways that children spell my name.

This is quite prominent just before the Christmas holiday when I get Christmas cards from pupils in schools I work with.

A selection of this year’s spellings includes:

Ms Papa

Ms Popa

Ms Paper

Ms Popar

Ms Pupa

It is a rare occasion to receive a card with my name spelt correctly.

At least most of them get the Ms part right.

Is Santa real?

My daughter is on a crusade. She wants everyone to know that Father Christmas is not real.

It all started a dew days ago on our way to her Brownies club. We were stuck in a traffic jam, which stretched our usual eight-minute ride into a very long journey.

She had been unusually quiet, when she broke the question “Mum, is it true that Santa is not real?” I did not know what to say. Father Christmas is certainly not real, but how do you break the news to a nine-year-old girl who you have been encouraging to believe in him?

To buy some time and contemplate my thoughts I asked: “Why do you ask this?”

“Rachel told me,” she replied visibly concerned.

I was not prepared to have this conversation with her. But I had to say something and I could feel that at that moment there was not a right answer. Yet trapped in a car, there was no way I could get away with it. I had to give the game away. So I mumbled a few incoherent sentences “Santa is alive in our hearts. He is a human invention. He is the symbol of generosity. He is as real as we want him to be.”

“That does not make any sense” said my 5 year old son. He was of course absolutely right.

I grew up a believer and have fond memories of all the anticipation surrounding Father Christmas. Even when I found out he was not real I kept enjoying the fantasy, as it added to the Christmas atmosphere. Not to mention that I was getting the presents as well. So based solely on my own experience I’ve always thought that Santa was a justifiable lie. And so I encouraged my children to believe in him as a real person. It was only recently that a good friend of mine told me she was petrified when she found out Father Christmas was not real. She still remembers when and how the news was broken to her by a neighbor.

There and then I knew that my daughter would be more like my friend.

She was upset. “So there are NO flying reindeers?”

And then she bombarded me with questions to which I did not have any answers.

What about my letters to Santa? Nobody has read them? Have they all gone straight into the bin?

Who brings the presents? Is that you and dad?

Who eats the carrot and the juice we leave for Santa on Christmas Eve?

Then she went quiet for a few minutes before adding decisively,

“Mum I am upset. Tomorrow I am going to tell Kiran and Morgan, and they are going to know that Santa is not real!”

I had never expected that this would be an issue for her. It had not certainly been for me. I also thought that deep down she already knew and it was not a big deal to her. I was obviously wrong.

At that moment I felt I had failed her. Worse, I felt that I had taken away her innocence and ruined an element of her childhood identity.

But at the same time I found her reaction exceptionally sweet. Here I had my nine year old daughter with whom I can have intelligent conversations about any topic – we talk about everything from women’s right in Ancient Greece and the lack of women scientists to why the Beatles marked the beginning of a new era in music – being upset because Santa is not real.

 Or was she hurt just because I had lied to her?

When we returned home she stormed into the house and talked to her dad about what she had found out about Santa. He was to blame as well.

Just before bedtime she came to me “Mum, I am disappointed. You should not have lied to me.”

I said I would never have thought that this would hurt her.

I said that by no means was this intended to be a lie, but a story told to many children by their parents to nurture a Christmas fantasy.

I said that I wanted her to know that I would never lied to her. EVER.

I said that I am sorry.

She felt relieved and reassured. She kept quiet for a few minutes and then she spoke again. “Thank you mum! Now tell me the truth. Is God real?”

How simple activities with the kids boost their brain power

The role of parents in children’s education has been researched greatly in the last decade.  The results point to a clear conclusion –  early parental engagement at home boosts a child’s achievement in later years in primary school.

I often think that statements like this add a burden to the already anxious and guilt-prone modern parents. We have all been through that phase, where doubts about our parenting skills are our constant companion. But parental engagement is not rocket science. The term includes simple activities that most of us do at home anyway. Take for instance latest research from Canada that looked at the impact of specific literacy and numeracy activities

Literacy Activities

  • Reading books
  • Telling stories
  • Singing songs
  • Playing with alphabet toys (e.g., blocks with letters of the alphabet)
  • Talking about things you had done
  • Talking about what you had read
  • Playing word games
  • Writing letters or words
  • Reading aloud signs and labels

Numeracy Activities

  • Saying counting rhymes or singing counting songs
  • Playing with number toys (e.g., blocks with numbers)
  • Counting different things
  • Playing games involving shapes (e.g. shape sorting toys, puzzles)
  • Playing with building blocks or construction toys
  • Playing board games or card games

They did not only confirm that: Parental engagement in literacy and numeracy activities before children begin primary/elementary school is related to higher reading, mathematics, and science achievement

But surprisingly (or maybe not) they found that literacy activities are not only strongly related to students’ higher reading achievement, but also to higher science and mathematics performance.

The two top activities for achievement in all three disciplines was reading books and telling stories.

See? Parental engagement is not rocket science. But parenting, especially when taking care of preschoolers can be challenging and even simple activities with the children make some of us feel overwhelmed. Fortunately there is a wide range of opportunities out there to boost your child’s brainpower and give you in turn opportunities to socialize and meet like-minded parents.

Children Centre’s offer a variety of play-based activities – they often have weekly playgroups, as well as singing and story telling sessions. Most Centres have quality toys and encourage parent-child engagement and interaction.

Also check with your local community centre or church. They often offer playgroups run by experienced professionals at affordable prices. Lately, other venues have hosted activities for pre-schoolers – toy shops, craft shops, baby/children clothing shops. There is a wide range of services out there. Do your research and you will certainly find engaging activities for your little ones to feed their brains.

Breaking Bad – drugs, chemistry and teaching

I hardly watched any TV before having children. I was not familiar at all with American drama series. But along came my children and my entertainment habits had to change. It was at that time that I came across Desperate Housewives and in a manner completely out of character, I became addicted to the series.  As it turns out Desperate Housewives was my rite of passage. Because shortly after that, it was Dr House that got me hooked and then Fringe, which excited my imagination and triggered so many discussion about time, the universe and everything else.

The latest offering that has me glued on the screen is the American drama Breaking Bad.  This is the story of Walter White a struggling secondary school (high school in American terminology) chemistry teacher. His diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer triggers a landslide of changes in his personal life and choices that shatter his morals and values. He turns to crime producing high quality crystal meth by taking advantage of his chemistry expertise. Through his illness and his drug dealings he emerges a completely different person – not in the best possible way.  The series is a condemnation of the country’s health service, but also a thought provoking observation on human nature.

I am intrigued by the storyline, the building up of each one of the original characters and particularly by the main character whose metamorphosis occurs in a most unconventional way.

breaking_bad

But what is really spoiling it for me is the school scenes. They unsettle me and make me disengaged. Walter White’s teaching is one-way and instructional.  He does not interact with his pupils except to ask questions about facts. He bombards them with information and spends most of the time writing on the board while talking to the students. His pupils are not engaged in any way, and it seems to me that their learning process is limited to taking notes. There are no experiments and demonstrations, no whole class or small group discussions.  His class is boring, his teaching dry and uninspiring.

The teaching style reminds me of my teachers and my own school experience 25 years ago. Walter White gets across as an old-fashioned teacher.  He stands behind his bench and delivers the lessons.  It looks like the role of this bench is for White to define his territory.  He does not cross over to reach out to his pupils, but maintains a distance. As we occasionally get glimpses of White teaching chemistry, I cannot help but wonder. Is it an accurate representation of science teaching in the USA? Or is it just the case in the state of New Mexico? And will the Common Core initiative improve science teaching?

If you have experience of science teaching in the USA, please share in the comments section. I would like to find out more about science education in the country.

The role of parenting for children’s school readiness skills and ongoing achievement

A person’s ability to learn can lay the foundation of a successful life.  But how do we best prepare our children to become learners?

Research looking into the factors that influence educational achievement clearly shows that engaging with our children at home well before they attend formal education is the best way to offer them the gift of learning. After all, we are our children’s first teachers and we create their first learning environment.

A couple of years ago British researchers from the Universities of London, Oxford and Nottingham conducted a research to investigate how parents create supportive learning environments at home and assess the impact on future education achievement. They recruited 2857 children attending preschool and their parents (mostly mothers). They then conducted assessments as well as interviews with the parents. The researchers investigated the frequency that children engaged in 14 activities:

Seven social/routine activities

  • playing with friends at home
  • playing with friends elsewhere
  • visiting relatives or friends
  • shopping with parent
  • watching TV
  • eating meals with the family
  • having a regular bedtime

Seven activities providing clear learning opportunities

  • frequency read to
  • going to the library
  • playing with numbers
  • painting and drawing
  • being taught letters
  • being taught numbers, songs/poems/rhymes

The latter category forms the Home Learning Environment.

The researchers found that the quality of the Home Learning Environment has a positive effect on children’s academic performance at primary school. In other words parental engagement at home equips children with the skills to have a successful academic life.

But the question of how parenting may influence educational achievement is certainly not a simple matter. Surprisingly, this research indicates that socioeconomic factors do not play a significant role although they still have a small contribution.

Creating a supportive Home Learning Environment for our children is not rocket science. However, we should not underestimate the effect of poverty as well as some other socioeconomic factors on the quality of parenting. Poverty, parental education, culture, ethnicity, parental age, health, and other factors are all likely to be important.

I believe that the challenge is to educate and support as many parents as possible in creating supportive home learning environments both for their children’s education and wellbeing. This is quite an undertaking and deserves a proper and well rounded discussion. Above all, it requires an understanding of what makes a good/bad parent.

References:

Influences on Children’s Attainment and Progress in Key Stage 2: Cognitive Outcomes in Year 5

Effects of the Home Learning Environment and Preschool Center Experience upon Literacy and Numeracy Development in Early Primary School  (pdf)