My AP students are convinced my wife, who’s a native Chinese, is a Tiger Mother like Amy Chua. They also assume I passively sit on the sidelines, like Chua’s husband Jed Rubenfeld, while my wife reprimands my children. Let me explain.
My AP students read Chua’s controversial parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother over the summer, then, wrote a summative argumentative essay in the fall, deciding whether a parent’s success is determined by the success or failure of their children. Chua writes, “The Chinese parenting approach is weakest when it comes to failure; it just doesn’t tolerate that possibility. The Chinese model turns on achieving success. That’s how the virtuous circle of confidence, hard work, and more success is generated.”
This school year is our first year being school parents. My eldest daughter Aviva is a kindergartner and we are learning how to balance between devoting time so she can complete her schoolwork, while allowing her space to be a six-year old. Each night Avi completes her math homework. In addition, she attends Chinese school and my wife requires her to write a page of Chinese characters. I support this 100%. My children should learn my wife’s native tongue, and I think there’s value in the routine of completing daily homework. Better have the battle at six than at sixteen.
Because my wife has taken responsibility for monitoring Avi’s math and Chinese, the responsibility of monitoring her reading fell upon me. I suppose my wife assumed since I am a high school English teacher, this would be my forte’. This is the furthest thing from the truth. There’s a big difference between teaching teens to use context clues to decode vocabulary vs. teaching kindergartners how to read sight words. Either way, I accepted my role in Avi’s education.
During conferences, my daughter’s teacher gave us a set of sight word flash cards kindergartners need to know to meet the Common Core. I politely thanked the teacher for the list, and proceeded to place them in a drawer when we got home. Reflecting on my own education, I hated memorizing words out of context. Instead, I bought Avi a set of books from a local education bookstore that covered sight words and figured we would review a new book each week. In addition, I read to her every night. I always tried to point out new words and have her repeat them. Then, I’d ask her to use the word in a story the next day. I wanted reading to be both meaningful and fun.
I continued this laissez-faire approach to reading until a month ago. Avi brought home her progress report. In the world of high school, progress reports mean a snapshot of a student’s current grade. Apparently in elementary school, receiving a progress report means your child is not making progress. In cursive blue ink read the ominous warning: “Your child has only correctly identified 25/50 sight words. Please work on this at home. She will be tested on this in two weeks!”
My wife was especially alarmed by the tight time frame. “Haven’t you been quizzing her on the sight words? What test is the teacher talking about? Is Avi in danger of failing kindergarten?” I meekly explained my approach to teaching reading. The other two questions, I had no answer. Besides, isn’t Avi also learning Chinese at Chinese school? Hebrew at Hebrew school? Spanish as part of her school’s duel language program? This was irrelevant to my wife. She defiantly declared, “Our little girl is smart. We will have a sight words boot camp.”
At first it was painful for everyone involved. Avi resented the kill and drill. We both hated to be disciplinarians. I felt overnight I transformed from loveable Ms. Nelson to despised Ms. Viola P. Swamp. But, slowly Avi began recognizing more words. When we read at night she could read parts along with me. She noticed words on signs when we were in the car. Most importantly, she gained confidence in herself. Yes, there was screaming and hair-pulling, but there was also laughter and high-fives.
Last week I volunteered at my daughter’s school. Avi’s teacher asked me if I wanted to see Avi’s results on the sight words assessment. I nervously peeked at her file. She got 45/50 correct! I quietly beamed. I happily texted my wife to share the good news. She responded, “She can still do better.”
In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother Chua notes a big difference between Western parents and Chinese parents, “Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”
When I told my mom that I was writing a blog post about the Common Core and teaching Avi sight words, she frowned. My mom taught kindergarten for over thirty years. She worries the Common Core is raising the bar way above our students’ developmental level.
I share my mom’s fear. But, maybe that is the wrong way of seeing it. Perhaps, like my wife does, we need to believe our kids are capable. We need to “assume they have the strength” to be successful at anything.