Saturday, August 29, 2009

Q: If you are American and are traveling to Europe, what gifts to you take to the lovely friends who are hosting you?

Dear Readers,

We have a dilemma. We are trying to think of gifts to take to our friends who will be hosting us in Europe, but clearly, nearly anything European is superior to anything American. We thought of taking chocolates, but the finest chocolates found in America are European. Does it really make sense to take chocolate back to its motherland, by which point it's quadruped in price? I've heard that our rubbery American chocolate does better as pencil erasers in Europe than as an edible, so that is also out of the running. (Notably, they also make superior pencil erasers).

Or then we considered the default option of taking something "Tar-heel"ish, to spread the UNC pride. But the concept of college sports is rather a foreign one in Europe, and only serves as a reminder of American football and basketball, which are far inferior to soccer, as far as sports are concerned. Clearly, we are losing this battle.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

Head's up: I'll try to keep this short, but I may not be successful. I'm here to tell you about something I'm researching right now, which I think may just change your life.

"Fixed" mindset vs. "growth" mindset. It all started with Carol S. Dweck from Stanford University, and most of what I will write has come from her years and years of thinking, questioning, research, and writing.

The crux of Carol's pursuit was originally to figure out what motivated people to do things, or more specifically, to continue doing things that were difficult. Over many years of observing student behavior, she developed the concept of "mindset", and generally classified student's mindset into two categories: fixed or growth-oriented.

Kids with a "fixed" mindset believe that intelligence is an innate characteristic - something you are either born with... or not. Generally, kids with a fixed mindset are keen on being seen as smart, and will avoid difficult tasks they are not confident they can accomplish, for fear of losing that belief about themselves. Kids with a fixed mindset can whiz through the early grades with little effort (if they are the "smart" ones), but they struggle in junior high when academia becomes more challenging. Kids with a fixed mindset do not take constructive criticism well, are more defensive of their failures (because failure means they are no longer "smart") and are quicker to give up when the going gets tough.

On the other hand, kids with a "growth" mindset see learning as something that develops with hard work and effort. Generally, kids with a growth mindset understand that you can make your brain smarter by using it often, and that you can improve on a task through practice. Kids with a growth mindset endure longer in difficult tasks, and are not threatened or frozen by failure, but accept challenges as a chance to learn new things.

(Interestingly, Carol Dweck also writes about adults - imagine a supervisor who doesn't take constructive criticism well, hesitates to give advice and will not act as a mentor for anyone. He or she most likely has a fixed intelligence mindset, whereas someone who mentors others, and accepts and gives advice freely is more likely of a growth mindset).

So cut to the chase, Metta! What is the Secret to Raising Smart Kids?

According to Carol Dweck, the secret is to stop telling them that they are smart. The language that we use to interact with others tells them how we think about intelligence, and kiddos are especially likely to adopt our modes of thinking. When we only tell kids how smart they are, their expectation is that smart means they should succeed in everything. When something difficult comes along, they are either more likely to disengage in order to protect themselves, or they are in for an earth-shattering reality check - that they will sometimes fail and are not "smart" after all. Although "You are so smart!" is a natural thing for us to say to children, according to Carol Dweck, three decades of research has shown that there are more helpful ways to be encouraging. Praising the process rather than innate characteristics is a better way to promote stick-to-itiveness, patience with difficult tasks, creativity in problem solving, not to mention a healthy relationship with failure, learning and recovery from set-backs.

(For a more detailed look into examples of useful praise, click here for an entry I wrote back in December on the topic, into which I unknowingly incorporated a lot of Dweck's ideas).

Interestingly, Dweck is currently in the process of creating a school intervention called "Brainology", which focuses on the growth mindset and teaches children explicitly about the synapses in the brain, and how those connections are changed and "made smarter" through practice. Even in its pilot stages, teachers reported that students who were exposed to Brainology approached their learning in a new way, endured longer, did better in their academics, and understood that their effort was changing and improving their brains.

So along with praising determination, appropriate ways of dealing with frustration, and creativity in problem solving (instead of labeling only end products or "smartness" in communication with your little ones), try telling them in simple terms about the way brains work. If kiddos understand that they have control over their intelligence and that practice will literally make new connections in their brains, over time you may just see some real changes in the way they approach learning and the scary threat of failure.

Chemicals firing across the synaptic gap... "smart" kids in the works.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

DIY: Refurnishing a dresser

So I don't intend to start every entry with a comment about my employment status, but here you have it - I still don't have a job (although I am working part-time for a friend who has her own business). Since we're leaving in a few weeks to Europe anyway, I have to admit that it has been difficult to keep up the search with the same amount of gusto.

In this whole job search process, a number of working friends have - in hushed voices - told me to enjoy this space and time to do other things that just don't happen when one is working. So, partly out of my need for sanity and busy-ness and partly out of a keen interest in having a new home that I really like, I've tackled a few projects that will hopefully make it to the blog. Here's the first...

DIY (Do It Yourself) project #1: Refurnishing a dresser

Recently we inherited a dresser from some friends who were moving, and although it was white and painted quite pretty, I had been wrestling with a vision of an "antique blue" piece to spice up our new bedroom. She immediately became the perfect guinea pig.

Thanks to many online tutorials, Phil (who let me use his power tools), and a mask I had taken home from my last doctor's visit (to protect against H1N1), the project was off to a start. The first steps were to sand down the top layer of paint (and in some areas, about three layers came off), and wipe down the piece to get rid off all of the dust.

This is what the piece looked like after the sander did its duty. Not very pretty, but having a new coat of paint stick requires that a piece have a "rougher" edge to grab onto, rather than an old glossy layer of paint.

The picture below shows the most frustrating part of the process: the detail work. Clearly this is also one of the highlights of the piece, but painters in the past had been sloppy around the details, and the paint layers in the crevices were so thick that putting the frictional heat from the electric sander onto the paint created a gummy mess that was difficult to smooth.

After a layer of primer in the picture below, things were starting to look up. Primer serves as an adhesive that sticks the raw wood or old paint to the new layer. They recently came out with a combo primer/paint which is great and saves a step, but this one being my first piece, I wanted to try my hand at doing everything the hard way... oh yay.

Painting is pretty scary the first time around, and frankly, by the time I had purchased the primer, paint, sand paper and brushes, my "cheap" project had cost enough that I had the added pressure of needing it to come out well! Here she is in our room. It's still a bit barren in her corner but all in all, we kind of love her spunk...

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Music to keep us movin'

"When carefully selected according to scientific principles, music can enhance endurance by 15% and improve the ‘feeling states’ of exercisers, helping them to derive much greater pleasure from the task..." -Science Daily, October 2, 2008

My friend Aline and I have decided to train for a 5K, and we could use a little help! We're putting together a collection of music-to-move-to for our jogging sessions, and we're wondering what YOUR favorites are? If you run, exercise, or even hold solo dance parties in the privacy of your living room, would you mind sharing some of the songs that really get you grooving? We will be strategically organizing your ideas into sections for warm-up, crazy running, and warm down, so songs of varying tempos are appreciated! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Friday, August 7, 2009

"Dear Judy, thank you for rejecting me..."

I just received a rejection email from an agency called Clean Energy Durham. I had applied for their Transit Specialist position, and okay, so maybe it wasn't the job I really really wanted, but at least it sounded interesting.

One of the job requirements was: "Must be able to ride a bike".

But calm down, I haven't even shared the best part: Judy, the Executive Director of the agency, actually emailed me with a rejection letter. I felt so good inside. I immediately wrote her back, thanking her for sending me a rejection letter. Maybe you think I'm being facetious, but I'm not. At this time, in this economic climate, sending electronic applications out into the world feels somewhat like throwing frisbees off a cliff in the middle of a very dark night. Who knows if anyone reads them? Who knows if they are virtually shredded before they make it to anyone's inbox? At least being rejected confirms that this job search may not be just a big fat waste of time. And... at least someone else has a new job.

Monday, August 3, 2009


This week we packed up and moved house! We were able to pro-rate a few days early at the new place and overlap the contracts, so things weren't as chaotic as they could have been. We figured the price to allow ourselves three days to move was more than worth the cost of the therapy we would require after a stressful one-day haul! Moving five minutes down the road definitely has its perks...

So, here we are in the new place. It's still a work in progress, but because we were able to move in slowly, we unpacked more or less as we moved in. The kitchen was complete by the end of day one, and most of the other rooms are coming along slowly but surely. I keep shocking myself by knowing exactly where everything is. Am I really that obsessed with organizing?

The square footage in this place is bigger than anywhere we've lived (which isn't saying much). In our last place you could walk seven steps and see every room in the little apartment, and now it's an entire 26! The first day I felt like I was getting a cardio workout, because the unpacking required so much hustling to different rooms! But besides more space, the new place also has its quirks. We're fairly convinced that there is a lean to the floor, so that walking from the bedroom to the living room is kind of like ascending a hill.

And maybe that is why unpacking gets so tiring...