Brain food

A successful turnaround educator offers advice on how to bring out the best in your child.

By Anne Marie Feld

When Lila Leff marched into the principal’s office at Manley Career Academy High School on Chicago’s West Side in 1995, two things stood out immediately — the soft brown curls that trailed down her back and her take-no-prisoners attitude.

Leff, executive director of the Umoja Student Development Corporation, wanted to start a program to get some of the city’s most challenged kids into college, and Manley needed all the help it could get. Plagued by entrenched poverty, low test scores, and a college acceptance rate below 10 percent, the school was a dropout factory.

Manley’s principal took a chance on Leff’s brainchild and won. This year more than 60 percent of Manley’s students will go on to college, many of them on scholarship.

Umoja, which is Swahili for unity, varies its approach to reach students at different ages and stages. Help is available on a practical level — advocates assist with college applications and educate kids about what they’ll need to gain admission — but the real secret to its success comes from the staff working closely with students to foster curiosity, and how that curiosity will guide them to their futures.

Umoja facilitates hands-on learning in the broadest sense. Hundreds of Umoja students have climbed onto buses and planes and toured colleges, or completed community service projects such as home rehabilitations in their neighborhoods. They’ve competed in poetry slams and gone through leadership training, and they continue to lean on Umoja long after they’ve left for college, returning for help on writing term papers or adjusting to a setting that isn’t punctuated by the sound of gunfire (see "Umoja's Children" for examples of success stories).

Recently, I spoke to Leff about how Umoja works to help feed kids’ minds and how parents can do the same. She says it begins with listening.

“Adults talk at kids, and they tell them how the world is, and how to behave in it, and it’s not a very effective means of doing business,” says Leff.  “Kids don’t show up for classes, and they don’t show up for programs. They show up for relationships, and that’s true of all critical conversations that anyone has, including a parent.”

Recent studies back this up — while clarinet lessons and rocket-building kits are all educational, the single most important thing you can do to feed your child’s brain is to create a nurturing, connected relationship. Doing things together, and having fun, is key. Observe what your child naturally gravitates toward, and then help him gain experience in those areas.

Every parent has had the experience of asking children a question about their interests, only to get eyes rolling skyward or exasperated sighs. That’s not where it ends if you do the right thing to engage kids, says Leff.

What is the right thing? According to Leff, it’s a process of wearing children down until you find whatever “it” is and refusing to take no for an answer. It’s similar to how you introduce food to a baby — you keep trying things until something sticks, and eventually you’ve got a varied diet or, in this case, a range of interests and skills.

Helping your child understand and articulate his strengths and weaknesses can nudge him down the path to success.

“If you ask a kid in eighth grade what they’re good at, and they can’t answer that question, they’re going to have real trouble in high school,” says Leff. “It’s really important to help kids identify the things that interest them and to help them find positive outlets for those interests.”

Shared cultural experiences or volunteering together are good places to start — especially if you work and plan together. If you’ve got a TV addict on your hands, try taking her to the taping of a television show or a museum of broadcasting to spur conversations about how programs are produced and what makes for entertaining programming. Buy or borrow a video camera and put it in her hands. The idea is to expose your child to the notion that she can create as well as consume.

If your kid loves video games, see if you can get him interested in how animation is produced. Many tech museums have computers and cameras for kids to produce their own games and short animations. You can also take him to free gallery exhibitions of animation art. But follow his interests carefully — don’t take a kid who worships Japanese anime to a Disney exhibit, or more eye rolling may follow. Scour the papers for the right fit. Teachers, school counselors, and other parents can also suggest local programs to build on strengths.

You teach skills through projects,” says Leff. For one such project, she invited her students to research public transportation problems in their neighborhood. After the case was built, they took it to the next level and presented their arguments to the Chicago Transit Authority. “When you do things like that, kids feel really, really excited and there’s a sense of urgency,” says Leff.

Help your child research something she cares about in her community and present it at an open school board or community board meeting. Local public radio stations often have opportunities for listeners of all ages to talk on the air about issues that shape their communities. Making something together — something with a definite beginning, middle, and end — can also provide the focus for an educational project. This could be as elaborate as building a tree house or as modest as creating a family tree.

In the end, feeding your child’s brain can be done at no cost around the kitchen table or walking in a park. Some of the work can be done in partnership with schools and community groups; some is done in libraries and museums. The good news is that none of it requires expensive toys or equipment. It’s about enjoying your time together; finding ways to expose your child to people, ideas, and experiences to help her grow; and, like Leff, never giving up.

Anne Marie Feld is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times; on BabyCenter; and in the anthologies Mommy Wars, Because I Love Her, and Modern Love. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children, ages 3 and 5, though both seem to be teenagers.