Citizen of the World: Nioucha Homayoonfar’s Memoir of Childhood in Iran


Contributing writer Shelley Sperry is back with an insightful and relevant interview with children’s nonfiction author Nioucha Homayoonfar. I hope the conversation inspires you to get your hands on a copy of this beautiful memoir and share it with the young people in your lives. It’s a great conversation starter on the reality and diversity of immigrant experiences.



A while back I had the pleasure of talking with Nioucha Homayoonfar, an Iranian-American author whose memoir of her girlhood in Iran during the 1980s revolution came out earlier this year.

Nioucha’s story mirrors that of so many young people whose lives traverse two different cultures and communities, and who are caught up in larger historical forces as they also try to navigate their own evolution from childhood to young adulthood. I’m tremendously grateful for the chance to talk with Nioucha about her life and her book. Stories like hers, written specifically for young readers, provide human context for the complex events our kids learn about in school and news soundbites. I can’t recommend this dramatic, tender, and often funny memoir more highly—for kids or adults.

Here’s a slightly shortened and edited version of our talk:

Nioucha Homayoonfar, author

Nioucha Homayoonfar, author

How did you decide to write a memoir for a young audience rather than adults?

That decision evolved organically. When I started writing, the voice of a young person just came out—not the voice of an older person looking back at her life. I really liked that voice, so I stuck with it. I hadn’t thought about the age group or my audience at first. I just knew the story I wanted to write. I did some research, and at the time I was starting to write, in 2008–2009, there really wasn’t anything like this available. Now I see it as a great opportunity because I feel young people should know more about what is happening in other countries, and what it’s like to live there.

The work you do in your day job deals with international relations too, so that perspective must be very important to you.

People have always told me I’m a citizen of the world. After 9/11, the circumstances were so tragic and horrifying, and there was a new thirst for stories from other countries and other cultures to help make sense of the world. 

And that’s true of children as well as adults. Many classrooms, including the school my own kids attend, have students from dozens of different countries, and it’s phenomenal. I see that my kids and their friends want to understand how people and events are connected. 

Why did you decide to write nonfiction, rather than turning your story into a novel?

I started out writing some short stories and personal essays. I think a nonfiction author is just who I am. If you want to hear the true side of a story, take Nioucha with you, my family says. She can’t lie or hide the truth. As a reader, I also gravitate toward authors who write from their own dramas and hardships. That feels genuine and pure, so that’s what I aspire to as well.

But having said that, once I had a book contract, I did decide to take some things out. I had to realize that I wanted to remove things that might be hurtful to people I love. 

You’re very hard on yourself though, and honest about your own anger and mistakes. Did you draw on diaries for the book?

As a child, I used to keep some diaries as “someone” to talk to, or a form of therapy. I lost them years ago, but they were written in Persian, so I hope whoever found them just tossed them away. I did write more diaries after we left Iran. I still have those in a box and have not opened them yet. Those were tough years, watching my parents struggle when we first moved to the United States. I just haven’t found the strength to revisit those, but I know that I will look at them eventually because I want to draw on them for another story.

That would be a valuable story for a lot of kids right now to read. 

Yes, the issue of immigration is so important right now. It doesn’t matter when you move from one culture to another, it’s still very hard. I find the thought of my parents’ move here with two children really terrifying, now that I have two kids of my own. I think about that a lot now. Migrating is one of the hardest things people can do. We went from stability before the Iranian Revolution to suddenly feeling like the rug was pulled from underneath us in a matter of moments. I carry that with me, realizing that life can turn upside down so quickly. The Syrians are living that right now.

How did you access your memories from so long ago? You talk in minute detail about food, clothes, and music—and then in the next sentence there’s a dramatic political event.

My memories are really intense from that period because of the heightened intensity of life. One day we could be enjoying a wonderful meal with family or coffee with friends, and the next moment we could be running to hide from bomb sirens. Or the religious police could come and arrest people in front of you. There was an element of danger just renting your movies or buying some music because you had to deal with the black market. All my memories from that time are still vivid and detailed. Even now that I live in the United States, I still sometimes panic when I hear a siren. The biggest trigger for me is fireworks. It’s a beautiful thing here, symbolizing family and picnics, and joy—I really have to calm myself down when I hear them, though. 

Do you have advice for parents who want to help their kids embrace the world and be citizens of the world like you?

What I do with my kids is bring them often to the local libraries and museums with exhibits about other countries and periods of time. Of course, I love National Geographic’s line of memoirs celebrating people from other countries, which is the series my book is part of. Nawuth Keat and Martha Kendall wrote Alive in the Killing Fields about surviving the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. There is also so much available for kids on video. You can find series in French and Spanish and other languages on Netflix, with subtitles.

I grew up reading novels by writers from other countries, and that really takes you outside of yourself, so I think most of all I would encourage parents and kids to search their libraries for those stories.


For more information about Nioucha and her story, check out these links:
 


Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

Recommended reading from Alt Ed Austin

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If you’re like me, you look forward to summer as a relaxing time when you’ll catch up on the reading that’s been piling up on your nightstand, in your brain, on your device, or somewhere in cyberspace. Then reality sets in. Maybe you’ll finish it before the end of July and declare victory. More likely, you’ll tackle the first book or two and get distracted somewhere along the way. Or perhaps you’ll skip the list altogether in favor of shorter magazine articles, movies, games, or outdoor diversions during your precious free time. No judgment here; they’re all worthy pursuits!

So, with August winding down and the new school year and less laid-back schedules looming, I won’t burden you with more “must-reads” to add to your “must-do” list. Instead, I’ll just briefly let you know about a few education-related books I’ve read since spring that I think you’d find both enjoyable and useful.

 

What School Could Be:
Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America


by Ted Dintersmith


Ted Dintersmith is best known in education circles as producer of the excellent 2015 documentary Most Likely to Succeed and co-author, with Tony Wagner, of the book of the same title. His follow-up book, published this year, grew out of a full year spent traveling to all 50 states, visiting hundreds of schools (public, charter, traditional private, and alternative), and talking to countless students, educators, administrators, parents, and policymakers about innovative ideas they’ve put into practice in all kinds of learning environments.

Dintersmith is a highly successful venture capitalist, but unlike many of his colleagues in the business and tech world who have jumped into the education reform movement in recent years, he does not demonize teachers or focus on tinkering with new forms of standardized testing. He is less interested in talking about all the things that are wrong with conventional education (though he’s not shy about doing that too when pressed for his opinions) than in sharing and spreading the potentially revolutionary practices he’s seen happening, often hidden and unsung, at local levels around the country.

I had the good fortune to meet with Dintersmith (or Ted, as he prefers to be called by everyone) this past spring when he came to Austin for a special screening of Most Likely to Succeed and to talk about his book with local education leaders. I found his knowledge to be vast and detailed; his thoughts on the kinds of education today’s learners need are largely aligned with my own. As you’ll notice if you read What School Could Be, Ted’s enthusiasm is contagious. I imagine you’ll come away from the book as inspired and energized to make change as I did.

 

Mighty Writing:
College Application Essay Guide


by Laurie Filipelli
in collaboration with Irena Smith


This is a long-overdue public recommendation. For more than a year now, I’ve been privately urging parents of high school juniors and rising seniors to give their kids Laurie Filipelli’s guide to writing effective personal essays for college applications. I’m happy to relay that my own son, who’s heading off to his first year of college at the end of the month, found the advice and exercises in Mighty Writing to be fun, accessible, and just the stimuli he needed to think deeply—and eventually write creatively—about his own experiences, values, and aspirations for a very specific audience: college admissions committees. When Sam was ready to start writing his official submissions last fall, he drew on the lists and vignettes he had composed during the summer while working his way through the guidebook.

For unconventionally schooled students like Sam, those required and optional essays often take on an even larger importance in the college admissions review, helping admissions officers form both a more expansive and a more specific understanding of who the students are and what they might add to the university community. Admissions staff at several colleges that awarded Sam substantial merit scholarships cited his unusual essays as helping his overall application really stand out from the stacks of more formulaic ones.

Austin-based author Laurie Filipelli is an essay writing coach, a former Waldorf high school English teacher, a social justice activist, and an award-winning poet. She’s been busy since publishing Mighty Writing in 2017; in fact, you can meet her and experience her way with words firsthand at the upcoming book launch of her latest poetry collection, Girl Paper Stone.

 


How to Raise an Adult:
Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success


by Julie-Lythcott-Haims


Some friendly advice from a me as a parent and education professional: Read, as soon as you can, either of these two books, or both. The authors take somewhat different approaches to the same general ideas: that children of all ages, but particularly teens, need WAY more independence and agency than our generation of parents has been conditioned to give them; and that we need to do everything we can to lessen the pressures in their lives, especially academic ones. Our kids’ mental and physical health and happiness depend on it. Both books include helpful, practical suggestions for how parents (and educators, too) can do just that.


Finally, if you’re interested in exploring more great books in the alternative education realm, check out the Alt Ed Library on this site. We’ve added lots of new titles since we unveiled it a year ago, and we’re always open to suggestions! Also consider joining the Smart Schooling Book Group, facilitated by Antonio Buehler, which meets once a month at Laura’s Library in West Austin. This month, it just so happens that the group will be discussing How to Raise an Adult.

Happy reading!


Teri Sperry
Founder, Alt Ed Austin

Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.


You will be more effective as a parent, and have more fun as a family,
if you drop the guilt and embrace the good that screens have to offer,
while balancing media with other priorities.
When in doubt, try to use media as a means of connecting.

—Anya Kamenetz
The Art of Screen Time
 

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Anya Kamenetz is a journalist who has been writing about schools, students, and families in the United States for more than a decade and is currently on the education team at National Public Radio. She’s particularly good at distilling vast amounts of cutting-edge academic research, evaluating it, and presenting the fine points in ways parents can use it to make everyday decisions for their families. Her new book, The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life, is both an extremely practical guide for deciding the when, why, and how much of screen time for kids and a deep dive into the current state of research on the generation raised with tablets, smartphones, and 24/7 access to information and entertainment at their fingertips.

Kamenetz is a parent herself, with two young girls. One of the things that distinguishes Screen Time is that she frequently includes examples of her own family’s challenges and strategies for dealing with the digital world. And, no doubt as a result of her experience trying to juggle piles of information, she’s included a terrific little section at the end that boils down the takeaways of the book to a few pages of essentials. A few quick examples, which she elaborates on throughout the book:

  • Media can have measurable positive effects on reading, school readiness, concentration, and learning.
  • Habits are often set in the preschool years, which is when parents have the most control. But it’s never too late to have a positive influence.
  • Different ages require different approaches.
  • Parental rules and attitudes about technology make a measurable, positive difference through the teenage years and beyond.
  • Screens and sleep don’t mix.

One of the clear conclusions is that much more research is needed and that absolutely critical questions related to the effects of screen time on anxiety and depression, learning difficulties, and violence are still hotly contested by scholars.

I highly recommend an interview Kamenetz did on the Tilt podcast in which many of the questions focused on digital media and kids with various learning challenges. Kamenetz spends significant time looking at how differently wired kids respond to digital media and how it affects social interaction, but it’s clear there are no certainties at this stage. “Even if the affinity some autistic people have for media doesn’t prove to be a smoking gun,” she says, “it is a prompt to consider how both our own and our kids’ screens might serve as either a barrier or a bridge to other human encounters.”

One of the ideas that made the most impact on me in reading Kamenetz’s research is the importance of separating screens and sleep. I’m not a good role model for my teen daughter on this count since I don’t currently follow the sensible rule of shutting down all screens an hour before bedtime. Her book is prompting me to look for ways of changing our family habits around bedtime as well as ways we can do more watching and discussing together, with the ultimate goal—as Kamenetz suggests—of raising kids who understand responsible media use in an atmosphere of trust, not surveillance.

I’m going to try to put into practice some other tips from The Art of Screen Time as well, and I really wish I’d had access to a book like this when my daughter was younger.

Throughout the book, Kamenetz uses the analogy of a healthy diet, with a nod to Michael Pollan’s famous adage, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s practically impossible and probably undesirable to raise kids who are entirely media-free in our culture, so the goal has to be raising them to make good choices. Her own adage is: Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.

 My own advice: Get Kamenetz’s book from the library or bookstore and dip into it a chapter at a time, and you’ll learn a lot and find some seriously helpful advice plus a lot of new questions you might want to explore on your own. And at the very least, check out her final five-minute summary at the end, which includes some of most practical parenting tips I’ve read in months.

For her take on other critical issues in education, follow Kamenetz’s reporting at NPR and on Twitter or Facebook, and check out her other books on her website, which is all about the future of education. In other words: our future.

Here’s a long interview that delves into many of the book’s major themes and insights:


Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial
 

Book review: From Home Education to Higher Education

From Home Education to Higher Education: A Guide for Recruiting, Assessing, and Supporting Homeschooled Applicants

by Lori Dunlap
(GHF Press, 2017)

Buy from an independent bookseller or Amazon.

 

By all accounts, homeschoolers tend to show up on campus as self-directed, self-motivated learners
who have a sense of ownership and personal responsibility for their learning and their lives.

—Lori Dunlap

Lori Dunlap’s enlightening and important new book is clearly aimed at two distinct but related audiences: (a) college admissions officers who want to better understand homeschooled applicants and (b) homeschooling families who want to be well prepared and positioned for college admissions. I would suggest that there are at least two more audiences that could benefit from reading this book: (c) families of students who have attended small, alternative (and perhaps unaccredited) private schools that do not produce conventional transcripts and (d) guidance counselors and administrators who work at those same alternative schools and want to help their decidedly nontraditional students find success in the traditional college admissions system.

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Dunlap is an education and career adviser at Teach Your Own near Portland, Oregon. She has served as a career development program director, adjunct faculty member, and admissions committee member at Arizona State University. The book is informed by her professional experience in admissions; her personal background as a homeschooling parent; her analysis of multiple scholarly studies of homeschooled and unschooled students’ outcomes as college applicants, students, and graduates; and her own research, including recent surveys she conducted of both college admissions officers and homeschooling families.


Published last summer, the book begins with a straight-talking overview of contemporary homeschooling and homeschoolers. The author explains that there are as many approaches to homeschooling as there are homeschoolers, and she describes a continuum, from highly structured (also known as “school at home”) to unstructured (best known as “unschooling”), with most practitioners falling somewhere in the middle as “eclectic” homeschoolers.

Dunlap goes on to examine and debunk the most common misconceptions about homeschoolers:

  • Homeschooled children are unsocialized.
  • Homeschoolers are religious.
  • Only wealthy families can homeschool.
  • Parents cannot teach better than licensed teachers.

She also discusses the most obvious reasons for, as well as some likely underlying causes of, the rapid growth of secular (nonreligious) homeschooling in the United States. Paramount among these is dissatisfaction with the quality (and, with the rise of high-stakes standardized testing, the quantity) of meaningful learning experiences in public schools.


One category where homeschoolers tended to outperform their [college] peers
from other schooling backgrounds was campus leadership—homeschoolers were
significantly more involved in leadership positions for longer periods of time.

—Kunzman & Gaither 2013, “Homeschooling: A Comprehensive Survey of the Research”
(quoted in Dunlap)

The book distills the findings of numerous studies that show homeschoolers to be just as successful in college “across all measures of success” as their conventionally schooled peers—and in some measures, such as leadership, even more so. This data is echoed in survey responses from admissions officers and administrators at colleges and universities small and large, public and private, including Ivy League and other highly selective schools.

These kids are the epitome of Brown students. They’ve learned to be self-directed,
they take risks, they face challenges with total fervor, and they don’t back off.

—Joyce Reed, Associate Dean, Brown University


Dunlap presents a set of “Common and Best Practices” derived from a series of interviews the author conducted with admissions professionals at a wide variety of colleges and universities in 2016. One of these recommended practices is the portfolio submission option, which is gaining in popularity for all types of students because it allows them to present a more robust picture of their abilities and accomplishments than the cold, hard numbers of test scores and GPAs.

The final chapter turns those best practices into actionable recommendations for admissions professionals. Dunlap’s suggestions include expanding admissions websites to include specific (and welcoming) instructions for homeschooled applicants, thoroughly educating admissions staff about the college’s policies and procedures for homeschoolers, designating a staff homeschool specialist, providing an online transcript template, and many more good ideas. The book’s appendices provide more details about Dunlap’s survey process and lists of helpful resources for both college admissions staff and college-bound homeschoolers and their families.

A personal note: This book couldn’t have landed on my desk at a better time for my family. As a parent of an alt-schooled senior in the thick of college applications, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to soak up Lori Dunlap’s insights. As an educational consultant, I look forward to displaying From Home Education to Higher Education prominently on my office bookshelf and recommending it to my clients.


Teri Sperry
 

Media Monday: Locals we love

Did you Buy Local for your Halloween pumpkin this year? Are you giving out local Lamme’s next week—or at least buying some for yourself? Good. Now, how about some local video and audio fun for you and your kids?

Here are two truly terrific homegrown, certified local, and maybe even organic things to try this week:
 

ARTtv is a YouTube channel that wants your kids to do just one thing: MAKE SOME ART! The channel is the brainchild of Ron Pippin, an Austinite with 25 years of experience in film and video production. The topics on this vast channel of mostly kid-made videos include mini lessons on all sorts of skills and projects, from drawing faces to writing poetry about bats to making an automaton. Plus lots and lots of great music by and for kids.
 


ARTtv is connected to Outside Voice, a creative community for kids that you can help fund through Indiegogo. You can find out more about Outside Voice on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

 

Tumble is a podcast for kids ages 8 to 12 about every aspect of SCIENCE! But honestly, I’m five times older than that target demographic, and I’m adding it to my playlist today. The hosts are partners in life and on the podcast. Lindsay Patterson and Marshall Escamilla love trivia, cool and gross stories, and dumb puns.  But mostly they love science.

In episodes that last about 15 minutes each, Lindsay and Marshall share fascinating facts about salamanders, electricity, and exploding stars.  As with most podcasts, the thing that will keep you coming back is the chemistry (!) of the hosts, who ask sharp, interesting questions of their scientist guests and do a lot of giggling. And if you end up loving it like I do, there’s also a newsletter you can subscribe to and a way to support the podcast through Patreon. Follow Tumble on Facebook and on Twitter.


Shelley Sperry

 

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (movie review)


Looking for a movie to see with your teen or tween this weekend? Our guest contributor, Antonio Buehler, says this film is worth your while. Antonio is the founder of Abrome, a K–12 school just west of Austin that offers a program of “Emancipated Learning” for students age 5 to 18.
 

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (PG) revolves around a young man named Rafe who has a wild imagination that flows through the drawings he keeps in a special notebook. He also has not had the best experiences at school, seemingly due to behavioral issues, and is on his third school since his younger brother died from leukemia. He understands that this is his last shot at public school, and the threat of being sent away to a military school looms on the horizon if he does not make it work at Hills Village Middle School (HVMS). 

His first day of school does not get off to a great start. After staying up all night drawing cartoons in his notebook, he is stopped by the principal as he is approaching the front doors of the school. Principal Dwight informs Rafe that the clothes he is wearing violates one of many school rules. While he is droning on, telling Rafe to get to know all of the rules in his rule book, Rafe’s friend Leo shows up behind the principal and mocks his every gesture. Rafe is thrilled to see Leo, who says that he was pushed out of his old school, too.

In class, the first thing Rafe experiences is laughter from his classmates when they find out what his last name is, and then a student tells him, “Welcome to hell.” Bullying is baked into the environment at HVMS through the common structures of schooling, which include age-based segregation, competitive testing and grades, and the oppression of restrictive rules and abusive adults (e.g., Principal Dwight). The social conditions within the school and society also contribute to a bullying culture. While giving a pitch for his student council campaign at a school assembly, a male student encourages people to vote for him because “my dad is super rich and my mom is smoking hot.”

While bullying contributes to the misery of schooling, so does standardized testing. At the aforementioned assembly, Principal Dwight attempts to rally the students to focus on the upcoming B.L.A.A.R. (Baseline Assessment of Academic Readiness) test. Unfortunately for Rafe, a fellow student grabs his notebook while he is drawing up a sketch that mocked Principal Dwight’s focus on the B.L.A.A.R., and this brings the assembly to a tense halt. In retaliation, Principal Dwight destroys Rafe’s notebook.

Distraught, Rafe holes himself up in his room at home. Fortunately, Leo comes to the emotional rescue and encourages Rafe to seek revenge by engaging in a campaign to undermine Principal Dwight’s oppressive rule. Leo convinces Rafe to figuratively destroy Principal Dwight’s rule book. With eight weeks left until the B.L.A.A.R., Rafe and Leo begin to plan and execute elaborate pranks that systematically violate each of Principal Dwight’s beloved rules.

As Rafe and Leo carry out prank after prank, with the outcome always seen by an amused audience of students, many older viewers will be brought back to their middle school years, wishing that they could have done something about the needless limits imposed on their freedoms, while younger viewers may find themselves imagining taking on The Man in their schools in their own ways.

Just beyond the pranks, the B.L.A.A.R. is a constant, brewing threat. Not just for the students in terms of a stressful waste of time, but even more so for Principal Dwight and Vice Principal Stricker, who are judged based on the scores of their students. Rafe recognizes how pointless the B.L.A.A.R. is and comments at one point, “I’m learning more by breaking the rules than by preparing for some dumb test.” Principal Dwight, on the other hand, is willing to expel students in an effort to boost the test scores for the school, much like many public schools have been documented pushing out poorly performing students or those with disciplinary issues.

In the course of breaking all the rules at school, Rafe falls for a social justice oriented classmate named Jeanne while trying to navigate around a bully named Miller. At home, Rafe and his little sister Georgia have a complicated relationship, likely complicated by the passing of their brother, while they both suffer through socially painful interactions with their mom’s obnoxious boyfriend, Carl. The acting is not as moving as the story, although I doubt many people can get through it without shedding some tears, particularly during a moving plot twist toward the end of the movie.

All in all, the movie does a fine job of highlighting some of the problems inherent in conventional schooling. Rafe’s homeroom teacher asks at one point, “What is this obsession with testing and categorizing kids?”—which, hopefully, plants a seed in the mind of every student and parent who sees the movie. Unfortunately, the movie does not take this question to its logical conclusion, given the reality that traditional schools will continue to test and categorize young people for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, for those who are willing to pursue an answer, there are many alternatives to conventional schooling, including progressive alternative schools, homeschooling, and unschooling.

I encourage people to go see this movie, preferably as a family, and then discuss the themes it raises.


Antonio Buehler