Best of Seasons 1-3

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 39 │Best of Seasons 1-3

Wednesday, April 28, 2021



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Show Notes

Best of S1-3_Tw

It’s time to rewind! Join our hosts Helen and LaWanda as they look back on highlights from the first three seasons of Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast. They discuss some of their favorite pieces of advice and share a sneak peek at our upcoming mini-series.


Episodes referenced in this compilation include:

Keep the Conversation Going

Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit for more resources from today’s episode.


Helen: Welcome to a special episode of Notes from the Backpack. Today, LaWanda and I are going to walk you through some of our favorite moments from each season of the show. LaWanda, I can’t believe we’ve produced 3 seasons already...

LaWanda: I know, Helen, it’s pretty incredible when I think about all of the different guests and experts we’ve been able to talk to. I have learned so much and I’m really excited that today we’re going to be able to share some of our favorite takeaways.

Helen: Me too, LaWanda. So, where do you want to start?

LaWanda: Well, I know my favorite part of each episode is when our guests give us practical tips that parents can act on. Neither of us have had to deal with the “tween” phase yet, but I feel like we really learned a lot about what to expect in middle school from our chat with school counselor Phyllis Fagell. Anyone can relate to her advice on friendships and belonging.

Phyllis Fagell: If as a parent, you don't like who your kids are friends with, the temptation is to just flat out tell them, you know, I don't want you to hang out with Carl because every time you're with Carl, you end up cutting class or you get sent to the principal's office, he doesn't reflect well on you, but if you do that, you're going to end up in a game of tug of war. And you really don't want to give your child who is already trying to establish autonomy, anything to rebel against. You need to be a little clever about how you approach those conversations and instead you can make observations. You can note that some other friend maybe was really thoughtful when they called, when they knew that they were out sick. You can point out that perhaps your child looks like they're trying really hard and doesn't look comfortable when they're with that particular child. But if you've put out an edict or you forbid a relationship, you're really not going to get the desired result. That is what's really challenging, because as parents, we have that perspective. We know who's a bad influence or we know who doesn't reflect well on our child. And we just want to jump in there and make their world perfect and fix it for them. And it can take such an incredibly long time for kids to realize that they're sacrificing themselves, recognizing that this is part of the challenge of middle school. This is the growth edge that they need to develop because they're friendships in middle school are shifting constantly. They might be shifting in two week intervals. The statistic that has always stuck out for me is that only one percent of a child's friends in 7th grade is still their friend in 12th grade. If you think about it that way, it'll sort itself out. It sorts itself out. And they're experimenting and they're learning through experimenting. And if we deprive them of the opportunity to learn what makes a good friend and who makes them feel good and who makes them feel bad, then we might do them a service in the short run. But in the long run, what we really want is for them to recognize what is and isn't a healthy relationship, because this will also carry over to romantic relationships much later on.

Helen: Wow. Phyllis’s guidance is pretty universally helpful. Our guests have really delivered when it comes to offering advice for parents. I also appreciated Dr. Steve Sheldon’s tips for helping your kids with math homework.

Steve Sheldon: What we need to understand is there are multiple ways to attack math problems. A situation like that actually invites a really great opportunity for parents to step back and say, "Can you teach it to me?" If your child can explain to you how they're doing math in this new way, the act of teaching to somebody else is a powerful way of learning. And so, you sort of get that, like, two for one kind of moment there. Sometimes, as a parent, we have to be okay with not always being the absolute expert on that. And if your child gets to a place where they're not sure what to do next, then I think as a parent, if we don't understand how to solve the problem in that way, we can then step forward and write the teacher a note and say, you know, "We were going over this and my child doesn't seem to understand it and I asked them to explain it to me and there was just a lot of confusion. If you could go back over this so that my child can get it." All of a sudden, homework's doing a lot of things. It's helping teach you how the math is being taught, it's helping reinforce what they're learning. It's exposing places where there's misunderstandings and it's created an opportunity for communication, parent to teacher in this case.

Helen: I thought Dr. Sheldon’s advice is so useful when it comes to homework – but also especially now that for many parents, all schoolwork is happening at home!

LaWanda: So, homework has been very interesting for us. Because, everything is in Google classroom or some platform and Caleb’s like, mom, can you check my work before I hit turn in? And, he's definitely learn things differently. Since the pandemic, he knows how to create a Google slide. He can do my presentations for work at this point.

So it's very, very, interesting how they present and they do research and he's like, mom, so-and-so did a video and embedded it in his Google slide. I want to do that. And I'm like, Oh gosh, where's your pen and paper? Can you cut it out and paste it on a poster or what happened to that? This is so much good and then it's just like, Oh my gosh, they're skipping a part. But, so we're figuring it out.

Helen: That's such an interesting thing, because part of what Dr. Sheldon was talking about was like the concept, you know are being taught. Right. So, it's like adding unlike denominators or whatever. You can go back to the teacher and say, like, I don't think my kid got that. But I'm guessing your they're not your kid has, Caleb was probably not getting a lot of direct instruction and making Google slides. So it's like, do you tell the teacher if he, if he needs help? 

LaWanda: So, the thing is that they can message them. So, they message the teacher, if they don't grasp the concept there are so many breakout rooms so that they can have one-on-one time. They, Caleb will definitely say I don't understand in a message to his teacher and she's been great, like before you go to lunch, let's have a conversation or something like that. So, I feel like in some ways they get a little bit more attention one-on-one time versus having everybody in the classroom.

So, I know that it's a give and take and a push and pull and we've all learned to be more COVID flexible, in this situation. So, Dr. Sheldon's advice was definitely helpful about being able to pivot because that's all we've been doing it pivot, pivot.

Helen: I remember when COVID hit, how much we had to pivot – in every. single. way.

LaWanda: I agree, Helen. I started recording our episodes in my closet – I’m in my closet right now – so lots of pivots. We found some great guests to help coach us and our listeners through this unique new normal. We got some really helpful advice from psychologist Dr. Earl Turner about COVID anxiety. It’s definitely a thing.

Dr. Erlanger Turner: One thing that I think is important when it comes to understanding the role of your thinking or cognitions in terms of how we function is that we know that, the way that you think has a huge impact in terms of your emotions and how you respond. And so I think in any situation, but especially under these circumstances, that it's important that you try to avoid having what we refer to as black or white thinking, where it's like all or nothing like things have to go this way. And if they don't, then everything is going to be, you know, chaos. It's that again, understanding that you can do your best and the situation to sort of navigate it, make sure that your family is safe, make sure that you're prepared. But life is not perfect and so there are going to be situations where things are not going to work out the way that you might expect them to be. 

Another thing is that you want to avoid, what we'd like to say as shoulding on yourself. Don't say things that you should do, especially during this time because again...

Helen: That’s good advice for life, yes.

Earl: Yes, things are going to happen and so if you hold yourself to these rigid expectations about, I should do this. Like, I should make sure that my child spends four hours per day on schoolwork. Well, what if they only do two and a half? What happens then? It’s not realistic to have those rigid expectations for yourself. I think that is another way to sort of keep a positive outlook about let's have a plan. This is what we're going to plan to do, you know, four hours per day. But if it doesn't, just make sure that you make some progress towards what those goals were for you and for your child.

Helen: I think COVID flexible should be like a new term in our vernacular. I liked Dr. Turner's advice about like avoiding the shouldn’ts because I feel like I've got this like internal mantra now, and they're like little words I use to remind myself of like, don't, don't get too stuck in the shoulds of like, even at work, I'll be like, well, this is the ambitious, this is the ideal, but we'll see how it goes.

LaWanda: Yeah. No, I totally agree. Do you remember the advice we got from Merve Lapus from Common Sense Media on navigating online learning during COVID (and beyond). Merve's tips about openly talking as a family about digital safety were very needed and super timely.

Merve Lapus: It is never too late to do a family reset. I mean, I think what's, what's most important is that you don't, you don't have these conversations only when things are bad. Right, I think that's the tendency is to react when things have gone South or something was done wrong. And then that makes it, so whenever you have a conversation around appropriate use of the, of the tech or the social media they're on. Or, needing them to find balance in their lives by disconnecting, so they can be better connected to you, if it's always feeling punitive, then it'll always be a punitive discussion. But if it's something that's a part of the way you communicate all the time, because technology is a part of our lives all the time now, in some shape or form, then it allows for you to have more open opportunities of conversation and discussion and even rule setting.

So, that's one thing you can change right now immediately, is don't make it moments of conversations. You make them part of your daily conversation. When we hear Alexa start talking to us and we didn't even say her name. Talking a little bit about voice recognition and AI. What do you think about that? Is that a little creepy? It's like, oh, but she gets me the laundry detergent when I need it.

Helen: I joke I'm like my daughter is going to learn how to talk to people just by ordering Alexa around. 

Merve Lapus: Well, I mean that is a big thing. It's like, if you can set precedents to say, please, if you want her to be consistent with the way she talks with people. You can't just order and say, Alexa, turn it to channel four. You're now essentially she's getting comfortable with making demands. But if you say, Alexa, can you please turn it to channel four? She'll do it either way, but you do it under your terms, right? So the technology, the AI allows you to do things, but as a parent, you can still build that morality, the integrity, the rules of how you communicate appropriately.

Helen: Well, LaWanda and listeners, I’ve very happy to report I now consistently say “please” to Alexa. 

LaWanda:   I love it. So many good conversations. I love Helen that you're able to say, please, to Alexa. I don't know if I've grasped that concept yet. Because, Alexa also doesn't listen. She will give me information that I don't need. So, I haven't been as nice and gracious, but this episode reminded me that I should, because I need to mirror that behavior for my child.

Helen: I feel like that's one of the differences when you have a toddler, cause they're like totally analyzing everything you do, and don't do. Like, the other day, I forgot to say, please, to Alexa, and she was like, mommy, you didn't say, "please". But I've been pretty consistent. But the one time I forget. After taking Merve's advice she's like on it. 

Helen: I also have also really appreciated the episodes where we tackled sensitive topics head-on, like racism. The founders of EmbraceRace, Melissa Giraud and Andrew Thomas, made a convincing argument for more parent-child dialogue around race.

Melissa Giraud: “My advice would be, to start early, start now, kids are noticing, at three months skin color and things that later, they'll understand as racial difference. We really need to, from the beginning, talk to them, even when they're not talking, expose them in your neighborhood, if you can, in their schools, when you're choosing schools, their daycare. In terms of, who are the people raising them, bring into the household, who do they have over for dinner?

All of those ways that you are exposing kids to people who are like them and who are different from them and showing that you value that. And I would say also very early, using books, for example, starting to build the vocabulary and the habit of, oh, we are not afraid to talk about difference. it is not taboo to talk about, skin color. So, even describing in your books, you know, how little baby books they have, the big faces of kids, make sure you have diverse faces and start to build the vocabulary the way you would, parts of the body, just, oh, a Brown face and a light Brown face and a White face and that hair is blonde.

So, that's how to start it with young kids. But, if you haven't started it's also not too late. The place you want to start is to ask them questions.”

Helen: I loved our Embrace Race guests, Melissa and Andrew. I felt like I was really listening to that with the lens of like, a white woman and a white parent and like, how do I raise my child? In a world that cause we recorded that not too long after a lot of the protests were going on and the Breonna Taylor case, after her murder, was happening.

And so, it was like very, I mean, it still is, but just thinking like how do, with a two year old, like where do I start? And, I feel like that was such a helpful conversation to do that.

LaWanda: I mean, even being a black person, having that conversation with your child who doesn't necessarily, see differences in that way are I haven't really expressed that. And, then you turn on the news and you see things and you want to shelter and protect. But you also want them to have a sense of reality of the world. So, it's nice to hear from Embrace Race, to talk about how to navigate in, and, if you haven't started, it's never too late, that was something that really resonated with me because, it gave me the ability to say, you know what, there are certain conversations that we're going to have to have. And if I don't have them, someone will have it with them. So, I want to be the person to kind of set that charge and set that pace. So I really liked that. And, I really liked them being able to be so honest and express themselves with us.

Helen: That's  true. It's like, it's never too early and it's never too late.

LaWanda: When we spoke to Kwame Alexander, he talked about the importance of representation in kids’ books and how families can use literature as a way to expose their kids to the world around them. 

Kwame Alexander: The books that we give our kids, they have to be as Doctor Rudine Sims Bishop says, "the books have to be mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors." And so, we gotta be able to see ourselves in the books. We gotta be able to see each other in the books and we gotta be able to see the relationship between the two of us in the books. The book's got to reflect the kind of world we claim we want for our kids. My daughter, she has a really cool best friend who she's known, she's 12 now, who she's known since she was. I remember going over to take her to a play date and I was in the little girl's room, dropping my daughter off and I looked in the girl's bookshelf and the girl, by the way was, was white and my daughter's black. And on her bookshelf out of about 40 or 50 titles, children's picture books, only one of them featured a character that looked like my daughter, just one. And, that was a book that I had written and I gave them. And so, we got to really understand that if we want our kids to be empathetic, if we want them to connect more with, children, from various backgrounds and cultures and communities, if we want our children to embrace their full humanity and embrace the full humanity of their friends and their associates and their colleagues and their lovers and the people they work with at work when they become adults? Then we've got to make sure that the books that they have as children set them up for that prepare them for that. The mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a kid. So, what kind of adult are you creating now?

LaWanda: Kwame was great, and really, I hope that our audience really takes to heart what he said about representation and that your books are reflective of the child that you want, or the adult that you want your child to become.

Helen: I loved that conversation, that question, what kind of adult are you creating now. Kwame Alexander is so inspiring – and my kid still loves Acoustic Rooster. While we’re on the topic of representation, I also learned so much hearing from Ellen Kahn and Jodie Patterson from the Human Rights Campaign about the importance of affirming our kids, and especially LGBTQ+ kids, as they develop their own identities.

Jodie Patterson: So I said, sure, however you feel is fine. If you feel like your brothers, then go ahead and act like your brothers. And, Penelope corrected me and said, no, mama, I don't feel like a boy I am a boy. And, that gap of what Penelope knew and what I did not know that was such a huge space. I didn't know what the heck Penelope was talking about. And, it took me several years, doing the research of the language and doing the research of the statistics and the doctors and the history. And then, after a certain point I just stopped researching and I simply just leaned into my kids' life. So, whatever Penelope is interested in is his interest.

So he is interested in math and science and blue jeans and basketball and being a friend, he's a great companion. And, I really stopped to try to like, understand the science of it. I still don't really fully understand the science of gender. But as a mother, what my job is, is not to really get into the science per se, but it's how do I fortify this entire team of kids and adults in my family? And that led me to the Human Rights Campaign I would say my community has widened. I'm now a part of the LGBTQIA+ community and that's, that's really where our grounding as a family, it lies within the black community. We're black, African-American and African from Ghana. And, we are also LGBTQIA+, and I hold both of those communities, close to myself.

Helen: Did Jodie Pattesron not just strike you is like the best mom on the planet. Did you just want to like sit with Jodie Patterson at dinner all the time and her family. 

LaWanda: She was great and so honest and so authentic her voice is just, it makes you really like, okay. Things are going to be okay. And you can figure things out your most important is the wellbeing of your child, whatever they decide, what they want to be. It's just, it was just so amazing and inspiring. I know I say I can listen to everyone over and over again, but I really can. I feel like each time I listened to the podcast or an episode, I'm able to pick up something different. 

Helen: Yeah. In addition to all of the advice we’ve gotten to support our children and their development, it’s exciting to learn more about the education system, so we can help families become better advocates in support of all children. I learned a lot about school funding from the Edunomics Lab’s  Dr. Marguerite Roza.

Marguerite Roza: The way schools get money is to get money from their district and the district gets money predominantly from state and local sources. The federal government's sort of a much smaller player when we talk about funding schools, it, the federal government spends maybe or contributes maybe 10% of the total in most districts. So I think a lot of times people will see a story about a federal cut and think this will obliterate my school. And that's not correct. Generally speaking, schools are funded with state and local sources.

We also hear a lot that schools are funded by zip code, and that's shorthand for saying local property values matter. But it's not technically accurate. So in some States, if your district has higher property values, you might be able to collect more money. Most states now have some state mechanism to level that out. But once the money goes to the district, the district is the one that decides how to spend it. It's not the case that if your neighborhood has lower property values, then another neighborhood inside that district that you get less money, that that has nothing to do with your neighborhood’s property values. The district's the one that decided how to allocate those funds.

LaWanda: That was so interesting. A lot of parents are surprised to learn that property values don’t determine school funding, so I’m really glad Dr. Roza was able to debunk that myth for us. It’s hard but I think the Former Secretary of Education, Dr. John King, was one of my favorite guests. He was so personable and talked candidly about his own experiences and why we need to invest in teachers and counselors to help our kids, before it’s too late.

John King: I remember when my father was really sick. I was in seventh grade at Mark Twain Junior High School and had a teacher, Miss D, for seventh grade social studies. And we had a project where we did a Aztec newscast, even though a lot of times I would sit in class, and I would worry about my father, and worry what was happening at home. In Miss D's class, when we did the Aztec newscast, my whole goal was to be the best Aztec sportscaster there I'd ever been, that made a huge difference that I was able in her class to really embrace the joy of learning. So that was hugely important. And then, of course, relationship building. And this, again, is part of how I think we need to shift how we approach discipline in many schools.

We've really got to see students’ misbehavior or students being off track as an opportunity to build relationships, to deepen relationships, to get them back on track. And I was very fortunate, especially my school counselor, after I'd been kicked out of high school and I went to a high school in New Jersey, and the school counselor really convinced me that my life wasn't over because of the bad decisions I made. She took the time to build that relationship. And unfortunately, we know that we have many schools around the country that don't have the counselors they should. There are 1.7 million kids who go to a school where there's a sworn law enforcement officer and no school counselor.

Helen: Oh wow.

John King: So we know we need more counselors, but we also know that counselors have an incredible student load; 500 students per counselor or 600 students per counselor. In that context, it's really hard to build those relationships. I was very fortunate that I had a counselor who was really able to give me the time and build the relationship to help me come to believe in myself.

Helen: I loved that conversation with John King, too, LaWanda.  He made a good case for dramatically changing the way we approach schooling. California’s state superintendent, and the founder of the Learning Policy Institute, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, spoke to this, as well, when she shared with us makes a “good” school.

Linda Darling-Hammond 9:39 – 11:19 When I go into school, and I have three kids and now I have two grandkids, so I'm looking closely all the time, I look for several things. But I look to see what's on the walls. Is there work from children on the walls, and does it represent a rich curriculum? Do you see kids writing essays and doing their science inquiries in artwork? I want to see that this is a school that's about children and their work. And that work is exciting and engaging in obviously promoting thinking and problem solving. I look to see that kids are getting equitable access to that kind of work, that there's not a tracking system in place that's giving some kids boring worksheets while other kids are getting exciting opportunities for thinking and problem solving. I look to see that there's multicultural imagery all around the school. So the kids are seeing themselves in the curriculum, and in the opportunities. Then when I get in the classroom or talk to a teacher or principal, I ask about what their learning goals are for students. I ask about what is their approach to social, emotional and academic development. Do they have a specific way that they're approaching that and how do they do it? I look to see, for example, whether the kids have come together and their own constitution for the rules that govern the classroom, where they've participated in thinking about how should we behave together to be a good community.

Because if they're doing that, that means that they're deeply understanding how to become socially responsible and how to take care of one another. And you want a school which kids are learning to be good citizens in an active way, not just being told if you do this thing wrong, we're going to do this thing to you, which really sets a very different climate and tone.

LaWanda: Helen, I’m so glad we did this episode, I mean it brought back so many memories. We’ve talked with so many brilliant people… and we have even more amazing conversations coming soon. I think our listeners will be excited about our next project, Helen.

Helen: I agree, LaWanda.  To our listeners, you’re going to want to save this date – May 12th, 2021. That is when we will release our first ever Notes from the Backpack miniseries, and these episodes are all going to be focused on supporting your child’s social, emotional, and mental wellbeing!

LaWanda: We turned to parents around the country and asked them what they want to know about the issues facing their community, including how to enhance kids’ social and emotional well-being, manage stress and anxiety, and much more. Here’s a sneak peek!

Ana Nunez: As a parent, I struggled with how much I should push my child to talk to me. Even when she was in therapy, because I knew certain things were better for, she was more comfortable talking to her therapist than she was me as a parent, obviously.

But, I still wanted to know what was going on and I kind of didn't know often, certain days, certain nights just being here at the house. If I noticed any little thing, I wanted to ask her, but I didn't want to like jump in and intrude or nag her. And I found myself consulting with the counselor, because I didn't know what was the right thing to do. Like, how much should I push her to talk to me, versus how much should I leave her sessions with her therapist, between the two of them and stay out of it. So, I would love to know from a professional, what their advice would be of, of how much does a parent push to get their child to talk, versus how much do you put your hands up and say, this is between you and your counselor?

Helen: Wow, we’re going to sit down with Dr. Doreen Marshall to get an expert’s advice on Ana’s question. Tune in on May 12 to hear the answer and to binge the rest of the mini-series!

LaWanda: As always, thanks for listening! You can find links to all of the episodes referenced in today’s compilation at and if you enjoy listening don’t forget to leave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts. Bye for now!


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.