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A very 'Big Brother' type of technology can spy on your kids at school for you. Should you use it?

I first saw the alerts one afternoon when I was working at my desk two weeks ago.

A very 'Big Brother' type of technology can spy on your kids at school for you. Should you use it?

I first saw the alerts one afternoon when I was working at my desk two weeks ago.

A series of notifications about my son popped up on my phone.


What was going on? Was he skipping school? I began to wonder if my usually responsible firstborn, a high school junior, was suddenly developing a taste for rebellion and the thrill of forbidden joyrides or something.

I am a big proponent of the golden rule in all things. So instead of jumping to conclusions, I entertained other extenuating circumstances. Because I knew he was planning on talking to his counselor about changing classes around, I figured something might have gotten jumbled in the attendance system. It turns out, that's exactly what was going on.

But imagine if I'd jumped on him when he walked in the door that afternoon, demanding to know why he wasn't in class (when he really was)? It would have created a needlessly negative situation — something many parents and kids navigating the tenuous teen years don't need any more of.

This was my first experience with CampusPortal, an iPhone app that hooks into the grading and attendance bookkeeping system by Infinite Campus that some schools use.

It's one example of how technology companies are trying to assist parents in helping their kids to juggle deadlines.

High school: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Remember the pressures of finishing big papers and passing tests, the social events, trying to get the hang of this "being a productive, well-liked person" schtick?

"If I smile at my homework, maybe it won't suck my soul right out of my still breathing body and torture it for a thousand years." Image by Amanda Mills/CDC.

It's a lot to manage even in the most positive circumstances (when kids have attuned, caring adults in their lives to help).

But "CampusPortal" can help parents be more involved by keeping them apprised of attendance and grades.

In real-time, the app sends you notifications as grades are entered for your student:

These are screenshots from my own son's school life, which he's given permission to share (that's important, parents — in the social media age, we can damage our precious two-way trust when we put our kids on blast without checking with them first).

In some ways, these updates have been helpful. It's a consistent frame of reference for how much work is on my son's plate, which helps me be mindful of how much more I'm asking him to do when I assign other tasks. And it helps me keep my eye on a part of my son's life that he would sometimes prefer to talk about in vaguenesses.

But is technology putting us in danger of micromanaging our kids to a damaging degree?

In other ways, these notifications are tempting little morsels that invite me to pore over details of my child's life that he needs the practice (and space) to manage on his own.

There's a lot of potential for annoyance here.

For instance, if I'd been a certain kind of parent (or I guess if my son had a habit of being truant) I might have looked at the series of absences and assumed my child had skipped most of the school day.

And heaven knows if I'd had someone keeping an eye on every itty bitty detail when I was between the ages of 16 and 18, it would probably have backfired pretty badly in the form of resentment and refusal to fit neatly into "authority's" little boxes.

Here's what my son says about it:

"I feel like it's a good attempt at trying to keep us from goofing off and doing stupid things, but it's too Big Brother-y; it infringes too much on our rights. Whether we've signed them off to the school or not, we should have more freedom than that. It feels creepy that no matter what, I'm just tracked by that. And if I'm marked truant for being late to a class because I was helping a teacher, then I might have to hear about it later from a parent even though nothing bad occurred. It leaves out necessary context."

I get what he's saying. You might feel pretty motivated to do a good job and be a respectable student of your own free will but then have that positivity micromanaged right out of you with an app like this.

"I like to break a mental sweat." Image by GnarlyCraig/Wikimedia Commons.

You see, intrinsic motivation is pretty important to human development, but it doesn't get talked about a lot.

There's no way to really measure it and evaluate it and win awards for making a career out of revolutionizing it because there's not a good way to systematize it.

What even is intrinsic motivation?

"Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is intrinsically rewarding. This contrasts with extrinsic motivation, which involves engaging in a behavior in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishments." — About Education

Getting to the root of intrinsic motivation is a deeply personal, case-by-case kind of thing. And only each individual can do it. A coach, parent, or mentor can help us tap into it, but ultimately it's up to us ourselves to identify it and feed that beast to keep it going. And too much of the extrinsic kind of motivation can interfere with a person ever really getting to the root of what moves them to pursue things.

Carrots are a nice after school snack and all, but maybe not the best method for having truly self-motivated humans. Image by Alan O'Rourke/Flickr.

It's important to remember this when we look at systematizing every little part of the education system. Some things, like intrinsic motivation, aren't easily "scalable." It requires one-on-one time with teachers and allowing educators and parents the time and space to really get to know what works and doesn't for each kid.

So how good is this tool, really?

"It gives me less leeway to bullshit you."

In the end, I think it's like Facebook, the Internet in general, and GPS — it's only a tool that's as good as the hands and minds that are using it. If it is being used as means of micromanagement without a deeper understanding of our kids, then yikes. But if it gets people to pay more attention to what's going in kids' lives and is being used judiciously to be a good helper to kids, then yay!

In spite of his criticisms, my son also acknowledged this app could be helpful. For instance, instead of having wrongful truancies listed on his record long-term (which would have been difficult to go back and rectify with clarity months later), I was able to get to the bottom of the attendance mixup and get it fixed immediately.

"At the same time, it gives me less leeway to bullshit you," he admitted with a sheepish chuckle. And let's be honest — we all value a little wiggle room to prioritize our own time on our own terms.

Axel had a good day today. I can see that he got a 100% on his AP literature quiz and that he's been marked present in every class. But when he walks in the door, instead of congratulating him and flexing my "I have eyes everywhere" muscle, I will use some self-restraint and let him share about his day in his own time and in his own way.

After all, that's how I'd want someone to treat me.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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