PARCC vs. Real Learning

This morning I sent both of my boys off to the same school, but they had two very different days ahead of them. Younger was packing up his bag with quiet activities – a book to read, a notebook to scribble in – because he would be refusing his PARCC test. This is the third day in two weeks that he would have to sit for the first 90 minutes of his school day twiddling his thumbs.

Older Son, on the other hand, had his 8th grade science project presentation today. A huge day – one that has been a benchmark since his first year of middle school. He was packing his bag with reports, models, and items he had used in his experiment. He was practicing his speech and worrying that he would forget all the tests he’d done. His excitement and nervousness were palpable. I was teary and bursting with pride as I watched this handsome young man head to the bus stop.

When Older first got to middle school we went to the 8th grade science fair. Judging from that night, I thought I’d be working on this project with him for weeks. They looked so elaborate, so detailed and involved, I imagined how complicated going through this process would be. I expected nagging, tearing around town for last-minute supplies, lots of tears and drama as I painfully forced calmly helped him get it done.

The truth was completely the opposite. Older Son worked on this project with his partner for weeks. They got together after school, made their own schedule, urged me to get on board when I wasn’t paying enough attention to their needs, and generally handled everything themselves. They spent one easy afternoon doing their tests and then invited friends over to run a second round. The result was good data, an amazing looking display, and a great experience with project planning and organization.

This is real education. The kids were allowed to choose their own experiment or project based on their interests. They were given a timeline and guided on how to plan and achieve all the steps they needed to finish. They had to write a theory and use scientific method to prove or disprove it. They experimented and then evaluated their data so it could be presented in a clear and attractive way. They had unexpected results that led them to ask more questions.

The learning from the science project will remain with my son because, among other things, it taught him a valuable skill in life: think for yourself. My other son was enduring the polar opposite through his experience with the PARCC test.

As I’ve become more involved in fighting PARCC, I’ve heard horror stories from parents. Kids who were forced by teachers and administrators to take tests even after their parents refused. Kids coming home in tears after being told they didn’t have to take the tests and then being coerced them to take them after all. Kids who normally receive classroom support on a special education plan taking tests – that are completely beyond their capability – without the help of their paraprofessional. Parents being lied to about the legality of what’s happening in their childrens’ schools. Teachers whose right to free speech has been essentially revoked by corporate interests. The testing companies are counting on parents to continue not thinking for themselves.

IMG_0464My sons get a good education when their teachers are in charge of what they’re learning. I was crowing last week when Younger Son came home with a permission slip for a field trip to the symphony to see Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Sure, the kids won’t get it. They’ll spend more time jostling around in their seats than listening to the music. But maybe they’ll remember something. The form came with a flyer explaining how revolutionary the ballet was and how people almost rioted during its first performance. The conductor explained that “this is one of the most important pieces of music ever written” and how Stravinsky was a rebel. I feel like my children today are having to continue that tradition just by refusing to take a test in their school.

The tale of my two kids on this beautiful spring day was the difference between real education and corporate education. Our obsession with applying a business model to our schools strips teachers of their credibility and turns our kids into child labor for testing companies. Even in the face of everything we know about brain science, and more and more real evidence that our children need variety and spontaneity to learn, we are still quietly accepting that businesses know more about education than our teachers do. This is wrong, and it has to stop.

I urge anyone in MA to write to their house representative in support of the bills listed on this page: Mass Teachers and Parents United

3 Boys + 1/2 Day of School = More Learning than PARCC

Testing season has begun at my kids’ school, and we are suffering the burden of PARCC this year. For weeks I’ve been meeting with other parents, joining Facebook groups, trying to strategize ways to put a stop to this nonsense, and generally letting the rest of my life and responsibilities slide. But I’m not here to talk about PARCC today.

I’m here to talk about what happens when kids are allowed to explore and learn on their own. The boys had a half day of school and their favorite thing to do is walk home, stopping for pizza and candy on the way. But yesterday they had a mission. One of Older Son’s friends had a book with blueprints for “weapons of mini destruction:” blow darts, catapults, missile launchers, and the like made with household items like Q-tips, tape, and candy boxes.

The night before the half day, Older took inventory. He made a list of what we had here and what they’d need at the store. He searched on shelves and in drawers for random items and made sure he had enough cash to cover the items we didn’t. They did stop for a bite, and then they hit every store on the block for the rest of the supplies.

Mad scientist work area

Mad scientist work area

They came home and gathered all the rest of the tools they needed: twine, hole punchers, scissors, the sharpener from the knife block (I have no idea why. Probably just because it’s cool). I haven’t seen them this focused and excited in weeks. I didn’t hear a peep while they worked except for an occasional thud and then a lot of cackling laughter. The mad scientists were hard at work.

When they brought me the finished product I was truly impressed. I hadn’t thought they’d be able to come up with much, considering all the failed cereal-box projects we’ve tried in the past. These things actually worked. They were made with great care and attention to detail. I discovered the new deck of cards from Christmas had been sacrificed and at first had the mom reaction – Why would you ruin a complete deck?! – but quickly got past it when I realized how hard they’d worked. Plus they hadn’t played with the cards anyway. They couldn’t wait to show their creations to Dad when he got home from work.

When I asked the boys how the tests were going at school, I got one-word answers and exasperation about how hard the questions were. When I asked about the mission to create the blow darts, I got a lecture. “We had everything but the pens, and we didn’t think they’d have them at the auto parts store, but we were already on our way out of town so we decided to try there. And they had the roll of tape that was twice as big as at the hardware store, but it was 85 cents cheaper! The hardware store ripped me off! And I have no idea what the people at the drug store thought, these kids buying this random stuff, but nobody said anything. Did you know that when I shot this at the door, it stuck, but on the couch it didn’t? I need to figure out why. Maybe if I use a new dart.”

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I had to put pictures of the finished products up on Facebook (some parents brag about their honors kids. I brag about homemade weapons). One of my teacher friends commented, “Created new from old…synthesized, designed and applied, and can explain his process… Too bad he won’t be tested on those abilities!” She didn’t even get to see the planning, economics, trials, and analysis that went into it as well.

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That’s real learning. That’s what our kids should be doing in school, and it’s what I’m sure the teachers would much rather be doing as well. Our antiquated education system and dangerous obsession with testing have got to go. When the kids can learn more from being set loose on the town for an afternoon than they did in the previous two weeks of test prep, there is something rotten in Denmark (except Denmark doesn’t have standardized tests, and they rank significantly higher than America). In our time, in this economy, now more than ever, our children need to be creative thinkers and problem-solvers in order to carve out a decent living. Our schools must be allowed to provide them with the education they truly need.

This Ain’t the Super Bowl

On the morning of the Super Bowl I sit and reflect on my sons’ experiences in youth sports. I’ve been told that I’m not a good judge of these things, as someone who was a lousy athlete and never had the competitive gene. I’m also a mom and a teacher, so I come at games with the feeling that all kids deserve equal and fair treatment. Do you see the joke in that?

But for my family sports are a huge part of our lives. Every weekend and several nights a week are consumed by practices and games, and that’s great. Especially for many boys, sports are the one place they get to be themselves without being scolded for being too loud, too boisterous, and generally climbing the walls. On the field it’s encouraged.

Sports keep them busy, engaged, and most importantly, healthy. At my son’s last physical the doctor was shocked by the six-pack he has at his young age. Soccer. I wish that at some point in my life I’d been as fit as my boys are. I’d like to know what it feels like to have your body be that strong and responsive. Without all the work of actually exercising of course.

Overall I’m thrilled that my boys like to play and they’re pretty good at it. But as a parent I still have a hard time watching other parents behave like animals on the sidelines. Younger Son had an intensely scary indoor soccer game the other night. The parents were screeching and screaming from the opening moments, willing their kids on, and if that included being dirty in order to win, so be it. The kids responded by acting as if this was the Super Bowl, literally tackling, pushing, pulling, and slamming our guys into the walls. The coach was also screaming at his kids and hassling the ref from the start – you could see this team’s attitude came from the top down.

I watched in fear as a kid almost my size repeatedly crashed into Younger in goal. To add to my anxiety, Older Son had a collision in goal a few weeks ago and needed an x-ray to confirm he didn’t have a broken bone. I knew it would happen someday – that I’d be half-carrying one of my boys off the field, as I’ve seen so many other parents do – and praying our injuries would be the kind that heal quickly and easily.

A game like that makes me someone I don’t like. I’ve learned the hard way to be impartial at games, respect the other team, and remember the big picture: this ain’t the major leagues. But when I hear a bunch of adults calling for a bunch of kids to attack each other in an arena, gladiator-style, I start screaming just as loud as they are (but with positive comments – GOOD JOB GUYS!!! AT THE TOP OF MY LUNGS!!!). Even my husband, who is usually the amazingly calm/cool/collected and impartial-to-bad-calls coach, was screaming at the ref to blow his whistle.

I don’t understand why parents behave this way. What lesson do they want their kids to get out of this? In a meaningless game, in a winter indoor soccer league that most people see as a way to keep moving during the frigid months – why do you behave like winning this game at all costs is a matter of life and death? You know what’s a matter of life and death? Cancer.

After the game we were all shaken. Oddly, the players that were streaming out told Younger he’d done a great job in goal. Was their sportsmanship real or forced? It seemed genuine but our kids didn’t believe them, especially after the beating they’d just taken. They said it was just sarcastic, and I had a hard time myself figuring out what it meant. Is it possible to turn your decency on and off that quickly?

As we watched this spectacle my friend turned to me and said, “We should be so concerned about how they’re doing in math.” I think we aren’t because it’s not a place where we’re allowed to sit on bleachers and watch their performance. If we were, would we be there at every class, cheering the correct answers and screaming when they get one wrong? How screwed up would our kids be in that scenario. I’m actually laughing at the thought.

After the game we re-bandaged a swollen raspberry the size of a softball on Younger’s hip that he’d sustained that morning in practice. He said, “This was the worst day of soccer I’ve ever had.” I felt it too. So why do we do this?

I think more than any other place, in a different way than that math classroom, sports are teaching my kids a lot of life lessons. How to deal with people of all kinds, like those you will meet throughout your life. How to set a goal and keep at it, whether or not you succeed. How to work with others and play a role even if you don’t like it that much. How to deal with authority figures, whether you respect them or not. How to accept winning and losing with grace. How to stand up for what you need and accept the outcome.

My guys don’t care that much about the Super Bowl. Maybe that’s because I don’t. Maybe it’s because every four-hour football game broadcast has only 8 minutes of action compared to the 90-plus minutes in soccer. (Maybe I have a hard time cheering for wife-beaters, drug-abusers, and guys who literally kill people and get away with it because of money and power. Or as my husband put it, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people got as upset about inequality and corporate greed as they did about deflategate?” But that’s a different story.)

My husband remembers being rapt and excitedly watching every minute of the Super Bowl when he was young, but I haven’t felt that way since the 1987 Giants. Sure we’ll have some friends over and watch the game, but I’m most excited about having an excuse to eat crappy food. Mid-way through the second quarter, the boys will disappear with their friends upstairs and play FIFA. They won’t care that much about who wins. We’ll be back at soccer practice on Tuesday. There will be more games. There will be triumph, drama, pain, and despair, much like life. And they’ll have sensational abs.

I Know How to Get Through Winter with Six Kids

Sometimes you have to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. Or at least an embarrassment into something useful. For example:

Why is "Do You Hear the People Sing?" stuck in my head?

I often have piles of laundry this big and am ashamed to let people see them. Why? We all have laundry piles and no time to fold them. I’m not alone. Still, I usually tuck them away in a corner where I think they’re less obvious. But they’re always there.

Anyway as you can see by my groovy sectional couch (circa 1984, I kid you not) there is a perfect way for littles to climb up a seat, go over the table, and down the other side for a lovely roundy round jumping game. That is if they don’t stop in the middle and throw themselves off the table. I like to call it the “Make Amy Insane Game!”

I can stop this activity in a variety of ways:

1. Nagging
2. Physically removing them (which hurts my neck)
3. Pushing the table into the corner every day (which hurts my back)
4. Blocking them with the laundry

Ahh, the laundry blockade. The perfect solution! Sometimes you have to be creative.

And that’s what getting through winter with six kids in the house boils down to. Being VERY creative. I try to come up with projects they can all do, including the toddlers who eat stuff and the three-year-olds who want to use the beads. We sing hour-long renditions of “The Wheels on the Bus,” and man is that a wild and crazy bus (the dogs on the bus go woof woof woof. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the bus go “Cowabunga!!”). I dig through the music collection for favorite songs, games and dances, we do yoga (most of them have a pretty mean downward dog), I get out the giant box of stickers, and then there’s coloring. Lots of coloring.

Sometimes the solutions are simple. The kids love reading a book in my lap, as much of it as there it to go around with four of them vying for it when they see someone else in it. I also have two teething babies who want to eat the books. So I found a giant box of board books and just brought the whole darn thing out of storage. We have been working our way through them, several books a day, and aren’t even close to reaching the end of the pile. It’s a perfect activity – they get my attention. They are learning. And they love being in a puppy pile of kids on the couch (until somebody starts asserting dominance. Much like puppies).

We spend a lot of time cleaning up the messes they make. Because they are literally climbing the walls. We lost our chair privileges last week when Mr. W taught Mr. P how to use them to climb up and get what we want off the high shelves. So when they get bored with the toys that are available, they find their own. Watching piles of construction paper cascade off the art shelf is very entertaining. Or letting babies empty an entire box of kleenex. So fun. Evil geniuses.

But the thing is, I can’t get mad at these activities. I know this is what two-year-old boys do especially when they can’t get outside to run, jump, spin, climb, and get rid of that energy in a positive way. We just keep cleaning up. I try to explain how some things in this room belong to Amy and shouldn’t be touched. But I know logically they don’t get that. They see a challenge, they want something, they problem-solve to get it. Two.

As I process all this information and think of what’s happening in the education community today, it makes me sad. The teachers in my neighboring city of Holyoke are facing a new academic hell, something called “receivership,” which I’ve never even heard of, due to low test scores. This means that the state can make them re-apply for their jobs and force the school to get outside help (paid for by who?) even though it’s been proven not to work time and time again. (Oh and standardized tests have been proven not to work time and time again but we’re basing receivership on that. Follow the money trail, friends. Your kids are a cog in the wheel. Child labor. But that’s another story.)

I think about what would happen if some state educational representative walked into my program on an 8-degree day in January. When toys were strewn all over the floor and kids were cranky, noisy, and hard to please. I would say Yes, it looks crazy. And I’ve been doing this for fifteen years, and I know that this is what two-year-olds do. And I know how to handle it. But my voice would not be heard, because a politician and a businessman sitting in a quiet office somewhere, while other people raised their children (if they had any), decided that that’s not what kids should be doing at their age.

I’ve gone from creative laundry uses to a dark place here. I guess what I’m trying to say is, where kids are involved, some things are predictable, and some things are controllable. The rest is beyond us, and being the creative, supportive, patient, guiding adult is our job. And the voices of the professionals who do this job are the ones we should be listening to, no matter how ridiculous the solution may look to an outsider. Because believe it or not baby, I am a pro.

 

Getting Through Christmas, One Moment at a Time

I finally figured out what it is about Christmas that gets me down. I wrote last year about it not being all that great (much to the chagrin of my Christmas-loving mother) and I have the same feeling going into this season. I’m doing all the work, making all the plans, and I’m happy to do it all, but I just can’t feel joyful like I used to.

I realized that the “magic” of Christmas for me was a few years during college and after, before I had kids. Going home for Christmas, to my parents’ house, where I knew I would be cared for and lavished with gifts, and I had the warm memories of my own childhood to define what Christmas meant for me. Now my kids are in – and almost done with – those brief magical years. And mama bear is sad.

Whenever someone says “It goes by so fast” I know, and I believe them. Because already, it’s gone by so fast. It’s not my own mortality that bothers me – it’s knowing how brief and precious this time with my children is. We haven’t even properly disposed of last year’s Christmas tree. I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s still moldering away in a corner of the yard. Every time I saw it I felt the shame. I really have to take care of that. But we somehow managed to miss every day the dump was open (which, to our credit, is only like every third Saturday so can you blame us?).

A few weeks ago when I took out the box of Christmas crafts for the day care kids to play with, I found a coloring book with Younger Son’s name on the front. It was from the early, early years of child care. It contained his precious scribbles, one purple swath over several pages. And here I am after what feels like only a few seasons saying, “the early years of child care.”

Younger was born into care and with me constantly for all those years. I remember his face, his hair, his smell even. The sound of his voice, his first steps, a few silly memories and places we went. But it’s only glimpses – I have to rely on pictures and video to give me the whole remembrance of that little boy. He is still here with me today, and our bond is stronger than ever. But he is different. And he will continue to change dramatically over the next few years as we rush here and there doing all the things we need to do to help him grow.

We have so many Christmas traditions that we love to do, and those are the moments of the season that I relish (and the boys do too, for the most part). One tradition is my husband’s comment when he drags the tree in through the front door: “Didn’t we just do this like, last week?” I think the tree laying in the yard can attest to that.

Every year I make a photo album for the Grammies. It’s a nice exercise in looking over the past year and remembering all the good times. The boys like to peek over my shoulder and see the pictures, and they both agreed that their favorite memory of the year was their aunt’s wedding. The reason: because all our family was together for a long weekend. To them, the family gatherings are their favorite times. And that’s why we all do this every year.

When I start to get grumpy over too much work to do, and stressed over their feelings regarding Santa, and just cranky and exhausted from all the work to be done, I stop and think of this. The time is flying, the magic is fading, but that’s just my experience. My kids still get it. So quitting all this sentimentality and being in the moment with them is the most important thing I can do today. Happy Holidays everyone.

Knowing When to Push Your Kids

The other day Mr. O realized that his bff was getting on the rocket swing without him and he scrambled to get there before takeoff. I said, “You want a big push?” and he, with his foot stuck underneath himself, said, “I’m not ready yet.” I replied, “I won’t push you ’til you’re ready.”

I was so proud of my little life truism. I felt like Splinter to his Leonardo. Master Shifu to his Po. Avatar Roku to his Aang. For those of you who don’t watch children’s cartoons all day, I was Obi-wan to his Luke (my geek police are not pleased, I realize that).

Silliness aside, I find this is one of the daily challenges of parenting and working with children. When is the right time to push a child, and when do you hold back? It’s one of those questions that never has one simple answer, because every child is different. When you live and work with them you learn what is the right amount of expectation and support for each individual, but it’s a constant balancing act.

On a daily basis I find myself presented with a situation that begs this question. Do I push him now, or do I realize he needs help and give him that instead. Chores and consequences are one thing – you can’t go to your friend’s house until your homework is done. That’s simple enough but it’s just a basic rule, not a judgment call. When he’s had a bad day because he failed a test, do I say YOU NEED TO WORK HARDER NEXT TIME! Or do I tell him these things happen, and pledge to help him study for the next test?

Even the child who could always be pressured a little to do better has periods of regression. The kid who was a superstar last year may have had something bad happen and now he’s plummeting. It doesn’t mean he turned bad – he needs support and love more than ever, and we in our competitive culture tend to be harder on them when they most need kindness. You were great before – why can’t you be great now? Suck it up kid!

We all go through periods like this and I still find myself on that roller coaster as an adult. Usually I’m on top of my game all the time – I got the mom thing mastered and I love it. But when I have those downswings I just want someone to tell me it’s going to be ok. Doesn’t it make sense that when our children are in a dark place, we should do the same for them instead of just demanding for them to “be better”?

I can’t…how can I put this delicately? provide constructive feedback to? or sometimes even make a simple comment to my teenager without fear that he’ll sink into depression. All parents of teens know this. But when we think they’re just being emotional and crazy and want to react and write them off, we should remember how everything felt like a personal attack at that age (hormones). My husband told our son he did a good job on something and his response was a litany of things he did wrong and storming out of the room. That shirt looks good on you. How could you SAY something like that?!

So the story becomes, as we decide when to push our child, we should also be pushing ourselves as parents. We must assess what we’re doing and take an honest look at our own behavior. We have to recognize when we’re out of line or when we need to change instead of trying to force a change on our children. They are their own people and will make their own choices. We can only provide guidance, and constant reminders of what’s right and wrong of course. Back to the hero’s journey. We send them on their way and hope they find the right path.

When parents are having trouble communicating with their children I always ask them, How would you feel if your boss spoke to you that way? Or your partner? We need to be aware of our tone of voice and body language when talking to our kids – which is often lecturing, yelling, or tossing some remark at them while we rush to the next thing or stare at our phone, if we’re really honest.

It is our job to recognize when it is time to push, when it is time step back and let our kids fail a little, and definitely, most importantly, when we need to have real open communication and hear what they need. Then figure out the best way to get them that support – which might not even involve our help, but instead teaching them how to find it elsewhere.

I say it constantly, but parenting is the hardest – and most important – thing most of us will ever do. No one fully understands that until they’re in it – at 2AM after a string of sleepless nights with a baby who still won’t go to sleep and we are ready to lose our freaking mind. Or just standing there at the end of the school day with a kid in tears, trying to find the right way to help him. Steel yourselves, Masters of young heroes. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Groaning the End of Summer Blues

Last week Google told me it was the first day of fall. Shut up Google. I haven’t even turned the calendar in my kitchen from August to September yet – because if I don’t, summer’s not over. This is just my way of showing mother nature that I object. I’m usually fighting the power, but I might have to admit that there’s nothing I can do to keep fall from coming.

In the weeks before we went back to school a lot of parents were excited to get their kids out of the house. I even saw a few non-parents posting funny cartoons on Facebook, dancing chimps and frazzled moms, with comments like “I hear this is how parents feel this time of year.” They haven’t talked to me.

The grind of the school year is too much for me. I like lazy summer days with their own rhythm. I let the boys sleep in, then they get their own breakfast, watch a little tv, get bored, and hop on bikes to ride to all their friends’ houses and see what’s up. They come back hot and tired, with some goodies from the candy store, and maybe hang out with me and the day care kids in the yard for a while. In the evening it’s another ride or walk to town, a board game, kicking the soccer ball around in the yard, grilling, ice cream.

Now that school is in session I’m finding ever more creative ways to pry teenagers out of bed in the morning. Hustling them out the door against their will. They come home and there’s barely time for a snack before it’s off to practice (well that’s fun). Then the endless late nights of homework are like sticking a needle in my eye. Nobody is any good at that hour. We are barely three weeks into it and I can hardly keep up.

The sad remnants of a provider's summer: one last apple from the tree, bathing suits to be packed away for next year

The sad remnants of a provider’s summer: one last apple from the tree, bathing suits to be packed away for next year

Fall also means another year gone by. I sit here writing this in my house that will be 100 years old in eight months. The previous owner lived here for forty years and when I, the young pregnant wife bought this house from her, I thought good God, forty years. That’s a whole lifetime. Well the new housewife has been living in this house for fifteen years. She has four (blink-of-an-eye, instantaneous) summer vacations left until her baby goes away to start his own life. So yeah, I don’t want to send them back to school. I want them with me all the time.

I’ve always been fascinated with the detachment that moms of older children have – they don’t always seem to be as engaged with their kids as the moms of younger children. I see the goodbyes that parents of younger kids go through, the long hugs and kisses, secret handshakes, hanging around to be sure they’re OK before mom and dad leave. Now my guys just march themselves off to the bus while trying to avoid my hugs. So it’s self-protection to become a little detached the more our babies draw away from us. It’s not because we’re not interested – we’re naturally a bit hardened by all those goodbyes.

My big boys and I still have our own ritual, even if I’m not allowed past the hedge. They each have a saying for me and I try to keep it simple. I can’t yell, “Goodbye sweet darling light of my life I love you so much my little petunia, have a wonderful day and don’t let anything bad happen!” (Though I do toy with that every day.)

They can’t possibly know that my “Have a good day” flung out the door as they leave means so much more than its words. It means, I hope you don’t get bullied. Take care of your friends. Be smart. Behave but be cool too. Don’t stress yourself out over getting perfect grades. Think of me when you’re in a bad place because I am always thinking of you. And I’m always wondering how you’re doing, if everything’s OK, if there’s anything you’re not telling me. And what could I do if you did? It means my child, you are the most important thing in the world to me, and I will be missing you until you’re with me again. Forever and always.