MCAS Rampage

The United States seems to be heading towards taking the decisions about American education out of the hands of American educators and instead placing that sacred trust in the welcoming arms of an industry run entirely without oversight and populated completely with for-profit companies chasing billions of dollars in business. – Todd Farley

Dear State of Massachusetts:

I just got my son’s MCAS test scores in the mail. I’m not happy. But I’m not talking about his performance, or that my town’s scores are the lowest in our area. I’m not happy that I even have to deal with this whole ball and chain.

I’m not happy that I have to stand here and look at your evaluation of the quality of my son’s education on a bar graph. I don’t want you keeping records of his scores for the past three years. I don’t want you knowing how proficient he’s been and how much he’s dropped.

I don’t want you using test scores to compare us to other schools. I don’t want you looking at these charts and deciding which school gets more money, and which doesn’t deserve it. Children can’t be quantified. Knowledge can’t be measured by numbers. But these tests have reduced our entire educational system to an attempt at doing just that.

I want my school to teach whole children. I want my kid to go to art class and gym, not “health and wellness.” I want him to have recess. Of course he scored low on data analysis. I don’t even know how to do data analysis.

I don’t want my kids to need counseling to deal with the pressure you’ve been putting on them since they were eight years old to do well on your goddamn tests.

What I do need is his lunch menu. But the school doesn’t print that out for us anymore, I’m guessing because they have no money for paper and toner. And that’s probably because they had to buy all these envelopes and pay for postage on them to send me test results that I don’t care about. Also, I don’t want the staff at my kid’s school wasting hours stuffing envelopes when they could be, oh, you know, preparing curriculum?

At open house they told us that the kids have to keep all their books in the classroom now, because last year they lost a couple and can’t replace them. They’re down to the last of the books. But when you consider that we can’t even afford teachers anymore, I guess the books and lunch menus aren’t our biggest concern.

I want you to stop handing our education budget over to the unregulated for-profit companies and give it back to the schools so my kids can have teachers and books. Please. I’m begging you.

I want you to stop making my kids’ teachers justify their jobs by somehow compelling their students to score high on your tests. The numbers on your paper don’t show a thing about what my kid’s been doing the past three years. Or what he’s dealt with. Or how he’s grown. Or what an amazing human being he is. Or what an asset he is to his classroom. Or the relationship between him and his teachers and what they give to each other.

I want you to think back to a time, not that long ago, when if a student failed it was their fault, not the teacher’s. And not everyone in the school had to be proficient in every subject, because we knew that not everyone could be. And the teacher’s job didn’t depend on it, and they didn’t have to justify their every teaching decision to a computer that’s analyzing a scanned set of bubbles and spitting out meaningless lines on charts.

When you can do that for me, we’ll be all good. But until then, we’re in a fight.

Lest You Think a Mother’s Life is Not Busy…

Younger Son had a field trip last week and I chaperoned. This was my to-do list:

  • Make sure my sub (Famous Carol) can come for day care
  • Alert parents that Famous Carol is coming and they need to pick up at 4:00
  • Send in check for Younger’s cost to school
  • Make sure permission slip was signed and returned
  • Send in $2 for his “I belong with this class” bright blue t-shirt
  • Find out that chaperones need to pay and send another check
  • Send another $2 for MY bright blue (“I belong with this class and am not a kidnapper”) t-shirt
  • Ask Michelle to pick up Older after school
  • Make sure Older knows he’s going with Michelle
  • Write dismissal email to Older’s homeroom teacher
  • Note for Older to remember to go home with Michelle and not on bus
  • Have talk with Older to figure out what will happen if he does go home on bus
  • Write down Michelle’s phone number for Older in case he goes home on bus
  • Reassure Older that he will remember to go home with Michelle and not to worry
  • Email Famous Carol to be sure she’s coming and tell her what’s going on with the kids this week
  • Send parents reminder email and write early closing time on whiteboard
  • Write “Bag lunch” on the menu for that day so Dad won’t make normal lunch
  • Take a picture of the TV remote and upload it to computer, print it out and write instructions for Famous Carol
  • Find my small travel backpack (throw out first one I found because it’s disintegrating)
  • Charge two iPods since they’re allowed to bring them for entertainment
  • Gather Younger’s book, headphones, charged iPods, and journal to go in his backpack
  • Find a better journal because the first one is too small
  • Pack my own bag with sunblock, magazine, snack for four kids, bandaids, tissues, itinerary, etc.
  • Go over the checklist sent from the school to make sure I didn’t forget anything (but I’m plagued with the feeling that I did)

Now for the morning of the trip:

  • Pack the bag lunches and Younger’s snack
  • Change whiteboard message for parents to pickup early today
  • Set up the cribs
  • Get pile of VCR tapes
  • Leave check and instructions for Famous Carol
  • Leave the tv set to VCR
  • Vaccuum under the snack table because I forgot to last night
  • Greet kids arriving at normal time
  • Review TV use with Carol
  • Make sure Younger’s ready (which he is, because he’s awesome)
  • Go on field trip!!!

Older’s field trip is next week.


So How’d You Spend Your Saturday Morning, Part 2

I am sitting in my kitchen with the doors closed, music on, trying to drown out the screaming of my Older Son.

*Possibly the best line I’ve ever written on my blog.*

He’s losing his mind over Mario Super Sluggers and screaming so loud that even Younger Son said, “He needs to take a break.”

He did the same thing last night and we eventually left him to go upstairs and read Harry Potter (yes, thank you Lord, my son is finally reading the books after owning them for three years, because the endless unanswered questions left by the movies drove him to it).

Anyway it’s such a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning. I had to give Older credit because he was up an hour before me and didn’t make a peep so that I could sleep in. Holding that in must have been hard but he did it for his dear old Mum. And for that I have to hold in my urge to tell him to “KNOCK IT OFF!!!!”

I thought we were finally past this phase. He used to do the exact same thing when he was younger, venting his frustration at seemingly impossible video games. Then he finally grew out of it and it was like a cloud lifted.

But now he’s back to it and I think I’ve figured out why: hormones. He’s getting flashes of pre-teen angst, snide comments here and there, running up to his room and hiding. ANYTHING my husband says to him is taken as a personal attack.

Dad: You made a great save.

I knew all of this was coming and I’m not surprised or upset. I’m really quite sympathetic (well he’s my kid, of course I’m on his side). I think part of why I work well with children is because I remember quite vividly what it feels like to grow up. Not the exact details or events, but the VERY BIG FEELINGS that made everything seem like your life was about to end dramatically.

I look at the challenges he’s facing and they’re pretty big for an 11-year-old boy. His team gets crushed every Saturday and Sunday. He’s dealing with a whole new set of fears that have just appeared after a long time of feeling overly confident about the world and his capabilities to handle it. He has a huge burden of homework, some of which he doesn’t understand and no one can seem to explain to him. He wants to feel capable and strong, not confused and emasculated.

Of course none of this compares to my Polish neighbor, who was in a German POW camp at age 11, so we do try to keep it in perspective.

But still, the pain of the screaming. I have a hard time relating to Older’s outbursts because well, first of all the sound makes me want to do horrible things to him. But it’s also not how I handle anger. I hold it all in until I lose it and have to go in the basement and punch the heck out of Nubs. Older vocalizes his pain.

But then I remember, I learned this technique when I was in labor and it really worked. Someone (probably my pregnancy yoga teacher) told me it’s the worst pain of your life, you’re allowed to yell. But do it in a growling way to release it instead of shrieking like a banshee. And it actually did work.

Nowadays if I stub my toe (or slice my hand with a knife, which I did last week while cutting the cantaloupe and yelling at a day care kid to stop hitting someone), the rumble comes up from my gut and actually eases the pain, or at least takes my mind off it.

So I have to accept for a while that this is Older’s outlet. I know it will pass because it has before (and then God knows what he’ll use to soothe the pain).

It seems that my banshee finally won the level so he’s calm for the moment. But I know he’ll be back.

When a Crying Baby Makes You So Angry You Might Hurt Them

A reader sent in one of the most heartfelt and brutally honest comments I’ve had, and I needed to respond right away.

One of the most popular posts on this blog has always been Don’t Feel Bad When Your Crying Baby Makes You Crazy. This is clearly a universal problem: people really do struggle when a baby is crying.

The reader, a man, said how much he loves his one-year-old daughter and that she rarely cries, but when she does, he gets so angry that he has to leave the room and punch furniture. He is afraid that he will scare and possibly hurt her with his anger.

First I want to reassure him that he’s doing the right thing. Go away, get rid of your anger, and come back when you can deal with the child. It’s far more upsetting for them to see you lose it in front of them or, clearly, to take your anger out on them. Your anger makes the moment more intense. The goal is to remain calm, and therefore calm the baby.

This is the hardest challenge of parenting – this is where you really have to dig deep, and I’m not just being facetious. You have to grow and change, which is really hard. You have to push yourself to find a place where you can be calm even when all hell is breaking loose around you.

If you lose control of your anger you can very easily hurt a little one, and it is terrifying for parents to think they have this capacity. Because no one talks about anger when it comes to little ones. We see the rosy pictures and the quiet moments and the joy joy joy we’re supposed to be feeling, when really we’re exhausted, emotional, scared, and sometimes just can’t handle the drastic (and irreversible) life changes we’ve just been through. Babies open up a whole new world we can’t possibly understand until we’re there, at 3AM with a screaming child, and we’ve got a major presentation at 9:00.

First let’s try to explain why all of this is happening. We get so noticeably upset by our baby’s cry because it is designed by nature to get your blood pumping – to get you to respond to its distress. It’s a survival instinct that we’re both physically wired for and there’s nothing we can do to change it.

But I also think that today we have immense pressure to never let our babies cry. All the gurus tell us to do everything we can to soothe our baby and stop the crying right away. But sometimes you simply can’t. And as the reader described, he then feels guilty because he can’t stop her crying and because his own emotional reaction feels out of control. Then the whole situation escalates quickly.

Sometimes being forced to stop crying is not the best thing for a child. Babies feel stress too, and they need a way to let it out. When we run in and force them to calm down we’re saying don’t cry – it’s not good for you. That emotion you have is bad and we need to stop it. A baby feels what they feel, they can’t analyze it.

Put her in a safe place and walk away. You both need a timeout, and that’s OK (and sometimes the safest thing to do). In fact I will often tell my day care kids, “Amy needs a timeout!” and run and hide in the kitchen. We can only take care of our kids if we take care of ourselves first. (This rule applies forever, at any age, in all situations.)

A little bit of crying has never hurt or permanently scarred a baby. It lets them deal with their own big emotions and learn how to self-soothe. There are times in life when Mom and Dad simply don’t know how to stop the pain. We can’t always fix everything, and it’s OK for a child to feel sad. Crying is a release.

Let’s face it, we are not a culture that deals well with ugly emotions. We don’t know what to do with our anger so we bottle it up until it explodes at the wrong time. It scares us, and that’s a healthy thing, but that also leads us to hide it away. When we’re sad we try everything to stop the crying, to hold that feeling in, rather than letting it out. Sometimes your body just can’t do that, even though we try to put our societal norms on it and say we’re too civilized for this ugliness. It’s not true. We need to be able to face it and then let it go, and teach our kids how to do that as well.

Therefore, I would like to introduce you to my friend Nubs. The boys named him that because he doesn’t have arms (or maybe something dirty but I chose not to delve any further). When we got him I thought it would be a hoot – but basically a joke – that I would be able to take my anger out on him. One day I half-heartedly punched his face. In a few minutes my hands hurt so badly that I had to go back to the store and get sparring gloves. When I’m not punching Nubs, I pat him on the head and thank him for taking my abuse, because honestly, there are some days when he saves our lives.

One of the most important things I do with my day care kids is teaching them how to deal with anger. There are many books out there on the topic, and one of their favorites is If You’re Angry and You Know It. I developed a song chart they can pick from and we sing, “If you’re angry and you know it growl it out!” Grrrrrrr, with lots of roars and gritted teeth from the crowd.

The reader asks if he should seek professional help and I would say I don’t think you’re at that point right now. The baby’s cries will get less intense as she gets older (and in case they don’t, remember that the best thing you can do with a tantrum is WALK AWAY – ignore it and don’t feed it, whatever you do).

But I’m glad that you realize that if it doesn’t get better, and you find yourself raging at your child, that you will need to ask for help. You are on the right track, and you’ve tapped into something very strong – the way our kids can push our buttons until we rage. As they grow it might not be crying, but other very sneaky ways they know to get us going.

It’s OK to show our kids that we’re angry. It’s an honest emotion and sometimes they push us to it. They have a part in the dance and need to learn why misbehaving is wrong. It’s part of growing up, and parents teaching their kids right from wrong.

Still I had the hardest time with this because of those messages – life is beautiful, never ugly, our children are precious, never let anything scar or hurt them, and NEVER tell them “No.” My son was a wild three-year-old and I battled him. One day I screamed so loud that it scared even me. I called my friend Pam and cried. I told her I don’t know what I’m doing but I know it’s wrong. I’m afraid I hurt my child.

She said, “Amy, what is he doing right now?” I looked out the window and said, “He’s running up and down the driveway with his Power Rangers cape on.” Pam asked, “Did you crush his spirit?” I had to admit that I didn’t. And what a relief that was. And accept the knowledge that our kids are far more resilient than we give them credit for. I waited until I collected myself and went and gave him a big hug. But I remembered that the next time he was getting me upset, I would let him know before I became a screaming monster.

I’m not much of a yeller now. I’m direct and honest, and address issues before they get out of control. I’m firm but loving. It’s been the hardest process of my life to learn how to handle my emotions, and the kids, and their emotions, in a healthy and productive way.

There is a quote that comes to mind every time I feel my anger rising at my kids. When I remember that they are the most precious and important thing in my life, and that I am the God of their world. That my response is literally going to shape their lives and teach them the emotional strength for how to get through the toughest times:

“Your defining act of love for your child will not be the 2:00 AM feedings, the sleepless, fretful night spent beside him in the hospital, or the second job you took to pay for college. Your zenith will occur in the face of a withering blast of frightening rage from your child, in allowing no rage from yourself in response. Your finest moment may well be your darkest. And you will be a parent.” (Michael J. Bradley)

It’s All Downhill From Here

Today was just hard. I jinxed myself. The boys were counting the days to Easter and I said “It’s Wednesday – hump day. Once you get over the hump it’s all downhill from there.”

I didn’t think about just how big the hump would be.

I woke up with a splitting headache – never a good way to start. The morning was so busy that I didn’t get the chance to down some ibuprofen until 10:00, and by then the tone had been set.

One girl followed me around all morning saying my name every 15 seconds, and if I didn’t answer she just increased her volume until she was yelling, almost demanding that I acknowledge her.

The big boy was mad that I wouldn’t let him go on the toddler swing so he started slamming it into the girls who were riding the big kid swings on either side of him.

The toddler is obsessed with the infant and every time I put him down she lays on him. If I pick him up, she follows me around saying “Carry! Carry!”

The baby threw up all over my shoulder while we were outside, so I couldn’t change my shirt (or answer the phone when my sister called because – how do you put the phone on your shoulder when it’s covered in puke?).

At one point three kids were screaming in the driveway because they all wanted THE DARK BLUE CHALK!!!!!

At lunch time I brought the bowls and drinks out before the mac & cheese was done, and started setting up the beds for nap time. When I came back in the girls were standing on chairs, scaling the toy shelf to reach the bowls they wanted. (I should point out that they know they are not supposed to climb on chairs. OR on the toy shelf. And that they fight over the bowls, and the spoons, and what chair they’re going to sit on, and who they sit next to, and where the chair should be located. Every day.)

I scolded them for climbing (which made one girl cry – oh great, now I’m making them cry), got them to sit down and served the food. The baby woke up and needed a bottle. I knew I put it somewhere….oh yes the toddler saw it and made off with it. While I went in quest of the bottle the kids were taking a bite of their food and then strolling around the house. Which they also are not allowed to do. I rubbed my aching head and could feel the vein pulsing in my temple.

Now as I sit here during quiet time with a perfect baby face in my lap cooing at me, I don’t remember why I was so mad. I am melted by the happy noise he makes when he sees me walk in the room. I’m consciously soaking up some baby-love and taking a few deep breaths, because I know I’m girding up for the rest of the afternoon.

And the girls are throwing toys in the NAP room, and I’m trapped under the sleeping baby. Thank goodness there are only 3.5 hours left to this hump.

**Addendum so you know I’m not a terrible person: yes, the moon was indeed almost full last night, as many people suspected. But today I woke up sick as a dog. That would explain it.**