The Sit-In at our House

This Spring has been marked by protests and rallies across the country – youth against gun violence, teachers for education funding, and more. The spirit of such activism finally made it to our house last night – although not with the seriousness of issues in the outside world.

My husband has instituted a $20 charge for any boy who uses our main floor bathroom. The spray of pee, which they should have under control by now, is a potential embarrassment any time we have guests.

“Darn it! I want to use that bathroom!”

“I’m not the one who sprays! It’s him,” each has yelled, pointing at whichever brother stands nearby.

“Oh, for the love of God,” our oldest son yelled at one point last week before shutting the bathroom door, “take the $20!”

“What if I have to blow my nose in that bathroom,” asked our son, mid-allergy attack, “and I don’t spray my snot?”

My husband shook his head, and off the poor kid ran down to the basement bathroom.

It was his older brother who came up with the idea. “Then we’re having a sit-in, so you can’t use it either.”

He lay down in front of the door to the bathroom. His little brother brought a book.

 

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First Two Days of High School

When he started at his last school, he was four, and his three-year-old brother was in class with him – a two-year preschool.

I walked him in every day. I waited until the teacher hugged him or shook his hand or said good morning. I volunteered in the classroom with other moms – for a number of us, it was our first or only. And we have been laughing, encouraging, comparing notes ever since.

But at this new school – high school – he forges his own path. No mom. No little brother fingerpainting at the next easel. Only one known friend among 500 in his class. We both know it would look silly for me to walk him in. I don’t know his teachers, and they haven’t watched him grow up. Don’t yet know his slow-to-reveal humor and wonderful personality.

His brother asked to come yesterday when I picked him up after his first day. “It feels weird that I’ve never even seen his school.”

And when our high schooler got out of the car on the morning of Day 2, he sighed, “I feel a little sad.”

Me too, sweetie. But you get stronger, more impressive every day. You’re going to do great!

Fruits and Vegetables in their Lunchbox

Growing up around teachers, I often heard them discuss what was in their students’ lunchboxes. Poorly chosen, pre-packaged contents were the root of all kinds of social, academic, and general confidence issues.

“Well, no wonder she can’t sit still.”

“The poor thing.”

“What is his mother thinking? Do you see what he brings for lunch?!” 

So as a mother, I know I may be judged by what I put in my boys’ lunchboxes. With that in mind, I include a piece of fruit or a little bag of celery and carrots nearly every day.

And every day, they come back home in the lunchboxes untouched.

Yet I soldier on, including these healthy snacks on a daily basis, purely to demonstrate my good-mommy skills for the teachers, knowing the effort is wasted on my kids.

I will put the carrots on the table at dinner or re-send the orange slices the next day, only to eventually have to throw them out because they have gone bad.

Apparently, my children haven’t learned the art of veggie-dumping, because I hear that school cafeteria trashcans are filled with uneaten healthy foods sent in by well-meaning, approval-seeking moms like me. I also know of kids who bully and beg for tastier snacks from classmates because their moms only pack nutrient-packed foods they won’t eat. Not today. Not tomorrow. Certainly not in college when they overdose on pizza, beer and chips because they’ve been staring down big plates of kale for eighteen years.

Maybe we have become so accepting of pre-packaged Lunchables that teachers no longer notice what’s in their students’ lunchboxes. Maybe teachers no longer sit at lunch with the kids they teach. So my efforts are as wasted as the rotting fruit. Maybe, as my boys claim, a twenty-minute lunch period is not long enough to chew on a piece of celery. They start with what fills them up. No time for an orange slice.

And yet, tomorrow when I open their lunchboxes at the end of the day, there will be an apple with one bite taken out of it, an untouched bag of raw vegetables, the same six slices of an orange that went in that morning. The cafeteria trashcan will again be filled with discarded vegetables. I cannot count the number of blackened bananas I have found days later in the front pocket of a backpack.

Still, the day after that, kids everywhere – mine included – will have to move the carrots out of the way to get to the sandwich. And maybe one day they will understand that our futile persistence was one of the weird ways we showed them we care.

 

 

To Request, or Not To Request

I wrote this a few weeks ago, trying to decide whether I had any requests to make regarding teacher choice and friend-mix for my boys in the 2013-14 school year. Possibly for the first time ever, I did not make any requests… and of course, it is gnawing at me a little. 

Every spring, parents begin to worry about their child’s class placement in the fall. Which teacher will he get? Will she be with her friends? And…

…Should I make a request?

My boys’ teachers have made good decisions for them. But there is always this nagging feeling that if I don’t make a request regarding on placement, they will have a disastrous next year in school.

What if his creativity is squashed by the teacher’s discipline? What if he flounders because the classroom is too loose? What if the mean kid decides to pick on mine, because everyone else has requested that their kid be in a different class? What if they separate him from his friends? What if he gets the easier teacher and is not prepared for the year that follows?

What if he hates school because I failed to make the request?

With my oldest, who is very reserved, I want to lobby for kids in his class who make him feel comfortable and safe enough to join in. I want the teacher most likely to adore him. Even though I assume his current teacher will look out for him in this regard, I cannot stop myself from reminding her how important that was to his success this year.

With my middle child, his friends are everything. If he has boys he likes, and a few who he enjoys competing with academically, he will shine. And while he has never been demonstrative toward his teachers, he needs a teacher who thinks he’s a great kid. But he can shut down if not inspired. I worry for him next year, as I will every year.

Who knows what I will want to say to the future teachers of my youngest son. But I know I will want to say something about class placement. Like the parents of all of their classmates, I hope their teachers think carefully and care deeply for my kid before setting next year’s classes in stone.

Some parents say they never make requests. Their children have to learn to deal with diverse personalities and with adversity. “Why not start with their teachers?”

Some parents say they are saving their request for that year when they really need it, so that the school takes them seriously.

And others make a request every year. “It can’t hurt to ask.”

Since I want the best for my boys, and am constantly struggling with whether to tell their teachers my opinion, I have created some guidelines for myself:

• If you have a gut feeling about a teacher, do your research. Talk to parents whose kids have been in that class. If their feedback confirms your gut, let the current teacher know what you are excited or concerned about.

• As long as you don’t make unreasonable demands, your request or concern will be treated with respect, even if it cannot be addressed. So it cannot hurt to ask.

• If the mix of kids is what’s nagging at you, ask the teacher if there are students who push your child to do better or who inspire him to be at his best. Even if they don’t divulge names, that list will be in their minds when making placement decisions.

• If you are worried about the effect another child is having on yours either academically or socially, let the teacher know how you feel. Ask that, if she can’t separate them, then she inform next year’s teacher about your concerns and provide some guidance on how to navigate the issues. Again, your concerns will be in her mind at decision time.

• Unless there is a dramatic reason for making a placement demand – like bullying or you have already had bad experiences with next year’s teacher – do not do it. The teachers are trying to address the needs of more than 40 children. They have to make some tough decisions. Respect that.

• Do not feel guilty about advocating for your children… ever.

• If you have no requests to make, then feel good about it. You are not a bad parent. Maybe this year, for your child in this grade, you can’t go wrong.

NAEP Writing Assessment Results Trigger a Memory

I remember talking to the mother of a friend about twenty years ago. She was teaching a course to aspiring teachers in New York as part of their accreditation program. They all passed despite the grade they received in her class, and most, she said, quickly got jobs in the public school system.

In her class, not one of the high school English teachers had read Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace, let alone the works of Chaucer or Shakespeare.

Every time I read an article about our failing public schools, I think of this very sophisticated, well-educated, well-read woman standing hopelessly before that class wondering what in the world these soon-to-be teachers were going to teach their students. And then I think that most of them might still be teaching.

“They were barely literate themselves,” she said. And it stayed with me. I thought of her again last week when I read the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Writing Assessment that found only about a quarter of eighth and twelfth graders in our country writing at a proficient level. Only three percent had advanced writing skills.

Hmmm….

I thought of her again when the Chicago public school teachers went on strike, cancelling classes for more than 350,000 students, according to the September 21 edition of Time for Kids. One of the biggest issues on the table was, according to the article my son read there, how teachers are evaluated.

Hmmm….

I admit that that mother of a friend had high standards for teachers. Maybe you can be a decent teacher without having memorized Chaucer’s Prologue or being able to identify a line from the Wife of Bath. But shouldn’t our standards be high for teachers if we want to raise better-educated children who can read, write and solve math problems at a level deemed at least proficient by the NAEP?

When I read Catcher in the Rye in ninth grade, I didn’t sympathize with Holden Caufield like most ninth graders, but I cried reading A Separate Peace. And I could quote them both and understood why they were considered great literature, even if I didn’t totally agree in one case.

Chaucer in tenth was a real challenge, but Mr. Herscher, my teacher, had such a wonderful reading voice and an incredible knowledge of the text that we couldn’t help but fall in love with it. Reading Shakespeare was like discovering a new planet, and my teacher again brought it to life.

He could not have done that if he had never read the books before.

The same can be said for math. I hated math. It was hard. But my teachers loved it. They were smart. And they pushed me to keep up so that by the time I finished high school, I managed a B in Calculus. Today, in many schools, you can use a calculator during your math tests. What?! The New York Times recently published an editorial claiming that algebra should not be required because it is so hard that it is responsible for high drop-out rates. What many missed in that editorial was the fact that Toyota opened a plant in a remote area of Mississippi where the schools “are far from stellar”, yet they have successfully created a course with the community college there to teach math to incoming employees.

Hmmm….

Could it be that not enough math teachers are great at math?

Good schools have great teachers. I was fortunate to have many great ones. And I do not want to offend the hard-working, bright teachers who devote hours to their classrooms and students. But bad schools don’t have enough of them. Often when you hear about a great teacher coming to a poorly performing school, they burn out, and many say it is because they have no collegial support, no other strong teachers to bounce ideas off of or to learn from. That means our standards for who gets to teach our children are not high enough.

So what would happen if we raised the bar for teachers before expecting students’ scores to rise? What if we didn’t hire teachers in any school who did not meet higher criteria? Would we not have enough teachers? What would that tell us? And how would we, as a nation of parents and educators and politicians, respond?

I want to root for the teachers. I am grateful for mine, and those who are now teaching my children. But I am not sure all of our teachers deserve the honor of teaching our kids. And that is what we need to fix first – before we test the kids or change the school day or take away summer vacation or drop algebra from the curriculum. Test the teachers. Hold them up to a much higher standard before we hold their students up to a higher standard. And once those teachers pass the test, and prove their greatness, raise them up. Treat them like heroes. Pay them like experts in their field. Support them.

Teachers should be our kids’ heroes. Young students should aspire to read all that their teachers have read, or to figure out that impossible math problem that it seems, only their amazing teacher can solve. If their teachers haven’t read much or solved much, then how will our students?