Being naughty for the substitute

“Our substitute teacher showed me a way to say something isn’t equal,” Moomin told me today as he did his homework. “See?” and with vast satisfaction he wrote ≠ on his worksheet.

When I asked him how the sub was, he said she was pretty good. “Mom, I have to tell you I’ve noticed something. In books, people are a *lot naughtier* with substitute teachers than they are in real life.”

We discussed this a while. Tacks on chairs! Elaborate tricks! And when have you ever seen this happen? I haven’t. It seemed so alluring, like midnight feasts in boarding school novels. Twins also have much better adventures in books when they switch places than they do in real life. Why do some people seem to think it’s a good idea to write books that are basically training manuals to teach kids how to be extremely naughty. I wonder if Moomin will think over that idea – the question of why you would write a whole book about kids being extremely naughty? Are they training you to be BAD? He found this hilarious, and appeared to be thinking it over.

What about books where horrible things happen to kids? A friend of mine recently claimed, there are just a lot of twisted people who want to write horrible books about horrible things happening to kids? I thought of her theory tonight at bedtime, as we began reading Harry Potter and I wondered how Moomin would react to the Series of Unfortunate Events. He is maybe not quite cynical enough to enjoy them.

Milo looking at Difference Engine

Well, back to the homework. Tonight’s homework took us less than half an hour. It was a bunch of not very exciting worksheets, which surprised me since this school is supposedly all about the non-worksheet-doing, but it may be an NCLB thing and they just *have to*.

I told Moomin I would be his “speed coach”. He faced this prospect with good cheer. At first he didn’t want me to say anything; “I know, I know, I can do it, I know how to do this!” but I asked him to pause and listen first. So, first, look it over and think what is on the whole page, and give a thought to how long it might take. It looked like a 2-minute worksheet to me, with some stuff about homophones and spelling words. So I set a little kitchen timer, an egg timer with a dial that ticks, and sat across the table reading a magazine a little while watching his progress. Whenever he got all stuck, I reminded him to skip it and move on. At just about the 2-minute mark I said he was doing well but that it was clearly a 3-minute worksheet, and dialed up another minute. Hey! Done! He is quite fast. I encouraged him to cross out finished answers (quickly without precison) and skip ones if he was not quite sure; and if he made a mistake and then catches it — for example writing an i instead of an e in a word – try to remember not to erase an entire word or line, but just write the e over the i a couple of times hard with the pencil.

It’s just like the authors who teach naughtiness! I have to encourage Moomin not to be perfectionist in his work, and not to mind being a bit of a slob. Lucky Moomin — there’s no one better to teach slovenly habits than his good old mom.

The next worksheet took 2 minutes. Then we did another one. Booooring! So much better to get it done quickly if it’s going to be that boring?

We moved on to math. More worksheets. They were things like (17 + 15) – (8 + 3) = ?? The problems were all crammed together with no room to do the working out. Moomin wanted to draw lines from each set of parentheses, one from the 17 and one from the 15, pointing together in a triangle, and then the minus sign, and then the other bit… I persuaded him it would be faster and less cluttered to jot the answer to 17+15 just above it. (Even though it was horribly crammed in.) And then the other bit, and put in the minus sign to remind yourself what you’re doing. Then the answer!

That went much faster.

There were a few unboring problems. One was: Glenn has 6 more books than Bob. Bob has 4 less books than Susan. Susan has 10 books. How many books does Glenn have? He worked it out very nicely with just a hint from me. Not for the first time, I thought to myself that he will really enjoy algebra and geometry.

After homework was done I showed him a book of math puzzles, which he enjoyed until he realized I was sort of tricking him into some kind of Learning Experiment when he would rather be reading his latest Dragonology book.

I think back to the times when I worked as a tutor. I was good at getting people quickly to the point where they realized they didn’t need a tutor, but could figure things out for themselves. It was mostly about teaching ways to think, or ways to approach a problem or a task, and of course, self-confidence.

When I need tutoring, it’s more or less the same. I get stuck on some bit of debugging and begin to doubt myself, or I need help breaking a big task down into stuff I can understand. It’s good to keep my own feelings in mind as I help out another person.

Secret texting at the school talent show!

Here’s the video of the 3rd grade dance act in the school talent show! An eighth grade girl choreographed it and coached all the 3rd graders through many practices. They dance to the James Bond theme, Soulja Boy, and then What Is the Sun? by They Might Be Giants.

I giggled a lot during it because it was SO AWESOME. Especially at the bits where the kids are all sneaking around like they’re James Bond spies with finger guns.

The whole show was impressive. A crew of middle school kids organized everything and ran the show, including practices, planning, stage crew, sound and lighting, getting the auditorium, and selling tickets. I enjoyed the piano solos, the many middle school girls doing solo dance routines, the group dances, the heartfelt songs sometimes sung a bit softly & deer-in-the-headlights. My mom friend who shall remain mercifully nameless kept texting me naughtily during the show and together we invented the camera-flask, perfect for all PTA type of school events so you could video your child’s song AND discreetly take a nip of soul-restoring tequila. It went sort of like this, (heavily fictionalized)

6:35 omg need drink
6:36 where iz flask
6:37 flask camera!
6:38 aaaaaagh
6:45 not my fault i do not allow hannah montana in teh house
6:46 bwahaha sucka
6:47 KILL ME
6:48 hahaha killing would be too slow
6:50 you have to admit they are sweet
6:50 no i dont
6:51 cynicism melting halp snif

Meanwhile the little kid next to me was all like “I know breakdancing. Why do you have a wheelchair? Can you do tricks? I think breakdancing is really cool. I know that girl! I know that girl too! I know her brother! Oh I can’t believe they’re going to do this, why, why why!” (said for anything mushy & sentimental) I think for him the show needed more explosions.

I remembered how I used to watch my friends make up dances and create mildly too-sexy outfits for our middle school talent shows. I could not fathom how to keep up with their dance moves and would not even try. They danced one year to “Jukebox Hero” and the next to “Controversy” which I couldn’t believe they got away with.

The other things I gleaned from the talent show experience were fashion-related. I really really really wanted the one guitar duet kid’s outfit with its vest, buttons, baggy pants, and ska-ish tie. Oh wait I have that outfit already, it’s just that I’m not 13 or 6 feet tall, and can’t play the guitar or stand in that sort of guitar player attitude. Oh well! (Their guitar solos were smoking!!!) The other fashion insight was that the 80s have come again in mutated form in a somewhat hideous way. Of course they were all cute as bugs and YET… the mutant halter-top-vest thing, over the long tank top, please god make it stop! But, finally now I understand all the teenage girls’ outfits as described in super bad Harry Potter fanfiction. So, I felt old and detached from things that girls wear in junior high, which is probably a good sign of almost-maturity, or that other thing where I am stuck in my decade, the way certain women in the 70s and 80s were stuck in 1945.

Oh also? Kids are awesome and I get all teary eyed and sentimental at the thought of how much nerve it takes them to get up on stage and sing a rock song or play the flute or dance around with everyone watching. I thought they all were amazingly cool. As a bonus, some of them had massive amounts of performing talent, the ability to connect to the audience and belt out a song — like this girl singing a country and western song with perfect self possession, or these girls dancing:

But the performances were good no matter what the level of ability was. I thought about karaoke bars and Rock Band and how we are more willing these days, maybe, than at some points in recent history, to stand up and perform for the fun of it and as a social activity rather than as perfect experts.

*UPDATE* And now I’m listening to the Langley School Project album. Trust me… go listen to it… at least to Space Oddity and Desperado.

Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do a fandango?

Moomin’s school choir sings Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Ambitious of them!

If I didn’t totally love his choir director already, this would have done it. I’m taking suggestions for what they should put on their repertoire for next year. “Nevermind” would be just perfect.

The kids have worked incredibly hard this year. Every Monday and Friday, they got up and went to school an hour early for choir practice. I’m so impressed even with the difference since Christmas, in their timing and harmony.

Oh and… a sneak preview of next Monday’s talent show. I caught the 3rd grade at their dance practice, with an older kid as their choreographer and coach. They’re doing a dance to Soulja Boy.

Here’s the instructional video if you want to learn the dance. I can’t wait for this show!

Did someone say the R word at a school board meeting?

The rounds of meetings for the school district’s NCLB plan have been very interesting. This meeting had a fairly low bullshit level and the speakers were persuasive. Around 25 parents and teachers were there.

Some background: Last year several more schools in the district flunked under NCLB. The district as a whole is under “PI Status“. Unfortunately “PI” doesn’t mean we get to throw pies at each other or become private investigators. In September, all parents got a letter saying that we were in PI status. I had no idea what that meant. It meant that someone had to write a Plan… Meanwhile, I think before PI Status was declared, I went to a community meeting at my kid’s school where the new Superintendent spoke and impressed me a fair bit with talk about process, feedback, communication, and other fuzzy warm things.

Then a few days later we were all in PI status and were freaking out. What did it mean? At that point all it meant to me from my point of ignorance was that a 5 year countdown was started, and a scary one. And that drastic changes were probably going to happen.

(Let’s point out here I had the luxury and privilege of being ignorant about it all, because my kid was going to a “good” school, admittedly one that was recently and marginally deemed “good” or up and coming, but still; if I didn’t live in this “good” neighborhood then I would not be guaranteed a spot in this school. Parents and teachers and kids on the east side of town have been dealing with this for years now, since NCLB passed as law. My point is, I want to reject that luxury and privilege of ignorance; the philosophy that enables people like me to live in little enclaves and then do “charity”. That’s segregation and it’s inherently wrong.)

Then a lot of fighting happened on the school level and the incompetent weaselly creepy principal got replaced. I was reassured. I kept going to all the EL meetings (English Learners).

(Anglo parents were asking me questions like “What do they talk about in the EL meetings? How they can start learning English?” Ouch. How can white people be so dumb?)

THEN in early December we got a handout at several meetings that summarized the Plan. The Plan started in February (2 months away) and made what to our school looked like major, major curriculum changes as well as laying down how a large part of the day had to be spent. This jacks up the very schools that are passing and surpassing the tests and that are “working”. A week and a half went by with gossip, emails, meetings, and rumors building to a head. Teachers and parents were upset and confused. There was a meeting called quickly by the district (at our new principal’s invitation, I think) at which the Plan administrator told a roomful of parents that there was no room for feedback or change and this was the plan that was happening.

I was pissed off because after all that talk about community input and process from the Supervisor, this is what we got? No communication, no asking for feedback? I heard that other schools also had no idea this was happening or what the plan entailed.

What is at stake for the district is their own jobs. If the district fails in PI two years from now, if they haven’t implemented NCLB in good faith, then they could lose their jobs and the state takes over and replaces them.

So I felt extremely suspicious and angry, very mistrustful, as did many other parents at my kid’s school. You can see where I got cynical. I was so angry I didn’t talk about it on this blog.

Fireworks! More meetings! Massive meetings! A packed school board meeting where we all held forth with our best demogogue suits on.

The Plan scared the pants off me. To me it sounded like taking a barely adequate (for my child) program and changing it to be “cookie cutter” and making everyone study from the same page at the same time. The sticking point for me was the 90 minutes per day of on grade level uninterrupted language arts from a state-mandated textbook. With the teachers basically told what and how to teach, so that everyone in a grade gets the same thing. It was presented as being extremely inflexible.

At the meeting tonight it was spun a bit differently. The training for teachers was emphasized not as something punitive but as something that could be useful and good. (I have my suspicions because the curriculum itself doesn’t look very good.)

But the thing that came through was that the district views itself as fighting institutionalized racism. The English learners are treated as if they are several grade levels behind, when they aren’t. This new plan guarantees that they are all exposed to the grade level material, as well as getting extra EL help.

I was mollified by hearing that it would not be everyone doing the same work for 90 minutes no matter their ability. Instead, the schools can actually split the kids at grade level up however they want. There will be several levels within a level and the curriculum somehow allows for “two grade levels ahead” work. (I’m sure it’s lame, but at least it tries to be there, and the hope is that all the professional development for teachers helps them come up with ways to implement it in ways that don’t suck.)

You can see how my knee-jerk reaction was to be upset that my kid would be bored by the grade-level material, when the reality might be that many kids in his grade in the district never see anything as complex as that material. (Can it be true!? But that’s what they said.)

The Super also talked about her disagreements with NCLB and its treatment of special ed students. She said she thought that would be the first thing to change in the law when it’s revised in 2007.

The EL director talked about many things that were amazing and cool; one was that in her view the district focused on only the EL students (“still learning”) and not the Spanish speakers who were classified as proficient in English. Out of 8000 students in our district, 5200 of them speak more than one language. Their new plan tries to emphasize helping all of them keep their proficiency and develop it. (I’d like to see how, but, at least they seem to have a good philosophy.) She sparked a meeting by personally calling and inviting all the EL parents at a school to the meeting. And she outlined what they came up with (and what the EL committees) came up with for what they wanted to see happen. Their points were: parent resource libraries available locally, more tech help on a local level to help with digital divide issues and make communication better, explanations of the American and California school systems as opposed to those in Central America and Mexico; more trips with parents and kids to college and university campuses, and more cross-school committees with parent representatives.

So much for the numerous people (really!) who said that because our district has so many Spanish-speakers who are used to a different system and who don’t question authority, (so inaccurate of an assumption!) it is a waste of time to try to get their input. (I’m still appalled at this viewpoint but I have heard it time and time again. There are some reasons why white upper class women might not hear the opinionated moments of women of color, i.e. power differential; not some kind of inherent cultural meekness. Argh!)

The superintendent wants the school day extended at the schools that have shorter days. Her mantra is “I want any parent to feel comfortable and happy about sending their kid to any school in this district.” Actually, I can’t argue with that.

I really liked the substitute teacher who spoke up to talk about her perceptions as a person who went
from school to school all throughout the district. She had a lot to say. I was sighing with relief that she pointed out that if “enrichment” happens during the EL time, then the EL kids will be missing out on it and it is insane to make the genius spanish speaking kid who just got to this country miss out on the Lego robot programming class (if we had such a thing, which we don’t – much) to sit in remedial kindergarten English phonics. Hear hear.

Our school’s great dance program was mentioned as something the district wants to preserve – and to spread. Of course, we only have that great dance program because our neighborhood gentrified and then the dot com crash happened and then none of the yuppies could afford private school, and also we were radicalizing a bit online to do public on purpose and to Be Involved, and thus our PTA was able to raise 50K for a dance teacher, and on the other side of the tracks they don’t have that 50K. Instead it was a big deal for them to raise $3000 in donations of materials for their school garden. I feel horrible whenever someone points to the Fabulous Dance Program at my son’s school because all it does is emphasize the basic inequities in our school system. No – we don’t want to destroy them or to punish or stifle or drive away the creative independent-thinking teachers – Well, if we don’t then the district had better scramble fast to undo the damage done by leaving those teachers out of the information loop and the planning process.

The superintendent mentioned with a somewhat evil leer that she put the special ed autism kindergarten at Roy Clod (previously the school all the uber rich yuppies fought to get into) to level things out and to make them have to deal. (Unlike the previous district policies which were deliberately concentrating the special ed and “problem” kids at Fenry Horde. And while I’m mentioning Fenry Horde let me add that they had the best poetry in the poetry contest that I judged last year. So much for the “bad school” myth.)

This is all too long and I’ll have to make another post to go into the details.

But, I felt like a bomb thrower by using the words “institutionalized racism” at all. I also suggested that some of the education that needed to happen was education the Anglo/English speaking parents about what “institutionalized racism” means and looks like. Oooo… I said “racism” and suggested we need to have some community discussions about how it gets swept under the table.

My feelings after this meeting are that NCLB still sucks. But the district’s ideas might be good. I still want my kid in the gifted/talented school as it stands. And yet I’m conflicted, because I want all the schools to have excellent gifted/talented programs and would also like all the creative education and fun projects and depth of learning and connection NOT to be just for the g/t kids. (Who perhaps need them least.)

I feel like my brain just got hijacked by subversive maoists, unexpectedly, where I thought I was dealing with incompetent ass-covering bureaucrats. They are revolutionaries and idealists and if a bit of my privilege and my kid’s gets axed in the process, is that such a bad thing in the long run? I want my kid to grow up with peers who have good educations, and who are not discriminated against, more than I want him to program a lego robot when he is in 4th grade.