Category Archives: school

Neither fish nor fowl


Mabel by a butterfly bush

Wearing my hat, hunting butterflies.

It’s September, but it’s not autumn yet. One child is back at school, the other is still watching Sesame Street in his pyjamas at 10am.

The air is full of the noise of cicadas and crickets and other late-summer sounds that happen in hot countries. I forget that they’re exotic – the sound of summer holidays in France, and wearing a t-shirt and shorts in the dark. We encounter crickets on the basement steps and by the side door, eager to come in and spend some quality time with us any time the rain starts. They’re hard to live with, though, noisy little feckers. We keep a plastic glass and a postcard on the sideboard for regular eviction purposes.

Homework has started, but evenings playing outside aren’t over with yet. It’s hard to drag just one away, or to make them sit down and concentrate as soon as they get home. We stop at the playground on the way back from school and by the time we get home it’s already time to start on dinner.

It’s so hard to settle down. It’s so hard to go to bed. It’s so hard to get to sleep. It’s so hard to snap into routine when one child is still stuck in summer and the other is halfway to Christmas.

Let’s move on.

Mabel holding a large brown praying mantis.

A praying mantis. Mabel is a fan of bugs, big and small.

Dash update – what next?

So as not to bury the lede: Dash is going to a new school next year.

Some time after Christmas I bumped into someone who asked me how he was doing and told me about a great school her daughters go to. It’s specifically for bright kids who have reading difficulties, or similar — just like Dash. I looked it up online, and on a whim I decided to go along to an open house one morning and see what they had to say. Mostly, I thought I might get some guidance, maybe a few names of tutors in my area or ideas about what we should do next.

At the open house, they showed us a video of interviews with students — and oh, the pathos — these sweet, bright, super-articulate children told the camera about how they’d felt stupid, they’d cried over homework, they’d hated school; and now it’s all turned around. As an ad for the school, I have to admit it worked like a charm. I don’t think Dash feels stupid, or hates school; but it may be only a matter of time before that starts to happen, and I’d really rather it didn’t. He’s certainly only getting the great grades he gets thanks to his unlimited time to finish things accommodations, and his school is not able to provide any sort of remediation that’s helping his reading get better. (It’s not their fault. They don’t know what to do with him. And they have a lot of kids to help – kids with bigger problems, who shout louder (literally) and cause more trouble.)

So I applied for this other school, since its application deadline for the year was just coming up. I thought, what the heck, if he gets offered a place, then maybe it’s meant to be. The other element, of course, was the financial one, because private schools like this are not cheap. We’d need to qualify for financial aid as well.

Fourth grade is their intake year, so he had a better chance of getting a place this year than any other, with a whole class (of 10) to fill. Also, not to blow my own trumpet, but I’m pretty good at filling in forms where I get to describe my children. Then they called us up and said that they’d like to invite him in for two days of school, to shadow a student and do some testing and generally see the lie of the land, to see if he was a good fit for them, and them for him.

I hadn’t planned on telling him about it at this early stage, when it was such an uncertain thing, but obviously he couldn’t spend two days there without knowing what it was about, so I did. He really rose to the occasion. I couldn’t have been prouder of him: he took the information on board and went along with a twinge of nerves but an optimistic outlook. I brought him in and dropped him off, and by the time I picked him up at the end of the school day he had made some friends, the teachers knew him by name, and he had had a great time. I think they liked him, too. The second day, he was happy to jump out of the car and head on in.

Since then, he’s been really sanguine about the not-knowing that was driving us crazy. He’d be happy to go there, but he’d also be happy to stay where he is. For all his rigidity in some ways – food, for instance – he’s amazingly flexible when it comes to the bigger picture, and he has a great ability to go with the flow.

He was offered a place, but we still didn’t know about the financial side of things. My laid-back “what will be, will be” attitude was taking a bit of a beating. The more I thought about it, the more I felt we owed it to him to make this happen, no matter how happy he is at the local school and how easy it makes our life to have two kids leaving the house at 8:45 every morning and sauntering up the road to school.

Yesterday we got word that it’s happening. He’s going to the other school. Come September I will be complaining about traffic and early mornings and trying to bilocate (or call in favours) in order to be in two places at the same time for school pickup – but Dash will be somewhere that’s exactly right for him, with teachers who know how reading works and who see how his brain works and who show him tools to get around learning when reading is extra hard, and with friends who have similar challenges. Even if we can only swing it for one year, it’s going to be a good thing.

Dash is excited about having a locker, like in the Arthur cartoons. He’s disappointed he won’t get to play the trombone in fourth grade, which he’d just signed up for (but who knows, maybe the new school has trombones too). Mabel is annoyed that she won’t be able to wave to him in passing in the hallways any more.

I’m relieved. I think this is called doing your best for your children, and if I have to get up early and hit the beltway morning traffic to do it – sure, we’ll give it a go.

Why learning to read is not like training for a 5K

I’m not training for a 5k. But I have done, once, and my husband has trained for more marathons than you can shake a stick at, so I feel confident enough to say this. When you train for a race, you start out small. You run a short distance. The next day, you run a bit further. You build up your stamina, you strengthen your muscles and you enlarge your lung capacity by adding a little more every time until – hey presto! – with determination and persistence and hard work, you can run as far as you want to. Hooray!

Learning to read doesn’t work that way.

My daughter started kindergarten this year knowing the letters and most of the sounds they stood for. She could sound out simple words. But she couldn’t read yet. Somewhere along the way, and with help from a great teacher, things clicked. Now she looks at words on a page and knows what they are, without having to think about letters and sounds and how they all fit together.

There was a point for her when that leap from decoding to knowing just happened. It’s the leap that didn’t happen for her brother, the third-grader, the one with dyslexia. He still has to decode every word. That’s what takes so long.

So my kindergartener is testing above grade level for reading. Like, way above. “But,” her teacher said to me, “I’m worried about her fluency. It’s not there. Is she reading for 20 minutes a night?”

“No,” I said. “I read to her for at least 20 minutes a night.” She reads a few lines, or a few minutes, or whatever she feels like. She’s reading all the time – I see her eyes lighting on words she knows as I read a book that’s way above her own level. I see her reading signs and lists and packages and posters. She’s reading.

“Well,” said her teacher, who is a great teacher, who knows exactly how to get the kids reading, “she needs to start reading by herself for longer. Start her at five minutes and move up to ten and then fifteen. When she’s in third grade she’ll be taking the PARCC tests, you know. They have to read for 90 minutes at a time.”

This is where the running comes in. That’s how you train for a 5K, but it’s not how a child learns to read. That’s like saying that your three year old needs to attend an academic preschool where he sits at a desk and learns his numbers and letters for a good portion of the day, because he’ll need to do that when he’s five. So he’s got to start practicing now.

No, he doesn’t. Your three year old needs to be running and jumping and feeling different textures and finding out what fits together and what goes inside what and looking and listening and smelling and tasting. He does all that to prepare his body and to connect the dots in his brain so that WHEN he’s five – or six or seven – he’ll be able to sit still for a while and learn in a classroom setting, given a sympathetic teacher and material that interests him.

My six and a half year old may be able to read and understand a lot of words, but that doesn’t mean I can hand her my seven volumes of Harry Potter (UK edition) and expect her to immerse herself for the afternoon. She loves Harry Potter, but she’s not ready to read it yet. And I’m unwilling to sit her down with a book and a timer and make her read a little longer every day, because that’s not how it works.

Some day when I’m not watching, she’ll pick up a book and get comfy and find that an hour later she hasn’t moved because she’s been reeled into another world, where James flies a giant peach or Hermione saves a hippogryff or Anne accidentally dyes her hair green. It will happen with a leap, the way your toddler went from having ten words to fifty in a week, or the way one day your preschooler could whistle (and didn’t stop demonstrating for a month). It will happen when you’re not paying attention.

Absent dyslexia, it will happen.

Testing, testing: A School Rant

At Tuesday night’s PTA meeting they were talking about the testing again. The more I hear about these tests, the more I dislike them*. They’re going to be taken online, which means each kid needs to use a computer, or an ipad or a Chromebook – they have all three in the school, which is great. The sticking point right now is earphones, because small headsets that fit kids best also tend to be delicate and easily broken. And because there were budget cuts (and a hiring freeze – yay!) there’s no money for new headsets. Luckily, it’s PTA-to-the-rescue time and we can buy them new headsets.

But the fact that testing is online really worries me. And not just because Dash isn’t the best on computers – it takes him forever to find the letters on the keyboard, and navigating the screen is tricky – I think because it’s not as linear as he might expect, so things that make GUIs intuitive for the rest of us don’t seem to work so well for him. So it adds an extra layer of challenge to testing that he will already need extra time for.

Apart from that, though. Making the testing computer-based is really upping the ante between the haves and the have-nots, I think. This is public school: the idea should be that everyone is, as much as they can be, on an equal footing. But no matter how many computers the school has and makes available for the kids to practice on, the clear advantage will be with those who can get online at home and try it out more often. Sure, there are free computers at the library, but don’t try telling me that’s the same as having access to one in your kitchen.

When I pointed this out, my friends said “Well, never mind because the scores don’t really mean anything for the kids anyway.” The scores are for judging the teachers and the schools, not for the judging the individual kids. But you can’t tell your child that the test doesn’t matter when everything he’s being told at school indicates otherwise. I can barely even get my head around that myself; it’s a test, we all want to do well on tests. That’s the premise they’re based on.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the children are there for the sake of the school, and not the other way around. The children serve as a barometer to show how the teachers are doing, and ultimately how the school is doing. But the children themselves, whether each individual child learns, how they learn, and whether he or she is miserable or happy for six hours a day five days a week – the county administrators seem to have forgotten all about that.

I’m not sure how we’re supposed to remind them.


* These are statewide tests in English and Math for 3rd to 5th graders (and every grade thereafter in other schools). As Maryland is participating in the new Common Core curriculum, our school has no choice but to take these tests.

The pressure

I had a post about the educational system but then I realised it was only tipping the edge of the real point I wanted to make. So I’m just going to try to tease that out here. Pull up a chair.

I was at the PTA meeting last week, as I have to be because I’m the secretary so I take the notes, typing very fast because our president moves along at a fair clip. And parents were expressing concern about the testing that elementary schoolers (grades 3-5) now have to take, and the new Common Core curriculum, which is not universally understood/adored, and I was wondering if I’m a very bad parent for not finding it as concerning as they did. I mean, it’s not like I understand it better. I haven’t even looked into it. I’m just trusting the system, gullible little fatalistic me.

I suppose I figure that somebody somewhere has employed a lot of experts to work this out, and they are probably a lot more qualified than I am. They are also working within the bounds of constraints I know nothing of. It’s not perfect, but then there are a lot of things about America that are mysterious to me, from gun laws to the disappointing absence of potato waffles, so I just roll with it.

But here’s the thing, and it’s a different thing. There were a lot of resources my national (public) school in 1980s Ireland lacked that my kids’ public school in today’s Maryland has – dedicated music and art teachers, a school counsellor, a computer room, a Russian teacher, just for shits and giggles – but here’s something else it had none of: pressure.

I don’t think it’s an Ireland/USA thing so much as a then/now thing, but it’s a change I’m sad about. Nobody seems to say “It’s elementary school: let’s just show them the basics and let them absorb it all at their own rates and they’ll all shake out when they’re older.” I don’t know what they said back then, but I don’t think they thought too much about it. School kept us off the streets, basically; we learned to read and write and memorize our times tables and fractions and very little else that has stuck with me. My crazy fifth-class teacher was always having us do projects close to her heart, like making paper bags out of newspaper to learn what life was like for children of the Philippine slums, and I’m pretty sure that particular two-day event wasn’t on anyone’s curriculum, but there was ample time for it and we were none the worse off.

Nobody talked about our futures, or going to college, or how to knuckle down and study so that you got better grades – certainly not till 6th class, at least. Grades seemed mostly awarded at the teacher’s whim, anyway – if you were well-behaved, as far as I could tell, your report was likely to feature As and Bs. And it didn’t matter. Nothing was riding on it. No school funding, nobody’s job, nobody’s annual review (probably; okay, I have no idea; but I doubt they had such things in those days), certainly not any child’s future.

I want to shield my kids from that, from The Pressure, for as long as I can. But in second grade they start with proper A, B, C grades and honor roll assemblies, sifting the wheat from the chaff (actually, it’s mostly wheat in this case; they set it up that way, which makes it all the worse for the poor left-behind chaffs), and they’ve already mentioned university to the Kindergarteners. The word hothousing comes to mind. And I don’t think it’s going to help anyone if they end up saying they peaked academically in second grade, y’know?

I get it. I know the school wants university to be on the kids’ radars. They want all the students to know that’s what they should be aiming for, and that with application and good study habits, they can get there. (Might be true. Might not.) But jeez. They’re five. And six and seven and eight. Lay off with the pressure for a few more years. Please.

Do you reckon it’s an America thing or a 2014 thing? Or something else?

Next steps

We had the IEP meeting at the school on Thursday. (If you need catching up, here’s the background.)

The real reason I like being on the PTA board and taking an active part in the school is not so that the staff will say, on occassions like this, “Oh, Dash’s parents are pillars of the local community; we’d better do right by him.” It’s because when I end up in a meeting like this, I’m familiar with at least some of the faces around the table, so I’m less intimidated and more comfortable.

So we were there, Dash’s parents; and the school counselor and the school psychologist and the special ed teacher and two more special ed teachers and the principal and Dash’s classroom teacher. Everyone had read the report but only three of them knew Dash at all. I tried to describe how Dash reads, and at everything I said his classroom teacher was nodding and doing the finger-to-nose-point-at-the-person-who-gets-the-right-answer thing. So we were all on the same page as far as that went.

I suppose what I was hoping for was that they would say “Ah yes. In these cases, we do A and B and C and then they progress wonderfully,” but of course they didn’t. Dash’s case is not so typical – most kids with reading difficulties need extra help with decoding, but his decoding is fine; he needs work on fluency and automatization, which is not so clearcut because it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why he lacks these things.

But they will pull him out every day to work on that with a specialist, and continue to give him the accommodations he currently has under his 504 plan (based on his vision assessment last year) to do with sitting at the front of the class and getting a printout where necessary to minimize having to look from the board to a page and back. He’ll still get extra time when needed and will also have shortened assignments if that makes sense rather than the extra time, which can eat up so much of the rest of his school day. The counsellor will check in with him regularly to see how he’s feeling about it all.

He won’t get an IEP, because you have to be performing below grade level to get one, and he’s not. But the 504 will do what we need, for now, and it’s easier to administer too, so I think it’s okay that we have that and I don’t feel the need to fight for anything more at this time. He might qualify as TAG (Talented and Gifted), but that’s decided mostly at county level and won’t happen for a while yet. The school will submit his private evaluation at that time and they’ll take his scores into account along with everything else. If he’s TAG as well as LD, then it would make him 2E or “twice exceptional,” which sounds so very elitist that I don’t even like to say it, but I suppose it serves a purpose in identifying people with needs at both ends of the scale simultaneously.

It’s time for me to start doing some research, though. I did borrow The Dyslexic Advantage electronically from the library, but even though the library says it’s checked out to me, it hasn’t appeared on my Kindle and is apparently going to just float about in the ether above my head for the next three weeks, which is feck all use to me.


True Lies

Do you remember back at the start of the year when I made the monumental effort of having everyone eat at the table, together, every night?

It’s wonderful, we still do it, it’s become second nature now. We are so much closer as a family as a result, and my children have expanded their palates wonderfully too.

No. No, that’s a lie. Sorry, I couldn’t find the sarcasm font, but here I am admitting once again, just for a change, that I fell off the good parenting wagon. Or the good housewife wagon, or whichever wagon it is that applies here.

(No comments from the rabble down the back about silly wagons, now. The Americans won’t understand you, anyway.)

All summer, we slipped out of the habit, and I said “Well, when school starts again we’ll get organized and the TV will be off and they’ll be doing their homework and we’ll have dinner at 6pm all together.”

Nope. Nope nope nope. They come home from school and they want to flake out in front of the TV, not sit down with books and pencils. And they want snacks, and more snacks, and then they just want dinner, with no perceptible pause in between. And then, when he’s had some snacks, Dash wants to go outside and bounce a basketball or kick a soccer ball with his friend, and even Mabel does too, sometimes, or else she wants to play with her animals and her babies and her tiny bits of who knows what, making them do things and say things and basically working out her whole day’s experiences and frustrations the way she always does, re-grounding herself through her imagination.

And guess what? I want to let them. Because that’s what they need to do. And because it’s easier for me to give them a plate with food on it that I know they’ll eat, while they watch TV in their vegging out time, and then they can play while I get the other dinner together and we adults eat it in relative peace, and then the push for homework can begin, and because they’ve eaten early, it won’t all push on and over into bathtime or bedtime.

(Mabel’s homework is quick and easy and she doesn’t mind doing it, so long as I don’t pester her but let her come to it in her own time. Dash’s homework takes longer, but he does it in his room now on his new desk. The hard part is getting him there, but once he’s started he’s pretty self-steering.)

But the whole thing – routine, lack thereof, whatever it is – conspires against eating dinner together, and they still won’t eat what we (the adults) eat, which I fully understand is a circular argument and a self-fulfilling prophecy if I never sit them down with us and offer it to them; but I’m fighting one battle at a time here, and right now the dinner battle is not the one I’ve chosen. I don’t know what this one is, maybe it’s called giving up for the moment, but this is what I’m doing.


I just didn’t want you to think I was all bloggy perfect in my life. I’m not. I don’t want to pretend to be. I want us to be honest with each other, so that the world inside the computer is as imperfect and real as the world outside the computer. That’s when you make connections, not points.

autumnal leaves on the ground

Random picture of leaves on the ground, which you are at liberty to believe is a metaphor for anything you like.


Jazz hands

It’s 12 noon. This is about the time when, last year and the year before, and three days a week the year before that, I would regretfully set the timer for 20 minutes so that I didn’t get lost in whatever I was doing and forget to go and pick Mabel up from school. (Because you know how it is, you finally get down to business and get absorbed in a task just when it’s time to leave.)

This year, at 12 noon, I usually do a little shimmy in the front room, with jazz hands*, and sing, in a vibrant if somewhat off-key contralto, a little melody with the lyrics “Three more hours!”

Which is to say, I’m quite enjoying this.

I said as much to my optician yesterday as she determined that the only thing in the way of my vision is all these scratches on my glasses, when she asked how the transition was going for me now that my baby is off to big school. She – recently married; no kids yet – probably thinks I’ve a heart of stone, but hey. As long as my kids are happy at school (and Mabel’s fine, she really is), I’m very happy to send them there. I’ve done my time with small children at home, and the truth is, I’m not really very good at it. That is, I can do it, but a lot of other things fall by the wayside.

(Right now, cleaning the house is still falling by the wayside, but shut up, I’m sure I’ll get to it in due course. I’ve been busy shimmying and jazz-hands-ing and contralting.)

I’m really bad at self-care, for instance, when I have small children in the house. There were about three years there when I barely managed to put on moisturizer before bed; you can imagine how often I went to the dentist. I can’t even make a phone call without my kids deciding now is the time to need mommy, so it was hard to schedule things, never mind actually leave the house without a constantly nursing baby.

I have nothing but admiration for those women who get things done and also have babies. I am not one of those women, but we all have our strengths. Soon I will do Very Useful Things with all these hours I have (when they stop inexplicably melting away as they seem to have done so many days of the past three weeks), but for now I’m indulging my introvert side and spending some quality time with myself. I deserve it.


*(I really want to put that animated gif in here, or this one, but I can’t figure out how and they’re probably copyrighted anyway, so please do just click over and enjoy for a second.)

Kindergarten report: Fun is relative

Two weeks in and I think I can give kindergarten a tentative thumbs up. I don’t think Mabel would give it such a wholeheartedly positive mark, but, as I have said to anyone who asks me how it’s going, I leave her in the classroom every morning and I don’t have to go back and get her until the allotted time, so I’m calling that a win. I haven’t been called in early to remove her, and though some partings have been a little more sorrow and a little less sweet, on the whole starting big school has been much easier than it was with her brother.

(Please, Fate, do not clobber me tomorrow, or next week, or next month, for this complacency. I know she can make my life hell whenever she chooses.)

Every morning until today, she has said “I’m not going to school”, but I’ve just pushed some breakfast into her mouth and put some clothes on her body and by the time it was time to get into the car she would be more used to the idea. Every night she’s said “I’m not going to school tomorrow,” and some nights, when she’s extra tired, have been more pathetic than others, but I have not yet broken down and said “Okay, okay, I’ll homeschool you,” so I count that as a personal victory.

The sad truth is that we all (all the parents, I mean) spent all summer selling kindergarten for all we were worth, with all the “It’s going to be great” and “School is such fun” and “You get to do all sorts of wonderful things” but in reality it’s just a whole new ballgame and fun is a relative term. I mean, PE might be fun compared to math, and art is definitely fun compared to spelling (don’t worry, kindergarteners don’t do spelling) and music is probably more fun than learning new classroom rules, and you have to get used to finding the fun parts to look forward to. I know Mabel’s not the only five-year-old who’s feeling a little betrayed this week, and I do feel bad about that. (Not bad enough to homeschool, no.)

Of course, Mabel says none of it is fun and she doesn’t like art and she hates music and recess is stupid and PE is boring and if I didn’t know better I might think she was just a big ol’ black hole of negativity; but ten minutes later she’ll volunteer the fact that the music teacher has a funny voice he puts on to make them laugh or that they made shapes with gumdrops and then they got to eat them, and I’m pretty sure it’s not as bad as she’d like to make out.

Mabel eating an apple

Stay green, Ponygirl


Dear Kindergarten teacher

Dear Kindergarten teacher,

I know you look at the room and you see chaos. You see children who look practically too small for school, who have no idea what to do or where to go or where to put their things or how to address you. Children who are doing the wrong thing and don’t even know it; unreliable narrators who will say anything.

I’m coming from the other side, from the side of a parent who was in the nursery school classroom until a few months ago. I see a room full of big kids, kids trying their hardest to be big. Kids barely holding it together, holding back tears and trembling lips. Kids worried about doing the wrong thing, about getting into trouble, about knowing where things are and where things go, about remembering rules. Kids who know it’s time to learn to read and write and do math, but who want to paint and imagine and run and play and laugh too.

Many of these children have been to school before, but it was a school with more playtime, probably. Where sitting down and writing or drawing was something they could choose to do, but didn’t often have to. And even that was a whole summer ago, and a summer is a long, long time when you’re five. They’ve been playing all summer and now they’re sitting here looking at the toys around the room, wondering when they get to play with them.

I see my daughter, with all her amazing gifts and abilities and craziness and wisdom and energy and knowledge and quirks. I see her, nervous and defiant and unsure and a tiny bit excited in spite of herself. I see her hoping it will be good, but afraid it will be bad. Wanting to be good but afraid she will be bad. Wishing for a friend but not ready to make the first move. Needing a teacher who sees her as a whole person, not an impediment to order.

Dear teacher, please see the children, not the chaos.

Mabel in classroom

I know you saw this photo yesterday. But it’s the only one I have.