Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Parents' Night

We just had Parents' Night at The Boy's school.

I know I'll get inured to these, but the first one is surreal.

First of all, every elementary school in America was built at the same time, with the same floor plan. You've seen it – squat, low-slung brick, with high windows that open out on the bottom; vertiginously long hallways with bathroom tile on the walls; every inch of space covered with construction paper. (Strangely, the standardization occurred without the savings of standardization.) Parts of the school are newer, and parts have been converted from their original use (a gym) to something else (a cafeteria). Other parts haven't changed since the school was built. The coatrack in The Boy's classroom looks like a perfect 1956 mass-production unit, sullied only by rust and God only knows how many germs. The drinking fountains are the regulation twelve inches off the floor.

The staff was overwhelmingly female, with an average age, guessing by appearance, of about 12. The contrast with the college was hard to miss. The principal was about my age, but she didn't stand out as especially young. The principal addressed the parents in the new gym, making sure to mention that the school had made progress in all 40 of the No Child Left Behind categories. What she didn't say was that the bordering districts, which are far wealthier and snootier, haven't done that. To her credit, she refrained from saying 'nyah, nyah.' I probably would have.

(Did you know that they have 'writing across the curriculum' in elementary schools now? She mentioned it by name. When she mentioned 'writing assessments,' I nearly fell off my folding chair.)

After the requisite brief talks by the various support staff (my favorite was when the school social worker told us that we should ask our five-year-olds how they negotiated their feelings today. Uh, no.), we were adjourned to the individual classrooms.

TB's class has 24 students in it, which strikes me as high for a kindergarten. Probably 8-10 kids' parents showed up, the Moms in jeans, the (fewer) Dads in office attire minus the ties. The teacher walked us through the kids' routines. The parents objected that the kids have far too little time for lunch, to which the teacher agreed and mentioned that the curriculum is far more demanding than it was even five years ago. As she wrapped up her presentation, the teacher did a brief 'how to prepare your kid to succeed' talk, in which she mentioned that the best way to prepare a kid is to read to him every day. She singled us out, saying “I know (TB) loves to read.” We nearly exploded with pride. Had it not been terrible form, we would have done the end-zone dance on the spot.

As we marched back to the cafetorium (is there any other institution, besides public education, that would even coin a term like 'cafetorium'?), we ran into the principal, and I asked the first of what I expect will be thousands of questions over the next few years. This one was about introducing Spanish to the kids, which they do now through occasional videos. I asked if they'd do any 'live' Spanish speaking. The principal assured me that the videos are interactive (“there are puppets involved.”). Since a significant portion of the school population speaks Spanish at home, I'm guessing that some Spanish interaction will occur anyway, but I still don't see the point of waiting until junior high to introduce a language. Every study I've seen says that languages are easier to pick up at earlier ages. I figure, start them when it's easy, so by the time it's not as easy they've already got the knack. But then, I'm one of those 'elitist liberals' who would rather spend tax dollars on language instruction than wars of choice. Alas.

I'm sure many more questions will follow, and the principal will eventually learn to hide when she sees me coming. That's okay. I won't look for special treatment for TB. I just want the school to be worthy of him. Is that so much?

And so it begins...

I just wrote about my experience at parents' night at the middle school. Just so you know, it gets worse.
Saying nothing about your current school, I was dismayed to find that the No Child Left Behind scores are judged on a curve. That is, success is relative to the level the school started.

So, a principle (not saying yours did) may say that her school has hit or exceeded the NCLB measures, when in fact the school has met the "goals" defined for their specific case. It may, at times, have little to do with actual test scores aligned with other schools.

So, parents, treat the admin's boasts with caution. Actual scores (the perceived measure of NCLB) will vary, and there is not really an apples-to-apples comparison going on.

Different aside: I was able to spend the first week at Pookie's school, dropping in here and there. Her class is about 16, which I thought was a little large. But there are parent volunteers usually present (our school mandates 40 hours per child over the semester).

Quote of the week from Pookie: "I am just not comfortable with this, Momma. I am just not comfortable going to school every day."

What is one to do?
"writing across the curriculum" may have been started with the best of intentions, but in our public schools the results were quite unsatisfactory. especially in the math and science departments. writing about math doesn't create math skills, and oddly enough the math teachers couldn't help that much with writing skills.

in a similar vein, to encourage writing among first and second graders the students wrote with "invented spellings." the idea was to not discourage them with rigid spelling rules while letting them have the satisfaction of becoming authors. again, the results were not satisfactory, as many students learned the "lesson" that spelling isn't ever important. spellcheck in the word processor reinforced the lesson.

given TB's precocious reading skills, you may not be at risk for that problem, but i suggest keeping your guard up.

also, what laura said.
"Cafetorium?" Do they serve overcooked long pig there?

My elementary school, which was new in the late 1950s, had something called a multi-purpose room that had a food serving bay on one side, a pull-out stage, and basketball hoops that could be winched down. Same functions, more accurate name.
We do this tomorrow. I'm not sure if I'm looking forward to it or not!

I can't get over the fact that I have a boy in school...
Not only is second (and first) language acquisition easier the earlier you start, you can't hope for near-native fluency unless you start before the ages of 5 to 7. There will be some individuals who defy this (for reasons we still don't understand), but I think it ridiculous to have second language instruction at all if it doesn't start the moment kids begin school, when their language acquisition mechanisms (whatever they are, and there is controversy over that) are still fully operating.
Hi, started reading your blog about a month ago, really enjoy it.
I am in California, we have a school that uses a Dual-Immersion of Spanish/English system. Both of my kids started in Kindergarden, and by 3rd grade are now fluent Spanish speakers. Not sure if they have it across the country? It is public school, and runs K-8th.
In a country whose long-term foreign policy appears to be if you can't pronounce it, bomb it, I guess the only solution is to teach our children young to speak other languages! Just imagine what the world would be like if every American spent a year abroad before graduating from high school.

Thankfully, we've got a year yet before we forcedly enter a cafetorium.
My elementary school (which was new in the 70s and was a bit more "avant garde" than your usual boxy elementary school, with these weird pie shaped rooms that the teachers hated because a lot of space ended up being wasted because nothing would fit) had an "all-purpose room," too. No "cafetoriums" in sight.

My school district was also considered unusual in that we started foreign language instruction in middle school; all the other districts around us didn't start until high school. That may have changed, though.
Your thoughts on "wars of choice" don't make you an elitist liberal... they just showe you to be a thinker... and someone with opposable thumbs.

Oh my gosh, a cafetorium! In jr high on Long Island (NY) in the 80s, we had a cafetorium. I always thought it was the most bizarre thing in the world--there was a stage, and we ate at tables set up in the "audience" area. I thought that was the only one. Who knew there was another one? The world is a wide and wonderful place.

I adore your blog. :)
I don't know where j gets his/her information, but I'm a PhD candidate in education - specifically, second language learning - and, although there is a "critical period" theory that does say that starting languages before puberty (I've never heard 5 to 7 years old) will lead to higher levels of competence in the language, lots of current research challenges it. Suffice it to say, I will never discourage a parent from advocating more second language instruction for their child (and seriously, a video? You can certainly challenge *that,* even if it has puppets...). However, the popular belief that learning early is the only way to develop "near-native fluency" is not really held up by research. In some ways, I feel that this urban legend discourages language study in older students and in adults, since they feel they can never learn the language well enough!!
My child attends elementary school in a gorgeous, spanking new building just open this year, so we are the exception to your standard floor plan. The facility is roomy and bright and I think it makes a big difference to everyone to be in lovely surroundings. We are very lucky to be able to send a child to a new school.

Not only that, but it is a "charter school" which means the staff is fired up instead of being stuck in their decades-old routines.

As far as your experiences and impressions at Parents Night, no it won't get any better, the further you poke into it. In fact, given your awareness of educational issues, the harder you poke, the more likely you'll be to pull your child out of school entirely and start homeschooling.
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