Thursday, August 30, 2012

First week of school kaleidoscope (2 days down, 2 days to go)

Forms filled out. Forms forms forms. More forms.


Three trips to Staples (and one last week, too).

Label maker! Resulting, probably temporary, sense of calm and organization.

Campaign to pry information from children about what happened at school relaunched. Children proving wilier than ever. Learned little.

School drop off in a four-dimensional craze of children. Fourth grader disappears immediately. First grader clings to my hand. Mayor Taveras visiting. Trying to talk education with him and say hi to first grade teacher at the same time. Hugs and kisses and handshakes with parent and teacher and kid friends. So good to see everyone.

Homework. Realization that middle kid has apparently forgotten how to form legible letters over the summer. Realization that oldest kid has somehow figured out that writing clearly is a useful skill. Realization that there is hope.

No bus passes. No idea if/when they may be bestowed. Resulting drama brewing?

PAC meetings. Meetings meetings meetings. PTO meetings next week. All the meetings.

Kids tired, voluntarily going to bed early. I am right there with them.

Photographic evidence of second day of school:

Henry and Leo, shady characters.

Afterschool with the fabulous Adelle.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

First day of school!

Providence Public Schools starts the 2012-2013 school year today. Despite the rainy beginning, I hope that all went well, that everyone got where they needed to go, and that a great day was had by all.

I had to go to the office today, with the extra fun of being caught up in a major commuter rail delay, so my husband got the guys off to school. No first day of school photos, which at this point has become a tradition as I - the usual family documenter - have had work that's taken me away for the last couple of first days of school. So we'll do second day of school photos which has become our weirdo tradition, and I'm working from home tomorrow in order to be a part of their school year start. 

In the meantime, here's a rundown of back to school resources and thoughts:

For more, of course, visit the Providence Public Schools website.

And if any of you have back to school stories you'd like to share, please do!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Providence Public Schools 2012-2013 start and stop times

Equally useful and intriguing, here's the full schedule of Providence Public Schools' start and end times for 2012-2013, which the district posted on its Facebook page yesterday and made available on its website as well in PDF form; click here to access it in English, here in Spanish. The version below is small and hard to read, so go download the PPSD PDFs and follow along.

The utility of this is obvious, as is the intrigue once you take a look at the middle schools. I'd love to know what's behind the "later" start at all but Gilbert Stuart? For that matter, what's with the 8:04 start all of the other days? 

Presumably, this is happening in some attempt to handle 144 extra minutes per year (an extra minute a day for 4/5 of a 180 day school year). Why? I'd love to know. I suppose it doesn't really matter how that additional 2 hours and 24 minutes will be used. Parsed out as one minute per day, that time won't have any meaningful impact for most teachers and students.

With all that deserves inquiry, conversation, and energy within PPSD, this is low on the list. But it is odd.

More interesting is the longer days at some school, which strikes me as sensible. Every school should be different to accommodate its plans and goals, and I want to interpret the variety of schedules as a sign that the district is pulling back from insisting on lock-step scheduling for all and allowing flexibility, and that the PTU is in support of the same. It seems like every varied schedule will have its own story and process.

I look at the Roger Williams Middle School schedule, which creates a longer school day 4 days a week and then an earlier release time on Tuesdays, as an indication that faculty are meeting and working on Tuesday afternoons. I'll be interested to hear whether people interpret that as early release (which it isn't - kids aren't losing instructional time as was the case several years ago when middle schools released early so that faculty could meet) and/or feel inconvenienced by this. Presumably community partners who run afterschool programs will adjust.

As for my own middle school kid, who's entering seventh grade at Nathan Bishop, I hope he doesn't see this. We happen to live across the street from the school, and it takes him just about a minute to get there, and I believe that he thinks that school starts at 8:00. He's a very letter of the law guy who often is responsible for getting himself to school on time without a huge amount of parental nudging. So he gets there "on time" which really means he has a few minutes to hang with friends and deal with whatever 12 year old boys need to deal with. If he knew that school really started at 8:06 (except Tuesdays!), he'd act on that and luxuriate in his perceived extra time at home reading the heck out of the sports section or staring into space (when I catch sight of him, these appear to be his primary morning activities). So if you see him, keep this whole schedule thing under your hat, okay? Thanks so much.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

National attention for PASA's Summer Scholars program

I wish I had more than my scanty free time to learn about education in Providence and if I did, I would have spent time getting to know more about Providence After School Alliance's Summer Scholars program, which is bringing experiential learning into summer studies for middle school students and capturing national attention. See PBS's video and audio coverage here.

PASA's summer program is in its second year; I haven't had direct experience with it in any way, though I wish I did as it sounds like the kind of approach we should be taking in order to use engagement to accelerate learning not only in the summer but also year-round. Getting young people out of the classroom so that they can use their minds well and experience what their communities have to offer is critical, and not always available to all kids. 

ProJo also wrote about the Summer Scholars program in July in an article that rounded up a few different summer learning approaches around the state. It's here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Back to School: media and unplugging

Or commit self-righteous graffiti.
As summer winds down (one week until the first day of school!), we have been thinking about how to get ready for the school year, with thoughts on homework earlier this month and today, with our family's approach to free time. I had originally planned this to be a post about tv/computers/video games/other devices. However, conversations with the kids during vacation made me realize that these screen-enabled devices are the bull in the china shop of free time.

I'll start with the bull, which represents the media devices that we use for entertainment. In our house, we have three tvs (one connected to the internet), three laptops, one desktop computer, two iPads, three iPhone Touches, two iPhones, a Wii, and a PS3. Good Lord, I have never collected everything up in a list like that. Crazy. I am tempted to put qualifications on the devices (what's used for work and what's a junker and so on) but it's probably better to leave the list as is, because it represents the electronic behemoth appropriately.

Despite the proliferation of devices, the kids don't have free rein to use them. We have guidelines in place: no tv before 6pm, no tv after dinner (which is usually around 7) without permission (generally, we skip it). No tv in the morning except for weekends, at which time, to tv/devices before 8am (otherwise, at least one kid would set his alarm to get extra video game time). We haven't allowed video or computer games during the week at all.  That's been the template, and it has worked more or less effectively. Thus far, there have rarely if ever been clashes between tv/other devices and school responsibilities. When a kid hasn't been able to get to his homework, it comes first, before any media consumption happens.

This school year, we're changing it up a bit by adding one screen-free night a week for everyone, including Kevin and me and our often ubiquitous iPhones. We're doing this for reasons that are fairly obvious. Even though the kids don't watch a ton of tv/use other devices all the time, the devices loom large and are totally consuming. They get fixated. There is individual variation from kid to kid, but in general, fixated is not too strong a description. They count down until 6pm and eschew other options. And really, it's often easier for us. During the work week, I get home at 6 and make dinner most nights. To get that done, it's convenient to have the guys squared away watching something or other, with the promise of decent family time at dinner.

Nevertheless, breaking the pattern feels like the right thing to do. If it's tv time, the guys often don't want to be in the kitchen and therefore don't participate in making dinner. They don't want to run over to the community garden with me. They don't go (or stay) outside past 6pm for fear of missing their precious screen time. There is a little bit of an addiction thing going on, and it seems wise to shake things up.

So we're going to try a media free night per week and see how it goes. We discussed this at breakfast during the final day of vacation and the kids were mostly okay with it, with two conditions:

1. The media-freedom applies to adults too.

2. They get access to video games for one additional night during the week.

We readily agreed to the first condition and reluctantly to the second. We decided to give it a try in the spirit of compromise.

So that's the bull. The china shop is actually in fairly good shape otherwise. They play outside a lot, play board games with each other, go off into their separate corners to do their thing: to read, do Legos, draw, daydream. I am hoping that our media free night will allow us all to read together. We're planning to use it as homework check in night; while we already quickly check their work nightly, this will be the night that we help them think through how to deal with anything they're struggling with, plan for long term assignments, etc.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I do yearn sometimes to get rid of all of the devices and have a media-free house. However, unless we make other radical changes to our lives in terms of work and where we live, that's not going to happen and despite my Little House on the Prairie fantasies, I don't think that it should happen. We live in a media-intensive world and our job as parents is to help our kids negotiate that world. I think that the off switch the best feature of any of these devices, and we try hard to teach the kids to use it and to value what happens as a result.  We may indulge the media-free lifestyle next year by going camping. I'd like that. I'd like to know what happens to our brains if we unplug for a week. But until then, unplugging for an evening a week seems more reasonable.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, August 13, 2012

On vacation, more or less

I'm taking this week off to hang out with my kids. Our 12 year old comes back from camp on Wednesday and we'll be going to Cape Cod and doing other fun summer vacationing.

I am planning another back to school post this week, so stay tuned for that. Otherwise, see you next week (and the week after - Providence's first day of school on August 28! Such a speedy summer it has been).

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Value of high-stakes standardized tests questioned in Texas

Way beyond Providence, they're thinking in Texas that an education system controlled by high stakes standardized tests might not be so great for the economy. From Longview, Texas, as reported here in the Longview News-Journal:
A state official says the longtime education focus on teaching students to pass standardized tests is having a detrimental effect on Texas’ job market. 
As a Texas Workforce commissioner representing employers, Tom Pauken said he hopes to lead an effort to change that. He was in Longview on Friday promoting business and the role it plays in job creation and economic growth while addressing the Texas Business Conference at Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center, where about 250 business owners, managers and human resource specialists gathered. 
“I’m really concerned we’re choking off the pipeline of skilled workers that our employers need,” he said. “We’re spending too much time and effort teaching to the test instead of focusing on real learning.”
Even though I embrace the reality that education is complex, and that our obligation to create and maintain a strong, equitable, and accessible public education system isn't purely driven by economic arguments, I am a firm believer in the power of such arguments to influence policy. Much of the current education policy that's caused over-reliance on high stakes standardized tests in was generated in response to overblown anxiety about the ways that our "education crisis,"as measured by our international comparisons, was going to be the ruin of our economy. I like seeing the argument cut both ways.

I also note that this is happening in Texas, home of the Texas Miracle (read about it here), which many think was a source for the pervasive myth that it's possible to improve educational outcomes for young people by testing the life out of them. There was no Texas Miracle. Deceptions created the illusion of success. Nevertheless, that illusion went on to have a pervasive and powerful impact on federal education policy that we are still very much in the grip of (yikes! time for grammar workshop: in the grip of which we very much still are?).

Please let this be evidence of a pendulum swing toward a more balance and educationally enriching version of accountability. And if we need this swing to be more economically enriching, too, bring it on. I'm all for it - and really do believe that a world in which schools help all young people use their mind well will be a better world all around.

Hat tip to Tom Hoffman for linking to this story. Thanks!

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Cloudy Start to the New School Year

For all of us who have ever attended, sent kids to, or worked in schools (and especially for those who fall into all three categories), September is the alpha month, the start of a brand new school year, with all of the hope that new beginnings entail. While this may be a cliché on which back-to-school-sales thrive, there is authentic emotional truth in the renewal that a new school year offers.

However, the immediate reality of picking up the loose threads of learning from June quickly tarnishes September’s shine. Although I’ve expressed some ambivalence about required summer reading, summer learning loss is a real phenomenon that hits struggling students most detrimentally.

Moreover, in our state’s public schools, high-stakes standardized tests assess learning from the previous year in October of the following year (with the exception of science, which is tested in the spring). Newly minted fourth graders will have the opportunity to demonstrate their third grade learning when they take the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests next month. To some extent, this means that they will not have the opportunity to pursue new learning in earnest until six weeks after school starts. As much as we’d love for September to be a fresh start, it’s actually a critical time to recap, reinforce and review previous learning. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. No matter when--or if--the NECAPs were administered, some review would clearly be in order in order to start the new school year on firm footing.

My concern about the timing of the NECAPs is aimed at raising awareness about the practice of according these tests the considerable power that they currently possess, even though they tell only a small part of a school’s story. If you want to get into the pros and cons of high-stakes standardized tests in a big way, let me take you out for a cup of coffee and we’ll have a fine time hashing it out.  Seriously, I’d love that, but I am not going to do so right here in detail. What I am going to do is question whether the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) made the right move by ranking and labeling schools according to 2011 NECAP scores.

In order to qualify for a waiver from some of the requirements of the United States Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind legislation, RIDE created a new way to identify struggling schools, which resulted in a ranking and labeling of all of our state’s schools. While the reasons for and meaning of these labels are not as clear as one would hope, they can be described generally as follows. Schools labeled Commended, Leading, and Typical require no interventions. Schools labeled Warning, Focus, and Priority require interventions and changes that will play out over the next three years. The system strove to identify schools that had not made enough overall progress according to the NECAPs and schools that were not doing enough to close the achievement gaps among the subgroups that comprise their student bodies. Over the course of the school year, negatively labeled schools are required to develop and implement plans to address their identified shortcomings (which may have been the result of inadequate measures of teaching and learning that happened two years ago). If you crave more detail, visit RIDE’s website and this PDF PPSD presentation, shared with the City Council last week and posted on Councilman Sam Zurier's website.

What does this tell us? Nothing new. Most of the professionals and many students and family members who are part of our school communities know that their schools are serving some students very well and others less so. Our city's schools--especially the elementary and middle schools--are the places of learning for 23,000 children, many of whom face significant economic, health, school preparation, and other challenges. Nevertheless, educators know full well that they are accountable for serving all students effectively, not just those who are rested, well fed, unstressed, and otherwise ready to learn. With the data that RIDE used to create its rankings, in combination with arguably more meaningful measures, many schools have already been addressing their challenges. Perhaps this will ensure that all do so, which is good, but it's silly to think that most educators weren't already looking at data to create better outcomes for all students.

Not only do RIDE’s new labels not enlighten us, they don’t come with any meaningful support. Very little federal and no new state funding is available for schools to develop and implement improvement plans. Moreover, this focus on test scores suggests that we should dwell overmuch on the meaning of the small slice of data that high stakes standardized test scores provide, and it encourages the mythology that the United States is in the throes of an education crisis which is a distortion on which much of the energy of politically motivated pro-privatization education reform has been based.

While this many not have been the intention, RIDE’s labels have had the effect of needlessly shaming schools, freaking out plenty of people who don't have the time or capacity to dig deeply, and obscuring their complex realities without offering any real support. For anyone who feels that our neighborhood’s schools are somehow diminished as a result of this rejiggering, please know that you don’t know the whole story. I am confident that this will not knock our educators off their game, and I hope that September can retain at least a bit of its shine for those young people who need it most.


A version of this post will appear in September's East Side Monthly.

Friday, August 3, 2012

At BlogHer, looking for other school-family-education bloggers

I am not sure if "school-family-education" adequately captures what this blog is about, I'll have time to work on describing my blog as I meet thousands of other bloggers who are here in NYC for BlogHer. I'm posting this on the off chance I miss anyone (and with 2,000 people here, there's a slight possibility that I may not be able to have a meaningful conversation with everyone), because I want to get the word out that I am looking for other bloggers who are writing in the the terrain that Providence Schools and Beyond occupies, the place where parents/family members and students are writing about the schools their kids attend and about the learning experiences their families are having both in and out of school.

So I'm waving this post as a big flag for other BlogHer participants, or any other education bloggers. Let's start to make a list of ourselves. I want to read about other families experiences with schools and school systems for sources of inspiration, alternate perspectives, and different experiences. If we come together and compare notes, we may be able to have a better sense of the ways blogging out school experiences from the parent/family perspective might be having on our kids' education, learning, and growth, and on the ways we may or may not be serving as advocates for all young people, their teachers, and schools themselves.

I am here with Kristen McClusky, writer of Motherload - just go read it, so funny and smart, and if you need another reason, she's from and currently spending time in Rhode Island. Wait, no, she's currently here in New York with me. Okay, where Kristen is at this actual moment is perhaps not mission critical. I mention Kristen so that I can go ahead and use the third person plural and say "we" without sounding overly regal.

We met a good fraction of the BlogHer 2,000 last night, madly exchanging cards and stories, so if any of you are among the readers of this, hi! And I know that today will yield more connections to other snappy, wise writers who are smart about life online and off and to bloggers in the "school-family-education" category (let's work on a better name for that!).

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Free backpacks and school supplies statewide - August 18

Mark your calendar and spread the word: on Saturday, August 18, from 10:00am-1:00pm, local community organizations and businesses, with support from Citizens Bank, have joined together to distribute free backpacks and school supplies statewide at the following locations:
  • United Way of RI, 50 Valley Street, Providence
  • Hope High School, 324 Hope Street, Providence
  • Nathanael Greene Middle School, 721 Chalkstone Avenue, Providence
  • Parent Information & Student Registration, 325 Ocean Street, Providence
  • West End Community Center, 109 Bucklin Street, Providence
  • Veteran’s Memorial Elementary School, 150 Fuller Avenue, Central Falls
  • Bernard F. Norton School, 364 Broad Street, Cumberland
  • CCRI Campus in Newport, 1 John H Chafee Boulevard Newport
  • Pawtucket PawSox, McCoy Stadium, Pawtucket
  • Thundermist Health Center, 186 Providence Street, West Warwick
  • St. James Baptist Church, 340 South Main Street, Woonsocket
I've volunteered at these backpack distributions before - they're fun, with lots of community service organizations on hand to share information and support to families. Be prepared for lines (at least at the Hope High School locations) at various points during the day.

I'd love to run an image with this - I feel like I've seen a promotional poster knocking around the internet, but cannot find it. If anyone has one, share it with me and I'll add it here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Getting ready for back to school: homework

In part one of several on getting back into the school game, I’m thinking about how we can facilitate homework-doing so that our kids are productive and efficient, and that they have quiet when they need it, support when they need it, and access to the supplies they need. In other words, what can we do to make sure that homework is neither: 1.) a festival of anxiety or 2.) ignored? I want to give homework its due, but not much more beyond that. Our situation and plan, such as it is, follow.

Why does every single pencil in our house look like after the first week of school?
Where do the whole pencils go?
Is there a fourth dimension overflowing with little bits of eraser?
So many questions
We have a seventh grader who will have an hour or so of homework a day, a fourth grader with a half hour or so, and a first grader who will be entering the homework fray for the very first time. Before I proceed, I need to note that said first grader is fired up about this. He has been watching his older brothers do homework for years and sincerely craves his own. Perhaps his tune will change, but for now, I am all for such enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is one of the qualities I hope to capture and perhaps bolster when I think about how we’re going to create good conditions in which the guys will do their homework during this coming school year. They are generally compliant about getting their homework done, if often minimalist. I don’t necessarily insist that they fall in love with their homework assignments; the majority of the work they bring home is, if not totally unlovable, not totally thrilling either. While I don’t expect mini-masterpiece every night, I want them to do more than a half-assed job so that when a whole ass is required, they’re up to the challenge. It’s often work they can legitimately get through expeditiously, but I don't want this to convey the impression that homework is necessarily something that is to be got through at the speed of light. This doesn’t serve them well when they’re confronted with an assignment that is genuinely challenging.

For this year, I am thinking of the whole homework thing as a contract. We expect a certain level of performance for which we will provide a certain level of support.

  • Homework gets done first, or near first. It’s right there at the top of the afterschool priority list. We try hard to keep this expectation standard, which can be tricky as afterschool conditions vary (and I am not totally sure what they will be during this upcoming school year, which is a subject for another post). Still, whether they are at the JCC afterschool program, or home with a babysitter, or home by themselves, or home with me, or wherever, homework comes first. 
  • Homework is done thoroughly, with at least some attention to detail. Legibility can be an issue, so we try to remind them that if they’re going to do their homework, they need to make sure that someone else can actually read it. 
  • Homework goes back into the homework folder/binder and then back into the backpack when it’s done. This is a critical bit of business. Among my least favorite evenings or mornings are those that that include a mad search for homework that is eventually located between pages of the newspaper that’s in the recycling, or under a bed, or wherever. Not good times. Homework gets put away. 
  • It’s great to get help, but we don’t want to help so much that we’re actually doing the work for them, or forcing them through it for the sake of completion. Part of the value of homework is that it provides teachers, parents, and kids a relatively low-stakes way to practice and check for understanding. If a kid isn't getting something, we know that thing needs to be taught and learned again or differently. I have had conflicts with my kids when they haven’t been able to answer a homework question and want a lot of input from us. I urge them to write down for their teacher what they don’t understand (this works best when you know the teacher will respond to such a thing, which generally across the board, our kids’ teachers have done) rather than stabbing at the answer. The kids generally HATE having to do this. Self-reliance is the thing, baby. 
  • Because they are sometimes doing their homework outside of the realm of a helpful older person, this means that we need to find time to check in with them about whether they have any questions, and we generally try to at least glance at it for completeness. On those evenings when I get home from work at 6 and Kevin later than that, and some kid has a baseball game, and some parent has a meeting, and people need feeding and the dog needs walking and the laundry needs folding and the dishes need doing, this is a tricky proposition. But it feels really important to check in, even for 2 minutes, so we do. If we say doing this thing is important, then we need to demonstrate that, and this is when the aforementioned checking for understanding happens.
  • This year, we are trying to make sure that they have access to the best place(s) for them to do their homework. To some extent, this depends on the needs of each kid, which are sufficiently different that I am forced to acknowledge that my fantasy that they all will gather around the dining room table and work companionably together is destined to remain a fantasy. The first grader needs to be with someone, mostly because he tends to learn interactively. That someone may well not be us. It’s most likely going to be an older brother or afterschool program counselor or babysitter. Noise makes our fourth grader nutty when he is trying to think, so he needs a quieter place. He has a harder time doing his homework in the afterschool program; he prefers to be home so he can go up to his room for some peace and quiet. And our seventh grader often needs access to a computer for research, downloading assignments, or typing up work, which he does not have (nor will have) in his room, so he often does his homework in the living room, where the family laptop dwells. 
  • We need to make sure they have access to the items required for homework in the places that they do their homework, which is a bit of a conundrum since, as stated above, they don’t necessarily do their homework in a consistent place. After some trial and error from past years, we’re going to make sure that they have the basics in their backpacks and then each will have a tote bag or caddy or something or other with a more extensive array of stuff at home. What that stuff is depends on the kid; the first grader will needs crayons and the seventh grader needs a flash drive. My goal here is to avoid as many instances of a kid not being able to find a ruler/scissors/tape/markers/paper/whatever as possible. I want them to be reasonably self-sufficient. As anyone who knows me will attest, my dreams of organization often exceed my grasp, but I am really determined for everyone’s sanity and productivity to make this a reality. 
  • Because learning is a messy process, sometimes homework completion is too. We’re committed to being cool with that. As stated above, we don’t do their homework for them or really with them in heavy-handed way. We do try to help them figure out why they’re struggling with something and help them articulate for themselves and their teacher what the challenge might be. And for all of them, at one point or another, we've used homework as a way to talk with teachers about what’s happening with that kid in school. It is somewhat useful as a window into their learning through the curriculum. 
There’s more to say about what we’re doing to create good conditions for learning at home, a process in which homework plays a starring role in terms of tv watching/computer using/screen time. Suffice it to say that we limit it and no one does tv, et al until his homework is done. That said, our approach for this year is still a work in progress, so I’ll be back with more on that.

And finally, there’s the whole question of the value of homework per se. Though our kids attend schools at which homework is the norm, not everyone thinks it’s a great thing. Go read Alfie Kohn if this idea intrigues you. I have mixed feelings that merit their own exploration at some point soon.