Success: Kids, Lead the Way!

I’ve been living in a state of amazement the past few days. I’m sure that has something to do with snowmageddon, or Winter Storm Stella, which dropped record amounts of snow in my area. It’s no exaggeration to state we got close to three feet of snow within a 24-hour period. We’ve been digging, digging, digging. The cars are once again visible and the driveway is clear, and I can finally come in and warm myself by a fire. Stella was incredible, but my thoughts the last few days have been about my kids and their Odyssey of the Mind (OM) team, who just recently took first place in their regional competition on March 11.

My daughter is coloring; my son is gluing balsa wood. They are busy and independently self-directed for the moment, and I can write for the first time in a very long time. Life is hectic when you homeschool and coach an Odyssey of the Mind team. Our homeschool team is comprised of six members, a five-year-old still in PreK, two 2nd graders, two 3rd graders, and a 5th grader. My daughter is the youngest, and despite her age, she is quite a performer! Despite the eclectic age differences of our entire team, they worked well together and entered a division 1 (grades 3-5) competition in the Ready, Set, Balsa, Build problem… and won, beyond any of our expectations! They have earned the right to compete in the state tournament on April 8. It took me a few days to get over my disbelief, but now I think it’s time to be proud of what this team has accomplished.

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I won’t give many details, as it is against OM rules to share a team’s unique solution to a problem before world finals are over, but I can give you an overview of the problem they chose. Problem 4 this year is called Ready, Set, Balsa, Build. For this problem, teams were required to build a structure out of balsa wood and glue that can hold as much weight as possible. The structure must be at least 8” tall and it must weigh no more than 15 grams. The teams were also required to use certain sets of predetermined wood lengths and amounts (IE: six pieces of 2” long, two pieces of 8” long, etc.). The teams were also required to present a unique performance that dealt with the theme of precision. During that performance, the teams are required to build a large-scale replica of the balsa wood structure out of trash items, and one other creation of their choice.

Our team received high marks from the judges for all elements of their solution, and their structure was able to support every single weight that was available during the competition. Officially, their structure held 417.5 lbs. of combined weights that were placed during the 8-minute time limit. I have no idea what kind of weight limit is typical for division 1 teams, or what the record is. Most of the information out there is for division 2 and 3 teams. All I can say is that the structure our kids brought to competition this past Saturday far outperformed any of their test structures. Over the past several months leading up to the competition, our kids built many test structures before settling on a final design, and they used those test structures to practice choosing and placing weights, and also to get an idea of what weight limit they could expect. In fact, they expected the structure to break within the first half of the competition, and had even written dialogue for their team member who was placing the weights on the structure. I have to give the performers credit for improvising the last minute of their performance and ending it differently than expected. Even though some of them were caught a little off guard, they all handled it quite well!

Before I go any further, I need to say thank you to NYSOMA Region 21 for including us, as homeschoolers. Our own region would not. Everyone working to make this regional event a success was friendly and dedicated. The regional director is tireless and never once hesitated to answer any of my questions. I am in awe of the many volunteers who helped us register and the judges who volunteered many hours of time to train and officiate the competitions. Thanks is also due to the host school in Canajoharie for providing an amazing space for the competition and allowing the teams to use the classrooms as a home base for the day. We had such a good time, and are very thankful for the opportunity to be part of this community!

Odyssey of the Mind was a memorable part of my school days and I always knew that I wanted my children to have this type of creative problem-solving experience. The school district where we currently live does not participate in OM, so even if my kids were in traditional school, they would not have the opportunity. I began asking questions about forming a homeschooling team several years ago, and my region chose to ignore me completely. Last year, I reached out to OM on the state level and started to get some answers. Ultimately, I was directed to region 21 with the assurance that we would be welcomed. I remember hesitantly emailing the director, and not expecting a response. But to my surprise, I received an e-mail the very next day filled with welcoming words and excitement about our inclusion. From that moment on, we became the Homerkinds, the name we chose for our “district.”

Last year, our first Homerkinds team, an eccentric assembly of homeschooled kids ranging from 1st grade to 5th grade, competed and took third place for a problem in which they had to design and maneuver a vehicle. But after watching other teams compete in the balsa wood problem, they knew right away that that’s what they wanted to do the following year.

This year’s balsa wood problem was actually a perfect fit for our team. It seemed that there were elements suited to each member’s strengths. And for my third grade son, building is well within his wheelhouse. After testing the team’s first round of test structures, the team designated my son to be the primary builder of the competition structure. It didn’t seem to affect him when I told him that I too had once built a balsa wood structure for an Odyssey of the Mind competition…. And that it broke under the weight of only the crusher board! (The crusher board is a thick piece of wood that must go on top of the structure before any weights can be added.) Unlike me, however, my son has a slow and steady approach to building. I can’t watch him; I get impatient! He gets better with each structure, and learns from each mistake.

The spirit of Odyssey of the Mind is “…hands on for kids. Hands off for adults.” As homeschoolers, our kids have an advantage because they tend to be independent workers and thinkers to begin with. I think adults tend to underestimate the abilities of children. Many feel that children need to be guided and shown the “right” way to solve a problem. But OM doesn’t work that way. Children are the leaders, the thinkers, the solvers. It’s beautiful! One only has to eavesdrop on a group of children engrossed in their own game to appreciate how well they work together and how creative they can be as they embody different characters and personalities, devise rules of conduct, and interact with each other using various voices and dialogue. As homeschoolers, our kids tend to have more time and freedom to interact in this way without the strict oversight of adults. For OM, it’s our job as coaches to help facilitate an environment where this natural form of creativity can be directed toward specific problem criteria. And as homeschooling parents, there is definitely more time to do this.

Don’t get me wrong. There are moments when this freedom usurps productivity! Some days it’s like: Why can’t you just get that prop done??? You just took every box in the house and an entire roll of duck tape to build a 200 square foot elaborate Nerf fort and you can’t even apply a coat of paint on your prop!?!? I guess it’s all in how you define productivity.

Our children are often learning from real life experiences, and less from textbooks and other scripted sources of learning. Our days aren’t focused on preparing for tests, or following an ultra-rigid schedule. We have the freedom to shift our schedule around to accommodate a quick last minute spontaneous practice or an all day prop building session.

While we may not aid the kids in developing a solution to their OM problem (IE: we are not allowed to give them ideas or do any of the work), we may adapt our curriculum to strengthen certain concepts or advance certain skills, as long as our lessons aren’t directly related to telling the kids how to solve their OM problem. For example, for math we might take extra time focusing on measuring using a ruler and discussing fractions. We might research structural engineering and look at how it is employed in building various forms of architecture, bridges, or towers. We don’t shy away from discussing big terms like compression strength and tensile strength, and we encourage our kids to learn more about anything with which they are unfamiliar. Because real life is such a major component of our days, we might pause and reflect on the cell tower we just passed and why the builders were able to make it so tall. We might talk about the geometry of a bridge we just crossed and how it works to give the bridge such strength when carrying a load.

When our kids collected every sort of glue they could find in our houses, we turned their desire to find the strongest one into a science experiment that they led. They cut balsa wood into equal pieces and glued two pieces together butt to butt, using different glue for each one. We encouraged them to make predictions before testing these experiments. They took turns placing small weights in a basket hanging from the joint, and they recorded their findings to compare them scientifically! Through their own curiosity, they could make an informed decision what type of glue they would use! This type of curiosity became a fundamental guiding force throughout the journey to competition day.

While our kids were preparing themselves for regional competition, I found that I was plagued by the private thought: I hope they did that good enough. I remember thinking to myself it doesn’t look like this structure is going to be as good as the one he tested. I have no explanation for my thinking except that I tend to be a worrier!

Now they are preparing once again, this time for state competition. My son has decided to build a new structure as he feels the other may have been compromised by the weights even though it never broke. Our kids would like to rehearse some more because they felt they didn’t set up quickly enough. And spontaneous ALWAYS needs more practice. But now as they prepare, I find myself with different thoughts and more trust in their abilities. Now, I confidently think I know they will do just fine! I suppose I am learning and growing, just as much as the kids.

My son told me the yesterday as he was painstakingly gluing some of the first pieces for his new structure, “Mom, I actually don’t mind doing this. I’m really good at it, and I’m glad the team choose me to be the builder.”

I told him I was so proud of him.

He added, “I don’t deserve all the credit. I don’t do everything. My teammates deserve a lot of the credit for their hard work.”

He’s right.

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Pancake Dreams, Childhood Memories

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There were two things I never experienced knowingly until I went to college: fake butter, and fake maple syrup. Furthermore, whether you call them pancakes, griddle cakes, flapjacks, or hot cakes, most of us share the same image of this popular American breakfast dish. This was not the case for me.

We called them pancakes. We ate them for breakfast. But in fact, I grew up eating crepes. My grandmother learned to make them for my French grandfather; my father took over the tradition, and today for the first time in quite a while, I am returning to it. I haven’t made crepes in ages, but yesterday the craving took me over, and I realized that the “pancakes” that were commonplace in my household were foreign to my children.

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stack of homemade cornmeal pancakes, my son’s favorites.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good American pancake! We make them all the time with variation: whole wheat, buttermilk, cornmeal, white light & fluffy, and so on and so forth. Growing up, eating thick pancakes was a novelty, in which we would daringly engage at a diner (almost always disappointing), or at a friend’s house where the concept of chocolate chip pancakes or pancakes from a box was an uncontemplatable yet delicious sin. But back to the real story…

There was never a recipe. We learned by watching the various ingredients go into the blender, and we appreciated the results with the first bite from that thin little pancake with the perfect balance of creamy tenderness and golden crispiness. My grandmother wielded two small non-stick skillets in her house and she would make crepes in tandem. My father’s pan of choice, and mine as well, is a low-lipped cast iron frying pan, perfectly seasoned, never washed, and used exclusively for crepes.

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My cast iron crepe pan

The tradition, however, was the same in both households. Crepes in my family are served fresh and hot, and eaten right away while they are still at their most delicious. Whether we were offered “pancakes” for breakfast or we requested them, the system worked as follows: The quickest child would claim the first pancake, even with the knowledge that sometimes the first one would not be sheer perfection while the pan temperature was adjusted and the cast iron fine tuned its seasoning with the current flame. The claim was staked by simply shouting “I get first!” In turn, someone would call second, and the last child (there were three of us), would obviously be third. At my grandmother’s, she would make crepes just for us, perhaps eating one for herself at the end. When my dad made crepes, he worked furiously providing crepe after crepe, with my mom in fourth place, and my dad eating his fill only if there was a lull in the lineup or if we had all eaten our fill.

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The lineup of plates in the crepe serving frenzy

It wasn’t that we each ate in isolation. The flurry of activity in the kitchen meant that we essentially ate together, moving from table to the serving lineup and back again, keeping our place and the system running smoothly, with only occasional arguments about who was next.

Looking at recipes and uses for traditional French crepes, there is no doubt that our crepes and how we eat them have been hybridized. I am not afraid to add a hint of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt to my recipe. We enjoy them ladled with melted butter and authentic maple syrup. Bon appetit!

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A Fundamental Difference

When I started this blog, my son was in school and I was swept up in the fight against excessive testing and standardization in public education. I continued this fight passionately, well after we pulled our son from school and began homeschooling, a choice that is a perfect fit for our family and one that has quite surpassed all expectations. In short, the homeschooling journey has been extraordinary.

My voice in all things public education has diminished and lately almost wholly disappeared, namely because I felt like my opinions didn’t matter anymore. I mean, who am I as a homeschooling parent to tell public school parents and teachers what their business should be? I resisted the ‘our world/ their world’ mantra for quite a while, but over time became exasperated as the tension between these two worlds became too much and I realized that clearly the allies for whom I had been fighting did not see the unity between our two worlds as much as I did.

I still believe that all children, regardless of the type of educational environment they find themselves in, deserve a meaningful education in which they play a primary role in their own discoveries. I still believe that parents have the right to be fully involved in their children’s education, and I still believe that teachers ought to have the freedom to exercise their expertise in the classroom. But for me, the fight against testing and top-down control became just a tiny part of what does not work in public education, at least not for me or my kids. And I realize that, while my opinion might not mean much to those that choose to remain committed to public education, I am still entitled to my opinions.

Even now that I linger at the sidelines when it comes to discussions of public education, they surround me everywhere I go. Sometimes I feel like I learn more about how people really feel as a fly on the wall than I ever did as an activist leader of a major Opt Out group. Whether I’m waiting outside my kids’ gymnastics or getting my hair cut, everyone seems to be complaining about education.

There are many topics of discussion but one of the most common items of complaint is homework. I watch children being proctored by their parents in between activities at my local YMCA all the time, their tired faces and sighs as they fill in blanks and erase spelling mistakes. I hear parents talk amongst themselves how every night is a battle, how their kids are so tired, how they don’t see a point to homework for a first grader. One of the parents, who happens to be a kindergarten teacher, said if that happened to her kids she would refuse the homework. Another second grade teacher spends the hour waiting for her own children in activities, correcting the homework of her second grade students. Why has homework became such a contentious topic and one where parents and teachers feel they have no choice but to simply comply? Why are so many elementary teachers assigning homework and why aren’t more parents opting out of this distraction from life when experts assert that homework in the younger grades provides no benefits to learning and all parties see the chaotic fallout of the homework trend? See here, here, here, and here, to get you started. But it’s not just this anti-establishment homeschooling mom who is complaining! Teachers have begun to stop assigning homework, and parents who see the ill-effects are refusing to engage in the homework cycle.

Last year, I had the privilege to attend a presentation by Alfie Kohn at nearby Walton Central School, where my my own pedagogical ideologies were confirmed as Kohn spoke of education without homework, without testing, and without grades. And this is where my journey, my deep philosophical beliefs about what education can and should be like for children breaks away heavily from business as usual in the classroom. It isn’t just about the excessive testing or whether Common Core math is good or bad. These issues used to be the big deal for me, and I couldn’t understand why parents did not opt out, or why teachers thought the Common Core was a good idea. I now see a more fundamental difference: whether one takes the tests or not, whether one likes close reading or not, whether addition takes two steps or ten, children are being forced out of their childhoods in an overly structured system that disallows the input of the learners themselves and sterilizes the entire process of learning.

I overheard another conversation between parents last week. The second grade teacher parent asked the other parents about registration for an activity that would structure her children’s spring break days. She then stated that after witnessing her kids “going crazy without structure” during a recent snow day, she couldn’t bear to think about an entire week of them being home “without anything to do.” Before I continue, let me state that my opinions are simply that: opinions. I make decisions that are right for my family and would never directly criticize another parent or teacher for making a different decision. We all parent differently, I realize, and the beauty of teaching is that all teachers  should be allowed to exercise their own unique teaching methods and personalities. But for me, hearing this conversation was shocking. To me it was the ultimate confirmation that the decision to homeschool is the right one for us. I don’t give tests; my kids don’t have homework; largely, they learn what they want and when, and are thriving academically, socially, and mentally in this environment! But the core of my beliefs stems from the notion that kids nowadays are being robbed from their childhoods and natural tendencies with a constant over-structuring that begins when they stagger out of bed in the morning, continues through the school hours, extends to the pre-dinner homework battles, and rolls over into any free time they might have had to themselves.

If my children were in school, I would most certainly opt out of testing, and say no to homework. That is my right as a parent. But how could I possibly preserve childhood without the freedom my children have at home to be themselves and make their own decisions?

Wheat, a journey of pride

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Yesterday, I ground wheat berries from our own harvest! My family and I have been experimenting with the highs and lows of growing our own supply of hard red winter wheat. This is our second harvest.

We’re not farmers by any means, just a family on a journey to self-reliance with a passion for food that is homegrown and natural. We went into this knowing the labor and agreeing that we were not going to invest any money in fancy equipment. We’ve made many mistakes and learned from each one. Our original 1/32 acre plot has since grown to a whopping 1/8th of an acre (and switched locations to allow the original plot to rest). I sometimes wonder if it’s worth all the labor, the trial and error, when I can order a 50 lb. bag of hard red wheat berries online for a very reasonable price.

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hard red winter wheat berries, harvested late summer 2015

It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it in my opinion. To grow something, to await the wonder of germination from something in stasis and ostensibly barren of life, never ceases to amaze me. After planting our winter wheat in late September, days later we witness a carpet of vivid green. It grows for a bit, and then it stops with the arrival of the short winter days. Winter wheat needs this cold period, and in the spring it takes off again, this time continuing its journey upward to becoming a mature plant with offspring of its own. We watch the stalks turn golden and the heads start to bend sideways, an indication that the seeds are ready for harvest. Then the real work begins (the labor that makes me doubt this endeavor sometimes!). We harvest, we thresh, we winnow. And then we have something amazing — pride in our work, a sense of accomplishment. Oh, and of course bushels and bushels of nutritious wheat!

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weighing the freshly ground flour to make bread dough

We haven’t purchased store bread in almost six years, except occasionally while I was pregnant with my now four-year-old daughter, when the smell of yeast made me even more sick than I was in general during those months. We’ve been grinding our wheat for the past two years, but this is the first year I will be baking extensively with my own homegrown wheat. The first year yielded little more than enough to save for seed the following year. We’ve been gradually building a supply of heirloom seed over the past two years, and this year there is surplus!

For many this journey may not be worth it, but I enjoy a challenge and I enjoy hard work.

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stretching & folding the dough before a second rise

We’ve always kept a big garden that provides fresh vegetables throughout the summer and enough surplus to put by for leaner months. Growing wheat has been something my husband and I have always talked about. I love the sense of accomplishment of working the land and producing food myself. It’s one of the few things that always makes sense to me.

There’s nothing more satisfying than the smell of baking bread. And there’s nothing harder than waiting for freshly baked bread to cool enough so everyone can enjoy that first warm slice with butter!

 

[edit: after posting this on Facebook, a friend commented with a link to this very interesting article, called Bread is Broken. It seemed appropriate to post it here as well!]

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four 13″ loaves, baked in un-lidded pullman pans.

 

Oscar’s Spectacular Soup

My son’s first blog post. He’s 7 years old. He decided a few months ago to make a soup, so I guided as little as possible and let him make all the decisions. He wrote down his recipe in his journal, and the soup tasted pretty good! Then we talked about how to improve the recipe for a final version and about the idea of making a big recipe poster as a homeschooling project. He liked the idea. He remade his soup, again with very little interference from me. The result was a delicious, simple soup, within the capabilities of a 7-year-old, and some good writing practice at the same time!

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This is my recipe for a really good soup. I hope you try it. There are a lot of vegetables included. I made this soup all by myself. I even cut the vegetables myself. We grew all the vegetables in our garden. I help take care of the garden. My soup is healthy and delicious.

Here is the recipe for my soup. Here is the recipe for my soup.

This picture shows me cutting vegetables. This picture shows me cutting vegetables.

IMG_2412 Here is my rough draft for the recipe.

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Keeping the Doorways Open

Mac Barnett, children’s book author and self-proclaimed liar to children, opens his TED talk with a quote by Pablo Picasso.

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth or at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.

I listened to a podcast of Barnett’s TED talk in the car recently. It was one of the most endearing TED talks I’ve heard in a long time, full of humor and sincerity and passion for his subject. When I wasn’t laughing out loud, I was smiling ear to ear. That he poked fun at Venn diagrams had me hooked on his sense of humor, but I also connected deeply with what he was saying. Art, books, stories, myths–they get us to a place somewhere between truth and lies, a place he calls wonder, a place where some semblance of the truth causes us to suspend our beliefs and embrace the story and the characters. We know they aren’t real; but we know that they are real. Stories are a doorway for us to enter into worlds where our understanding of truth can be beautifully and artfully molded. But as Barnett explains during his lively presentation, these doorways should not just be to allow us to enter; they should allow the fiction to escape and come out into the real world. He says that kids are the perfect audience for literary fiction.

Coincidentally, Barnett discusses his first job at a pirate supply store, a front for a publishing company and writing center located in a San Francisco district zoned for retail, because pirates happen to be the center of my own lies! The importance of art and authors and the work being done on Valencia Street in San Francisco merits discussion, especially in this time of academic rigor, a monoculture of standards, and the reduction of free play and creativity. But that is for another post. My story begins with a normal childhood obsession with all things pirates.

I think my son was around 4 when I began the myth I had been a pirate. His fascination with pirates, with treasure, and with the concept of exploration and discovery, led to treasure walks around our village. In his four-year-old mind, X naturally marked the spot so I would wrap pennies in white paper and mark the outside with a bold, red X. These I would carry in my pocket while we walked. It was easy to distract him while I tossed a wrapped penny into our path, or set one on a nearby wall or tree stump. It was also easy to direct his attention to these treasures should he miss one. He was four; the myth was simple!

His infatuation with the small treasures that seemed to appear all over our village piqued his curiosity and he began adding his own elements to the story, deciding that our house was inhabited by ghost pirates that he claimed must be the ones leaving the treasures because they knew how much he loved treasure. He questioned me constantly, and my mundane adult answers simply did not interest him. He ignored them and kept asking. So I told him a lie. I told him I used to be a pirate, and while I couldn’t be 100% sure, it was most likely that there were pirate spirits visiting us from members of my old crew. It was at that point that pirate messages began appearing under his pillow or taped to his bedroom door, always written in scrawling pirate script on torn pieces of paper, which I dutifully translated for him.

All of this culminated in a pirate treasure hunt for my son and a few of his friends. My son received a note in advance notifying him that he would soon receive a map by mail for him and his friends so they could locate treasure of their own. Years earlier, in my artist life before children, I had cast handmade flax paper, which was still stored in my studio. On this, I drew a map of our village in India ink, designating spots of interest that would be part of the treasure hunt. I antiqued the paper and mailed this to my son along with instructions for him and his friend to meet at a certain time, in a certain place.  This, of course, was our house, and the parents of the children were informed of the ploy in advance.

That morning, I left my son home while I went out and hid clues and small treasures at different locations around town. The children were given an initial clue, which upon solving would take them to a location in the village, where they would find a small treasure and yet another clue. There were gold coins in front of the bank, Jolly Roger flags by the flagpole at the school, a key at a local business, small shovels at the ice cream shop called Get the Scoop, and the final clue was from the village major who lived across the street from our house. He directed them across the road to follow the dotted line to the treasure.

My husband had secretly built a wooden treasure chest, which we filled with trinkets, fake coins and gems, as well as inexpensive compasses and telescopes. While we were out following clues, he buried the chest in a predesignated location and marked the spot with an X. The children were thrilled to see a dotted line painted across our lawn. They ran to follow it to the X, and immediately began excavating the earth underneathThe key they had obtained while clue following fit into a large cast iron padlock that I had found on Amazon, and that now securely locked the chest.

My son talked about this adventure for months, asking more questions, and being easily satisfied with quick answers, such as What was your ship called?”

“It was the Magnificent.”

His interest in pirates slowly dwindled. His fifth birthday party was pirate themed, but his intense interest in the notion of his mom as a pirate died away. He still has the chest and the lock, where he keeps his own treasures, but the cheap items from the treasure hunt gradually lost their appeal. It was obvious they were fakes and I didn’t expect the truth of the myth to last for long. There even came a time when he asked me if his dad had built the chest, a fact which I wholly denied! For a while, there was little talk about pirates, and very few questions.

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My son will be eight in January, and it makes sense that he doesn’t believe. But for some reason, he has rekindled his interest in my life as a pirate. He doesn’t believe (he can’t believe, right?); but he does believe. He wants to believe. I answered his question about my pirate name. I told him my pirates never use their real names. I was Mavis Dae. He asked why I don’t have any treasure. I told him pirates forfeit their treasure if they choose to go back to civilian life. He inquired about an old brass key we have in our house. I have no idea where it came from or what it’s for, but when I told him this he would not accept it. So I told another lie. I told him that when pirates hide their treasure they deliver the key to a retired pirate who has no knowledge of the location of the treasure is hidden or what it contains. I also told him that the map is delivered to yet another retiree, and that only the captain knows the identities of the two and that one day pirates might come looking for the key on behalf of their captain.

My son wants to hear stories about those pirate days of my life. He laughed when I told him how I had once tied the leather bootlaces of a pirate captain while he slept so I could raid his cabin, and how he fell flat on his face when he awoke to find my thieving and tried to stand up. My son keeps my pirate secret, but is thrilled to tell the story when I give him permission to tell it to a trusted friend. He still laughs when he tells the bootlaces story. I’m not sure if he really believes, but I know that choosing to believe and being part of this reality is more fun than not believing. And I will keep going with the myth, with keeping the doorway open for as long as he wants it that way. Because why shouldn’t children have the opportunity to believe in fiction, to embrace the magic that stories create?

In the words of Barnett, “It’s a little bit of fiction that has colonized the real world.” I hope that even when my son is grown, that the treasure chest his father built will still contain a little bit of the magic that helped shape his childhood.

Prepares Your Child for Standardized Tests!

I did a casual Amazon search for math curriculum that might help guide me in teaching my son at home. I wasn’t looking for anything particular, but one of the top results caught my eye. It was a DK book series called Math Made Easy. The previous link takes you to the second grade book, but all the books tout the same “benefits” of  buying this book including:

  1. Prepares your child for standardized tests
  2. Supports National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards
  3. Builds math confidence
  4. Includes parental notes and answers

So the number one reason to buy this book is to prepare your child for standardized tests.  It isn’t until number three that the book purports to help your child in any way! And this is a book intended to be used at home to practice skills learned in school, according to the description. That makes sense. The major skill taught in school is to do well on standardized tests. Forget curiosity. Forget the deep desire to engage in real learning. Nope, learn how to answer test questions. That’s all that matters, so why focus on anything else?

When one starts looking at curriculum products, it becomes apparent that the main selling point is that the products promise to prepare children to do better on Common Core assessments. Take the Ready New York CCLS products from Curriculum Associates. Of course their product provides “rigorous” instruction. But they go on to say “It Works!”:

In states like New York that are already using the program, Ready is already making a huge, positive impact. A recent study in New York found that schools using Ready had a significantly higher percentage of students achieving proficiency on the new 2013 Common Core state assessment than schools that did not use Ready.

There you have it folks. If your goal to to produce students with higher test scores, then Ready might be your product… at a price, of course.

Let me switch gears here for a moment and talk about one type of assessment that students are being prepared for in school. These are state-approved, third-party computer-based assessments that schools in NYS are required to use. They are often used for pre-testing, post-testing, and various benchmarking along the way. We already know that our schools have spent more to implement Race to the Top mandates than they received through the grant program. Part of the spending goes toward the purchase of a chosen assessment system. My school chose STAR, a product by Renaissance Learning. But this expenditure isn’t a one-time deal. These assessments require more computers and bandwidth, with constant maintenance and upgrades. The software itself is already becoming obsolete and Renaissance Learning is kind enough to offer current STAR customers an “affordable upgrade” to the latest STAR 360 products. Where does it stop? And when is enough simply enough? As far as corporate profiteering is concerned—never. And until the testing obsession stops, we cannot expect to stop spending for the latest technology and software to support the testing.

Read more about why I opted out of STAR assessments here.

Read more about these types of tests and the considerations about refusing them here.

And, more about these tests here.

The desire to produce successful test takers has led to various forms of celebratory dances, psyche-you-up songs (here’s another) (and another) (and yet another), the promise of special parties, and threats to take away privileges if students opt out. At my school, children in one grade were rewarded with over-sized, fake $10 bills for every ten points they raised their STAR score. The sad part was that the children were quite aware of where they stood in comparison to their peers.

New York State made history this year when approximately 200,000 students refused to take the state tests in grades 3-8. This boycott isn’t likely to subside anytime soon, but in addition to this type of opt out, we need more parents to ask serious questions about all types of testing being done in school and evaluate the so-called merits of these tests. Furthermore, we need more parents to say no to these unnecessary standardized tests and pound the nail into the coffin of corporate influence in our schools. If no one takes the tests, the assessment products are no longer needed as well as the supplemental test prep products and everything else tied to the culture where test scores currently reign supreme.