Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hangin' with the Kennedys

This is going to be a quick photo dump because we are way too busy for a blog post!  Kevin's sister Maxine, her husband Sean and their girls Rowan and Piper arrived on Saturday night:

 Within an hour of their arrival, it snowed!

Grand Central Station

An exhibit at the New York Public Library, Why Children's Books Matter

First crossword puzzle - she's hooked!

Lost BOTH front teeth in one week!

Harvest Feast in Holden's class

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Inside, Outside

Another week spent almost entirely with the kids at school, both inside and outside the classroom.

This was Open School week which means that for the first two hours of each day parents are invited to their classrooms to observe what goes on.  I spent an hour or two in each of their classes.


Ella's teacher is a bit more strict, shall we say, so I didn't dare whip out my camera in her classroom.

I was also able to chaperone a field trip in each class this week.

Ella's class went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and although we have a membership and have been several times, all the art that we saw was completely new to me.  They are studying communities in the class so our docents took us to see a piece of art from France, America and Africa for the kids to compare and contrast.

 Waiting patiently.

 Edgar Degas

 More Degas

 Edward Hopper

About half of the class had never stepped foot in the museum.  Shocking.  I made sure to tell them that they don't actually have to pay to get in, it's a Pay As You Wish museum.  They were all disappointed not to see the real mummies in the museum, so I hope they get to come back again with their parents.

Holden's class went to the Belvedere Castle in Central Park.  They are studying weather and I just learned today that Belvedere Castle houses several pieces of equipment to measure wind, snow, rain, cloud cover and visibility.  They are all connected to the internet and meteorologists from all over use that information.  Again, a visit to somewhere we've been several times but learning something new.

 Weather machines look suspiciously like UFOs.

 Ranger Rob

An official Nature Detective

We are getting ready for Auntie Maxine, Uncle Sean and cousins Rowan and Piper to arrive tomorrow!  And then Grandma and Grandpa on Tuesday night.  The kids are having trouble sleeping, they're so excited.

Holden being silly during Ella's piano lesson

Holden's impression of a Jack-O-Lantern

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Not All Sunshine and Rainbows

My first introduction to blogs was reading Mommy Blogs.  In case you're not familiar, they're not unlike this blog (although I've never thought of myself as a Mommy Blogger) where moms write about raising their children.  I quickly found them to be much like fashion magazines - fun to read but you feel terrible about yourself after reading them.  Those Mommy Bloggers always have the perfect children, perfect husband, perfect life. 

Then it occurred to me, they're not telling the whole story.  And neither am I.

Who wants to read about the bad stuff?  The challenges?  The failures?  I go to blogs personally to get creative ideas, to laugh or to learn something.  I have enough challenges of my own.  I don't really want to spend my precious screen time reading about some other mom's bratty kids.

So I'm going to write what I hope isn't a long post about something we're dealing with, in an effort to seem more real and to show you that life isn't 100% perfect in New York City.  Now don't get too worried.  All is fine in Skaggsland, as far as our family is concerned.  The problem is our school system. 

When Kevin and I started discussing our children's education when Ella was in Pre-K we were all over the place.  We were concerned about the current state of public schools (large and growing class sizes, low and continually decreasing funding, lack of innovative or progressive teaching methods).  We looked at progressive private schools and decided that not only could we not afford them (and California private schools are half the price of New York private schools), even if we could we thought sticking with public schools and using all of that saved money to supplement their education with enrichment classes and travel, would be a better use of our income.  When we discovered that we could give our children a bilingual education for free at a Spanish immersion public school, our minds were made.  It seemed the best compromise, although we still were hesitant.

We liked our elementary school in California although it still suffered from many of the issues we feared: no gym class, any art or music instruction was at the mercy of what the parents could provide or pay for via the PTA, no school counselor, nurse, assistant principal, nothing much innovative in teaching techniques.  But the school did the best they could and we did just what we said we would: we supplemented their education with after-school piano, art and sports.

Initially, when we moved to New York we were happy at our school.  We loved both of their teachers and although we were getting less Spanish (50% as opposed to the 90% of the day the kids were getting in the younger grades in California), the school seemed to have a lot more money.  We now have a gym teacher, computer teacher, art teacher (with an art studio), music teacher (with a music room), assistant principal, parent coordinator, nurse, counselor.  We were impressed with how much more staff was available.  The class sizes however, are even larger - averaging 30 children in a class (the younger classes often do have a paraprofessional in the classroom to help).

This year, everything changed for several reasons.  First of all, Ella is now in a testing year.  Third through fifth grades take a standardized test in March.  Kids in California also take a standardized test but the results don't really matter except to show how well (or poorly) the school is doing.  In New York, 4th grade test scores determine which middle school you go to.  Since there are only a handful of "good" middle schools and the bad ones are really bad (according to several parents I've spoken to), the stakes are incredibly high.  The pressure is put on the kids starting the first day of 3rd grade.  Ella is already talking about "the big test" and her class has already started working on practice tests. 

In addition, most schools in New York City changed their curricula this year in math and English Language Arts.  Three-quarters of the city chose ReadyGen for ELA at the suggestion of the Department of Education (and I believe they all had financial incentives to do so).  The problem is that first of all, ReadyGen wasn't even written yet when they all chose it last spring.  There are parts that still are not written yet today.   So no principal had the chance to even evaluate it first.  The other problem is that it is written by the very same publishing company (Pearson) that writes "the big test" so the curriculum is one big test prep.  Their workbooks even say Test Prep on them.  We've become the Princeton Review of elementary schools.  The term 'teach to the test' has never been more clear to me than it is now - exactly the opposite of the progressive education we were looking for.  Just more rote memorization and uninspired content.

As we are getting to know the curriculum we are also finding out that it is developmentally and age-inappropriate.  Don't just take my word for it, there are many blog posts and articles by New York teachers and administrators that say so.  Here's a particularly good one that asks, "Is 3rd grade the new 7th grade?"  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for raising the standards and pushing our kids.  This isn't that.  The upcoming text for Ella's class is Behind Rebel Lines, listed as middle school reading on every book website I could find.  The title sounded a little serious to me so I decided to read it over the weekend.  First of all, it's set in the Civil War, which hasn't been taught yet in 3rd grade.  The kids will have no context for it and no idea what the "Northern cause" is or who the Union or Confederates were.  The vocabulary is often much too tough even for Ella who is one of the top readers in her class and is reading above grade level.  More importantly, there is content in it that is just not appropriate for a classroom of 8 year-olds who still believe in Santa Claus.  A spy is executed by firing squad, the protagonist's former love interest is shot in the neck and dies, there are references to minstrel shows and blackface and even the use of the n-word.  I'm sure this is a good historical book for older children who have studied this time period and can put this in context, but third graders haven't.

When I met with her teacher to discuss this, she showed me much more material coming up that is much too advanced for their class - a biology book that has a diagram of a cell with about a dozen labels of its contents, material I covered in college biology.  A lesson where the kids are asked to write an essay comparing and contrasting two characters' methods of problem solving, without ever having been told what an essay is, let alone how to write one.  She is as frustrated as we are and agreed with me that the children are being set up for failure.

On top of all of that, since the curriculum and "the big test" are in English, Spanish is pretty much going by the wayside.  The teachers don't have time to teach all of the material in ReadyGen and still have much time to teach Spanish.  They're getting less than two days a week now, and my guess is that it will continue to decrease as we get closer to testing time.  And as I've been told multiple times now, the test is in English and teacher evaluations are now directly linked to how well their students do on the test.

This time last year, Ella loved school.  She loved math, science and reading.  Now she often fights going in the morning and has a completely different attitude towards school.

Holden's class, not being a testing year, seems to be doing better.  They're able to keep up the 50% Spanish, it seems.  But he is getting bored.  He has a large class and there isn't much, if any, differentiation going on.  If he has mastered the math or reading section they're on, he waits.  And waits.  And gets bored.  The homework he's coming home with is ridiculously easy for him.  I asked his teacher last week if everyone got the same homework.  When I told her that it was too easy for him (and I suspect what's going on in class is also too easy) she said she'd try to send home extra "enrichment" work for him.  I haven't seen any yet.  I'm not blaming her.  It's a very hard job to teach a large class of extremely different abilities and backgrounds, and then to do it in two languages.  I wouldn't want her job.  But it's still not working for Holden.  And I'm not even implying that he's some sort of genius, but the teacher has to teach to the least common denominator.

So now that I've broken my promise to keep it short, I'll end here.  For now.  Things aren't all perfect in New York City. 

Plus, I found my first grey hairs this week.

So there.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Calm Before the Storm

We are about to set out on a 6 week whirlwind of holidays, multiple flights to/from San Francisco, family coming to visit, and overall general chaos. 

So this weekend was purposefully quiet.

It was as though my Dad sent me two of my favorite people to visit this week to cheer me up.  First Cesar came on Wednesday and then on Friday I got to have dinner with my very first college roommate and very good friend, Aimee. 

We haven't seen each other in over 20 years and it was as though no time had passed.  We were super close in college but that was before email and the internet and Facebook.  So after many letters back and forth we slowly lost touch.  About five years ago we reconnected through Facebook and have caught up with each other's lives and families ever since.  So much so that we laughed over dinner at how much she knew about me and my family from following this blog.  It was so nice to see her and I can't wait to meet her kids and husband.

New York City really is the crossroads of the world.  We've seen so many friends, past and present, over the last year.  It's made being so far from home so much easier.

Once we spent the first hour of the day doing a "Power Family Clean" of the apartment that has been neglected all week due to my commitment to the book fair, Saturday was a nice, lazy day.  We met up for lunch with our friends "Maeve's Family".  We wandered for a few hours lazily through Central Park, stopping occasionally at playgrounds, to watch the skateboarders, or just to collect sticks and leaves.

Sunday was even more lazy.  I had grand plans that after Holden's final T-Ball game (apparently the coach sees a future in pitching) we were supposed to get the kids all gussied up and head to Central Park to take some photos for our holiday card.  But unfortunately even though Saturday was picture perfect, Sunday dumped rain.  :(

We took advantage of having nothing to do and did nothing.  The kids played some online educational games and Kevin and I read.  When we thought we were going to turn into overheated Zombies (we can't control the heat in our apartment), we bundled up and headed outside for some fresh air.


We wandered for a few blocks and walked by packed coffee shop after packed coffee shop (apparently sitting in a coffee shop is the thing to do on a rainy day in New York)We finally found a table and settled in.

Ella worked on a short story.

Holden finished his dinosaur book.

We've had a quiet night, enjoying the excuse to stay put and relax.  Kevin's sister Maxine and family arrive on Saturday and his parents arrive the following Wednesday.  

I'm feeling especially thankful for family and friends tonight.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

First Snow

I have a renewed respect and appreciation for working moms.  I've always been in wonder of how they get it all done.  Or should I say, how two-working-parent families get it all done, since all the housework is not the responsibility of the woman.

Anyway, I've spent every day this week, the entire day, at school.  This week is our school's book fair which I am co-chairing for the first time.  People, we have no food in the house.  We have no clean clothes.  For the first time since we got married, my bed stayed unmade all day long.  I feel completely disorganized.  I sent the kids to school twice this week having completely forgotten to pack their lunches (they are able to purchase an unhealthy lunch at school).  I spent too much on take-out for dinner tonight.  I only showered once.

I know that if I were to go back to work that it would settle down eventually.  I would get into a new rhythm of laundry on the weekends, buying groceries for the entire week on the weekend.  Making lunches the night before.  Showering more often.  But I am more thankful than ever for our well oiled machine of a family right now.  And I'm pretty sure Kevin can't wait for this book fair to be over.

In other news, we got the season's first snow this week.


It didn't stick to the ground but man was it cold out.

We also got to have dinner with one of my favorite people on the planet, my friend Cesar.  He was in town for work this week and we were able to get a babysitter and treat him to one of those cool New York bars with no signage and secret codes to get in. 

But the real highlight of my week was today's parent-teacher conferences.  For the record (and that's exactly what this blog is meant to be), I really look forward to parent-teacher conferences.  I know this may not always be true, so when the kids read back on my blog posts someday they'll know that I did once really love those conferences.  I know we all think our kids are awesome, but it's so nice to get outside validation and feel like all those boundaries and rules and consequences might have just paid off. 

Or maybe it's all luck.

Either way, I couldn't be more proud of my little Skaggaroos.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterinarian's Day

Another three day weekend.  Are my kids the only ones who thought today was Veterinarian's Day?

We started it off right with a date night.  Kevin and I had a delicious dinner at a vegetarian Indian restaurant in Murray Hill (aka: Curry Hill due to its high volume of Indian restaurants) and then met up with partiers Katharine and Paul at the same jazz club we took the kids to last weekend, Jazz Standard.  This time we shared a bottle of Champagne and listened to a fantastic trio.  It was so nice to have some grown-up time.

Saturday started off as usual, Kevin and Ella off to soccer while Holden and I went to parent/child yoga.

Holden on top of the triple plank pose

But first we tested Cousin Bonnie's recommended Oatmeal Hotcakes recipe and oh man....were they a hit.  Try them for yourselves.  Relatively healthy and so delicious.  Luckily I doubled the batch and was able to stick Sunday morning's breakfast in the freezer.
Once we were nice and limber we met up with Kevin and Ella and headed back to the Lower East Side to the theater we went to several months ago that performs children's theater in Spanish.  We saw a play based on a book that Ella's class just read called La Cucarachita Martina.

Big, big hit.  They did a great job of combining live actors with several types of puppetry.  And it's a very small theater, so there are never any bad seats.


As long as we were in the LES we decided we should hit the world famous Momofuko, famed for its ramen.  It did not disappoint and was worth waiting in the line snaked around the block for 40 minutes.

Sunday morning, after eating leftover pancakes (just as good the next day), the kids and I headed off to Holden's T-Ball game while Kevin had minor surgery to remove recurrent skin cancer off of his nose.  People, I tried to get a picture of him with his cute bandage across his nose but he threatened divorce.  I tried.

This was my view from my camping chair at Little League.  St. John the Divine.

The three of us hopped a taxi over to the East Side after the game and went digging for ancient treasures, of course.  Because going on an archeological dig on a Sunday afternoon is the kind of thing you can do when you live in the coolest city on the planet.


The dig is actually a recurring Sunday afternoon activity available at The Jewish Museum.  


The museum is housed in one of the oldest mansions in Manhattan, a beautiful space.  When we arrived there was already a fairly long line.  I figured it wasn't for the dig.  Turns out we were also treated to a Marc Chagall exhibit (I got yelled at when I tried to take a photo) and an Art Spiegelman exhibit, which Holden liked because Spiegelman is an acclaimed graphic artist (as in comic books).  I was sorry Kevin wasn't with us because he recently read Spiegelman's book Maus.

We had a bonus day together with Veteran's Day today.  Unfortunately, Veteran's Day is one of those "holidays" that Kevin doesn't get off work.  The kids and I enjoyed a production of the Shakespeare play As You Like It put on by local homeschoolers. 

The homeschooling community in New York City is pretty amazing.  It's not what we've been taught to believe homeschooling to be.  I was able to chat with a few moms and it turns out there are thousands of homeschoolers in the city and most don't do it for religious reasons but rather because of the poor state of the public schools, especially with all of the recent changes with the Common Core Standards.  And the city is such a wealth of education with many opportunities for children to take classes from history museums, science museums and art museums and local experts and artists.  Even the Center for Architecture and the New York Historical Society offer classes for homeschooled children. 

I was impressed at how well my kids endured the two hour, no intermission Shakespeare play.  About 20 minutes into it I thought for sure the kids would start getting bored and distracted and want to leave.  Quite the opposite.  To my surprise, they stayed glued to the stage the entire time even though they didn't understand everything that was happening.  I think the fact that the actors were kids like them helped.

And I'll leave you with our weather forecast for the week...I'm not ready for that little snowflake.