Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Standardized Testing Can Bite Me


Ella left very excited to start her three days of state math testing this morning.  I guess I should be happy about that.  At least she's hopeful.  She really enjoys math and finds it much easier than writing.  I hope her enthusiasm persists for the entire three days.

I suspect that New York is having a particularly hard time with the shift in the pressures of standardized testing (some argue due to the Common Core, others say it's not CC's fault).  When I've talked with friends in California, they don't seem to be feeling the effects of the testing as much as we are here.  I believe that's because California hasn't fully adopted all the requirements needed to receive Race to the Top money from the government to improve schools.  So far New York has been awarded $700 million in Race to the Top funding whereas California hasn't received any.  According to my teacher friends, California hasn't implemented tying teacher's evaluations and pay increases with their students' test scores (nor should they).

Also, where I lived in California, when it's time for middle school you just register at your neighborhood middle school.  There's no applying to middle school (unless you want a magnet, charter or private school).  In New York City, the kids with the good standardized test grades go to the good middle schools (of which there are few) and the kids with bad grades go to the bad schools.  So all the smart kids (or at least, good test takers) are in a couple schools and all the struggling kids are lumped into the same schools.  Doesn't make any sense to me.  So New York teachers are forced to teach to the test to save their paychecks and New York parents are forced to play the game to ensure that their kid gets into a decent middle school (and then play the game all over again for high school).  The stakes are really high here for both the teachers and the students.  It's a crazy system that I am slowly making sense of and slowly figuring out how we can opt out until we move back to California.  I never would have thought that I'd be looking forward to getting back to California schools (ranked 47th in the nation in math and reading)!

Even comedians like Louis C.K. are frustrated.  Here's his Twitter rant while trying to help his third grader prepare for this week's tests.  Not only are the teachers teaching to the test, but the tests are very poorly written.  After the English tests earlier this month, protests of both parents and teachers alike broke out all over New York City when teachers spread the news of the terribly written and confusing questions they witnessed when administering the tests.  While Kevin and I don't care at all about these tests, nor do we care how Ella scores on them (she won't be going to middle school here), we do worry about what will happen if she goes into these math tests over the next three days with a high confidence level in math and then sees questions that are so poorly written that she can't answer them.  What will happen to her already fragile self-confidence?  It's not a risk we're willing to take for much longer.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Spring is a Tease in NYC

After the busyness of Grandma's visit and me with a bad chest cold, we laid low this weekend (which for us "laid low" means we only visited one museum and went to one street fair).

The weather was beautiful and sunny for the most part, except when it wasn't.  Saturday started nice so we visited the annual Tribeca Film Festival Family Fair.  It's a fun street fair that we went to last year that focuses on film making.  The kids got to do some fun activities and we enjoyed wandering around Tribeca with the streets closed to traffic.

Then it started to rain.  So we headed home and spent a fun afternoon warm and dry inside, playing Uno and my family favorite, Qwirkle, and continuing with the Cosmos series.

With my cough a little abated on Sunday morning and the sun back out, we wandered down to the Farmers Market in front of the American Museum of Natural History.  It's as though an invisible force of nature pulls us inside whenever we're within a half block of the museum because of course we couldn't be that close and not peek inside.  But what amazes me is that after dozens of visits we still manage to find new rooms that we haven't seen yet.

This time we made sure to find the Costa Rica section in the Latin America hall.  This would be a good time to tell you of our summer plans.  The kids will be going to a Spanish language summer camp in Costa Rica for three weeks!  The kids and I will fly down first and then Kevin will join us for the last 12 days.  We are all beyond excited.  The camp has a couple hours in the morning of classroom Spanish time, and then the rest of each day is filled with various fun activities such as surf lessons, soccer matches with local kids, visiting a local school, field trips to the rainforest.  I'm told that the camp counselors and teachers all only speak Spanish with the kids, so I'm hoping this will really bring their Spanish to a new level.

While at the museum we also tagged along with one of their hourly free tours, which is always fun.  They are called Highlights Tours and each docent gets to decide where they want to go and what they want to talk about, so it's different every time.

On this week's tour we learned about the tragic great bison slaughter of the 1800s.  You can (and should) read more about it but basically the railroad companies wanted to lay their railroads through the west which until then had been left alone by the white man.  The Native Americans who inhabited that land were in their way so someone had the brilliant idea that if they could get rid of all the bison (upon which the Natives depended for just about everything - meat, hides for clothing and tipis, horns and bones for tools) that that would solve their "Indian problem".  So shockingly, the US government encouraged the slaughter of American Bison.  There were contests to see who could kill the most and even special train rides where passengers could just lean out of the window with a rifle and kill as many bison as they could.  The American Bison population went from the hundreds of millions to about 800 in just 15 years!  I don't know the numbers of Native Americans that died as a result of the bison slaughter, but it must have been devastating.  This is tantamount to the Holocaust as far as I'm concerned and can't believe I hadn't heard of this before.

Again, we spent a leisurely afternoon at home, me drinking large amounts of tea to try to get my voice back, and the kids doing homework and practicing piano with Kevin.

Here's a duet Kevin and Ella have been working on.

The Big Test is upon us again this week.  Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will be the math portion of the dreaded state tests for Ella.  She's been struggling a little with fractions (specifically, putting a bunch of them in order), so we played with Legos for a while.


It seemed to help.

I also forgot to post photos of our impromptu visit to Kevin's office last week.  I realized while out on Ellis Island that I had forgotten our apartment keys and we had our piano teacher coming over before Kevin was to get home.  So that meant a trip to midtown to see Kevin's office and get his set of keys.


Frankly, I don't know why Kevin ever comes home.  His offices are absolutely gorgeous.  His company just moved into new digs a couple months ago that were designed by a famous architecture firm.  There is a beautiful fully stocked kitchen (the kids found the drawer filled with gummy bears) and a large screen TV with the most comfortable couch.  From his desk you can look right out onto the Chrysler Building next door.

As Holden said on our way home, "He's so lucky to work there!"

And finally, I just wanted to share two quick things with you.

First, this brain fart I had this week when I was about to pour out a half pot of leftover coffee: coffee ice cubes.


I've been tossing them in the blender with milk for latte smoothies.  I add some ground flax seed for some extra Omega-3s and occasionally a banana for some potassium and extra flavor.  Delish.

And this was my walk home this morning from school drop-off.

Today is a beautiful spring day although the forecast for the rest of the week is rain.  But with 70 degree temps... Not sure if I'll ever get used to the weather here.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lady Liberty

Monday was a rare sunny day in Manhattan so as much as I know Mom didn't want to run all over the city again, I couldn't let us stay inside on such a beautiful day.

The plan was to take the Staten Island Ferry round trip so we could just do a drive by of the Statue of Liberty.  Plus, the ferry is free.  But note to all tourists coming to New York City: the Staten Island Ferry doesn't run on Mondays.  Go figure.  So instead we did an official Statue of Liberty cruise complete with a stop at both Liberty Island (where she stands) and Ellis Island.  It was also complete with a lot of standing in lines.  If it was this crowded on a random Monday in April (Spring Break is over), then I can't even imagine how horrific the crowds and lines are mid-summer.  Anyhoo, we still had a fun day in the sun, on the water, wandering around the two islands.

Freedom Tower and Lady Liberty

But it did mean that Mom cried Uncle on Tuesday and refused to leave the apartment.  Fair enough.  We've run her 72-year-old body all around the city, up and down subway station stairs, and around monuments.  She deserved a break.  Plus, we had big plans for Tuesday night.

I surprised Mom with tickets to see Of Mice and Men on Broadway.  The fame of the two lead actors was lost on her, though.  She hadn't heard of either James Franco or Chris O'Dowd but seemed to really enjoy the play nonetheless.  They really did do a great job.

Stupidly, I booked her return flight to California for the same day that the kids had to return to school after a week and a half break.  Wednesday morning was rough, to say the least, with the kids in tears having to say goodbye to Grandma and having to return to class, which they most certainly did not want to do.  It was a long walk to school that morning.

I'm sure Grandma will sleep for the next week.  As she always says, she needs a vacation from her vacation.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Grandma's Here!

I've been MIA in blogland because not only are the kids still on Spring Break and we've been running around doing anything but hanging out in our tiny apartment, but my mom arrived in New York City on Thursday morning!

As usual, we've been running her ragged.  We let her rest very briefly from her red eye flight and then walked her through Central Park to The Metropolitan Museum of Art where a new exhibit on Asian Art just opened.  We enjoyed a nice lunch in the sculpture courtyard.

On Friday we took the subway all the way to the end of the line north in the Bronx and then waited in front of a Burger King for a shuttle to Wave Hill, a 28-acre public garden on the bank of the Hudson River in the Bronx.  It was formerly a country home built in the mid-1800s by a wealthy family.  Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain have both stayed in the house.  It was eventually donated to the City of New York and is now a cultural center and art gallery, with extensive gardens.  We were probably a couple weeks too early to see it in its full spring glory, but it was beautiful none-the-less.


That night we met up with Kevin for dinner near Lincoln Center and then walked through the center on our way home.


We woke up Saturday to clear and sunny skies so we packed up a picnic and like thousands of other New Yorkers, headed to Central Park.  On the way though, Holden insisted we pass through the Natural History Museum quickly so that he could show Grandma Dum-Dum.


Central Park was in bloom and everyone seemed to have a skip in their step.  The best part of living through a long, rough winter is feeling like you really earned spring.  It really does feel like a rebirth.  I've never lived anywhere where I had to appreciate the change in weather so much.

The kids hid eggs for each other and then when that got too easy, Kevin and I got involved.

 Frisbee session


When we were thoroughly exhausted and relaxed, we headed home and Kevin and I took advantage of having free babysitting and went down to TriBeCa to meet our friends Chantal and Brian for dinner at a hot new restaurant.

Sunday morning was Easter Sunday and just like Christmas, the kids woke up at the crack of dawn to see if the Easter Bunny came to our house (he did).  


We brunched at Sugar and Plumm which feels like you're eating in a Willy Wonka movie and then leisurely made our way to 5th Avenue.


The Easter Bonnet Parade is a New York City tradition that goes back to the 1870s.  Fifth Avenue is closed down to traffic and thousands of people stroll down the street to see fancy Easter hats and people watch.


And no trip to 5th Avenue is complete without a stop in F.A.O. Schwarz, the oldest toy store in the United States.


I hope you all had a fun and happy Easter, too!