Friday, August 29, 2014

Our Next Great Adventure

I don't really like making big announcements here in this forum.  It seems so dramatic.  And I don't like drama.  But our family has made a big decision and it wouldn't really be possible for me to hide it from you on this blog.  And I don't really want to hide it but I do have to say, I'm still embarrassed to tell people of our new plans.

If you've been a regular reader then you know that the last school year went pretty terribly for us.  When we first moved to New York I was pretty excited about the school.  I had read that New York spends six times as much per pupil than California.  Our new school not only had the Spanish immersion track that we wanted but also offered a lot more than our California school: a gym teacher (a gym for that matter), a computer teacher, an art teacher, a parent coordinator, an auditorium, and even a cafeteria (no, we didn't even have a cafeteria in California).  And while we were pretty happy with our school in California, we expected to be amazed by our new school in NYC.  Well, we quickly found out that more money does not necessarily equate to a better school district.  More staff does not necessarily mean better instruction, especially with teacher's unions (My apologies to my teacher friends who might disagree with me, but I've seen firsthand who they allow to teach our children.  I wish I could link to an email from my kids' science teacher, riddled with grammatical errors.).  And New York City especially is a very tough place to get education right.

First of all, there is an inordinate amount of emphasis on the annual standardized tests.  Teachers are teaching to the test because part of their professional evaluation includes how well (or poorly) their students do on the test. 

Of course children probably aren't going to do well on a test if they have a poor teacher.  But they aren't necessarily going to do well on it just because they have a good one.

Second of all, many parents are frantic about these tests because the scores will determine which middle school their child gets into.  Middle schools aren't assigned by neighborhood as they are where we lived in California (and I suspect most of the country).  You apply to them just as you do high school and eventually college.  And there aren't many good ones here in Manhattan.  Your scores on a test you took for several days when you were 9-years-old can make or break your future path in life.  No joke.

And so, it became clear within weeks of school starting this year that Ella wasn't going to learn much more than how to take a test.  She had her first of many practice tests in October.  The real tests weren't given until April, six months later.  And once the tests were over not much happened in school.  There was a lot of TV watching (Ella's class even watched a recording of the previous Superbowl).  Teachers cleaned up their classrooms.  Because what else matters but the tests?

And Holden had other problems.  Being in first grade and thus not in a testing year, he didn't have practice tests and his teachers weren't teaching test taking strategies (yet).  But he was in a very large, very diverse class.  Diverse means that there were children of all kinds of abilities: some reading, some not, some speaking English, many not.  And his teacher had her hands full trying to get every child over the threshold they needed to be over at the end of the school year.  It also meant that children like Holden who are bright and didn't need much from her spent the year bored.  Very bored.  It really was a wasted year for him.

But if those were the only problems, we might have tried to figure out a way to stay.  But there were others.  Oh so many others.  Some minor, some major.  A new principal who was in way over his professional head; a new 20-story building to be constructed right next door starting this fall; a PTA that had so much infighting and was so dysfunctional that an election had to be recalled and a new one performed amid accusations of racism and elitism; armed security guards at the doors screaming at parents as though they were the 6-year-olds; and one of my children's teachers telling me in front of my child that she doesn't like reading and watches a lot of TV.  The entire place was a circus by the time the school year ended.  And frankly, Kevin and I felt so guilty that we had left our children in such a terrible environment for so long.

We considered trying to get them tested for the Gifted and Talented track (The name itself makes my skin crawl.  The poor children who aren't in that class and thus think that they are neither gifted nor talented.).  But our children like almost all children have strengths in some areas and struggle in others.  Even if they tested in it wouldn't solve the issue of teaching to the test.  There is even more pressure in those classes to ace the standardized tests.

We looked at different public schools with a Spanish immersion track.  But again, any school in the city would be under the same pressure to have high scores on the tests.

We looked at private schools.  New York City has some wonderful, amazing, progressive private schools.  Schools with top notch teachers not protected by too powerful unions.  Schools that are not beholden to the standardized tests (and don't even give them).  Schools where children work in groups to solve problems, that teach children about social responsibility and the love of lifelong learning.  But those schools will put you back.  A lot.  The average cost of private elementary school in New York City is $40,000 per year.  Per student.  And I'd be lying if I said that even if we had that kind of money we wouldn't spend it on private school.  We would.  But we don't.

And so now you're either very confused or have figured out what our big announcement is.

No, we're not moving to the suburbs.  It might solve some of our education problems, but not all.  And it would certainly not make us happy.

And no, we're not moving back to California.  Not yet.

And since we're still only planning to be here in New York for another year or two, what we need is a short term fix.  We need to think outside the box.  We need to take their education into our own hands.  We need to get creative - just like we hope our children will do someday.  Every day, actually.

We're not putting them back in the school system at all this fall.  We've registered (as is required in New York state) as homeschoolers.

I heard that.  That audible gasp.  And I get it.  I would have done the same thing myself a year or two ago.  Homeschoolers connotes strange, unsocialized, religious fanatics (and the mothers usually have too much body hair).  But let me tell you that's not always the case.  And certainly not in New York City.  There are almost 3,000 homeschooled kids in the city alone.  That represents a 35% increase over the year before, so the number is growing and we're clearly not the only New Yorkers fed up with the current education system.  And their parents are not choosing it for religious reasons (Not that there's anything wrong with that.  It's no different than sending your kids to parochial school).  They are well educated people who aren't happy with the public school options and often can't afford the private schools (sound familiar?).  As a matter of fact, I met a nice man at the homeschool office the other day who said his wife graduated from Stanford and makes a nice living as a software engineer and they decided that rather than put their kids in public school that they would have him quit his job and stay home to educate their children. 

And these days homeschooling couldn't be easier.  We'll be using a tried and true homeschool curriculum from an accredited institution (the same one Obama's mother used when they moved to Indonesia).  So I won't be reinventing the wheel.  Holden even tested into third grade math even though he's only going into the second grade, so I'll be able to meet him where he's at rather than have him sit through another year bored.  In addition, New York City offers so much for their few thousand homeschoolers.  Most of the museums offer homeschool classes in the middle of the school day and there are even two different spaces in Manhattan that are designated just for homeschool classes.  Even businesses that offer after-school classes have realized the big market for children's classes in the middle of the day.  So in addition to the core curriculum that I'll be working with them on at home and that they'll be doing themselves independently online, they are also taking a course for homeschoolers at the New York Historical Society about the Lenape Indians of New York; a creative writing course for homeschoolers offered at Writopia Lab where all of their teachers are published authors; Ella will be taking a course on electricity, and singing in a chorus at one of the homeschool classroom spaces, again taught by leaders in their field; they'll continue weekly piano lessons (with teacher Dad/Kevin); and they'll meet with a private Spanish tutor twice a week.  And because we're nothing if not overscheduled, they'll both spend their weekends playing on soccer and Little League/softball teams.  They couldn't be unsocialized in New York City if we tried.

And the parents of all of these homeschoolers communicate and coordinate with each other through a Yahoo Group email list.  There are meet-ups, field trips, "not-back-to-school" picnics.  We're signed up to join a group to see The Marriage of Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera already.  There's even an annual prom and yearbook for the older kids.  They are a very organized, creative and tight group.  So really, the term homeschool is a misnomer.  I don't expect we'll be spending much time at home at all.

And so dear people, we are setting off on our next adventure.  As I said, this is a temporary solution.  We don't plan to homeschool forever.  When Kevin was interviewing a couple years ago with Al Jazeera America for a job in Qatar I looked into homeschooling.  I wouldn't have been embarrassed to say that we were homeschooling if we had moved overseas.  So we're looking at it like that - our two years overseas (in this case, we're living on the exotic island of Manhattan).  And now that we've made the plunge (Holden and I started two weeks ago) we are all really, really excited.  The kids were thrilled when we told them.  Neither of them wanted to go back to their old school and neither wanted to try a new school.  We'll stay in touch with old school friends and hopefully make new, like-minded friends along the way.

Wish us luck!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Boroughs That Start with a B

We stretched our boundaries this weekend and made it to two other boroughs:  Brooklyn and the Bronx.

We were invited to what was billed as a 'Family Barbeque' on Saturday late afternoon by one of Kevin's co-workers.  Since it was in Brooklyn we decided to head over early in the day (despite the overcast weather) and spend some time roaming around Prospect Park.


As you can see from the photos it's gorgeous and you would never know you were in the middle of one of the world's largest cities.

We brought along baseballs and a bat to get ready for Little League starting soon.


While the BBQ was delightful and his co-workers very friendly, we were in fact the only 'family' there.  As a matter of fact, Kevin and I were the only adults over 40 years old.  Apparently this BBQ was just for the editorial staff, a much younger contingent of AdAge.  We were also the only ones in attendance who didn't live in Brooklyn.  Our hipness factor lacked considerably.

While in Brooklyn we also stopped in to an independent bookstore (we can't walk by a bookstore without going in and unfortunately, without shopping).  I would like to tell you people that the independent bookstore is alive and well in New York City.  You see them everywhere.  As a matter of fact, they are still opening new ones.  One is about to re-open a couple blocks from our apartment and there's a sign out front that tells the reader that it once occupied that very spot several years ago before having to close its doors due to the Barnes and Noble opening down the street.  And it in fact was the inspiration for the movie You've Got Mail, written by Nora Ephron, a long-time Upper West Side resident.  I can't explain why bookstores have survived (and really thrived) in a place with even higher commercial rent than the Bay Area, but they have.

On Sunday we socialized with people our own age by meeting up with Maeve's family at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.  The weather cleared up considerably and the gardens were in full late summer bloom - absolutely gorgeous.

We are so lucky to have met this family.  Kevin and I get along really well with both parents and the kids all love each other.  A good fit all around. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

A "Big" Week

A quick end-of-week pictorial wrap-up.

Ella was in her Happy Place all week - her Make-A-Musical camp that she did last year.  Seriously, it's the happiest we see her all year.  It's a great small group of kids (almost all of which are the same kids from last year) and three awesome teachers.  She's been on a high all week.  I just wish we could keep her this way...

(Pictures are ones her teachers have posted on Facebook)

While Ella has been busy being creative and silly, Holden and I enjoyed a week of one-on-one time.  We did science experiments, played math games, read books, went shopping at the Farmers Market, checked out the new Spiders Alive! exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, and got lots of treats since Ella is on a no-sweets restriction this week (I won't say what her offense was but you know it was pretty bad since taking away Ella's treats is about the worst punishment you can give our sweet-tooth girl).

Discovered Macaron Ice Cream Sandwiches

A science experiment involving lily pads and surface area.

Discovered that our favorite ice cream shop on Cape Cod is also right down the street from us!

As a family we all had a great time on Monday night at the Central Park Film Festival.  This year's theme is movies filmed in New York City.  The only child-friendly choice this season was the movie Big with Tom Hanks.  It was so fun to watch it laying on the grass in Central Park in the dark, right down the street from FAO Schwarz, where several scenes of the movie were filmed and where you can still dance on the giant piano.

If you're looking for an easy and fast weeknight meal, here's what I threw in my blender and then poured (cold, straight from blender) onto hot pasta.  Total prep and cook time: 10 minutes (time for the noodles to boil).

A couple garlic cloves, 1/2 cup olive oil, several chopped tomatoes, 
big handful of basil and a handful of almonds (I toasted them first).

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I Wanna Wake Up in the City that Never Sleeps

Who knew vacation could be so exhausting?

There was no midweek post last week because honestly, all we did was recover.  We slept in (well, the kids and I did - Kevin dutifully woke at dawn and went to work), the kids played a new video game called Minecraft, and I did what needs to be done when you've been away from home for a month - unpacked, laundry, grocery shopping, housecleaning, blah, blah, boring, boring.  Plus, we had a bit of rain last week so it was a nice excuse to just hang out in our tiny apartment and plant our roots again.

No rest for the weary

We did get out early in the week briefly to see my old friend Celia (if you were at our wedding, you might remember that she read a poem) and her daughter Ariel, whom I hadn't seen in years and could hardly believe how big and beautiful she had gotten.  Luckily for my kids, Ariel chose to meet at Dylan's Candy Bar, a three-story behemoth of sugar that would make Willy Wonka swoon. 

By Friday our brains were back in the right time-zone and the sun was out so the kids and I made our way to the West Village for an amazing performance of The Lightning Thief, the Musical.  I was skeptical about the "musical" part, given the book it's based on.  It didn't seem like a musical kind of thing (but what do I know?  Rocky is now the biggest grossing musical on Broadway). 


Throughout the entire performance I kept regretting that Kevin wasn't there to see if with us - he would have really loved it.  So guess what we're about to do today?... See it for a second time!  It's that good (plus, it's free!).  Ella has read another series by the same author, Rick Riordan.  Kevin and I were so proud of her because each of the three books in the series she read were at least 500 pages long and filled with a complicated plot.  I've tried to get Ella to read this Lightning Thief series and Ella just rolls her eyes to the top of her head and sighs with exasperation of a teenager, "Mawwwwm, you know I'm into Egyptology, not Greek Mythology!"  Excuuuuuse me.  Well, I'm happy to report that after seeing this musical Ella is asking to pick up the first book at the library.

After the show we walked over to our favorite kids' book store, Books of Wonder, and spent literally 3 hours there reading.  When we saw a tiny mouse run across the floor and to the back of the store where the cafe is, Holden insisted we tell the store clerk.  He looked at Holden and said, "Welcome to New York, kid.  You're lucky it wasn't a rat."  I love New York.

Yesterday (Saturday) was Summer Streets - the day where they close off Park Avenue to cars and let pedestrians and cyclists run wild.  We walked a couple miles (while the kids scootered) and enjoyed the sunshine. 


We also made a pit stop at The Julliard School Store because when you're in need of good music sheets for kids, why not go to the source?  I may regret that stop because now the kids are both learning the theme song to the recent LEGO movie, Everything is Awesome.  Which means that I am hearing it over and over and over...

And finally we ended up in Bryant Park, Kevin and I reading in folding chairs we found while Ella and Holden rode circles around us on their scooters, all while being serenaded by a Frank Sinatra impersonator. 

It's good to be home.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Goin' Back to Cali

Are you still there?  Do I still have an audience?? 

After taking the longest break from this blog yet, we're back in NYC and ready to catch you up.  I could write a dissertation-length blog post about the last two weeks but I don't think you want that.  You people want it in a nutshell with a few good pictures, I know.  I'll do my best.

After a couple days in New York City unpacking from Costa Rica, doing laundry, and repacking for California we flew to SFO for a too short visit to see family and friends.

The first weekend the kids had some good one-on-one time with their cousins Rowan and Piper and Auntie Maxine and Uncle Sean in Berkeley while I had a fun and relaxing Girls Weekend in Mendocino with my girlfriends Cristy, Sara and Ingrid.  This is our 5th annual weekend away, which is amazing considering I live in New York and Ingrid lives in Niger, Africa.

Orr Hot Springs

Lawrence Hall of Science

Adventure Playground

Sunday was Grandma Terrie's birthday so we headed right up to Twain Harte.  My best friend for 35 years, Alyssa, met us up there with her two kids Shauna and Grant, and my niece Robin and her daughters Starry, Autumn, and Heather all joined us for a big birthday dinner.

Mom's first "selfie"
We had such a fun few days with Alyssa and the kids - playing games, boating on Pinecrest Lake, and Mini Golf.  Alyssa is trying to dig up pictures of the two of us playing Mini Golf on the same course 25 years ago.


The kids even painted Grandma a much needed new sign for her driveway.


We sadly left Grandma's house and headed back to the Bay Area.  We got more time with old neighborhood friends, I enjoyed a coffee date with my Book Group buddies, and the kids got a lot more time with their other Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt and Uncle, and cousins.  Kevin even flew out from New York for a whirlwind 48 hours.

Erika's 7th birthday party

Sleeping outside at Grandma's house in Millbrae

Mini Book Group reunion

Francesca visits

Highlands crew

The Pollocks and the McGilpins

Frisbee golf with the family

Skaggs-Kennedy "Groupie"

The grandkids do a show

As always, we returned home with mixed feelings.  It's always sad to leave California knowing it will be a while before we see everyone again and wishing we had more time to see more friends and family.  But after being away from home and on the road for over a month, it sure feels good to sleep in our own beds and get back to a regular routine.