Friday, January 18, 2013

the school experiment

The demands on this Mama Builder's physical, emotional, and mental self are many. One of the most challenging lessons I've had to learn during the building of our home is when and how to say "no." It sounds cliché, I realize. A woman who struggles to say no. Come on! Think of a more original problem! Are you going to use the word "martyr" next?? Oy! I'll refrain from lingering on the "saying no" conundrum except to say that I'm a curious, engaged, ambitious person and I was raised in the '80s when the "women should have it all" concept was popularized. So, I guess I come by the problem honestly.

I realized with some regret back toward the end of last summer that I needed to let another thing go. Work was suffering. Home-building pace needed to drastically increase if we were to finish on time. Baby was getting more demanding with age. So I started looking into school options for the Boy Builder. We looked at private school, public school, homeschool cooperative concepts, private tutors, online school. No educational stone was left unturned.

We finally settled on the local public elementary school, primarily because of transportation. Tuition costs were another factor, but really it came down to the fact that public school offers bus service up our canyon. Papa Builder and I met with the teacher, reviewed the curriculum, and visited the school without Eden first.

We quickly realized we'd have to write off much academic progress for the year. The much-ballyhooed by the principal new language arts curriculum was uninspired. The math was stuff we'd already covered. No history at all. "Science" was a pamphlet of little activities that they might get to if they had time. Art was a once-a-month assembly with a parent-led craft activity. No dedicated PE teacher, and only once a week. Sigh. OK. We can let go. Allow Eden to enjoy the fun of the school environment without the pressure of academic rigor.

I asked questions about the discipline system and the teacher described a system of colored cards kids take for poor behavior and tickets they earn for good behavior. The teacher seemed a little intense and controlling, but she also seemed experienced and nice enough. Sigh. OK. Probably not someone Eden would create a strong bond with, but her room was decorated in bright colors with cartoon characters festooning multiplication tables and spelling words. It looked appropriately elementary school-ish.

So we enrolled and we all escorted (along with Eden's grandparents who happened to be in town) him to his first day. The beginning of our experiment.

First, the good: Eden's spelling has improved dramatically due to the routine of studying a spelling list and being quizzed on it once per week. Likewise, his handwriting. Our whole family found some benefit in the way school forced us to organize our time more than we ever had before. Eden was well-liked and enjoyed his classmates. The bus ride was regularly one of his favorite parts of the day. He liked playing organized games with other kids at recess and PE. He liked feeling smart and acknowledged for his smarts and helping his classmates. We got to see a compassionate, engaged, polite side of Eden that was brought out by the school environment that we didn't get to see as often in our homeschool setting. It turns out that Eden quickly learned how to do school-ish things like filling in worksheets and taking tests, which is a relief when we think ahead to events like college admissions.

Next, the bad: We started to see some issues within the first several weeks when Eden would complain about not being challenged enough academically. The early mornings, late afternoon returns, and demands of homework and eye patch time meant Eden didn't have much time for personal projects and our fantasies of extra science and math projects at home were quickly dashed. Every activity at school was followed up by a carrot or a stick and we were starting to see damaging results of this punitive behavior management program at home. The teacher seemed to struggle to manage classroom behavior and would say some pretty outlandish things like "I wish I were teaching you how to behave instead of your parents" and in response to some kids acting up in the computer lab "This is the only time I get a break from you all day!" She started taking away recess and PE time as punishments for bad behavior. Kids were made to sit in humiliating postures with their heads on their desks when they misbehaved. She changed the seating arrangements a couple times per week. She began issuing bathroom passes on a limited basis. Her "motivational" pep talks were more like "get your act together" diatribes in the ears of 3rd graders. She accused Eden, with zero evidence, of cheating on his book report. She did a backpack search of the whole class in search of Christmas ornaments from her classroom decorations (which were not found in anyone's backpack) and never told the parents about it.

Finally, the ugly: The issue that became the archetypal "straw" was group punishments. The teacher believes that punishing the entire class for the infractions of a few encourages kids to behave better through social pressure. The system was absolutely not working and was causing our relatively well-behaved, high-performing boy to feel like a frustrated failure. I tried bringing the issue up directly and was shut down. The teacher made it clear she does not desire our input as parents in an exceptionally rude and unprofessional way, while dismissing our concerns. The principal acknowledges some of the issues, but in the end, backs the teacher and has offered no further solutions. Eden asks every day if he can homeschool again and slides in an "I hate school!!" in every conversation he can.

Oh boy! Not the results we were hoping for from this experiment! After being "told off" by Eden's teacher earlier in the week, I was pretty emotionally riled up and needed to get some perspective. I've talked with a few friends, pow-wowed with Papa Builder, and sat with my own thoughts this week. In fact, we've taken the whole week off school. An inversion has set in, so it's much better up here at 8600 ft anyway. We're giving ourselves a break to reflect. We're also doing a mini homeschooling "experiment" to see if Eden can be a bit more independent than he was before so I can get my other work done.

This week has taught me some things. The most surprising of which has been that there's a large contingency of people who really want public school to work — for us, specifically, and for everyone, generally. I discovered I was feeling a lot of pressure from that contingency to overlook the problems and make this class work. I've been surprised by how often I have heard the term "socialization" recently to describe why school is important. (I mean, have you met Eden? This doesn't seem to be an area where he's struggling. <wink, wink>) I've relearned that my main responsibilities as a parent are to unconditionally love, stay connected to, and stand up for my children.

What's kind of bizarre, and I'm beginning to think not coincidental, is behavior problems I'd seen crop up over the last few months since the Boy Builder turned 9, have started to vanish. He's clearly feeling some relief. (And the extra zzzz's don't hurt, either.) Plus, I'd wager the kid has made more progress in math and science this week than the previous 5 months put together.

Likely, we'll be leaving our local elementary school behind for the remainder of 3rd grade. We're still working out the details, but we'll adopt a "community school" approach and find some outside cooperative resources to enrich what we do at home and give me a little extra time for my other responsibilities. During our experiment, Eden was tested for and offered a position at a magnet school for next year. We might give it a try. We did get some beautiful gifts from our experiment and have no intention of giving up on the system altogether. But, we'll be more discerning, more quickly next time.

I'm guessing that most public school attendees don't have as miserable an experience as we did (and, egads, some may have worse!), but I'm curious what others do who don't see any other options? Do they just deal and hope for a better teacher next year? It was alarming to me how desperate our local school seemed to be for the funds another student would bring. But there seem to be no resources to address teachers who clearly need more support. I have a new and passionate disdain for programs like No Child Left Behind that somehow confuse test results with education. Our teacher gets good test results from her kids and cares about her job, but is supported in using outdated, non-evidence-based, punitive disciplinary methods that have truly negative affects on kids. I have no regrets leaving that nonsense behind for a while.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

new year

Another trip around the sun is done. We've traveled approximately 584 million miles since the last December 31. In my own little corner of the universe, that distance helps put my own personal travails and travels in perspective. Somehow, embracing the smallness of my own existence — something I learned to do in 2012 — is comforting.

2013 promises to be the year that we finally move into our house. It has been such a long road, full of so much hard work and so many challenges overcome. The learning curve has been unreasonably steep. The investment of myself deeper than I could ever have imagined. I'm incredulous I could really be in the home stretch. 

But, in deference to another important lesson of 2012, I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself. I will surrender to each moment as it unfolds, doing my best to meet each new challenge with grace, dignity, and the best I have to give. I fail nearly every day at this, but perhaps that's the goal of 2013. To get better at meeting challenges whole-heartedly. And balancing that surrender with judicious ambition.

To forward progress!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

all thumbs

Balance is a fleeting thing. I yearn connection, but recognize the pitfalls of too much time online. The last many moons I've been limiting my Facebook, blog, and personal email time to down times when I'm nursing baby to sleep or otherwise unable to do something "more productive." The unfortunate fallout of this strategy is I rarely write because I'm limited to thumb-typing which is agonizingly slow compared to full-contact typing. Editing is arduous as well. But I miss this space to share. And I miss a place to record our little triumphs, setbacks, and milestones. So I'm in search of a solution. A new device? A new routine? Stay tuned... (And feel free to offer advice if you have some!)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

dear dad

Dear Dad,

I want to write you a love letter. I want to tell you how important you are to me, how much I cherish your influence in my life, how your love has been a guidepost, a buoy, a sentinel, a foundation in my life.

I am not a vividly visual thinker. My memories are more like impressionist paintings. There is color, an idea of a place and a cast of characters, an emotional landscape. I remember riding on a boat to an island off the coast of Maine, the feeling of the sea air, the wide open spaces and long vistas from that island, and the feeling of awe and privilege to find the eggs of a seabird's nest. I felt exactly as if I'd found buried treasure. I remember following behind your impossibly long legs as you cut the trail through a blizzard in New Hampshire. The snow was over my head and it was cold, but I felt this warmth of connection, like you could protect me from anything, like we were on this wondrous journey together through canyons of snow. It was exhilarating. I remember a rare afternoon of time alone together in our busy household of 5 (soon to be 6), deciding we were hungry, harvesting asparagus from the garden together, finding a recipe for hollandaise sauce, and discovering in equal measure the pleasure of learning something new, preparing a delicious meal, and enjoying it in good company. I remember my nasty, sullen, irritated (and I'm sure irritating) attendance in your seminary class in high school and how you generously ignored me and waited for my storm of adolescence to pass. I remember a service project for young people, helping a family move, where you encouraged and normalized my participation as the only female, letting me know incontrovertibly that I was capable as a girl. I remember the audio letters you'd send me in my first years of college, tying a loving tether across the many miles of separation, honoring my blooming independence and growing intellect.

I don't get much opportunity for reflection these days. Occasionally at 45 mph on the highway. Or in the twice-weekly shower I manage. Or the occasional walk in the woods near my home. Life is full to the brim. There is a house to build, a business to run, children to love and educate, a husband to support, and my own body and mind to care for. Something about my connection to you got me ready for all this. Moors me so the many demands of my very full life don't send me flying in all directions. And gave me the courage and the certainty that I can do hard things. Thank you for that.

We began our journey 38 years, 8 months, and 2 weeks ago and I'm so glad we did.

Your daughter

Friday, May 25, 2012

hike at day's end

Baby Builder has been out of sorts the last couple of nights. Waking more often at night, stuffed up and irritated, and nursing it all off. As a result, Mama Builder was a hot mess of craziness for the first half of today. After a few emergency measures to get me back on a (slightly more) even keel, we topped off the day with time outside.

The Boy Builder has taken on the responsibility of training me for my little wispy half-baked idea of a goal to run in the beginning trail runner events in Park City this summer, so he chose the course. The R-U-N series is still up in the air, my personal trainer has a tendency to stop the cardio abruptly to harvest mountain mint, and I mostly have to train with a wiggly and very cute baby tied to my torso, but what it wasn't in terms of solid training was more than made up for by being good medicine for my soul.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

last day of the season

The last day of the ski season at the resort is a local holiday. Most years, ts season's end there is still lots of snow and the promise of storms yet to come. Typically, it's not a distinct change in our alpine environs that prompts the close of the resorts, but warmer temperatures at lower elevations signal the shift; outdoor enthusiasts trade their snowboards and skis for bicycles and climbing gear. Fewer snowriders venture up the mountain and the resorts wind down for an interlude of end of winter rest while awaiting the arrival of the summertime hikers and bikers.

This year, however, in keeping with the unusually warm and poor snow year, Mother Nature celebrated the last day of the ski season right along with us. The sun was shining, temperatures soared, and the air felt practically tropical.

Celebrants drank more beer than was probably wise, pulled out their barbecues in the parking lot, and sunbathed on their lawn chairs as though on a seaside holiday. There were costumes, bedlam, and nonsense. People skied in grass skirts, bikinis, sequins, and outrageous outfits of all hues. The atmosphere was raucous ebullience with a hedonistic flair. So, of course, we couldn't stay away!
On the way out of the neighborhood. Notice the plowed road!
Blue skies and gorgeous clouds

Some of us catnapped in the sun

Hiking up to the "Dummy Run" on what remains of the half pipe

Waiting for the "Dummy Run"

Boy Builder on the left waiting for the "Dummy Run" with neighbors (Note the snowball in flight in top left of frame)

Resort employees make "Dummies" out of old skis, snowboard, and other junk to run down the hill while everyone throws snowballs at it; this dummy was not moving well on its own so someone hopped on to steer it

The dummies perform a small aerial flight at the end of the run, usually reducing the contraption to the pile of garbage at the end

Beautiful vistas and beautiful skies. You can see our neighborhood in the background to the right of the lift tower in the middle of the frame

Very last run of the season. Wish I had a picture of the awesome jump he did just after this picture was taken!

Sunset color display captured by the Boy Builder from the deck

warming up

It is spring. Oh yes, yes it is. Today the doors were open. In the middle of the day. And it wasn't freezing! The snow is visibly melting, inches a day. Our bodies are unfurling from the winter. My brain is dazzled by the possibilities promised by longer hours of daylight and warmer weather. The Baby's chubby deliciousness is enough to keep him warm without layer upon layer of clothing. The Boy is lured outdoors by the sweet smelling promise of photosynthesis. Forgotten detritus emerges as the ground disappears beneath our feet

Spring is generous and thrilling and delightful. And, to be honest, slightly terrifying. There's so much to be done and so much energy with which to do it. Where to begin?

This is the year the house will be done. This is the year we will move in and not ever move out again. This is the year I vow to once again spread my energies further than the reaches of my own nest. The building of home is where the buoyant exuberance of spring leads me.

While I take on mundane responsibilities like spring cleaning that can be done in fits and starts as the Baby Builder allows, others are finishing walls, finishing electrical, finishing plumbing, taking care of the details that are slowly but surely turning our construction project into a home.