Testing Time

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This week is the first round of the contentious State Testing that the kids at Noah’s school, and at public schools throughout NY state, must endure each year. In grades 3-8 (the children are aged 8-14) three-day tests are administered in the subject areas of English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics (and it’s three days for each subject). The kids in grades 4 and 8  have to take an additional (three day) science test, too.

These aren’t the tests that we parents remember from grade school–those end-of-the-week spelling quizzes we took on a folded-in-half sheet of lined paper or the photocopied ones that came from the teacher’s manual at the end of each math unit. These tests can’t even be compared to the more serious California Achievement Tests we were given back then (CAT TESTS–remember those?).

If you don’t remember them it’s because, all that time ago, elementary schools and teachers didn’t make such a big deal about things likes standardized tests. Yes, there were systemized examinations and, yes, they were annoying (though I remember them just being loooong), but the results of the tests were meant to offer a litmus test of the school’s rigorousness and a measure of the kids’ progress and learning in general and so therefore they carried little weight (or anxiety) for the individual students. Not the case for these Common Core English Language Arts and Math Tests (that data contained in that link is enough to make me start to twitch ).

For weeks Noah has been talking about these tests. He’s been annoyed by them (they’ve been practicing taking these tests since October instead of, you now, LEARNING NEW THINGS) (or playing outside). He’s worried about them (he likes to get good grades and these tests are intentionally tricky)(who ever said that overcoming trickiness measured future success? I think it just measures, well, trickiness). He’s also pleaded with me to get him out of them (there’s a whole movement dedicated to teaching parents how their kids can opt out of the things).

I’m not going to use this space or your time to argue for or against the politics of these tests. You can find a hundred thousand articles online and offline, that will outline both their evils and their usefulness. I’m also not going to get crazy (right now anyway) about the tests’ pedagogical value. All our lives we learn stuff that is meaningless and quickly forgotten and that is okay–vital to our sanity, even. Everything we do shouldn’t always be profound or erudite.

The thing that has gotten under my skin about these tests, however, is the robber baron of time that they have become. So much TIME talking and fighting and defending and preparing and scoring and reporting these tests. So much of the kids’ time. So much of the teachers’ time. And the parents’ and the administrators’ and the politicians’ time. So much time being spent thinking about these tests. Time that could be spent making art or music or poetry or planting gardens or reading to senior citizens or pulling weeds (of both the literal and metaphorical variety).

As I creep into middle age, navigating the inevitable passage of Time (time that seems to speed up incrementally with each passing year) has become the most challenging test I’ve ever taken. I cringe when I think of so many hours of our babies’ lives being frittered away so that there can be a record of how good each of them is at regurgitation stuff (by way of bubble sheets with number 2 pencils). What is the teaching in that?

If you read my post about homework you know that I think that downtime is as important (or more important) as any other kind of time during a child’s day. This testing business eats up kids’ time–time that could be spent doing a thousand other things–or nothing at all. That is the real kicker of these tests for me. The time suck of them. Because, really, what are we teaching kids about time and being present and living consciously when we force them to endure hours and hours of test prep? What are we teaching them about using their time wisely? What are we telling ourselves?

 

 

 

Italian As A Second (or Fourth?) Language

Mamma mia!”, “Ma… Cosa fai?”, “Come stai?”, “Via!”, “Va Be”, “Aspetta!”, “Capito?“, “Vai!”, “Cosa facciamo?” and many other short phrases are now part of the things heard coming out of our children’s mouths on a regular basis here at home, at school and on the street. These are often combined with a hand gesture that is internationally recognized as Italian, the one that involves pressing all your fingertips against your thumb with your palm facing upward, and shaking the resulting pyramid of fingers up and down rapidly near your face, preferably while hunching your shoulders up, and craning your neck forward so that your chin sticks out. Yep, that’s the one.  Another favorite gesture is done by spreading all your fingers wide on both hands, pressing the fingertips together, then shaking the hands quickly under your chin. This instantly adds a level of stupefaction to whatever you’re trying to convey. For example, when you add this hand movement to “What are you doing?” (Che cosa fai?) you could alter the meaning of the words to express “What are you doing, you moron?!” or more subtly “What are you doing? Are you nuts?!”, depending on your facial expression while  saying it. Unlike Stefan and I, the kids haven’t seen these gestures in dozens of different movies and TV shows depicting Italians or Italian-Americans, so they don’t think of it as ridiculously stereotypical. This is simply how their grade school friends and teachers actually speak, with their hands moving about constantly.

Every day I see that they are taking in the language (gestures and all!) little by little, but that doesn’t stop me from being taken aback every time I walk into a room where one of them is communicating in this brand new language. Sometimes it’s Leeloo trying to explain something to her good friend, Emma, who is just learning English (“Vai!, Spiamo lei!” which means Go! Spy on her!), or it’s Leeloo singing to herself as she does her homework, either a pop tune from the radio (Quando una stella muore, fa male…; When a star dies, it hurts..) or a traditional song that she’s learned in school (Era una casa molto carina, senza soffito, senza cucina…; It was a cute little house, without a ceiling and without a kitchen…). In all cases, she has no idea that she’s switched to another language, she’s not trying, it just happens. Another time it might Zoel at an event, like one recently where he was wondering around with his sister, and struck up a conversation with a grandpa and grandma that were listening to the live music. By the time I made my way over there, they had been talking for 15-20 mins, so you can imagine my surprise, when I hear everybody speaking Italian. It’s not very sophisticated or fluid speech, but it’s definitely Italian! They’re asking him questions about the States and about their first few months here, and he’s answering, sometimes stopping to translate for Leeloo when she misses something. The Italian “nonni” are being very kind and patient as they listen and carry on the conversation for another 15-20 minutes!

I hear them both coming in the door right now from school , and as Zoel bounds up the steps he’s teasing Leeloo saying “Tu sei una fetta di torta!” (You’re a piece of cake!) and Leeloo responds  “Cosa?!!!” (What?!!! -I see the accompanying gesture in my head.) When they get up to our home office and see the subject of my post, they gleefully start telling me about all the parolacce (bad words) they’ve learned at school. The most printable one being un pezzo di cacca, charming in any language.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this for us, the parents who have been trying to get them to speak Spanish and French since they were born with mixed results, is that it’s happening without any interference from us. They have Italian class four times a week, and that’s helping them to understand the grammar and pick up vocabulary. Then there’s the fact that the majority of the students in their school are Italian. We made a conscious decision to go with the least international school we found when we started planning this experiment a year ago, and I’m thrilled we did. It means that games on the playground, side conversations in line, chit chat in the cafeteria – the fun bits of school – all take place in Italian, and when language is a conduit to entertainment, it seems to be a pretty compelling reason to get in there and figure it out.

As they go off to play this afternoon, behind me I hear Leeloo asking Zoel, “Should we do dinner in Italian tonight?” I like it. Molto buona idea, ragazzi!

 

In the clip below, Leeloo shows how “Eh… Buona Notte!” not only means “Good Night”, but  also, “Hey, Are you sleeping or something?”

Here, Zoel shows off the ubiquitous Italian gesture of stupefaction:

Leeloo demonstrates what her friend says when she doesn’t understand something at school:

 

 

 

 

Homework Hubris

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Before Noah became a student at our local public school a year and a half ago, he attended a small, private, progressive one about thirty minutes north of where we live. A particular private school that not only avoids assigning regular homework, but also doesn’t administer tests. Ever. It was quite a significant transition: from having completely unsanctioned after-school time to needing to complete at least an hour and a half (often two) of homework every night–for Noah and for all of us.

This homework (that is compulsory and deemed necessary by the Common Core) that hangs over our heads every afternoon makes us turn grumpy and cranky and annoyed with one another almost as soon as we walk into the house after pickup. Our afternoons have become one long negotiation: Yes, you can have a snack and watch a 20 minute show on Netflix, but as soon as you’re done you need to start your math. Yes, you can go outside and play basketball with Jack, but only for 30 minutes because then you need to come in and practice your spelling words. Yes, you can take drum lessons/be in the play/take ballet/be on the swim team but as soon as you get home from rehearsal/practice/the training session you’ll have to SIT RIGHT DOWN AND DO YOUR HOMEWORK. It is a dispiriting routine for everyone.

The thing is, Noah’s a pretty good student and he wants to get good grades. The work itself isn’t really all that difficult for him, it’s usually just time consuming. And also boring. The worst part, though, is what I see happening to his spirit of inquiry (and enthusiasm for learning) when he sits down in front of thirty long division problems or six pages of comma-rule exercises. You can almost see the enthusiasm leak out of him. His shoulders slump. He scowls. His buoyancy just withers up and disappears.

Kids are born to learn. They are natural investigators. Hang out with any three year old for long enough and your head will soon be spinning around the sheer number of questions a toddler’s mind is able to generate (and the rapidity with which they can deliver them). Compare that to the experience of hanging out with a middle schooler. Only the most precocious will ask questions. Many will remain silent, fidgety, unsure. Sure, being reserved is a personality trait and the shyness of ‘tweens’ is partially the product of a self-awarness that comes with age, but I think the reticence of adolescents also has something to do with them forgetting how to ask things, of not knowing how, or learning, to consider. Most homework doesn’t encourage exploration, it only concerns itself with answers so, somewhere along the way, many kids stop asking and just start regurgitating.

To be sure, sometimes the kind of homework that children are assigned is flawed. Hollow text-book activities are not knowledge-inducing; the completion of a worksheet, even correctly, doesn’t necessarily mean a skill has been mastered. But my bigger issue with all these hours of homework is the time it burns up. The time it takes away from our time together as a family. The time it takes away from Noah’s after-school afternoons–time that Noah could be spending playing with the dog or painting or listening to music or riding his bike or laying on his bed doing absolutely nothing.

Busy-ness does not always mean growth, and saddling kids with work in order to “build character” only produces worker bees.

Yes, some things must be learned through memorization and rote practice and it’s important to understand that some work we must do can seem boring, and sometimes a worksheet really is the best practice for a specific task. It’s important for children to understand these things. I want Noah to learn these things–all the things–but I also want his learning to be laced with passion and delight as often as possible and the thing is, kids discover their passion during games of pick-up soccer by the river or when they teach themselves a new chord when they are messing around on their guitar. Kids find delight in mud puddles and hornet’s nests and in the freedom of walking to a friend’s house on the first afternoon of spring. There’s very little passion or delight to be found in homework just for homework’s sake. Or in assigning homework because of this basic distrust we’ve developed regarding our children’s choices during their downtime.

My problem with homework are the things it displaces–even when the homework is good. Freedom. Stillness. Time. Agency. The raw ingredients necessary for true intellectual and creative edification.

I Compiti/Homework

Homework? What homework? This is often my older child’s response when I ask if he has any work to do after school. And I’ll confess it freaks me out a bit. We’ve just come from a U.S. school where there was homework every night, and a special project to work on at least once a quarter, in addition to daily homework. Most of the time, it wasn’t overwhelming, rather a steady flow of occassionally interesting, but usually boring, worksheet-driven tasks. As our old school has gotten more deeply involved with teaching “Common Core“, it seems that homework has increased for Zo’s former classmates, and I read that that seems to be the case for thousands of kids across the States. The general argument in favor of the increase is that there is a certain amount of material that needs to be taught in each grade, and it simply can’t all be done during the school day. Articles like this one, where a dad attempts to do his middle-schooler’s homework for a week and fails miserably, and others like this one, that make the case for less homework, paint a different picture, one where the homework that’s being assigned is not only excessive but counterproductive, and sometimes actually hurtful. Yet, I cringe a bit every time my son says he has nothing to do, or has homework that takes him all of 10 minutes to complete. I can see that, through school, his hobbies and life in general, his knowledge about the world, as well as his confidence about his place in it, keeps on growing, so you’d think that’d be enough for me to relax. Alas, I only partially succeed in being cool about it. The rest of the time, I make him spend time on Khan Academy practicing math skills, and plot other ways for him to exercise his brain without noticing!

For my younger child, who’s in second grade, things have been seemingly more balanced. She has weekly homework, which she tackles enthusiastically, probably because most of it is very thoughtful. It usually includes reading a book of her choice and responding to a question about it, and doing an exercise having to do with her particular unit of inquiry that month. (For example, this month is about buildings, their design, construction and impact on people.) The unit homework  is usually connected to the real world, which makes it much more fascinating to a seven-year-old. But if they could just a do a bit more math… I guess that’s the rub. There’s always more that could be done. What I’m learning (albeit slowly) is that I’m much more concerned with the quality of my kids homework, having it be relevant and interesting work, than with the quantity (same goes for their classes!) At the moment, I’ll take a little quality work, over a ton that’s of varying quality or worse yet, just mindless. I can always devise a little challenge here or there!

How’s homework going at your house? What’s working for you? Or what’s not working that you wish you could change?

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Viva Viva Il Carnevale!

As in all Lent-lovin’ countries, it’s carnival time in Italy! It’s actually the tail end of carnevale, but since our kids’ school was on winter break last week, they’re having their celebrations this week. Up until now, carnival for me has been synonymous with the Brazilian and Caribbean festivities, and all those scantily clad humans in warm climates, shaking what the good Lord gave them. There’s a bit more clothing involved here in Italy, but parades, parties and music abound. Some of the most popular events are hosted in Northern cities close to Bologna like the Carnevale di Viareggio. The most famous of them all, of course, is the Carnival of Venice, where from its inception in 1268, disguises and masks have featured as an important part of participation. For a concert performance and party this week, our school is taking inspiration from this centuries-old tradition, and has asked the children to dress up as one of the masked characters typical of Italy’s Commedia dell’arte. From what I understand, this is a type of theater, popularized in the 1600s, that used a stock list of characters to tell all kinds of stories. Leeloo has chosen to dress as Colombina, a comic and flirty servant girl who is often the unanticipated smarty in the crowd. Zoel has opted for Meneghino, another witty servant, who is known for his sense of justice and satire against the powerful. Other well known characters include Arlecchino (also known as Harlequin), Pantalone, Il Dottore, Il Capitano, Pulcinella, La Signora, and many others. Being new to all of this, we had no idea that families actually take all of this dress-up quite seriously, and that they had bought costumes a month ago, or have made plans to rent them this week! So since stores have now put away their stock of carnival paraphernalia, our mission is to re-create these two legendary characters from whatever we can find at home. I’ll let you know how it goes!

 

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IB Units of Inquiry – A Different Way to Learn

 

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Nana comes in to school, to the delight of the 5th grade, after discussing her personal migration story via Skype earlier in the year. Other speakers included migrants from Sri Lanka, North Africa and France. The students wrote reports on each and followed migration in current events as part of this unit of inquiry.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, our kids are in the midst of their first year at an IB (International Baccalaureate) School. One of the main tenets of their education philosophy is that children are “naturally inquisitive and will learn most effectively through inquiry driven curriculum”, so as a result, Zoel and Leeloo spend a good part of each day, you guessed it, inquiring. About what you may ask? Well, each grade has six pre-determined subjects into which they will inquire over 6-week sessions during the school year. For example, Leeloo who is in 2nd grade has tackled: Where in the World Are We? (a study and comparison of places and cultures around the world); The Arts (a look at different ways in which humans express themselves); Communities (research into how people work together to provide services and meet people’s needs); and she’s presently working on Buildings, a study about the design of structures and their impact on our life. Zoel, who is in 5th grade, has been looking into: Body Systems (a study of the body systems and personal health); Migration (a look at historical and present day migration, its causes and effects, challenges and opportunities); Identity, (research into how people present themselves, the impact of cultural and societal norms, how identity changes over time); and he’s now working on Governmental Systems, how different systems work and their impact on people and institutions around the world. Last I checked, he had been named head of the 5th grade Communist party (Since my mom and I presented our family’s experience with Communism to the class in the Fall, I choose to think that this is his teacher’s way of having a little fun with me.)

When they’re working on these units, there is a lot of discussion, expressing of opinions, research, student and expert presentations, and the creation of materials relevant to the topic, but there are not a lot of worksheets, quizzes or otherwise easily gradeable stuff. In fact, there are just two report cards per year, one in December and one at the end in June. The result is the loosey goosiest year of my kids education to date, and that may be why Noah’s new online progress reports (that Christine mentioned yesterday) with all their detailing of quizzes, modules, packets, and the like, initially seemed so appealing. From over here, a bastion of bureaucratic incompetency, it looks so magnificently efficient and organized. I’m sure the Italian and International parents at our school would oh and ah at it, marveling at the ingenuity and modernity of those Americans. But in the end, although I do so miss the efficacy of our culture, I’m still with Christine on this one. I don’t think I want to be able to dissect my kids’ world at that level (although I understand why it would be tempting with such a splendid spreadsheet at your fingertips!)

I’m uncomfortable with the Orwellian aspect of it, but I’m also wary of the backend that has to exist in order for this data monster to work. It requires input that can easily be expressed numerically, and I think by definition that means more things done via worksheets and packets that can be graded swiftly (How do teachers do this much grading and still have time for teaching?) Since a school day can only be so long, I suppose that means less taught in a more hands on way, with students researching and discussing their way through a new topic or a confounding problem, building and creating to understand subjects or  taking time to go down deadend roads only to be gently guided back by teachers or other knowledgeable folks. This more interactive way of teaching and assessing is definitely more subjective and would be very difficult to capture on a database.

This is not to say that our new school’s system is perfect. One negative of all this inquiring (and also of its international, multilingual nature) is that some basic skills in the areas of math, reading and writing can get lost in the mix, and because there are only two marking periods a year, it’s really up to the parents to be vigilant, even deciphering the grunts of a tired tween, so that they can wave a flag if they see their child has missed something. We’re lucky that both of our kids have come here with a very solid start in the basics (Thank you Garrison School!), so that they can take full advantage of the pool of knowledge and culture they get to dive into while inquiring. Perhaps because of that foundation, I can feel totally comfortable with nothing but their reactions to what they’ve done in school on a given day as my progress report. This week it’s been Leeloo’s glee at being able to present to her classmates her favorite building in the world, Prague’s Dancing House (Dad is appalled that she’s discovered and loves Frank Gehry, but these are the perils of autonomous research.) And for Zoel, the joy came from creating a propaganda campaign for his Communist party and winning the primary elections in the elementary school (Mom is appalled and has made a pact with son not to speak of this, ever, to his Cuban exile grandparents.) So far, we’re doing okay with limited information, and were thrilled they keep asking questions.

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As part of the unit of inquiry having to do with communities, the 2nd graders wrote and perfomed a play about the different roles that people play in a community. Here Leeloo, the local obstetrician, helps deliver her friend Isabella’s baby, with a plastic knife no less!

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Almost out!

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Elementary school students watch the delivery! A riveting Friday morning assembly!

Report Card Rumination

Each (school)year at Noah’s middle school is divided up into four marking periods. At the end of each quarter, test and project scores are tallied and averaged and a report of a student’s grades is sent to his or her parents. This year, unless otherwise requested, middle school parents are receiving their child’s report cards (though I think they are technically known as ‘progress reports’ these days) via email. Gone are the days of crumpled yellow envelopes in backpacks and a teacher’s perfect script cataloging tardies and sharing comments about lunch room antics. Gone is also any kind of suspense or doubt. I receive automatic updates of Noah’s “progress” via email bulletins each and every week, so his end-of-the-quarter grades are hardly a surprise.

(click image to enlarge)

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reportcard hrThrough a parent/teacher/student information portal system called Powerschool I have 24- hour access to Noah’s permanent record. I can log onto his account at anytime for an up to the minute report that details his attendance, math quiz scores and whether or not he turned in his homework that day. Teachers are required to upload, in real time, a child’s attendance each period of every day, mark off every single completed (or incomplete) homework assignment and post test scores as soon as they are available. Very brief commentary is included from time to time.

I feel conflicted about this data-sharing system, which feels big-brotherly in both its reach and its anonymity, because it supplies parents with some useful information, too. To be sure, Powerschool provides an efficient way for parents and teachers to stay connected to one another and to the quantifiable elements of a child’s education. Middle schoolers are notoriously surly and secretive and sometimes “fine” is the only response you can coax out of one of them on the walk home from school. To be able to determine, ahead of time, that their crankiness might be due to a poor science grade or a forgotten current events assignment or an upcoming test can help bridge the ever-widening dialogue gap that can begin to form between adults and adolescent kids. It can also help parents spot subject areas that might be more difficult for a child and determine points of concern before they turn into full blown problems.

Checking a kid’s “progress” too often, though, knowing too much about what might be going on in another person’s life, also seems a lot like stalking. I rarely log on to Noah’s account because, even though he knows I have the password–his TEACHERS have the password–I always feel like I’m breaking some kind of trust pact with him when I do. I want Noah to understand that I am confident in him. That I know that he will to talk to me when things get to be too much for him to handle on his own (he typically shares the good stuff right away). I also want him to know–to feel–that he has ample time and space to learn, to assess situations, to figure out ways to fix things that need fixing and then determine how and when to talk to me about them, without me breathing down his throat (armed with reams of data, no less).

If Noah wasn’t such a talker to begin with (and not such a momma’s boy) I might not be so insistent about this self-sufficiency business regarding his grades. But, to me, the most important elements of an education (i.e. character development, collaboration, reflective practices, finding inspiration, starting to recognize who you are) can’t be recorded on a data program anyway. All the kinds of learning that isn’t quantifiable, like negotiations in the locker room and playground politics and which table to sit at (or avoid) in the lunchroom, Noah has no other choice but to manage on his own. If he thinks I’m constantly monitoring his every action, if he’s waiting for me to notice when he’s off track and then correct his course, how will he ever learn to navigate the world on his own? How will he ever understand that he must learn listen to himself above all else?

If anything I’m a hovering parent. I’m not good at risk taking (or watching my kid take them) but with each passing day–as Noah continues to talk to me and share moments of his life: that he got a 98 on the science test and that he was chosen first for the four square tournament and, yes, that he forgot to hand in his homework because he was too busy figuring out the brackets for the four square tournament, I’m reminded that this child of mine isn’t really mine. He’s mine in as much as it is my responsibility to help him become the best, most Noah he can possibly be, but my role isn’t loitering around every corner of his life. My job is to helping him stock his toolbox with the very best implements, demonstrate everyday kindness and instill in him faith and hope and the certainty that I believe in him. No matter what the data says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Middle School a la Americana

Date: September 6, 2013

Time: 7:35am

Place: Haldane School (a New York State public school)

Attire: Comfy-casual. “No tank tops, no flip flops, no gum, no hats.”

Setting: Brick, multi-level institutional structure built in 1936. The campus overlooks the Hudson River in the village of Cold Spring, NY.

Vibe: A tailgate party wearing your favorite team jersey and running shoes without the keg or grilled bratwurst.

Overall feeling: Nerves + Excitement.

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Official Middle-Schooler

In the run-up to the first day of school last September, it seemed hardly to matter that it was my son who would be starting the sixth grade. I was carrying around enough anxiety and dread for the both of us, plus three. There were supplies to buy and a new backpack to pick out. I had to be sure that each of the 376 forms that had come in the mail over the summer were filled in and signed and clipped together in a neat stack. I stocked up on organic fruit snacks and biodegradable waxed paper sandwich bags. I made a copy of Noah’s schedule and stuck it to the fridge. And then I realized my fervor was starting to sound quite similar to the chopping noise that helicopter rotors make.

It’s good parenting to pack a smiley-face love note in your first grader’s lunchbox. It’s ridiculous to consider doing it once his voice has started to deepen and crack.

But for many parents, Middle School in the U.S. serves as a zeitgeist for the very worst of adolescent behavior and development. We imagine lockers filled with drugs and booze and hallways brimming with sex, tattoo needles and bullying. I still remember the terrifying rumors about my own junior high school in rural upstate NY: tales of kids being dangled over the third floor railing for daring to wear a Red Sox t-shirt in Yankee country; speculation about why the tile floor in the tiny bathroom next to the boys locker room was always wet and sticky; the smell of Captain Morgan’s and Marlboros oozing out of the trash can by the pool. And that was the ‘80s! When the worst crime my parents could pin on my beloved Duran Duran Wild Boys was a mild concern that they might be gay. And they couldn’t even Google the band to find out for sure.

No doubt, middle school in America remains a precarious time for kids and parents alike. Readily available to adolescents in 2014: the internet, texts, sexts, free downloadable porn, violent video games, snorting Adderal, snorting Smarties, weapons for sale at Walmart and an abundance of fattening, sugary snacks that cost a quarter. And these are just the things that we have to look out for. What about the stuff that is missing? Classes focussing on character development & sexuality education, required foreign-language studies, (required) arts and music instruction, adequate physical activity and, maybe most important, unscheduled time so that those youthful, burgeoning imaginations can run free.

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Noah’s art work from school on display at a local show.

Luckily for Noah (and for me) our tiny village, along with its neighborhood school, are fantastically serene. From a safety standpoint, there’s really nothing for me (or him) to worry about (though we’ve both learned that even the most guarded innocence can be stolen in the blink of an eye). Sixth, seventh and eighth graders are housed in the same building as the elementary school kids (the high school is a bit further up the hill). Noah will have art class and music lessons and band and P.E. In fact, the middle school is really just a separate warren of hallways that are mirrored replicas of the ones the children have been scampering around since they were five.

Perhaps the one negative: the middle school day here begins an hour earlier than the elementary school. Class starts at 7:35am. Yep. 7:35. There’s nothing like kicking the day off with the queasiness of jet lag (and the near darkness that marks the frozen mornings of January). I cannot imagine the din of energy that trails a group of sleep-deprived, probably hungry (who can eat anything at dawn?) pre-pubescents as they rattle past and bang into one another every morning, fiddling with locker combinations and trying to find their math books. With warning bells and final bells and announcements sounding over the loud speaker at regular intervals it must seem like an air-raid at sunrise. It’s a good thing Noah had all that training with the helicopter last summer.

 

Even though it’s been several months, when I remember his first day of middle school I am happy to report it went, well, better than expected:

It was a bright Friday morning (don’t ask, something about state aid and snow days) when Noah and I made the short, silent ride up the hill to campus. En route, he checked his bag. I checked the lump in my throat (as well as my impulse to drive him, instead, to Chuck-E-Cheese). His knee bounced to the pop-rock radio station. I bit my lip and managed to tearlessly ask, “Are you ready?”

He said: Yes. Mom. I’m fine.

Great. Me too. I told myself.

When we got to the drop off circle, yellow busses were discharging hoards of kids onto the huge, impossibly green lawn. The sound of all those voices shrieking hello to one another and the sight of gangly, awkward bodies dragging huge bags of notebooks and folders behind them was enough to make me forget, for a moment anyway, my worries about the evils that might be lurking nearby. (I pointedly ignored the sheriff’s car that’s been tucked into a side parking lot since the day after Newtown as well as the ominous load of smoky teenagers roaring up the hill. I even made peace with the presence of the vending machine in the basement. One that dispenses bags of Doritos and cans of ice-cold Coca-Cola.)

Noah and I said goodbye and, as he got out of the car, his sweet face took on its countenance of nervousness, tinged with a brightening excitement I could see pulsing around his eyes. He slammed the door–his attention already immersed in that sea of friends and possibilities–and all there was left for me to do was go home. As I slowly drove back towards the river I felt, for that four minutes anyway, a sense of relief. We had made it. Inevitable though it was, Noah made it to Middle School.

There wasn’t a note in his lunchbox, of course, but he had tucked an extra copy of his schedule into the back pocket of his new cargo pants. In the corner, I had drawn a little smiley face.

 

 

Gli Americani Start School in Bologna

Date: September 2, 2013

Time: 8:50am

Place: PreK – 12 International School

Attire: Warm weather uniform, school polo shirt and navy blue bottoms.

Setting: The inner courtyard of an ex-abbey on a narrow cobblestone street in Bologna’s historic center.

Vibe: Friday cocktails at an outdoor terrace minus drinks plus 175 screaming children.

Overall feeling: Nerves + excitement.

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ok, this is very nice. can we go home now?

Finally! After a long, hot summer in Bologna’s countryside, our 5th and 2nd graders started school at the beginning of September, in the city’s historic center. The school is an IB (International Baccalaureate) World School that teaches in English but includes daily Italian instruction for foreigners. This place was a big part of our decision to live in Bologna instead of somewhere else in Italy. We loved the fact that almost 70% of the kids are Italian, which we found out along the way is not the norm for an international school here. Most are filled, I guess not too shockingly, with ex-pats from all over the world.  (Similarly, when we were scoping out places to live, Bologna stood out from the rest precisely because it’s a beautiful, historic city that’s filled with Italians, instead of millions of tourists and international folk. Despite it’s fame within the country as the culinary capital of Italy, it seems to be off the map for most travelers.)

For a few years, IB schools had been luring me in, with their focus on being internationally-minded, and their mission to develop people who are: “Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Principled, Open-minded, Caring, Risk-takers, Balanced and Reflective.” That seemed pretty awesome. Now, we have a chance to see if all this wonderfulness is actually possible or just a bunch of pedagogical hooey. Coming from a good New York public school, it will at least be very interesting to see what happens when you lose all those practice worksheets and some of that teacher-led curriculum, and let the kids take the reigns sometimes.

On this first day of school, alarms rang at 6:45am, which is not that big of a deal for my son, Zoel, the early-riser of our clan, but for the rest of us, OUCH. None of us had seen this time of day since June. It was 7:15 before we were out of bed (Zoel was already dressed and ready to go.) Nervousness, excitement and curiosity were on the menu for breakfast, and I was just as tweaked as the kids, partly because I knew it was a big deal for them, but also because I was/am so incredibly jealous of them and the opportunity to dive into a different culture and language within a totally new learning environment. (I’m a geek who would be happy to wonder the halls of academia for life, so this kind of thing gets me going.)

We managed to leave our house in Casalecchio early, fearing that if we got stuck in traffic, or couldn’t find a non-resident parking spot, we would miss the starting bell. (Only residents of the school’s neighborhood in Bologna’s ‘Centro’, which lies within the city’s 12th century wall, can drive and park freely in the area. Visitors to the ‘hood share a limited number of pay-to-park spots and can only drive on a few streets.)

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getting used to not having a dryer.

Luckily, traffic was fluid and a parking spot was waiting for us, so we made our way over to the tiny cobble-stoned street where the school is with time to spare. As we turned down the block, we saw the large, red-brick facade and giant archways of the school building, which had been used as an abbey for centuries. Its solid nature and historical architecture made us feel like we were entering a very special place. The central courtyard of the building, which serves as the school’s playground, was packed with uniformed children and well-dressed parents, no sweats or yoga pants to be found! Perfectly coiffed dads and moms and fully made up faces greeted each other with wide smiles and happy, if incredibly loud, voices. My son yelled (to be heard over the rumble of Italian chatting) “There are too many children in here!”, and Leeloo hid behind one of my legs while explaining calmly that she was feeling a bit nervous, and that perhaps we should re-think this whole thing. Her momma was feeling the nerves too. For a second I thought maybe we were asking too much of these little people, but then I reminded myself that they’re tougher than they look, and that kids have the power to adapt to new things in a way that is difficult for us old people. I went to work reassuring them that all would be well as we checked out all the new faces. Soon, Leeloo, my daughter, was up on the chain link bridge with wooden planks surveying the scene from above. While I started thinking about the extra time I needed to start putting into my outfit choices in the morning.

We sprang to attention when an 8 or 9 year old girl with a head of messy blond hair, rang a big brass bell. Parents and children hustled to their proper places. Zoel lined up single file with the 5th graders and Leeloo with the 2nd graders, all behind their respective teachers. The whole scene reminded me of my 8 years at a fairly rigid Catholic grade school – sans nuns in black habits and prayers – which is not exactly what I expected from this seemingly more progressive learning environment. The teachers were all smiley and cordial, but at the same time, no nonsense. All the while, our kids looked a bit too serious, wide-eyed with a dash of anxiety, but holding it together. Just as we kissed them goodbye and wished them a good first day, another bell rang, and off they marched into a brand new world.

 

How’s the school year going for you? Anybody start at a new place? If you’re far from home or just changed schools close by, were your kids braver than you? Or was it a big challenge for them? Please tell us in the comments.