Getting Back into the Groove

Well, that was an unintended pause in writing. Let me catch everyone up on how things are going.

First, thank you to so many of you who left comments of support on my last post. I did visit my doctor, and we decided to help things along with an antidepressant. While I can’t say I’m feeling back to my old self yet, I do feel better, and I’m better equipped to sort through my feelings over the losses we’ve gone through this year. Tomorrow will probably be the hardest day to get through – tomorrow would have been my due date for the pregnancy I lost in February – but hopefully once that day is over I’ll feel more closure and can move past it.

Part of feeling depressed has included my unwillingness to be social. I feel some guilt for being a lousy friend over the past few months, but reaching out to others seemed too hard at times. I’m making a greater effort to get back in touch with friends and get out of the house more, even though it’s so much easier to stay home.

The remainder of the summer passed by peacefully here. Cordy and Mira finished summer camp, and we quickly fell into the back-to-school preparations. This year they’re both attending a new school together. Thanks to the enormous efforts of a workgroup of parents, teachers, and administrators (which I was a part of), plans were made last year to launch a new self-contained program for gifted students in third thru eighth grades, and that school was fast-tracked into creation for the start of this new school year. The idea was that it would help address some of different learning and social/emotional needs of gifted students.

Naturally, Cordy was very nervous about starting this new school. (Mira was less nervous, of course.) We visited a few times before the start of the school year to meet her teachers, including her special needs teacher who would be very involved in her daily activities. By the first day of school, she knew most of the staff she would be interacting with on a regular basis, she knew where to find her classrooms, and she was reassured that her teachers understood her unique issues and how they could work together to help her feel less anxious and be ready to learn.

So far? It’s been a fantastic success. Cordy’s teachers have been so sensitive to her needs, while at the same time gently pushing her outside of her safe zone to help her grow. Nearly every morning she gets on the school bus with a smile and – here’s the important part – she is smiling when she gets off the bus at the end of the day, too. I can’t remember the last time she’s been happy every day after school. Cordy is even telling me what they did at school! Again, this is all new, because usually the question of “so what did you learn at school today?” has always been met with, “I don’t remember.” I’m thrilled that she’s enjoying school again.

Back to school 2015First day of school

Mira was happy to discover that two of her best friends are in her new class. This helped her feel at home immediately, although it’s also resulted in some corrections for breaking the rules. She’s high-energy to begin with, but with her friends with her, it’s nearly impossible for her to not talk in class, or in the hallway, or stay on task, or not be too wiggly in her seat. She was recently diagnosed with ADHD, which comes as a shock to no one. Her behavior at school is getting better with effort, though, because she wants to make her teacher happy and be a good student.

The curriculum has also completely engaged Mira. They did a walking tour of the neighborhood around the new school last week, learning about building materials used and why certain styles were chosen. Yesterday, when I picked her up for a doctor’s appointment, she stopped and carefully examined the steps just outside the door. “I never noticed until now, but these steps are made of limestone,” she declared. Apparently they learned how to recognize different stone types while on their tour.

So it seems the school year is off to a great start, which makes me so happy for our kids. We’re all settling into the new routine and hopeful for a positive year ahead.



The Month of Too Much

There are some months that are just so full – of both good and bad – that you want them to be over as quickly as possible, if just to catch your breath and get back to some sense of normalcy. That was March for me. We’re already halfway into April, and I’m still trying to recover from the previous month.

Just a week after returning from Disney, I received a call from my mother on a Saturday morning letting me know that my grandmother had died. I want to add “unexpectedly” to that sentence, but at the same time I know that when you’re 94 years old, it isn’t an unexpected event for the body to decide it’s done. But she was tough, and despite some setbacks she had still been living on her own.

My mom found her that morning when she went to her house to pick her up for her hair appointment. They were able to reconstruct that it happened the night before, after dinner but before she went to bed. The TV was still on, and her crochet project was unfinished. There was comfort in knowing that it was likely quick and painless – she didn’t even have time to push her Lifealert button. If only we could all be so lucky to live to at least 94 years old and pass so easily.

Cordy and Mira were devastated to learn about their GG being gone. The funeral was difficult, especially since my grandmother had requested a closed casket and Cordy wanted to see her one last time. Instead, Cordy and Mira asked for paper and they each wrote GG a letter to say how much they loved her and how much she’d be missed. The funeral director then slipped the letters inside the casket after the funeral for the girls.

My grandmother was the definition of a strong woman. Raised during the Depression, she then went on to join the military in WWII as a WAVES recruit. She then married and lived on a farm without indoor plumbing for many years while raising three daughters. She helped ensure that all three of her daughters went to college. My grandfather died in 1976, and she carried on by herself after his death. She was the most practical person I’ve ever met. And while I can’t remember ever hearing the words “I love you” ever spoken by her, she showed her love for others through her actions.

She’ll be missed.

Grandma Straley with Cordy and Mira Grandma Straley with Cordy and Mira in 2008

In-between the news of my grandmother’s death and her funeral, Aaron and I celebrated our 12th anniversary. With everything going on at the time, we weren’t able to do anything grand on that day, but we still went out to eat with the kids and told them all about our wedding day (again). We really weren’t planning to do much, anyway, since our trip to Disney was our big anniversary gift to each other.

Twelve years has gone by quickly, and I couldn’t imagine being here today without Aaron as my partner. I hope we’ll have many more anniversaries to celebrate together.

Just married

March was also my follow-up appointment after my miscarriage. My doctor shared that the lab results showed there were no chromosomal abnormalities detected. While we’ll never know exactly what caused it, it was likely the result of something going wrong in cell division. We also found out that “it” was a “she” even though I had a feeling it was a boy. I guess that means we’re keeping our unbroken record of three generations of all females on my mom’s side.

Cordy also had some rough moments at school near the end of March. She’s had some trouble handling all of her emotions lately, and frustration/anger has been the hardest. A few bad choices in response to a change in her routine landed her in the resource room one week and the principal’s office the next week. Cognitively she knows that if she starts to feel angry she should stop, take a few deep breaths, and find a healthy way to express her anger. But she has no filter between brain and action, and so when she’s in the heat of the moment, all of the rules that she can recite so easily are forgotten and it’s game on. We’re trying to teach her to put a big red stop sign in her head whenever her anger rises, to keep her from saying or doing something she shouldn’t, but I have a feeling this will take a lot of repetition before it sticks.

There was some good school news in March, too. The gifted service plan was changed, after months of work from the gifted workgroup (which I was a part of), and the district approved all of the changes, including forming our first gifted academy. The self-contained school will be made up entirely of gifted students, and will allow the teachers of gifted classes the chance to collaborate in one location. Both Cordy and Mira are eligible for the new school, and it’s my hope this will be a good change for them. It was a tough choice, though, because I love the school they’re currently at, but the new school will be closer to home, and will serve grades 3-8, meaning Cordy shouldn’t need to switch schools again for middle school.

And then, just to make sure we weren’t getting complacent at the end of March, Aaron’s car decided it had reached its limit, and the repairs needed were more than the value of the car. We were hoping to make it until the end of the summer without needing to buy a new car, but instead we found ourselves with two days to pick out a new car. Lucky for us, there were some great sales going on at the end of March, and so we found a new car that (mostly) meets our budget.

Our new car Our new commuter car.

After March, I’m ready for a few quiet months. Boredom would be a welcome change.



Opting Out of PARCC

Here in Ohio and several other states, it’s currently PARCC testing season. PARCC is short for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a standardized test created by Pearson (a textbook and testing company) that is being used by several states for assessment of learning standards for third grade thru twelfth, and it’s primary purpose is that it’s a significant factor for teacher and school district evaluations.

There’s only one problem: the test is an absolute hot mess.

I had started looking into this test last spring, after a district administrator gave a presentation on what was coming with this new test. Once I had a complete picture of it late last year, including taking the sample practice tests for myself on PARCC’s website, I couldn’t in good conscience let Cordy take this ridiculous test.

To begin, the test is far too long to be considered developmentally appropriate for younger children. Schools have a three week testing window to complete all testing. This was the initial testing schedule that was sent out just for Cordy’s class:

ELA Practice Test: February 5 12:45-2:00
Math Practice Test: February 10 10:00-11:45
Math PARCC Test 1: February 19 9:00-11:45
Math PARCC Test 2: February 20 9:00-11:45
ELA PARCC Test 1: February 23 9:00-11:45
ELA PARCC Test 2: February 25 9:00-11:45
ELA PARCC Test 3: March 2 9:00-11:45
Social Studies (4th only): March 4 9:00-11:45
Science (5th only): March 5 9:00-11:45

(ELA = English Language Arts)

If you add up all of the time, that’s over ten hours of testing, not including the practice tests. And that time also doesn’t include additional test prep done before the practice testing. Have you tried keeping a fourth grader completely on task for an hour and forty-five minutes?

Bored

And here’s the kicker – this is just round one. The kids get to go through all of this AGAIN across a three week period in late April-early May. Over twenty hours of time spent taking a test in the last third of the school year. At what point do kids have the time to squeeze in actual learning? It’s as if the school year has been cut short.

Additionally, this test has absolutely no impact on report cards or grade advancement for most kids. The third grade reading guarantee in Ohio is, as of this year, still governed by the OAA test, and the high school graduation requirements have additional methods to meet the same requirement that the PARCC test fulfills. Results of the current test being given won’t be available until November, far past the point when it could have made any impact on helping the student in any areas of deficiency.

The results that are provided will be vague at best. Many of the questions are manually graded, leaving it up to the human element to determine the score for each question. Because the test is proprietary, parents and students will never be given access to a completed test to see how each question was scored. So kids will spend 20+ hours of testing each year with no benefit to the student from the test, and no idea if there might have been an error in scoring.

Looking at this from a socioeconomic perspective, the PARCC test is designed to ensure poor, urban children have slim chances of passing. We don’t need this test to tell us which schools are “failing” because we can already predict what the results will be. These are computer-based tests. Urban school districts often lack the resources of more affluent suburban districts, unable to provide as much computer access. A student who has a computer at home and a computer lab at school likely has more experience with using a computer and mouse than a student who only uses a computer on rare occasions. Teachers are not allowed to provide help in any way on this test, including helping a student remember how to click and drag using a mouse. The technology gap will doom many kids to frustration and a failing test.

In our school, they’re testing one class at a time because there aren’t enough computers in the building for more than one class. Those computers are slow, glitchy Chromebooks, and as a result there have been multiple complaints of the test kicking kids out in the middle of the test, or just not allowing students to log on at all. (All of this just adds more time and frustration to testing for the kids.) Our school is one of the better off schools in our district, and I can’t imagine how some of the schools in poorer neighborhoods are dealing with this need. In the future, money will have to be diverted from needed services to fund the technology requirements demanded by this test.

Computer frustration

And let’s not forget that each school district is paying per student for this test, too. It’s a costly waste of time and resources to “prove” that public schools are failing – a conclusion that Pearson already made prior to the test and so they have crafted the test to ensure the results match their hypothesis. Why? Because Pearson also owns a textbook and study guide empire. What better way to ensure that school districts spend a premium to have their textbooks and test prep guides in every classroom? If most kids did well on the test, they wouldn’t need to buy Pearson’s test prep and study guides.

Despite all of this, it was when I took the practice test for myself that I made up my mind. The questions are poorly written and designed to trip up a student – what I call “gotcha” questions. A math question that can’t be answered correctly if the student doesn’t recognize a particular above grade-level word is not properly testing the student’s math ability. A question that intentionally tries to misdirect a fourth grader to the wrong answer is not properly testing the student on math, either.

Nope

Along with this, we were informed this year that some of the test accommodations provided by Cordy’s IEP are not allowed for PARCC testing. The federal right for special needs students to have the necessary accommodations for their disability has now been limited by the strict requirements of this test.

It was an easy decision for us: we refused to allow Cordy to be given the PARCC test. Would she have done well on the test? Probably. She’s amazingly good at standardized tests, even bad ones. But was it worth putting her through the severe anxiety and long hours of testing time for no benefit to her? No way. Her school handled it very well and has made sure that she has supplemental enrichment activities to work on while testing is happening.

My only concern was the knowledge that refusing would result in her score being recorded as a zero, which would affect her teacher’s rating. However, Ohio has passed a “safe harbor” bill preventing nearly all repercussions for this year of the test, so it won’t affect her teacher. And even if it had, we had the full support of her school when we announced we were refusing the test. Many of the teachers and administrators don’t support PARCC and are happy to see parents pull their kids from the test. It’s only through a wide-spread refusal that parents can demand things be changed.

You don’t have to let your kids take the PARCC test, even if they’ve already started, and even if administrators tell you that they must. You have the right to determine what is best for your child, and you can refuse this test. Your kids have the right to refuse, too. They can be placed in front of a computer and they can sit there and refuse to do the test. (If your kids are brave enough for that.) It’s also a good time to email your state representatives and tell them you want something better than PARCC and are counting on them to step up and make it happen.

I want my kids to learn how to use their brains in school, not learning how to take a single standardized test. And I want them to learn for the entire school year, not just the first two-thirds.

I support public schooling. I’m not an anti-testing nut. My kids have probably taken more standardized tests and assessments than most, and nearly all of those were for their benefit. I believe in testing if it’s fair, appropriate, and useful for the student’s progress. I also believe we do need some way to fairly evaluate school districts and teachers, and I believe we need a strong set of educational standards for each grade level.

But PARCC isn’t the answer. It’s a public school witch hunt, with a push to give private industry more of our public education tax dollars, all wrapped up in the disguise of a test to hold teachers and schools accountable. It takes an obscene amount of time away from learning. It takes a ridiculous amount of money away from needed educational services. It attempts to vilify the very teachers we love and trust with our kids each year. And it uses our children as pawns in the game to profit on public education.

 



A Little Hard To See

Each Monday at school, Cordy’s class starts their week by writing down all of that week’s homework assignments on a homework log provided by the teacher. This helps the kids plan their week and, more importantly in our case, helps Aaron and I guide Cordy on her homework for the week. I absolutely love the homework log.

At first, Cordy’s homework log was written in pencil. However, I think she was getting bored with pencil, and so she started bringing home a log written in different colors of pen each week. I wasn’t concerned, other than pen made it impossible to erase or make corrections without scratching something out.

Apparently she became bored with pen, too, because two weeks ago she brought home the homework log with everything written in pink highlighter. Not terrible, but it wasn’t a fine point highlighter, so it was a little hard to read.

Last week, however, I think we reached an intervention point:

Cordy's homework log

“Yellow highlighter?” I asked as I squinted and tilted the page to try to read what was written. “Don’t you think that’s a little hard to read?”

“No, mom, it’s okay. I know what it says,” she responded dismissively.

“You do?” I asked incredulously. “You must have better eyes than me, because I can’t even read the dates at the top of the page.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” she cooed. (At this point I’m reminded to be careful to not sound too condescending to her at any point, because she mimics the tone as well as the phrase. And clearly in this moment she was giving me the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head.) “See? That right there says December 3 to December 12.”

“Uh, Cordy? The dates for this week are supposed to be December 8 to December 12.”

She paused for a moment, looking at the log with her eyes wide. “RIGHT! 8! It says December 8. I said the wrong thing earlier. I meant 8.”

Sure you did, kid. I’m just thankful there weren’t a lot of assignments last week to decipher.



After-School Fuel-Up with Bagel Bites

Now that school is back in session, the craziest part of my day comes between 4:15pm and 6:00pm. That’s when the kids get off the bus, tired and weary from a long day at school and a 45-minute bus ride home, and want to collapse.

Of course, this means they want to drop their backpacks at the door, lie on the couch, and watch TV. But of course there’s no time for that. Instead, they need to hang up their backpacks, take out all of the papers and folders they brought home, and finish all of their homework before we have dinner at 6pm. After dinner is family time (when TV is an option) and we try hard to preserve that bit of time to relax together. So the work must be finished first.

I know that it’s hard for two tired elementary school girls to shift to homework right when they get home, and I also know they’re running low on energy by the time they walk through the door. It’s been over four hours since they ate lunch, which means they’re running on empty at this point. In the past I’ve tried to have them dive into homework immediately, but quickly found that it resulted in very grumpy kids putting in a lackluster effort in their work.

Even kids get “hangry.”

So before we start on homework, they fuel-up their bodies and minds with a snack and a 10-15 minute free-reading time. During this time they can read a magazine, a comic book, or just sit and stare at the wall if that’s what they need. And they each have a quality snack that will give them the energy to tackle math and writing.

One snack that is a favorite in our house is Bagel Bites. Cordy and Mira both love pizza, and the idea of mini-pizzas as a snack is a fantastic idea for them.

A snack-size portion is easy to make, too: I can pop a few into our toaster oven 15 minutes before the bus arrives, and by the time they’re done hanging up their backpacks and taking off their shoes, they have a snack ready and waiting for them. I usually add some fruit and a small glass of milk to round-out their after-school fuel.

Bagel Bites
One kid likes apples, the other likes grapes.

Cordy likes the pepperoni Bagel Bites, while Mira prefers the three-cheese style. I like that they’re made with real Mozzarella, Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, tomato sauce made from scratch, and bagel dough made fresh each day, using high-quality ingredients. They’re a convenient baked snack that the girls find fun – they call them “fairy pizzas,” since they’re so small.

After school snack

Ready for their snack. (Cordy was saying “YUMMM” while I tried to take this picture!)

Once they’ve eaten their snack and had a few minutes of “decompression” time, we pull out the homework folders, review what needs to get done, and they get to work. It’s amazing how well a quality snack and a little bit of downtime helps them to recharge so they can tackle their after-school work! With the right fuel, they’re more focused, energized, and ready to work.

If you’re a Bagel Bites fan, or want to try them out for yourself, be sure to check out the Bagel Bites coupon they’re offering to save you some money on your purchase.

Also, Bagel Bites is giving away a $100 VISA gift card – that would buy a lot of after-school snacks! To enter to win, leave me a comment below with the answer to this question: What’s your (or your kid’s) favorite snack?

Sweepstakes Rules:

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3. Blog about this promotion, including a disclosure that you are receiving a sweepstakes entry in exchange for writing the blog post, and leave the URL to that post in a comment on this post

4. For those with no Twitter or blog, read the official rules to learn about an alternate form of entry.

This giveaway is open to US Residents age 18 or older. Winners will be selected via random draw, and will be notified by e-mail. The notification email will come directly from BlogHer via the sweeps@blogher email address. You will have 72 hours to respond; otherwise a new winner will be selected.

The Official Rules are available here.

This sweepstakes runs from 9/29-11/2.

Be sure to visit the Bagel Bites brand page on BlogHer.com where you can read other bloggers’ posts!

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