The 40 Year Old Bat Mitzvah

Soulfish: Middle School (Part Two)

Posted in soulfish by Juliet on March 28, 2011

(If you missed Part One, click here.)

So yes, I hate flakiness.  I am as hard (if not harder) on myself than I am with others when it comes to reliability.  I like it when people do what they say they are going to do, when they say they are going to do it.  End of story.

By the same token, I went ahead and enrolled Eva at the PossiblyFlakyMiddleSchool.  (Who am I kidding? PFMS is definitely a little flaky.)

I had a few reasons I didn’t want to let her deviate from the norm, but they seemed minor compared to Eva’s own reasons for wanting to make the switch.

For instance, next year, when Jane is in kindergarten and Eva is in fifth grade, will be the only possible year that both of our girls could share a school.  I could say that having both girls on the same campus would be more “convenient,” but honestly, with the half-day kindergarten we have here plus the extreme segregation of the kindergartners from the rest of the school population, nothing to do with kindergarten is “convenient” so it’s pretty immaterial.

It just kind of seems “fun” somehow, though in reality, they might see each other a handful of times a year, and only then to wave briefly at each other from a distance.  Eva’s lunch hour would be completely different from Jane’s snack time (kindergartners don’t eat lunch on campus) and anyway, the kindergartners have their own completely walled-off playground.

I also worried on Eva’s behalf about her missing out on special fifth grade activities and traditions, like Astro Camp and graduation (“promotion.”)  But Astro Camp was cancelled during 2010-2011 and likely will be cancelled next year too.  Our local economy is struggling and more and more families could not afford to send their kids to the week-long camp.  And Eva seems to have inherited the Pinson gene (from my maternal grandma’s side of the family) which doesn’t care much about graduation ceremonies.

And what about her friends?  Eva has always been very well-adjusted socially.  We moved a lot when I was little (at her age, I was at my third elementary school) and I wanted to provide her with the stability that comes from growing up together with a tight knit group of neighborhood kids.

Turns out, she enjoys the kids she knows from school, and I could see her continuing friendships with some of them throughout middle school.  But honestly, many kids drift into different friendships during the transition from elementary to middle school.  And Eva has always maintained friendships with kids from various spheres of life:  Sunday/Hebrew school, gymnastics, clubs, neighborhood kids who go  to different schools or are different ages, Girl Scout friends who go to other local elementary schools, or kids of people I know whom she sees when we all get together.  Now that she goes to sleepaway camp, she’ll add “camp friends” to the list.  She’s starting a new distance-learning program next month and she’ll probably have an international roster of virtual buddies too.

All this time, when I thought I was providing her with a safety net, I was actually giving her an internal comfort level strong enough that she feels safe stepping outside what the known.

In favor of switching to PFMS, Eva is very excited about a middle school instructional style, where the kids switch teachers for different subjects.  She’s the rare kid who is actually very interested in what the curriculum will be.  She also is very taken by the fact that PFMS students are on campus three days a week and work independently at home the other two days.  Yup:  homeschooling!  (Sort of.  They tell the kids exactly what to do and assignments are submitted online by the following day to the teachers.)

Eva wants to work on a laptop from Starbucks or the “teen zone” of the library.  When I was in high school, I did my homework at Cafe Pergolesi hoping someone would mistake me for a college student.  Eva has always been this way too, from the day we sat outside Sprouts and she did her reading homework for preschool (from the politically incorrect “I am a fat man” primer) and she said, “I hope those people walking by see that I have homework and think I’m in elementary school.”)

In a more macro sense, I am optimistic about the educational philosophy and style of PFMS.  Several parents have reassured me that there is zero “teaching to the test.”  I HATE teaching to the test.  Hate it!  At PFMS, all of the obligatory tests are done, but that’s it.  The entire curriculum for the entire school year isn’t planned around the tests like all of our district’s neighborhood schools seem to do.

Also, there is very little homework.  Whew!  I hate homework.  I feel that the majority of learning should happen during the school day, and after the kids get out, they should run around and play.  They should draw with sidewalk chalk or go on the monkey bars at the park or have a scavenger hunt throughout the neighborhood or ride bikes with their friends.

(I do like reading as homework, and I am a huge fan of flashcards for to build arithmetic speed.  I also like long-term projects like book reports or research projects.  But daily fill-in-the-blank busywork worksheets that look just like the worksheets the kids just spent seven hours doing?  Not so much.  I realize my dislike of standardized tests and homework makes me sound like a slacker, a misapprehension which will be hilarious to anyone who actually knows me in real life.  Honestly, I probably could use a little slacker-ing up for a happier, more relaxed life.)

Who knows what the coming year will bring.  Eva’s teacher pointed out that fifth grade is a good year to give PFMS a try, because if she doesn’t like it, she can always start our neighborhood middle school with the rest of her elementary school friends.

As for the “F” in PFMS’s name….that might be a lesson for me, too, in flexibility.  I may, by necessity, gradually unbend.  Become more slackerish, if you will.  I do a lot for my kids and if unbending is one of the things I need to do, so be it.

Up Next:  Middle School (Part Three) — Social Studies

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Soulfish: Middle School (Part One)

Posted in soulfish by Juliet on March 25, 2011

I never in a million years thought I’d be in the position I am now, seriously anticipating sending my child to a school program next year with a HOMESCHOOLING component.  Me!  Homeschooling!

I am a huge proponent of public schools.  I always envisioned my kids at our local neighborhood schools from the first days of lacing up (or velcro-ing on) Dora sneakers in kindergarten to slouching off with purple hair to high school.

The good public school district is a big part of why we chose to settle in Temecula, too.  When Eva was born, we knew we needed to move out of our small Canyon Crest apartment, so we pulled out the map and looked for areas within commuting distance of Scott’s Riverside office with clean air and water, affordable real estate, and good public schools.  We narrowed our choices to Redlands and the Temecula/Murrieta area, but quickly eliminated Redlands because of their poor air quality.  Turns out Temecula was a great choice and we have been very happy here.

I love that our kids have many school friends in the neighborhood and can walk or ride bikes to the school.  I love that I can see the school from my house.  I love that the school has been very helpful and flexible with us and the teachers Eva has had since she first enrolled as a kindergartner in 2007 have been wonderful.

Bottom line:  I don’t see any reason to deviate from the default of neighborhood school, unless there IS an actual reason.

What makes this a difficult decision is the fact that “the reason” is hard to pinpoint.

It started out as a vague, uneasy feeling about our local district’s middle schools.  I started hearing rumblings from parents a few years ahead of me about their kids, who were well-adjusted, high-achieving, well-rounded elementary schoolers, having a horrible time at the local middles.  I heard stories about run-ins with teachers that went unaddressed by administration.  I kept hearing about a sink-or-swim attitude that maybe just marks middle school as a holding pen between the nurturing of elementary school and the independence of high school.

I started asking kids themselves.  I don’t know tons of middle schoolers but whenever I’d come across one, I’d ask them about it.  I kept hearing over and over again, whether from carpool kids or Hebrew school kids or gymnastics kids, that the other kids in middle school are mean.  There is a lot of bullying, swearing, teasing, and crudeness.  “The whole day is like a bad game of truth or dare,” one 9th grader told me.

Maybe it’s the age.  Middle school is a horrible time in many kids’ lives.  Maybe it’s the type of teachers and administrators who tend to go into middle school.  It seems like in general, teachers have a preference either for young kids (i.e. elementary school) or older kids (i.e. high school.)  Do you ever hear people say, “I’ve always really, really wanted to be a middle school social studies teacher?” or “All my life ever since I was little I’ve wanted to teach 8th grade math?”

I’m sure there are some who are drawn to it but in general it seems like middle school winds up being something people fall into by accident, perhaps through there being no jobs available at their preferred grade level.

(If I’m completely off base, let me know!  Please!  And please know that I love teachers.  My own mom was a public school teacher and even briefly taught junior high PE – including sex ed with anonymous suggestion box! – and I come from a family of teachers….none of whom teach junior high.  My mom’s cousin was a junior high vice principal in Washington State which seems like a really unrewarding and hard job.  I picture an endless Groundhog Day loop of confiscating baggies of pot from backpacks and breaking up scuffles in the cafeteria.)

So middle school….middle school.  It’s a tough time.  Coinciding with my starting to do some preliminary worrying (since I began thinking about this at the beginning of this school year, and Eva is only in fourth grade), a new campus of a local charter school opened within walking distance of home, and we decided to go to their “we’re in the neighborhood!” open house.

Eva was intrigued from the moment she saw the sign announcing their middle school program for grades 5-8.  (Middle school in our district is generally 6th to 8th grade.)  As we were led around campus by an incredibly poised, well-spoken high schooler, Eva’s eyes gleamed.  She took it all in:  the sparkling new campus, with its inspirational murals and rows of unsullied textbooks; the shiny new computers and science lab equipment; rows of instruments and theater sets in the orchestra room.

We added our name to the interest list…never to be contacted again.  I had so many questions, and my phone calls went unanswered.  I got a bunch of information from the website and from asking people I know whose kids go or have gone to the school, but I still wanted to talk to someone official from the school.

Was it me, or were they flaky?

One common thread seemed to emerge:  “We love the school/my child is thriving….but they are a little bit flaky.”

Uh oh.  If there’s one thing that drives me nuts, it’s….

Next time:  Middle School (Part Two) – Slackers

Friday Night Light

Posted in Uncategorized by Juliet on March 18, 2011

It’s staying lighter later, which means the kids love nothing more than tearing around the neighborhood on bikes and scooters. I have to drag them inside to eat, and a light, fresh meal refuels them to head back out for more end-of-day play.

This is my favorite tried-and-true hummus recipe. Yes, it has 2/3 cup lemon juice! It is very lemony. Here it is topped with sumac which adds an additional dimension of citrus tang. Scott brought home a bottle of Grossman Law Firm sangiovese (!) but I drank carmenere from Chile because I like the spiciness with Middle Eastern flavors.

Lemon Hummus (from December, 2002, Bon Appetit, serves 12)

* 4 large garlic cloves, chopped
* 1/2 tsp (or more) paprika
* 2 cans (ea. 15-16 oz) garbanzo beans, drained
* 2/3 c fresh lemon juice
* 1/2 c tahini
* 5 T olive oil
* 1/2 t ground cumin
* 1/2 t chili powder

With processor running, drop garlic through feed tube. Chop finely. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add 1/2 t paprika and next 6 ingredients; blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Cover; chill at least 1 hr and up to 1 day.