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

Soulfish Parenting With Heart & Soul: Camp Days

Posted in soulfish by Juliet on July 23, 2010

Well, it took us 48 hours, but we finally managed to drop Eva off at Beth Am in San Diego to ride a bus up to Camp Ramah. Over 550 kids arrived at camp that day!

Check out this 32″ expandable rolling duffel:

Vacuum storage bags are nothing short of a miracle

Thanks to vacuum storage bags, here is what is in her single piece of luggage:

  • two sets of sheets, pillow, pillowcases, and a blanket (for daily sleeping)
  • sleeping bag (for overnight camping out overnight)
  • backpack & laundry bag
  • two sets of towels (bath, hand, and washcloth size) and pool towel
  • hiking shoes, refillable water bottle, flashlight
  • clothes for 14 days (they don’t do laundry for kids in the 2-week session!), AND it is blazing hot during the day but cools down at night
  • warm heavy jacket for night, light Polarfleece jacket, and two sweatshirts
  • bathing suits, pool cover-up, and flip-flops (double as shower shoes)
  • dressy outfits including shoes for two Friday nights/Saturday days shabbat
  • toiletries, sunscreen, stationery & stamps
  • extra full-size boxes of toothpaste to donate to campwide tzedakah project for Jewish Family Service
  • and more!

Packing was complicated by the fact that the girls had been out of town traveling for the two weeks immediately prior to camp, so I couldn’t even pack very far in advance.  Also since Eva is our oldest and it’s her first time at sleep-away camp, we’re just making it up as we go along.

Friends offered terrific advice:

Carlos, a road warrior who flies several times a month, said:  Throw everything on the bed and eliminate half.

Andrea, an organizational expert who knows pretty much everything there is to know about…everything, said:  Too bad you can’t use vacuum bags because Eva won’t have a vacuum cleaner at camp to re-pack when it’s time to come home.  Me:  Lightbulb!!!!  We’re picking her up from camp and I can just throw everything in Hefty bags.  The luggage restrictions are really strict just for the bus ride up to camp.

And Mariah told me her daughter Jeri, who went to Girl Scout camp near their home in Iowa, is really religious about sticking to the suggested packing list.

With those pieces of advice, I did it!  And it all fits.

One thing we learned for next year is that most of the kids carry pillows (either their regular bed pillow or a smaller one, or, in some cases, a Pillow Pet, which my incredibly pampered children both happen to have; “it’s a pillow, AND a pet!”**)  They use the pillows to make the four-plus hour bus ride to  camp more comfortable.  Live and learn.

I’m really glad we dropped Eva in San Diego.  The crowd was very casual and friendly.  There were several dogs saying goodbye to their little masters.  (I finally saw a labradoodle in real life, and I want one.  I also saw a poodle/bichon mix.  The owner, a salt-and-pepper haired South African-born doctor married to a gorgeous blonde glamazon, laughed when I said he could call it a “bichi-poo.”  I think there is a big South African Jewish community in the San Diego area.  We heard many distinctive accents during drop-off though thankfully there wasn’t a vuvuzela in sight.)

Camp is expensive and I want Eva to get her money’s worth, so I left her with this advice:

  • swim a lot
  • do “something Jewish”
  • choose something that looks scary on the first day, and do it before camp ends

If she does those three things, I for one will consider camp a success!

** The girls and I walked around the mall on several occasions for at least an hour each time, a good portion of which was taken up with begging for Pillow Pets.  I managed to fend them off since I figured they’re too expensive for something the kids would use once or twice then shove in a pile with their eleventy-seven other Build-a-Bears and Webkinzes and Fur Real Pets.  By contrast, the girls managed to get Scott to buy them Pillow Pets in the first five minutes of the first time he took them to the mall.  Dads!  Luckily I was proven wrong and the girls sleep with their Pillow Pets almost every night.

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Parenting with Heart & Soul: Leading by Example

Posted in soulfish by Juliet on June 29, 2010

The campaign to legalize marijuana in California is underway. Since I’ve chosen to make my support high-profile, and I’m touting my “soccer mom” status to show how mainstream and widespread this campaign has become, I realized it was time to talk to the kids.

Our kids are four and eight. Jane, age four, has a fuzzy understanding of politics and the law. But Eva is eight, and a bright, deep-thinking eight at that, so we can talk at a more advanced level with her.

Like most grade school-age kids, Eva has a strong innate sense of fairness. Kids are born with a keen concept of justice and it blooms until the indignities and injustices of school and their young lives stomp it out. (Or until some boring junior high civics curriculum drums it out.) There are some great government teachers but why are they so thin on the ground?

Here’s an example of Eva’s typical thought process. Her school has three rules: Is it safe? Is it courteous? Would it be fair if everyone did it?

Eva’s analysis is: “Of course it would be fair if everyone did it. That’s what makes it fair!”

(Eight year olds often have a strong sense of semantic literal-ness to go along with their inborn sense of justice.)

Over the next several months, I’m sure there will be events, rallies, and the like, to promote Control & Tax 2010. Is it fair of me to bring my kids?

My initial instinct is to bring them. I believe in teaching by example. I disagree with the current law. In word and deed I can show my kids that we follow the laws, and we advocate to change the ones we think are wrong.

I explicitly tell them, “Our family follows all the laws, big and small. We also follow all the rules of school, clubs, and other activities. Even if we won’t get caught or it doesn’t seem like a big deal, we follow them because it’s the right thing to do.”

Also for the record, I explicitly tell them, “Our family doesn’t do drugs. We take care of our bodies. We only have this one body, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. When you’re 21, you can decide whether you want to drink wine. When you’re 18, you can legally smoke but we really hope you never do because it’s awful for your body. No matter what you decide when you’re legally old enough, you are absolutely not allowed to smoke or drink when you’re underage because it’s against the law.”

[Also for the record, as our girls grow up, we will decide whether to allow them sips or tastes of our wine here at home, before age 21, but we will never allow them to drink-drink here at home, or attend parties where parents serve alcohol to kids because “it’s safer and at least I know where they are.” But we already do a “finger dip” of wine from our glass during shabbat kiddush and I could see allowing a college-age child home for vacation to have a small flute of champagne at home on New Year’s Eve, for example.]

So back to the issue of rallies and events. When Prop 8 was on the ballot, we told the kids about it and explained our opposition. We framed it in terms of fairness, which kids get.

So how to explain the marijuana law?

I started with: it’s illegal right now, to have it and to use it. Some people believe it’s dangerous. Other people, including us, believe that not only is it not dangerous, it actually can be good for some people, especially if they have certain diseases or sicknesses. But, it changes how you think and how your mind works, just like wine does.

Jane lost interest but at eight, Eva could understand and wanted to know more. I explained about drug dealers, Mexican cartels, and the law of supply and demand.

I told her there would be plenty of people who agree with me but there would be others who didn’t.

I told her she didn’t have to have an opinion if she didn’t want to, but I would let her decide whether she wanted to attend rallies or other events. Jane said right away that she wanted to go (she likes anything involving waving signs or honking.) Eva said she wants to decide on an event-by-event basis.

After discussing it with the kids, how do I feel about bringing them along? I need to look deep within: am I teaching them, or trotting them out simply to make a point or put them on display? (“Look! I’m a normal, average mom with my kids.”) Am I teaching my kids a lesson, or trying to teach society a lesson? Basically: what is my motivation? And what will the ultimate outcome be for my kids, who are my priority?

During the Prop 8 controversy, it felt very distasteful to me to see pro-Prop 8 folks use their kids to stand on street corners waving signs and shouting slogans.

Why, exactly, did that feel so very wrong to me, when I had no problem having my own kids do the same thing but on the other side of the debate?

In the final analysis, I think it comes down to the fact that I don’t see Prop 8 as being about sex. We talked about Prop 8 a lot and never brought up actual sex once. On the pro-Prop 8 side, though, it seemed to be about nothing but the sex, and the kids waving signs felt very leering and prurient. In contrast, giving kids signs about love, family, and fairness — the truest of family values, by the way — felt very right.

Much like the Prop 8 debate isn’t about sex, the marijuana legalization debate isn’t about drugs.

Frankly, I haven’t made a final decision yet. I am keeping an open mind and being flexible. Stay tuned.

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Parenting with Heart and Soul: Swimming Lessons

Posted in soulfish by Juliet on June 25, 2010

Are Jews really required to teach our kids to swim?

And if so, why? Of all the things to specifically point out for parents to teach kids, why that one?

The Talmud (collected wisdom of the rabbis) does say parents are obligated to teach their children:

  • Torah (first five books of the “Old Testament”)
  • how to earn a living
  • how to swim

Why single out swimming?

Taking it literally, the answer is “so they won’t drown.”  Every person should know how to swim so he can navigate water safely, for himself, without fear and without danger.

But the obligation doesn’t end there.  Take it metaphorically.  We are obligated to give our kids the skills they need to keep afloat through all of life’s challenges.  We don’t want them to drown:  in unhappiness, uncertainty, debt, ignorance, or helplessness.

The Talmud doesn’t say:  “Carry your child safely in your arms through water.”

It says:  TEACH him.  Teach him to do it for himself.  Our ancient sages knew this is the only way to create self-sufficient, confident, capable citizens.

It also doesn’t say:  “Throw your child in the water and through his terrified struggles he’ll learn on his own.”

We are obligated to TEACH him.  The Talmud assumes a reciprocal relationship of student-child and teacher-parent.   The parent can hire a teacher, of course, but it is the parent’s obligation to lead by example, and to make sure the child is enrolled, shows up, participates, and ultimately learns.

Finally, the Talmud does not say “Learn to swim for your child.”

The lesson to be learned is the child’s own property.  It is his reward.  My sister is an elementary school teacher and we had a heated debate recently about homework.  I respect her perspective as a teacher but we agree to disagree about how much involvement parents should have. Her position is that parents should be very hands-on and do the work alongside their kids, supervising. They should correct the work and go over missed problems, teaching (or re-teaching) the correct method to their kids if problems are incorrect.

I, on the other hand, don’t even like to be asked to sign off on homework. I feel that kids should learn their coursework from their teachers, and reinforce the day’s lessons through homework.  Homework should enhance what they’ve already learned.  The main lesson of homework is the responsibility to do work autonomously. I’m not in third grade; my child is. I’ve already learned my times tables. The homework, then, is for her, and she should know the material already. The main point of the work is to reinforce the day’s lessons and to teach responsibility. Did the paper make it home? Did the child bring the correct assignment? Did she follow instructions? Did the completed paper make it back into her folder and did the folder make it back into her backpack, and did that backpack make it back to school the next day?

Teaching my children to navigate the waters of a complicated world is my swimming lessons to them.

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