The Good in Good-Bye

In September 2017, we moved out of the city. More than nine months later, I am still processing this decision, even at the close of the 2017-2018 academic year. The Boy, The Girl, and #3 performed exceptionally well this year, achieving their own goals and hopes for the year, an affirmation that we made the “right” move.

I wrote the following piece in August 2017, as we closed on the sale of our house. Conceived as a letter to the new owners, it became an ode to our house, our block, our neighborhood, our family. I don’t remember if I sent it to them or not. I include it here because I think it’s a pretty good piece of writing. YMMV.

We found this house on a house-hunting trip in June 2002. We were moving from San Francisco, the first wave of the portable work-from-home jobs afforded by the tech industry. I was 28. The Dad  was 29. We wanted to buy a home and have babies, neither of which was possible on our salaries in 2002 in the Bay Area.

We did weekend warrior-style looking: houses back to back to back on a 5-day trip. I don’t remember the tree-lined street or vibrant park we passed on the way to the house. I don’t remember the proximity to the L or the highway. My first lasting memory of the house was getting to the kitchen and saying “I hate this floor!” Fifteen years later, I still hate it. But also, 15 years later I still love the stained glass window, the hardwood floors, the afternoon sun as it falls across the 2nd floor bedroom at the front of the house, the oak molding and trim, the banister rail where we hang our stockings at Christmas, the wide front porch, and the morning light as it streams in through the kitchen windows.

My first memory of owning this house is sitting on a $20 floor cushion from Cost Plus World Market in the master bedroom, four months pregnant and kind of uncomfortable, for hours while  while waiting for our moving van to arrive from California. The house had a very pleasant smell, one that reminded me not of my childhood home, but of my parents’ best friends’ home: natural materials, wood polish, and the paws of outdoor cats. The first thing we did is have the ducts cleaned.

We did not live here a full lifetime, but from this house came much life. All three of our children were born in Chicago and came home to live at this house. My oldest child (The Boy) was born not even a year after we moved in, and he has at one time or another claimed almost every space and room in the house as his own. I spent 6 weeks on the living room couch under bedrest while pregnant with my 2nd child (The Girl). My 3rd child’s (#3) first bedroom was actually the closet of the north-wall bedroom, which was just big enough for a crib and a standing adult.

My children learned to walk, talk, and read in this house. The Girl broke her elbow in this house. I spent my first mother’s day as a mother in this house. The Dad spent his first father’s day as a father in this house. I passed thousands of hours nursing, rocking or reading to children in an upholstered rocking chair that was in the north-wall bedroom we used as a nursery. The Dad spent hundreds of hours walking a child to sleep on the front porch.

A family of introverts, we spent a lot of time just living and being in this house. We baked cookies, entertained neighbors, hosted playgroups and playdates, did infinite loads of laundry, put together puzzles, handed out hundreds of pounds of Halloween candy, read books, played games, broke glasses (many of them shattering into a zillion pieces on that darn kitchen floor!), rearranged furniture, assembled wood projects on the work bench, painted rooms, had friends over to play, discussed books, listened to the radio, watched and cancelled satellite, danced, studied, sewed, baked contributions for the Ridgeway Block Party cake walk, did homework, slept, ate, bathed, cried, loved, fed, learned to ride a bike, and participated in seemingly millions of conference calls in and from this house. We even hosted an IKEA home visit.

My children first went to school from this house. For every year from 2008 to 2016, there is a photo of my children on the front porch of N. Hamlin Ave., the house number visible on the column. The children are scrubbed and (usually) smiling, sporting their new backpacks. It became an annual tradition to walk to school as a family on the first day of elementary/middle school in September. We have done so for the past nine years.

By and large, this house has been good to us. I always had the sense that it was protecting me, cradling me in its comfortable above-grade rooms. The basement, however, was harder, less kind with its square edges, right angles, and sharp poky things.

Over the years of owning this house, our street and our neighborhood have evolved. On one of our first exploratory walks, we went to an old-school Italian restaurant on Kedzie and Irving Park Road. It’s been a Chase bank for years. The Walgreen’s at the corner of Pulaski and Irving Park was a Mobil gas station in 2002. The mattress store on Irving Park Road was an Ace Hardware with a specialty in model trains. There was no Home Depot or Target. Tony’s Fresh Market was called Tony Finer Foods, carried nothing organic, and was known by older neighbors as a Butera. The townhouses at Irving Park Road and the Metra tracks by Six Corners were a working Comcast building. The closest Trader Joe’s store was in Downer’s Grove. There was a shoe store with a beautiful mural on the SE corner of Irving Park and Lawndale; it’s now a gravel parking lot. Disney II High School was a combination middle school for neighborhood kids and a private daycare facility called Kidwatch. Greater Independence Park Neighbors Association (GIPNA) did not yet exist. Independence Park Advisory Council did.

During our time in the neighborhood, the Ridgeway Block party welcomed us with open arms, swelled to unimaginable proportions (like a street fair), closed ranks again, and recently evolved again as more young families moved to the block. It is always the first Saturday in September after Labor Day.  We attended; it was among the good in good-bye.

When we moved in, our block of North Hamlin was populated 90% by elderly and retired people. We learned our property was once the corner house, but had been subdivided in the 50s and the brick house built. A neighbor on Ridgeway took care of the former owners, who left the property to her. Our nextdoor neighbors were lifetime owners whose matriarchs are in their 90s. Directly across the street from us, the house is the house of little kids; the current family is the 5th family who has lived there since we moved in. A few squiggles kept pizza and Amazon delivery drivers confused between our house and one across the street. The east side of the street has a lot of two flats. The west side of the street has more single family homes. There is a block captain at the top of the block.

Local-famous area residents include: author Audrey Niffennegger, who says no one cares because she doesn’t have a dog or kids; Tribune columnist Eric Zorn; Jeff Tweedy of Wilco; chef Matthias Merges; and Sun-Times reporter Lauren FitzPatrick. I’m sure there are others. 

We are shuffling off to a new (to us) house, a new neighborhood, new potentially famous residents, new rituals, and new memories. I don’t know if it’s possible to repeat the deep emotional investment into our new place as we have had here.

“You will never be satisfied”

The Girl and I saw Hamilton two weeks ago. It was pretty awesome. The performer who had the part of Thomas Jefferson / John Laurens made the show for us. We had been waiting since April, when I purchased these tickets. This outing is significant only in that it was our first trip downtown as non-Chicagoans. (We still took the L, there was traffic.)

After 15 years as city residents, we headed out. This was an incredibly difficult decision for me. Some would say that it’s because I can never be satisfied. And maybe that’s true. But while I think Angelica Schuyler means her refrain as self-deprecation, I see it another way. Never being satisfied is also striving to do and be better.

That quest for betterment is what drove me to move my family outside the city limits. I don’t mean better in the elitist sense. I want to finish raising my children in an educational environment that isn’t like the educational equivalent of the Hunger Games, The Maze Runner or another dystopian novel.

To make this move, I didn’t look at test scores. I looked at class sizes. I looked at expenditures. Operational spend. Instructional spend. I’ve heard and read that “throwing money at the problem doesn’t solve anything.” But money seems like a good start to me! “Throwing” money at the problem is a far better start than starving the system, denying it resources.

What are resources? Sometimes they are time. Sometimes they are teachers. Sometimes they are a combination of both of those. Sometimes resources are security guards, bus service, college counselors, guidance counselors, deans, specialists. Resources can be books, rooms, space, know-how, equipment, supplies, technology.

Yes, technology. I’m not actually a Luddite. Technology in the classroom can be good. After all, a pencil is technology.  If you are in Chicagoland, I invite you to join me at Raise Your Hand’s EdTech Forum on October 26th.

The Frightening Future of Education

I originally wrote this as a FB note in April 2017.

Link to Disney II’s Personalized Learning Blueprint (as referenced in its 2016 CIWP, obtained via FOIA).

1. Disney II students are the guinea pigs. This pilot is going national: “The Breakthrough Schools grant will set the framework for an innovative and bold school design to further propel the school’s mission and vision and achieve even better student outcomes that can be scaled nationally.” p. 1

2. Rewriting of the school’s mission: “The Disney II community, including parents, teachers, students, and partners, continuously refines and provides a robust, personalized program, designed to empower and engage students through project-based learning, multiple learning pathways, and community-based learning.” p. 5

3. Teachers become learning coaches: “The new role of Disney II teachers will be to become academic advisors and learning coaches.” p. 9

4. Education is a delivered service, not a process or performance: “Delivery of education.” p. 10

5. Students are expected to self-drive their educational experience: “Students will be guided by an academic advisor, who will provide ongoing and frequent feedback about their progress on the PLP [personalized learning plan]. In addition, the school will provide access to technology and tools for supporting students with a variety of learning modalities and interests.” p.11 “Students’ learning experiences will shift from passive recipients to active designers and owners of their unique pathway towards post school success.” p. 15

6. Lots of student data is captured and shared: “Each student will create a digital portfolio that will serve as a database of information that will be accessible to the individual, parent, academic advisor and learning coaches. This portfolio will house the child’s learning preferences, motivations, and personal accomplishments. Through the use of the STAR 360 dashboard, students will be expected to track their learning progression, standards based performance data, and incorporate their personal bests into the digital portfolio. In addition, this tool would be accessible for community partners….Each student will take ownership of this data and include it into their individual portfolio that is subsequently shared with parents, academic advisors and community partners as expected following the anchor of transparency and building a powerful community.” p. 12

7. Internet startup culture replaces modified K-12 classrooms: “The space within the physical building will serve as an incubator for collaboration, demonstration of learning, and lab experiences. The number of traditional classrooms will be limited. Our flexible environment encompasses the strategic use of space and access to information.” p.15 “The school’s culture will resemble a healthy, high-functioning modern workplace.” p. 21

8. Chromebooks for everyone! More technology! “As part of the proposed design, we envision gradual increase of the 1:1 use of personal technology to all grade levels three to 12.” p. 15 “Professional development will evolve to build teachers’ capacities in related areas of expertise: personalized learning, web-based learning tools…” p.27 “Learners will be able to take their Chromebook wherever they like, whenever they like. Access to technology for every student at any time of day it is vital for students to be able to take advantage of the flexibility of the personalized learning model. Students will be able to work on their personalized pathways with Chromebooks on campus, on their way to campus, in the middle of the night or over school breaks.” p. 31

9. 24/7/365 work culture starts early: “Student schedules will need to be more fluid as students learn to allocate time commensurate to their academic priorities. New schedule structures will be explored and employed. Key among them will be student-directed learning lab blocks, an extension of the pilot, wherein the students work toward their learning goals with the tools they’ve identified and chosen along with the guidance of teacher-facilitators.” p. 24 “Rather than introducing concepts based on a predetermined chronology or grade level frameworks, students will master skills based on their own learning progression. In other words, a student’s age will not determine the learning objectives, the student’s personalized pathway will determine the learning objectives. The school day and year will move away from the traditional preset hours and calendar.” p. 24-25

10. Kill the teachers union: “The proposed teacher schedules as well as work hours will require a waiver vote from the collective bargaining agreement between the Chicago Board of Education and the Chicago Teacher Union.” p. 25

11. Expertise is not necessarily a value. Fewer teachers, more middle management: “Gone are the days where teachers spend their time in subject-area silos.” p. 27 2017 staff roles include “SEL Coach; Academic advisors; Director of Communication and Professional Development; Programmatic and Curriculum Strategist; Partner Acquisition Lead.” p. 39