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.

Everything Old Is New Again

A post on the Facebook group for Illinois Raise Your Hand exploded into a debate about EdTech yesterday. It started with a question about an online math program and the challenges it posed for a tech-deficient population, and quickly turned into a veritable rehash of education reform ideas from the past century, all dressed up in today’s shiny new best: EdTech.

Leaving aside the tech resources imbalance for a moment, I’m sad (but not terribly surprised) to see that another CPS school implemented EdTech without considering, let alone consulting, its parent-student population. To quote a friend, “After a 7-hour school day, part of which is spent on electronic devices, time spent outside of school on electronics/digital media deserves a lot of scrutiny—especially for elementary-aged children.”

The research on this is clear: tech exposure is not a magic bullet to solving education’s crisis du jour. In fact, tech can be harmful to learning and development.

Frequently, parents (and educators) say that tech is important to remaining competitive in a global economy. You know what the global economy is also called? The knowledge economy. And according to this 2014 Harvard Business Review piece, the knowledge economy is a human economy.

The skills and abilities that will make our children competitive in a global economy and successful in life are the same skills and abilities that made their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents successful: the ability to use one’s brain, to think, reason, and manipulate information. These aren’t skills acquired by learning how to make a Google Slides presentation in 2nd grade. These skills are taught and learned through interactions with peers, teachers, mentors, and the natural world.

Anyway, my kids learned how to make a Google Slides presentation in 2nd or 3rd grade. Hoo. Rah. What does that really give them? Um, not much. Yes, it’s using a tool. Yes, the tool is kind of cool. But, knowing how to use an online computer program doesn’t make children more competitive in a global economy. It doesn’t add to their understanding of the way that the technology works. It doesn’t bring them closer to coding in C++. It doesn’t teach them a skill that they couldn’t pick up in 9th grade (or 12th grade). It doesn’t make them globally competitive. What will make them globally competitive and ultimately able to get and hold a job is their ability to think, reason, and communicate effectively with other humans.

And let’s not forget that being able to have the attention span to read a book or journal on paper is important. The tactile factor of books is important. I could say more on this subject, but Anne Fadiman did it so much better in her little book of essays, Ex Libris. (Do I know you? Then you probably already have a copy.)

Books, it seems, are another victim of the rise of EdTech. I took a MOOC last fall (America’s Poverty Course) and when the optional textbook arrived in the mail, my children were completely flummoxed by its appearance and usage. “What’s a textbook?” they asked.

They don’t know what a textbook is because their school doesn’t have any (that I know of/have seen). Why is that? Chicago Public Schools now requires its vendors to provide electronic versions of all textbooks, which might account for some of this. Some people say that the information contained in textbooks becomes obsolete and out-of-date.

Would I rather have an out-of-date textbook or EdTech? That depends on three things: (1) whether the book is so outdated that the information contained therein or the way it is presented is harmful to students; (2) who’s paying? CPS, the school, or in my case, parents via school fees; and (3) how old is out-of-date? 10 years? 20 years? 40 years? Longer? Modern algebra was invented in the 16th-19th century; is a textbook from 2007 outdated? I’m not sure I really believe that books still hanging around the system in 2017 on subjects like history, science, literature, and math can be outdated.

Are textbooks generally harmful to students? They could be, but we know that EdTech is harmful to students. “Research indicates that exposure to screen imagery is actually dulling our very senses.” Not only does it change the educational experience for students, but it also invades their privacy in a way that little else does. And no, it’s not the same as my using Facebook or WordPress or any other free online service for which my data is ultimately the price.

Why not? Because I’m an adult and a known entity. I get timed math anxiety, but I learned my multiplication tables 30+ years ago. My children are still literally in-development. I do not want to pay for EdTech companies to mine my children’s data while they teach themselves geometry proofs on bright, flashing SaaS programs.

Gamification, Ed Tech, and Ways of Learning

In the Chicago Mama household, we talk about learning a lot. More specifically, we talk about the ways we each learn, and what ways resonate the best with each of us, and with The Girl, The Boy, and Number Three in turn. We talk about it because it’s interesting to me. And we talk about it because three out of five of us are dyslexic.

Dyslexics learn things in a different way than everyone else, so learning how to navigate the changing educational environment is extra challenging. Dyslexia, simply, is trouble with reading. But while a lot is known about dyslexia, teachers often do not know a lot about it. It’s tough to be in a literacy-heavy school (which is every school in K-3rd grade) and have great difficulty learning to read.

In our house, this was more true for Number Three than it is for The Girl. I have often wondered if girls are simply better readers (or more drawn to reading) than boys, on average, but I have no evidence for this. A May 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that my hypothesis is a shared assumption.

The article reveals a small study published recently. In the study, which took place in France, children were given reading tests and told alternately that they were assessments or research for a new game in development. Boys scored higher than girls, comparatively, on game-related tests.

This is not surprising to The Dad, he says, because boys are more competitive than girls (or are competitive in a different way). To me, this explains the current trend of gamification in curriculum. Indeed, Mark Zuckerberg rather famously announced his intentions toward education with a Facebook post (announcement) about education in September 2015.

Little did I know at the time that my children would be soon be ensnared in the Summit PLP. Yes, I know that is a provocative way of referring to a program rolled out to six CPS schools this year in a pilot of “personalized learning.”

I’m using provocative language because this program, what it represents, and what it will do to education in America is very scary. I want you to know what is happening in your school and why this new program doesn’t have to be an example of the future of education. At this school or at any other.

In September, I authored a Facebook note about the plan to roll out something called Summit Basecamp to three grades, which directly affects 2/3 of my students. In October, I followed it up with another Facebook note, primarily a list of questions for which I am still awaiting clear answers. In November, I began hearing whispers of complaints from parents about the program. During the December round of parties and festive events, parents were no longer measuring their words about the program: Is it staying? Is there anything we can do to get rid of it?

This post is an attempt to answer those questions in a transparent way. As a policy wonk, armchair researcher, and person who occasionally reads the fine print, I have done a fair amount of research on this nascent program and its implications not only for my children, but for all children. Not surprisingly, and mirroring the responses to my own initial school-level inquiries, what I found initially was marketing fluff.

In the absence of clear answers, I refused to sign the parental consent waiver. While this has caused some extra work for a few teachers, it has also kept their skills fresh. And that’s important.

Because the implementation/instance of the PLP is a disaster.

It’s possible that Seattle could have told us that. Or New Hampshire. Certainly most parents I’ve spoken to decry the PLP’s effectiveness (as they quietly put their houses on the market, find room in the budget for parochial school, and freak out completely–or all three). It’s all anecdotal, and most people know that I am critical of the PLP, so I won’t bother to tell you the number of folks who do not think well of the PLP.

Would they change their minds if their children did well on the three required sittings of NWEA* this year? Possibly. For now, it might be enough that their children find no joy in learning. It might be enough that the competency-based grading scale with its tightly controlled weights make it extraordinarily difficult to earn a mark higher than 91%. It might be enough that students spend 3/4 of their school days looking at a glowing screen.

A growing body of research has found problems with an over-reliance on technology. In classrooms and full stop. In fact, Parents Across America has put together a number of resources and research about edtech, including this glossary that defines what all the terms (often used interchangeably) are. These terms often sound like your child is getting one-on-one education,  but nothing could be further from the truth.

Check out these resources and let me know what you think.



* more on this in a subsequent post.

I wrote this post originally as a Facebook note on September 16, 2016.
In the fall of 2016, our school rolled out two new programs for 6th-8th graders.This affects 2 of my 3 children directly. Lots of changes with little explanation (thus far), and to allay anxiety, I am in full research mode. Sharing here in this note for those who may also be curious or concerned (or, you know, have kids whose anxiety isn’t relieved by a teacher telling them not to worry).
There are two components of the pilot that have piqued my curiosity: (1) moving from Google Classroom to Summit Basecamp and (2) removing quarter and semester grades for the year. I got communication about the first from one student’s teacher, and communication about the second from a second student. It turns out that these things are connected:
But, before I get into that, let me address them in order, as my thought process didn’t connect the two until mid-September 2016.
For the Google Classroom –> Summit Basecamp decision, my brain full of questions went like this: Is this replacing Google Classroom? Why? What is Basecamp? (Basecamp the company used to make a tool called Summit, which I initially confused for Summit Basecamp. This error led me initially to ask who owns the privacy policy on data for the tool. The answer (still waiting…) takes on greater significance now that I’ve read Summit Basecamp’s website, in which finding the privacy policy is not intuitive.) What data, if any, is being collected by Summit Basecamp? How will this data be used? I have concerns around FERPA after an incident last year; how will the school ensure fidelity on FERPA with the tool?
Who/what is paying for these services? Is this included in the $250 and $160 I paid for instructional materials and supplies at the beginning of the year? What happens if I refuse to sign the Chromebook policy? How will my child do his/her work? How do other schools do 1:1 technology rollouts? If a student breaks/damages/loses the device, what happens at other schools? What happened to the insurance option that was talked about at the end of last year? What if I cannot afford to pay $600 to replace damaged/lost Chromebooks that are required for my students to do their work? (For the record, I typed this on a household/family Chromebook.)
After doing some research on Summit Basecamp, this is what I know: (1) It’s not the same thing as Basecamp3 (phew!), (2) our school is one of 6 district schools participating in the pilot, (3) a teacher at one of the other participating schools now works for Summit Basecamp as well as for CPS, (4) found its privacy policy after much digging – it looks like it uses Clever, Google, and Facebook, so I am signing my kids’ data over to those for-profit folks as well. It’s OK for them to collect and use my students’ PII and test scores, grades, standardized test results, course progress information and coursework in audio, video, text, images, and other media, and to share that with the school for essentially any reason. (IANAL, so could have misread the policy.)
What I also read on Summit Basecamp was its requirements of schools using its platform. And that is why my 6th grader isn’t going to receive quarterly grades this year. That brings me back to my questions about this component of the program, which threw my 6th grader into a tailspin after school day 3.
At this point, my brain started moving with these questions: No grades, how is that going to work? Is there a name for the pilot or a link on CPS site? How will homework, quizzes, tests, etc. be weighted to calculate the final grade? Will a homework assignment not submitted in September affect the cumulative grade in May? Will there be opportunities to make up work throughout the year? Will there be points where the slate is wiped clean and the children can begin fresh? How will you assess progress or mastery of the individual cognitive skills? How will this work with quarterly goals for IEPs? Specifically for the writing skill, is this physical writing or putting thoughts together in electronic words? Are focus areas roughly equivalent to subjects science, math, English, social studies? Will art, tech, music and PE also use this method? How much content will be taught by self-paced lessons?
Then, tonight, I found the Summit Basecamp requirements page, some of which I recognized as content from a teacher email, and had a conversation about some things with my children, who know that I am trying to understand more so that I can help them to understand more. More questions: What happens if my kid opts out of the NWEA? (My kid’s comment: we have to take that test 3 times?!?) If this is personalized learning, why are my 99th percentile math nerds not in the top math groups? What happens if I or my spouse do not give full written consent to use the PLP?
2/3 of my kids need assistive technology, which has not been ordered because the school uses Chromebooks. But is it possible to greenlight the Chromebook without signing on to Summit Basecamp?
ETA questions from the gallery: Who/what agreed to put the school through this pilot? Why wasn’t consensus given from the school community (staff and families) prior to the final decision?