Aug 31 2013


So where were we? I think in my last post about UMCS I said that Robin was having a tough time with the transition to a UMCS “lower elementary” classroom. The Montessori lower elementary classes are mixed-age, first through third graders, and Robin was the youngest in the class by quite a bit. His teacher thought that he was prepared for the work academically, but she also said that “Robin doesn’t really have a peer group in this classroom.”

And Robin himself was really, really clear that he wanted to move. “I want to be with the little kids and do little kid things,” he said. “I want to be in a different classroom. I want to go to kindergarten.” He said the same thing over and over in different ways. So I thought, you know, my kid is telling me as clearly as he possibly can what he wants for himself.

And here’s what I think. In Nature’s justice system, Robin has not been guaranteed a jury of his peers, nor has he been vouchsafed an impartial judge. The universe is cruel and it can be very quick to render a verdict. There are no indivisible rights. But in this system Robin has been outfitted with an advocate—one person who will put his needs above literally anything else in the cosmos. And that’s me.

I think he needs to learn that the world won’t always rearrange itself to suit him. But you know what? Sometimes—if he’s clear about his terms and he sticks to his guns—it will.

So I decided to fight this one for him. I scheduled another meeting with his teacher, and then a meeting with the administration, and basically it came down to everybody agreeing: Robin is an edge case. If he “stuck it out” in the lower-el classroom he would probably learn a lot, and the older kids would mentor him…but it would be a rough transition. If he moves to the kindergarten classroom, he probably won’t make a lot of progress academically over the course of the year, but he’ll get a lot more social and emotional support.

And I said: Robin knows what he wants. I don’t think he should get the only vote in this decision, but I think he should get a vote, and in this case probably the deciding vote.

So it’s agreed! Robin moves to kindergarten, starting next week. He’s really happy with the news, especially since one of his friends from preschool is already in that class. I think it’s going to make everything much happier for him. And I’m very pleased with UMCS for being so flexible and for sincerely doing their best to meet Robin’s developmental needs.

Aug 28 2013


Robin is having kind of a hard time with the transition to elementary school. He says his days are “bad” and he’s started asking to stay home instead of going to school. This is heartbreaking because he loved preschool so much, and that enthusiasm and delight was something I really wanted him to be able to hold on to.

We talked to his teacher a little bit, specifically floating the idea that maybe he would be better suited to a kindergarten classroom. She says from her perspective he’s doing fine—she thinks he’s going through some normal transition anxiety and that he will settle in within a couple of weeks. She also said that, academically speaking, he is at a first-grade level. (I thought that was true, because I looked up the state standards and did those lessons with him to get him up to grade level, but I was rather pleased to hear her confirm it.)

I told Robin that if he gives it six weeks and still hates school, we’ll make some sort of a change. I hope his teacher is right and that it’s ultimately not necessary.

Aug 26 2013

Need-to-Know Basis

Me: “So Robin, how was your first day of school?”
Robin: “Long.”
Me: “It is a long day, isn’t it?”
Robin: “The teacher got fustalated.”
Me: “Frustrated? Why?”
Robin: “Because my friends did a bad thing.”
Me: “Really. What did ‘your friends’ do?”
Robin: “Hmm. I’m not going to tell you. You don’t need to know.”

Aug 23 2013


Robin had an orientation period at his new school this morning—he got to go in, meet his teachers and find his classroom, and stay for about an hour before we all gathered for food and socialization. It went really well. On our way into school we recognized a couple of families from Peter Pan (our co-op preschool), so Robin had a little bit of interaction with friendly, familiar faces to bolster him as he entered this new school environment.

I’m feeling really good about UMCS. There’s a new principal this year but I got a great vibe off both her and the rest of the administration. I didn’t get so much of a sense of Robin’s teachers (his classroom has two) yet, but I’m sure we’ll have lots of time to build rapport. The facilities have a nice “feel,” and there’s a bunch of things about the Montessori model that I really like (multi-age classrooms, team teaching, and an emphasis on cross-disciplinary projects and self-directed learning). So we’re excited about the upcoming year at UMCS.

After our orientation this morning, Robin and I walked over to meet up with Sam and Davy and Sol at Peter Pan, which also had a potluck brunch going on. I ran into another Peter Pan parent on the walk over, and when we got there I was flooded with happiness to see all the folks we’ve been working with over the past couple of years, and to catch up with their kids, who all seem to have sprouted up six inches over the summer vacation. It was just nice.

There are some things about our neighborhood that are not so great. There’s been some awful crime stories lately. But walking from the elementary school to the preschool, greeting our neighbors and friends, I realized that we have made some wonderful connections here.

Aug 17 2013


Oh wow! We just got a call from Urban Montessori Charter School—Robin has been offered a spot in their first-grade class!

And we accepted it. We weighed out the pros and cons of going with UCMS versus Kaiser: the only real drawback is that Robin will be skipping kindergarten, and that’s a disadvantage that is mitigated by the mixed-age classrooms and individualized instruction under the Montessori model. Robin’s still not a fully proficient reader, but I spent some time going through the Common Core standards and Robin does meet the language goals for a graduating kindergartner. I don’t think he’ll be too far behind the curve.

Everything else weighs in favor of UMCS. They’re located within walking distance of our house so dropoffs and pickups will be easy. Their program goes to eighth grade so we won’t have to go through a lottery for junior high. And the most important factor by far: we were impressed with the school during our visits and think the program will be a good fit for Robin.

So, this is really good news, even if it does mean some last-minute scrambling and readjustment of plans!

Jun 18 2013

Key Day


Robin graduated from preschool today. There’s actually another month of school left to go, but at the Peter Pan preschool the graduation ceremony is held in mid-June—I think because a lot of folks start leaving for summer vacation. It’s called Key Day, and each graduating child is awarded a big wooden key adorned with lots of sparkly bits, to symbolize that they can always come back to visit. After the kids get their keys they run across a “bridge” set up in the playground, which represents them “crossing over into the wider world of learning.” It’s a nice ceremony, with a generous, individualistic feel—it kind of captures the spirit of the co-op.

And as it happens, yesterday, we got a call from the Oakland Unified School District. After learning that we’d been wait-listed for our top-choice school (Urban Montessori Charter School), we kind of started scrambling around for a back-up plan. One of the things we did was to put in the paperwork for late admissions to various public schools in the city, knowing that Robin would only be offered a place in ones that happened to be under-enrolled. Since competition is fierce for spots in the district’s top-performing schools, I kind of figured that this whole process was a long shot at best. For whatever reason, though, it seems that Kaiser Elementary had a space open, and they’ve offered it to Robin.

A little OUSD inside baseball: There are three Oakland public schools that have test scores rivaling what you see at private schools. Those three are Hillcrest, Montclair, and Thornhill—not coincidentally located in the most prosperous sections of Oakland, up in the hills—and we did not even bother applying to any of these, as neighborhood kids get preference and those schools are considered so desirable that even living in the right zip code isn’t a guarantee of admission. We don’t live in the right zip code, needless to say, and anyway I’m pretty sure that there’s a wonky feedback loop going on involving: 1) the kind of parents who care about test scores more than anything else; 2) the kind of kids who have private tutors and get good scores on standardized tests; and 3) the kind of test scores that kids who go to Hillcrest, Montclair, or Thornhill tend to get. In other words, I am pretty darn sure that the quality of the schools has only a loose relationship to the strength of the test scores.

Be that as it may, there’s also a satellite constellation of schools located in neighboring areas—collectively known as the “hills schools”—that get decent test scores but aren’t quite so insanely difficult to get into, and as a result attract a more diverse set of kids. The hills schools include those already mentioned as well as Chabot, Joaquin Miller, and Kaiser. I did not expect to be offered a place at any of them, but we applied to Chabot and Kaiser anyway, because they honestly seemed like they might be good fits for Robin. What I want from a school is, basically, an extension of Peter Pan—a school that recognizes the value of creativity, freedom, and play. I want a school that Robin will love in the same way that he loves going to Peter Pan. I am convinced that kids have an innate drive to learn and that they do best when given the freedom to pursue their own interests along with the materials, support, and structured challenges they need to progress. I think worksheets are the mind-killer and that if school is boring, that means it’s broken. (School can be hard without being boring.)

The bottom line is—I’m pretty skeptical of America’s public school system in general and Oakland’s in particular, but I’ve heard good things about Kaiser and I’m willing to give it a chance. It’s kind of a miracle that we were offered a spot at all. It’s a fair distance from our house so transportation will be an issue, but there’s a number of former Peter Pan families that have kids there now, so we might be able to get a carpool going.

I think if Urban Montessori finds a space for Robin, we’ll probably still take it. But Kaiser is our default plan now.

May 28 2013

Reading Lessons

So, I’ve been doing some formal reading lessons with Robin. The impetus was learning that if he gets into the Urban Montessori Charter School next year, he’ll be placed in first grade—I don’t want him to start first grade not knowing how to read. I sort of had this idea that if you read to kids, they naturally pick it up, but although Robin knew his ABC’s and letter sounds really early on, and had a handful of sight words (“cat,” “dog,” et cetera), he hadn’t moved much past that stage. He wasn’t able to pick up a book and read it.

It turns out that the pedagogy of teaching kids to read is a real minefield. The reading wars, as they are called, essentially consist of the “phonics” camp pitted against the “whole-language” camp in a tribal deathmatch. And it is tribal: the debate has become entirely bound up in identity politics, with conservatives flying the phonics flag and liberals marching with the whole-language brigade. I’m a liberal, so my instincts aligned rather neatly with the whole-language side, and I probably never would have thought to challenge those instincts except that Robin wasn’t making much progress towards true literacy.

But after reading more on the subject, I learned (to my own dismay) that, nice as it is, the whole language idea has not yielded good results anywhere that it’s been put into exclusive implementation. Most educators currently endorse a “balanced” approach that includes at least some phonics instruction.

So, I bit my lip hard and ordered a phonics-based workbook for Robin. I got the one that had the best Amazon scores: Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.

And I hated that book. Everything in my nature rebelled against its didatic, joyless, prescriptivist approach. Nontheless, it had really great reviews, and Robin was quite happily up for the idea of “doing lessons” with Mama. (Davy was muuuuuuch less thrilled with the concept of a thing Robin and I would do together without him…and I suspect that his opposition was part of the draw for Robin. Oh, the joys of siblings.)

By lesson eight, something had clicked for Robin. He got the central idea of “sounding things out.” He wanted to page ahead and look at the new words in lessons further along. So I quite gleefully ditched the boring workbook and went back to reading real books with Robin—except now, I stop every now and then and have him identify a word before we go on. Sometimes he can do it because it’s one of the ever-growing number of words he recognizes on sight; sometimes he can guess the word from context; and sometimes I help him sound it out.

Today, for the first time, I had the experience of sitting down with a picture book Robin hadn’t seen before (it was actually a workbook my mom sent, First Words Sticker Workbook) and realizing that Robin can read every word on the page, by himself. The pictures are great context clues, of course, but he’s also identifying the starting sounds of the words and using that information to guess the word correctly. He is, in other words, using all of the tools at his disposal to truly read. He can pick up unfamiliar material and read it. He is in the early stages of actual literacy. I was so impressed that I texted Sam and demanded to know whether he’d read that book with Robin already! (Answer: No.)

So, it all makes me feel a bit more confident about homeschooling for kindergarten, if that’s the path we end up taking. I can teach him things, even with the distractions of a new baby and a demanding two-year-old. I can teach him reading and writing and ‘rithmatic. I have, to some degree, already done it.

Mar 2 2013

School Grind

Ugh, is there anything worse than kindergarten admissions lotteries? Robin has been wait-listed for our top choice neighborhood school, Urban Montessori Charter School, so we’re scrambling around examining back-up plans. The most likely one involves keeping him in Peter Pan for another year (for the socialization) while starting home lessons, and hoping something opens up mid-year at UMCS. I also have a tour scheduled next week at a private school that we cannot even remotely afford, I don’t know why we’re even looking, just to torture ourselves I guess. I mean, they do offer financial aid, but if I were running a private school I wouldn’t give us a scholarship: we’re above median income and we don’t check any diversity boxes.

I toured some of the other local public schools, and came away feeling that it would basically be like sending my kid to prison. The atmosphere was just incredibly oppressive and grim. I don’t even put a lot of weight on things like test scores—I’m confident in my ability to provide supplemental academic lessons at home if necessary, especially in the early grades—but I’m not going to send my kid to a frickin’ gulag. Right now Robin loves school and I don’t want him to lose that.

I still think we have a decent shot at ending up with a spot at UMCS. It’s a new school and last year they didn’t end up filling all of their classes. I suspect that a lot of the applicants were regarding it as a secondary choice, and won’t end up accepting a place there. I’m not a whole-hearted believer in “the Montessori method” but they do a lot of things that I like: mixed-age classrooms, multiple teachers to a class, and a focus on small-group learning with individualized lesson plans that give each child a choice of activities throughout the day. The child-led approach does represent a fairly radical departure from a traditionally-structured classroom, which is exactly what I think charter schools are good for—providing venues for pedagogical experimentation.

Charter schools are a political minefield, of course, and most of the “debate” over charter schools has degenerated into sheer tribalism, with teachers’ unions painting them as the work of the devil and reform advocates casting them as a kind of Holy Grail. And of course Republicans have latched on to charters as a way to sneak religious instruction into public education, which only deepens the existing tendency of people to line up on one side or other of the issue based on party affiliation. There was an interesting op-ed in The New York Times recently that spoke to this trend:

Michael Petrilli, a research fellow at Stanford University‚Äôs Hoover Institution and a pro-charter education analyst with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, worries about this lack of exchange. He recently conducted an analysis of Twitter and the tens of thousands of followers of Ms. Rhee, who is pro-charter, and Ms. Ravitch, who is anti-charter, and discovered that only 10 percent overlapped. Just as conservatives gravitate to Fox News and liberals to MSNBC to hear their preconceived notions and biases confirmed, Mr. Petrilli speculates that those in education are now preaching solely to the converted, a phenomenon known in the media world as “narrowcasting.”

This is absolutely happening, and to an extent that’s frankly ridiculous. Charter critics have very valid points to make, although from my perspective the most substantial of these point toward regulation and reform rather than striking very deeply at the heart of the concept. For one thing, if charters are going to serve as real laboratories for testing possible avenues of school reform, then naturally many of the experiments are going to be failures. That’s why charters should be closely monitored and under-performing ones should be closed quickly. They should not be allowed to substitute “faith based” learning for actual learning. Et cetera.

However, teachers’ unions will fail where they align themselves against the interests of parents, also known as “voters.” Voters consistently and increasingly support charters because parents have a very strong interest in choosing the educational environment that best fits our particular children’s needs. A diversity of options—not just one top-down, cookie-cutter approach to schooling—is something that parents want very much and are willing to fight for, and in many districts the charter system provides the only alternative to factory-style learning and staggering layers of bureaucracy. To me it seems that those who set themselves as categorical opponents to charter schools are simply declaring themselves irrelevant to public policy, as they have been and will continue to be steamrolled by the voters. This is all the sadder because there is no inherent reason why charter schools cannot unionize—and in fact, some have, a trend I find encouraging.

The teachers at UMCS that I spoke to are enthusiastic about the school to an infectious degree. There’s already one Peter Pan family there, so Robin would have friends. At our tour we saw kids happily engaged with the materials, working at their own pace on projects of their own choosing. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Oct 7 2011


Robin: I need big boy pants! I need clothes! I need go to school!
Me: I am very happy to put you in your big boy pants this morning, my darling, but we are not going to school. It’s Friday, and normally we would go to school today, but it’s a holiday. That means there’s no school.
Robin: But, what about — go to the playground? What about — run with the bikes?
Me: I’m sorry, kiddo, we’re not going back to school until Tuesday.
Robin (whining): Play with the kids!
Me: Nobody’s there! It’s a holiday!
Robin: No! No holiday!

Sep 16 2011

Pictures of School

So here’s a picture of the room where I work:


I actually get the room attached to it, too, where the fishies and the guinea pig live:


The guinea pig’s name is Mei-Mei. She likes to eat parsley.


This is the art room (that’s Robin painting):

Robin painting

It isn’t just for art, but all kinds of sensory play. There’s a trough holding cornmeal and various things that are fun to dredge through it, and there’s usually play-dough or something else tactile set out on the tables. Here’s another picture of the same room:

art room

This is the block room:

block room

And the upper playground:


I was standing in the playground when I took this photo of the park below:


So, it’s really a nice physical space they’ve got, with a lot of different activities for the kids to explore.