3 kids x 3 different schools = 9 billion emails

I attempted to write a post about having three kids in three separate school buildings this year, and how I’m feeling, more than ever, like I am going back to school alongside my kids. That post wasn’t good: it came off as whiney; it wasn’t entertaining; and its tone insinuated that the blame for parents being inundated with emails and homework belonged to the schools and the teachers.

While some schools and teachers are better than others at managing the information dump on parents, they are all following the dictates of a society that, yearning so mightily to make things easier, has made things more difficult.

The best way to illustrate this may be to compare school life today, with school life during the 1975-76 academic year, when I was in third grade (the same grade as my youngest child today).

During the 1975-76 school year, my mother became a single parent. She had seven children still in the public school system. There was no such thing as email. This, no doubt, prevented her jumping off a tall bridge.

CAR LINES

Our schools’ car lines block traffic in the streets around the schools. They allow parents to display the worst of their angry impatience or disregard for the time of other parents. Consequently, every school sends out a two-page email of car line procedures.

In 1975, the car line was three cars speeding up to the front door 15-30 minutes late. Only kids who had fallen behind schedule were driven to school. Everyone else walked or rode the bus.

LUNCH MONEY

The web site our schools use to keep track of lunch accounts changed. I must set up a new account and register each of my children. To do this, I need a student number for each child. I know one of them. My high schooler also needs a PIN number to access the money on his account in the cafeteria. I wish he could just be concerned with the numbers in math class.

My mom gave me enough money every Monday to buy a lunch ticket for the week. Each day the lunch lady punched a hole in the ticket. After five holes, the ticket was discarded. If I forget my money, they made a note in their book that I had “charged” lunch. The next day I got two holes punched in my ticket. There were no extras to buy; lunch was lunch, no more, no less.

Demonstrating car line procedures in the days before PDF diagrams and email.

PROGRESS REPORTING

Our schools use another website/app for parents to follow their kids’ assignments and grades. I set up an account this year. I was able to get one kid on it, but only the app accepts my login. Of course you can only add students via the web site (which doesn’t recognize my credentials). Also, you need a separate code number (different from the student ID) for each kid. This is another secret number I have for only one kid. Looks like the others will be monitoring themselves.

My mom monitored our progress by leaving things alone until she got a note from a teacher. She would address the issue and then go back about her own business. But things were far less competitive then, and she already had one child attending a state university, so she understood that not going to Harvard would not mean the end of the world to any of us.

RULES OF CONDUCT

Today I received an email with a link to the Orchestra Handbook for our middle school. My son and I are supposed to read the handbook together and sign the last page. This is just one of the multiple school activities where the rules need to be in writing and the parents must acknowledge receipt of them.

If any rules were in writing, it was most likely a placard on the wall of the classroom that read:

RULES:

Sit Down.

Shut Up.

Rules beyond that were based upon the general principles of proper decorum, and if the teacher had to explain them, it was already a bad day. When we broke the rules, we were punished, and if we whined about it at home, we were punished there too. However, we were almost never sued for breach of contract.

There are other examples, but this is already a long post. We shouldn’t be surprised that our schools reflect our frightened, angry, litigious, password-protected (without so much protection), ease-of-use (difficult) society. But nobody needs to carry cash, so that’s awesome.

Oh, look: a bird!

Yesterday was Parent-Teacher Conference day in our house. We had a total of six conferences for our three boys, all of them on Zoom. The meetings went fine, but they were sometimes awkward. This is not surprising because teacher conferences are often awkward and Zoom always is.

I don’t know how it is for parents of girls, but parents of boys can be confident the teacher will, at some point in the discussion, say a sentence like: “He’s a smart kid, but he sometimes gets distracted and loses focus on the task at hand.”

Yes. We know. We’re the ones who have to tell him to put on his shoes 18 times every morning.

It would save a lot of time if we could just assume this truth for every boy at every conference. You can still tell us he’s a smart kid if you want, but the rest is just repetitious ceremony at this point.

We had conferences with four of Big Brother’s middle school teachers. It was a tie. Two of them claimed he was quiet and low-key; two said he was too chatty in class. Past experience gave the credibility edge to the chatty votes, but it bore further investigation.

“It depends on if I have friends in the class,” Big Brother explained. “In Language Arts I sit next to a kid who hasn’t said three words all year.”

My poor boy is having his chattiness stunted by introverts.

“Why don’t you use your Superpower for talking in class to bring him out of his shell?” I asked.

Big Brother shook his head. We both knew if we made talking into a purposeful task, he’d get distracted and lose focus.

The two elementary school boys got good reports from their teachers. Big Man’s 2nd grade teacher raved about what a helpful and cooperative boy he was. She has never had to chase the barefooted Boy Wonder with a pair of socks. This boy would go barefoot at the North Pole. You’d think a pair of socks was a straitjacket on his soul. Yes, he’s cooperative, until his toes once again taste the sweet breeze of freedom.

Big Man’s dream: a barefoot school, concerned with what’s going on outside.

Buster is a good 4th grade citizen, but don’t expect him to volunteer any answers unless he’s specifically called upon to do so. No teacher has ever said Buster was chatty in the classroom. They don’t realize it, but he’s chatting up a storm. Inside his own head, he’s making up jokes, singing songs, and doing a few silent thought experiments. He knows the answers; he’s just waiting for the right questions.

I was going to write more on this topic, but I’m still a boy at heart, and if you could talk to my teacher I’m sure you would hear that I sometimes get distracted and lose focus on my task. No word yet on whether I’m a smart kid.

The new new new math

The concept of new math has been around since I was a kid in school. The compulsion for parents to complain about the new math has existed as long. Numbers have interacted with each other in the same way since counting was invented, but once every generation, a new genius came up with a better way to teach children what Johnny had left after he gave Cindy three of his apples.

The generational advancements in mathematical technique seem to come about every other year now. Either we’re producing new educational super-innovators at a highly accelerated rate or the educational super-innovator from the year before last wasn’t quite the bright light we were sold.

It seems like every time I get presented with one of my kids’ curriculums, it comes with the announcement that the school has started a new math program. In theory, each new math program is better than the last. I wait for my kids to make amazing advances in their understanding of arithmetic. They make plodding advancements, but any disappointment I may feel is soon washed away by news the school will soon be adopting an innovative new math curriculum.

None of these new maths has ever turned a child of mine into anything approaching a budding mathematician. They do succeed at making it impossible for me to give my kids any meaningful help with their math homework.

I assure you, I use arithmetic almost daily. At the risk of seeming a braggart, I am fairly accomplished at 1st-3rd grade level arithmetic.

Can I answer the questions on my kids’ homework assignments? No. I cannot.

Yesterday, my 3rd grader came to me for help with the following question:

“Enter the division that is shown when the fourth multiplier finger is down: ___ ÷ ___ = ___”

I don’t know what the fourth multiplier finger is, or what it means. I know a lot more about what the third finger means, and I just about gave it to this math program. Then I remembered a child was present.

Anyhow, shouldn’t a math problem have some sort of numbers or variables in it?

I found numbers very helpful for learning math.

Fortunately, my boy knew just enough about the mysterious fourth finger to teach me that it somehow meant 4 x 9 = 36. He was sketchy on how division worked into it, though.

Being the math geniuses we are, father and son alike, we reversed it to 36 ÷ 9 = 4. It turns out that was the right answer. Don’t ask me why. It’s a genius thing.

It seems like math is nowadays most important to education in figuring out how much money can be made by selling new and improved programs to schools biannually. Ages ago, I learned that 3 x 9 = 27 without having to flip off any innocent bystanders, but maybe not flipping off bystanders is the mark of someone whose time has passed.

Stay tuned, in case I learn how fingers 1, 2, and 5 are useful to mankind.

In case you thought I was exaggerating. Here’s the answer screen for the graded homework.

School on Screens

Well, it’s happening. God only knows how it will play out, but this train won’t stop now.

Online schooling begins tomorrow.

Even though I haven’t been a real Catholic for 30 years, I have an impulse to cross myself when I make that statement, or even when I think about it.

The emails have been coming fast and furious from the middle and elementary school administrations as well as individual teachers. We’re drowning in informational attachments.

The boys have all gotten their schedules. Big Brother’s 7th grade schedule contains an elective called “The Great Outdoors,” which was not one of his top choices. The schedule was silent about the irony of learning all about the outdoors from a computer screen inside his house. His schedule is the most detailed, which is good, because he’s going to have to manage his responsibilities largely on his own.

The Great Outdoors, transformed into screen time for educational purposes.

His little brothers will need lots of help.

It used to be that 3rd grade and 1st grade schedules looked like this:

Morning: Drop them off at school

Afternoon: Pick them up from school

This year we have a day-long schedule of live and taped events the children must access on the computer every day. I am happy to see there is a break each day at 10:15 for the students to have a snack and the parents to crack open a bottle of wine. We weren’t in the habit of drinking in the morning, but as they say, welcome to the new normal.

Lunch is at 11:45, which is just about the time we will be realizing that wine is insufficient to our needs. A couple shots of something a little more robust should help us prepare for the afternoon sessions

Preparing our learning devices for the big day.

I think whoever made up the schedule gave up on it once they hit noon. The afternoon is a hodge-podge of pre-recorded sessions, which seem like they could be done in any order, but also seem to leave the administration entirely in the parents’ hands.

As daunting as this is, it may not turn out to be a bad thing. Parents have been lulled by our system into believing they are not ultimately responsible for their children’s educations. Some have leapt onto that slippery slope to the point where they don’t feel responsible for their kids’ emotional development.

Maybe this experiment will bring some parents back to their responsibilities. It won’t be fair to all parents, but nothing ever is. How fair it is to my family is not our top concern right now. Our top concern is that ourchildren progress, in all the facets of their lives. This, we are determined to see them do.

Maybe there’s a silver lining in online schooling, if it gets parents more involved in their children’s development. Or, maybe it’s just a train wreck in the making. Maybe it’s both. I was always partial to D: All of the above on multiple choice tests when I didn’t have a clue what was going on.