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.

Time on their hands

You may wonder what elementary school aged boys, stuck at home with no school to attend, do with the large part of their days in which there is no online learning happening. Very possibly you don’t wonder this, never have, and never will, but I have a post to write, so let’s pretend you’re yearning to know.

The favorite activity is to distract Mom and Dad from their work-at-home worlds. This is a fun and interactive pastime, but it sometimes results in excessive scolding, because, to a child, any amount of scolding is excessive.

When they can’t bother their parents directly, the next best thing is to fight with each other. Specialists in the field sometime refer to this as indirect bothering of parents. Eventually, this will also lead to excessive scolding. 

Too much parent bothering can lead to lockdown within a lockdown, a condition known as double lockdown, wherein the brothers must separate, not only from general society, but also from each other.

During double lockdown the kids must look inward for quiet forms of self-expression. As parents of boys must learn, quiet is not any kind of synonym for non-violent.

One afternoon, I stumbled upon one of Big Man’s quiet, self-expressions.

I found this out of context, so there is no way to know the backstory. We don’t know why Spidey and Ironman needed to be restrained. For all we know, these are not the real Superheroes, but their evil twins instead. Then again, maybe they just distracted their parents from work for one minute too long.

Buster’s masterpiece of quiet self-expression has been growing over time.

I can imagine some childless child psychologist insisting this represents repressed anger. While I would agree that children have plenty to be righteously angry about today, I recall that I also drew war scenes in 3rd grade. So far, I have made it through without ever using a weapon in anger. As long as none of the soldiers getting shot at are labeled “Dad,” I’m not going to worry.

Besides, I think this depiction demonstrates some childish brilliance.

Why would this pilot say “999”?

I’ll give you some hints:

  • Note: the colors of the plane.
  • Note: the back of the plane has burst into flame (terrible news for the pilot).
  • Note: the artist is an eight-year-old English speaker, who knows only one word of a particular foreign language, which he has heard, but never seen in print.

Got it? If you’ve cracked the code, feel free to put your answer in the comments.

I’d hate to risk all this artistic expression, but I still think there should be someplace kids could go, four or five days a week, to be among friends and maybe learn a thing or two. But maybe I’m just a dreamer.

Don’t be a Puzzled Penguin

In the past six months, I’ve learned more about being a first grader than I have since I was a first grader. Part of each of my days is spent in first grade, learning to read and do addition and subtraction. Part of each day is spent in third grade as well, learning to read a little better and do multiplication and division.

There are a lot more parents, like me, in first grade this year than there were in the 1973-74 academic year. As I recall, it used to be mostly little kids, but now parents are having to figure out how to use all the many online tools that make the remote learning elementary school go. Fortunately, we all have a six or seven-year-old nearby to help us.

It’s kind of a vicious cycle, but in order that we don’t get too frustrated, we call it a symbiotic relationship: Big Man wants help with his homework; before I can begin to help him, he must teach me how to use the online platform that jealously guards this day’s homework inside its electronic labyrinth.

It can be taxing, but we’re getting through it together. Our two heads combined are enough to graduate one of us from first grade. I just hope it’s the one still full of potential.

Along the way, we’ve have had some adventures and met some characters. One of the noteworthy entities I’ve met in electronic first grade is the Puzzled Penguin. The Puzzled Penguin shows up occasionally on one of the arithmetic applications.

I first met the Puzzled Penguin when Big Man and I encountered a math problem that went something like this:

                The Puzzled Penguin thinks 7 + 5 = 10 + 3. Is he correct?

Before I had even finished reading the problem, Big Man announced with certainty: “Nope, he’s wrong!”

I was amazed at the speed of his calculation. “Wow! How’d you do that addition so fast?”

“I didn’t add anything.”

“Then how do you know he’s wrong.”

“Easy. The Puzzled Penguin’s always wrong.”

“But why is he wrong?”

Big Man shrugged. “Because he’s dumb?”

“I mean why is he wrong in this case?”

“Because he’s still dumb?”

I put the screen squarely in front of him. “Okay. Do the math and tell me why he’s wrong.”

He gave me an exasperated look. “I already told you the answer. Because the Puzzled Penguin is always wrong.”

As he was speaking, Buster entered the room. “Oh, the Puzzled Penguin,” Buster mused. “I remember him. That dumb bird is always wrong.”

The only thing we learned about arithmetic that day is that penguins are consistent.

Believe me, we’ve tried to help him.

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.