Tag Archives: Parenting

What I Learned from the New York State Tests

test bubblesI am wary of anything that makes life easier for my kids. In my experience, good parenting often involves making their lives harder, from kale at dinner to daily piano practice, from thank-you-note revisions to “sorry, honey—God’s just pretend.”

So what if it’s hard? It’s good for them!

That’s one reason I took so long to decide about opting out of the standardized tests that dominated school for the last two weeks.

Could I really write a letter that said, “While other children struggle for hours with essay questions and bubble sheets, mine shall doodle merrily—oh, and no repercussions, please”? Even if I were certain that opting out was the right thing, it would feel . . . wrong.

A commentary in our local paper proclaims, “The opt-out movement is the latest manifestation of a culture of instant gratification.” Ouch. A Huffington Post piece asks, “What message are we sending to children of this generation if we insist that if something is ‘too hard,’ they can ‘opt out?’”  Oof. “No, tests are not fun,” opines a Washington Post contributor, “but they’re necessary.”

Last year, we told our kids to grin and bear it. Even if the tests were poorly written. Even if it seemed all the teachers we knew hated giving up teaching time for prep time, and forcing their students—no matter how disadvantaged—to take the tests. What could we do? We shrugged apologetically (life is hard) and told our kids, “Do your best.”

But the more we read, the more we suspected that the testing situation was such a mess we should do something. Something more than just attend a rally on the Plaza and vote for the Green Party candidate for governor (what was his name?) instead of Cuomo.

We finally decided to opt out for Jesse and not for Lena, splitting the difference between helping their teachers in one way (sitting out the tests in protest) and another (bolstering test results with our generally high-scoring kids). And, I suppose, splitting the difference between taking action and not taking action.

Still I hesitated to go even that far, in part because tests are hard for Jesse. He tends to overthink. Last  year’s English Language Assessment included a nonfiction text on a subject he knew by heart followed by the question, “What did you learn from this passage?” Since the truthful answer was “nothing,” he left the answer blank. That’s a kid who should take more tests, right?

And yet, at the last possible minute, the day before testing began, I wrote the letter anyway. It made me queasy, a feeling that persisted for all three days of testing that week: I wasn’t certain I had done the right thing, I was uncomfortable with defiance (especially where I wasn’t certain), and I didn’t like letting my child off easy.

Jesse spent the first three days of testing reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette? He recommends it but thinks the ending failed to deliver. He’d be happy to discuss it with you.

Lena burst into tears on the third day of testing when she realized, with only five minutes to go, that she had written an essay on the wrong question. She knew that we had let her take the test because we thought her score would help her teacher, and she thought she’d let her teacher down. She sobbed in class and she sobbed in the car when I picked her up from the bus. (She would sob again if she knew I told you.)

I hugged her and tried to reassure her: she’d probably scored well despite her mistake. I told her Jesse didn’t even answer one of his essay questions last year and still did well.

And anyway, I said—echoing what I and I’m sure thousands of parents and some rule-breaking teachers had said that morning and the two mornings before—the test is stupid, they don’t do anything with your grade, it’s meaningless, it doesn’t matter.

“Then what’s it for?” wailed Lena.

I can answer that question about piano (and believe me, I have). I can answer it about eating things you don’t like and writing a better letter and even forgoing the comforting notion of Heaven. But I can’t answer it about these tests.

Near as I can figure (with the help of articles like this and this and this), these tests are so badly conceived as to be punitive and so poorly executed, scored, and reviewed as to be worthless. Hard, but good for nothing.

Next year, I’ll write that letter for both kids, and I won’t feel queasy in the least.

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Reading Morality into Religion: A Passover Story

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Click on the image to read my latest, which is published at OnFaith (part of FaithStreet.com). Thanks to Corrie Mitchell, my editor there, and to Judy Cohen, my editor everywhere.

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Sourdough Resolution

IMG_7189Lena, having a snack at the counter after school, asked me what my favorite possession was. I mentally sifted through my stuff. I don’t really think of myself as a “thing” person. I rely on my computer. My noise-cancelling headphones are like a parachute: although I hardly ever use them, they offer me the reassurance that I can escape in an emergency. But favorite thing?

“I love the fountain pen my sister gave me,” I said, then noticed Adam and added, “and my wedding ring.” Not true: I love my husband and my marriage. The ring is more a symbol of things beloved than a beloved thing itself.

Later, at the same counter, the kids were eating what we call a “French picnic”: in our house that means a sourdough baguette, a cheese or three, salami or ham, and some kind of fruit. They eat that when Adam and I go out to dinner without them, or, as on this occasion, when I’ve just baked baguettes in order to use up some starter.

“That’s it!” I said, and they all stopped chewing for a second. “Lena asked me what my favorite possession is and it’s my starter!” My starter is older than they are, and still works beautifully. It makes silky, bouncy dough and then flavorful bread out of nothing—flour, salt, and water. It’s goop in a plastic container in my fridge; it’s magic.IMG_0209

That’s the thing you would save if the house was on fire?” asked Noah, skeptical.

“No,” I said, “because I would forget. But that’s the thing that I would later regret not saving.” I made a mental note to ask Maud if she still had some, in case my house burned down. That’s the other great thing about starter: you can give it away and still have it. Magic.

“Are you going to put it in your will?” asked Jesse.

“Well, by then I hope you’ll all have some, and be using it. You can compete to see who can keep it going the longest.”

“By then,” I went on, as I sometimes do, “you’ll all know how to make these,” and I picked up one of the knobby, golden brown baguettes still lined up on the cooling rack. I tend to leave my baked goods out for a while to make me feel productive during a day when the only thing I’ve written is a to-do list. “You’ll all know how to make them before you leave the house,” I declared, and then realized Noah was in ninth grade already and would be in college essentially by tomorrow afternoon.

That’s when I decided that 2015 would be the year of the baguette. By 2016, I vowed, all of my kids would be able to make them.

I am not as good a mom as I would like. Better habits, annually resolved—to read to my daughter every night, to hug my teenager every day—annually dissolve, corroded by inertia, distraction, laziness.

Finishing the Narnia series seems farfetched. We’ll be lucky to get through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But this transfer of skill . . . I think I can do. The kids are motivated and the task is fairly simple.

There are six stages, only two of which require any sort of skill. You feed the starter, make a biga (or levain or sponge—all words for a kind of pre-dough), make the dough, form the loaves, stretch the loaves into their pans, and bake the loaves.

This weekend I taught them to feed the starter, and then called them in to watch or try each subsequent step, although Lena missed a few (sleepover) and they all missed the baking part (football game). They did show up for the eating, though.

It’s a start.

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