Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Those Pesky School Projects

Semira with her candy machine

Last week at school, Semira's class had its Simple Machine Fair. As part of the science curriculum, the kids learned about simple machines with the unit culminating in the building and showcasing of a simple machine. This is just one example of the steady stream of home projects my kids (and countless other kids) are required to do as part of school these days. In addition to building machines, we have made volcanoes and clothes hanger mobiles, and engaged in extensive drawing and writing activities for numerous book reports. I guess, in theory, these projects are great. They present an opportunity for parents and kids to work together to accomplish a goal. And they are more creative than traditional school work. I am sure they are assigned with the best of intentions, to help kids further their learning.

I have a confession to make. I hate these projects. I wish they would just go away. I think assigning "projects" and "reports" to elementary school-aged children to be done at home is insane. I am not talking about a sheet or two of homework. I am talking about projects that come with a page of detailed instructions that require me to make multiple visits to grocery, hardware, and craft stores to acquire the necessary supplies. Or projects that make my kids write multiple drafts of reports or do intricate drawings. Or projects where I must read a lengthy chapter book just to help.

Here is a news alert. These are not kid projects nor are they kid-parent projects. They are parent projects, plain and simple. When it comes to the building projects, my kids usually do a little something to assist. But mostly, they watch us do the project. I am sure some parents will beg to differ, telling me that their kids do most of the work. Well, my observations at school tell me otherwise. The quality and detail of the work in these projects on display is clearly that of adults, not seven or eight year olds, no matter how brilliant the kids. As for the book reports, the little kid ones are the worst, requiring me to help draw complex scenery and assemble cut parts into something. At the Prager household, there are no kumbaya moments when we work on these projects. Instead, I am fighting my own lack of enthusiasm and cajoling kids to hunker down and get it done. And sometimes there is yelling (and a bit of cursing on my part). Yes, it's a great parent-kid bonding experience.

I probably sound uncaring, even unsupportive of my children and their learning. Nothing could be further from the truth! Besides the fact I don't personally enjoy these crafty-type projects, I question their value-added. I also take issue with the unintended consequences created by the plethora of well-intentioned school activities.

The expectations of parents to be involved in their kids' schooling is ridiculous. Elementary kids routinely have homework. Now let's add to that periodic projects and book reports. Then for good measure, let's throw in the dress-up as _____ day,  field trips to _______, enter the _____ contest or show, showcase your _____work at _________, bring snacks for the class for _________, bring food for the ______ celebration, practice ________ for ______ minutes, etc. etc, etc. I am sure I could make a much longer list.

The point is that alone, all of these little activities sound innocuous, but together they create chaos. There are only so many hours in a day. Our weekdays need to run like a well-oiled machine just to get everything done that needs to be done for three kids between the hours of 4 and 8 p.m. It is downright stressful. I don't have time for projects. And I certainly don't feel like spending my precious weekends doing them either.

Yes, school is important. But school is only one component of raising successful children. Outside of school, my kids are learning other important life lessons and values. But my time with them is more limited, in part, because of encroaching school work. Teachers, please realize that not all children are watching TV and playing video games all night and weekend long. Don't feel obligated to provide my family with more educational activities to take up our "free" time.  I'd trade a school project any day to:
  • Provide my kids with unstructured, free time where they can play what they want
  • Have my kids experience and appreciate boredom 
  • Allow my kids to interact, fight, argue, and play with each other
  • Encourage my kids to engage in physical activity
  • Feed my kids real food made from scratch
  • Put my kids to bed early so they get adequate sleep
  • Have time to lay in bed with them and read a book or talk about their day

I am not beating up on my kids' individual school or teachers. It's the system, really. We have come to believe that more is always better. It's not. We think that starting kids on complex, organized activities at an early age makes them smarter and more disciplined. It doesn't. My kids will do just fine on standardized tests without the extra work. My kids can learn about work ethic in other ways. Parents are also over-involved in school. We are training and conditioning parents to be helicopter parents. We are creating a generation of kids who can't do anything themselves or be left alone for a second. As a parent, I see all this, yet I find myself getting sucked into this modern day trap without even knowing it. Perhaps someday, I will have the courage to say NO and stick to it. For my family. For my sanity. For my kids.

Kibrom checking out the simple machines in 2nd grade
Shouldn't Steve get the award too?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What's Up With Me and Cars?

The kids cleaning out our car after receiving the bad news
that it would not be fixed

So the Prager's have been seriously cursed with car issues recently. How is that so many bad things have happened in the last month? First in mid January, I got into an accident with a Chevy Tahoe on my way to school with all three kids in tow. My poor 2008 Ford Taurus X AWD wagon was totaled. Yup, totaled on a neighborhood street going about 20 - 25 mph. My friends who live in Laramie will attest that the roads are crap all winter long. The city plows a couple of main streets and doesn't bother with the rest! The back streets are a perpetual sheet of ice for months and the conditions didn't work in my favor the day of my accident. At least nobody was hurt.
The back of my car

As luck would have it, I just bought my car in August and had only been driving it a few months. It was a total find and a great deal. The car is no longer made, so finding a replacement car just like it didn't work out. So after two weeks of stress, I broke down and bought a new Honda Pilot. I have to say it is a pretty nice car. Of course, I never planned on buying a new car and financially, now was not a good time given the fact that we made two very expensive trips to Ethiopia in November and December.

My new car

Just when I thought the car drama was over, the weekend before last, our Nissan Xterra slid down the driveway while in park (yup, it was on ice/snow). Steve had just returned from a movie with Kibrom. Long story short, the front driver's side door was open and in the mayhem of Steve trying not to have his foot run over or Kibrom run over, the door met the giant bush next the driveway. The encounter left the door in very bad shape - bent the entire door. The metal is all peeled back and the door barely closes. When it does, it makes this G-d awful sound. In fact, you kind of have to lift the door up to actually close it all the way. So the Xterra will need body work. With our recent insurance claim and $1,000 deductible, we will be paying for it ourselves. I am guessing this will cost a grand to fix. And it just has to be fixed. Steve hasn't taken it in for an estimate, but it is on our list of things to do.
Poor "Big White" - our Xterra.

This brings me to last week. On Thursday, I picked up the kids and drove home like any other day. Pulled into the garage like normal. Started unloading the car. The kids had a lot of crap so I had to make two trips into the house. The back door of the car was open. Somehow in a matter of minutes of me going into the house with the first load, Kibrom decided to close the garage door....yes, on my brand new car! The back door of the car did not block the garage door sensors so the garage door did close. Only the garage door took the car door down with it, jamming the back door of the car onto a piece of metal on the back of the garage door. I came unglued! I was a crazy lady. I thought the automatic lift was broken when I saw the car door wedged part-way open.

Turns out the lift is fine, but the back door is all scratched up below the license plate and on the bottom edge of the door. I swear, I can't keep anything nice. Not even for a month! To say the car thing has been frustrating is an understatement. After the last incident, I hit my mental limit. All I could do was flop on my bed and cry. So I did.

It's been a few days now and I am almost over it. I still hate seeing those scratches. But my new car will be well worn soon. I transport three kids around all day. Say no more. We will drive the Xterra for a while with its door problem until we can scratch together the funds to fix it. As for Kibrom, I don't think he will ever touch the garage door again. I think my crazy mental state that night made a lasting impression on him.

In the meantime, I hope we took care of all things bad for 2013. It's gotta be good from here! Speaking of least my often-times crazy children were their somewhat charming selves this weekend. Amen to that!

Semira and Kibrom doing a puppet show at the library this weekend.
Semira and Kibrom eating shiro and injera yesterday. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Surviving Kindergarten

Kibrom (center, first row) and his classmates discussing seat belt safety with Officer Friendly.

I am happy to report that Kibrom has almost completed his first month in kindergarten. The first two weeks were a tad challenging, in part because I was with him all day at school and quite honestly, I wasn't sure kindergarten was the right place for him. Really, I had no idea how the transition to kindergarten mid-year would go. I tried to keep my expectations low for it is always better to be pleasantly surprised than highly disappointed. Well a month later, after some painful days for both of us, I am grateful that things are going better than expected.

Attending kindergarten as an adult is a downright painful experience! After the first few days, I had strong urges to rip my hair out and start poking my eyes with pointy objects. I didn't want to sit criss cross applesauce, put my hands in my pocket, walk in a straight line, catch a bubble in my mouth, or eat that snack the teacher put on my desk! I have to say teachers have the patience of saints. They deserve more gold stars than they get. I just don't know how they do what they do all day long. Enough about me and my whining; let's talk about Kibrom.

Kibrom has taken to the routines rather quickly. It's a good thing because the school my kids attend has a lot of them! The predictability is actually good for him. In just a few short weeks, he has figured out the ebb and flow to the day. He knows how to take out his red folder, how to walk properly in line, how to ask permission to use the bathroom, and where to put his backpack, lunch, water bottle, etc. He also loves wearing his uniform and has become obsessed with looking sharp. He's always saying, "Mommy, tuck!" when his shirt is hanging out.

His English is also coming along. He says a few words like "please," "thank you," "you're welcome," "excuse you/me," "no," "yes," and "go." He also understands way more than he can say. Of course, at school, he relies on watching the other kids to figure things out. He is a pretty smart boy so he has developed his own way of copying and mimicking his classmates and teachers. He is a good listener and wants to please. He also loves his one-on-one ELL (English language learning) instruction, which thankfully he gets three days a week.

The difficult part of kindergarten is that his academic skills are really that of a preschooler. Unlike most kindergarteners in the U.S., he hasn't spent the last two years learning school skills. He knows some English letters, but not all of them. He can count, but he doesn't yet recognize and write numbers. He can write, but not very well. So the first two weeks at school included discoveries such as learning to use a pair of scissors and figuring out that his glue stick was not a chapstick!

You can imagine that between the language barrier and the lack of certain skills, he is lost during parts of the day. This is a particular problem in the mornings when most of the "academic" work takes place. So what does a bored, active little boy do? Fidget at his desk, sigh a lot, and put his head down in a dramatic fashion. (He has a flare for the dramatic!)

So, we tried an experiment that we hoped would work. After the first week in kindergarten, I called Semira's old preschool to see if they would take Kibrom. We wondered if this would be a better option for him for the remainder of the academic year. It would certainly take the pressure off everyone. Kibrom could play more and sit less.  His kindergarten teachers wouldn't have to work so hard. I wouldn't worry so much.

This is actually kind of a funny story looking back on it. Steve explained to Kibrom that mommy and he would try a new school the next day. He seemed ok with the idea. Unfortunately, it didn't go so well. I thought that as soon as Kibrom saw all the toys and fun things, he would like it. I was convinced that when the kids came in from outside to take off their boots and put on their slippers, he would be game. Instead of joining the other kids, he put on his coat and shoes and stood in the back of the room. As I moved closer to him, he moved further away from me. Then he started to cry and kept crying for the entire hour and a half we were there. He was mad; no, he was pissed off. He told me in Amharic over and over that he wanted to go home. I said no. Finally, I asked if he wanted to go back to his other school. He said yes. He wiped away his tears, zipped his coat, and headed for the door lickety-split.

Kibrom reported to Steve that night that "the new school was not good," but wouldn't tell him why. Later that weekend, the truth came out. He proclaimed it to be a "baby" school. Socially, he acts older than five and views himself as a BIG BOY. That much we knew. Now he was telling us in no uncertain terms, he wants to go the the big kid school with Lily and Semira. So the next day at school, I decided to leave at lunch time. He didn't want me to go, so I told him he was a big boy in front of the other kids. The day after that, I just left. The truth is, he acts better when I am not there. With me, he pretends to be helpless. With others, he acts mature. Go figure!

I had a great meeting with his two kindergarten teachers, the principal, and his ELL teacher a few weeks ago. We have a plan for Kibrom for the rest of the year. We established a set of academic goals for him to work toward. We came up with alternative activities for the morning lessons that were over his head. We discussed his ELL lesson plans. We also discussed how independent he is and how he acts totally different when I am not there.

My kids go to a great charter school. I am so thankful for the full support of his teachers and the principal. They are going above and beyond to make this work for all of us. They assured me that everything would be just fine and it is! Even though the preschool option didn't work out, the experience turned out to be highly beneficial. Kibrom is now very aware that there is an alternative option for school and that he doesn't like that option one bit! Believe it when I say that this brings a huge sense of relief for me!