Friday, May 25, 2012

Choosing Schools

When we started our house search last year, we narrowed down the search areas in order to keep our kids in the same school. Ironically, it is that decision to move that has ultimately prompted us to change schools for next year.

The home we ended up falling in love with is in a wonderful community in a consistently top-rated public school district, with a large, growing, and vibrant parish school nearby. The closest public elementary is about two minutes from our house. The parish school is three minutes away (almost exactly one mile). Add another six minutes worth of drive time and we come to two more good parish schools. The independent Catholic school our kids have attended is about 20 minutes away, closer to 30 in rush hour. But for the first half of the school year, we didn't seriously consider moving schools.

We knew our youngest would have a rough transition from daycare into a highly-structured pre-k program. Add the house move during the second week of school, and I'm impressed the kid didn't implode. He actually held up really well, in my opinion. We had some potty challenges to overcome. He is potty trained, but due to his assortment of bowel surgeries and non-standard musculature "down there", he has more trouble than the average kid. That is never a good start.

Then his pre-k teacher told us that he was hard to understand and probably needed speech therapy. That was a bit of a shocker to me, personally. I could understand my son perfectly. In fact, he had been speaking in long paragraphs with multi-syllable words for quite a while. But after I thought about it, I realized that I was frequently repeating his words to others so they could understand him. Our school district evaluated his hearing and speech and found that he did, indeed, qualify for speech therapy. He also failed their hearing screening.

He eventually failed three hearing screenings from the school district. We didn't fully count the first two results because of ear infections (our little guy has a history of many, hard-to-kill ear infections). But the results were confirmed by our pediatrician, who referred us to an ENT, who diagnosed him with temporary hearing loss due to persistent fluid build up behind the ear drums. In four months of speech lessons, his intelligibility has markedly improved.

Meanwhile, we had another conference with the pre-k teacher who began the conversation with "Would you give him the gift of another year in pre-k?".  That just floored me. She went on to show us his "academic" work--he knew every letter, every sound, every number, could count to 30 or higher...can you see my confusion?

I have a child who is, in all likelihood, gifted. He had been evaluated by Parents as Teachers since babyhood and consistently tracked as a kid one or two years older than himself. When I started researching the characteristics and needs of gifted kids, it was like a chorus of angels singing (hokey, I know, but when you get one of those "aha" moments, sometimes those silly cliches are true). And I wasn't grasping at straws here--as a kid, I personally was evaluated and deemed "gifted", my husband likely is too, as are all four of my sisters (if not officially across the gifted mark, then certainly way up there on the IQ scale). I'm not qualified to make that determination for my children, but I read articles like this, and am pretty convinced.

Back to T-man and the question of holding him back from entering Kindergarten. He has a March birthday, so is "young". We realized that much of his pre-k class are actually old for the year. Many turned five before the school year started (our son just turned five this spring). My son is also small, physically. That's not due to developmental reasons. Its pure genetics.  My son has been consistently bigger and taller than his older sister when you compare their growth charts, but he is still at the bottom of the scale for boys.

So his classmates were taller, older, heard better, and spoke better than he did.  The teachers called his social/emotional development immature. There might be a good reason for that. He is difficult to motivate if he isn't excited about an activity, but when he gets engaged in an activity, it is difficult to get him to let it go before he has mastered it to his own satisfaction. I can well understand why he is a handful when sitting in a classroom full of children who are eager to please the teacher.

Eventually, the current school decided that they would accept our son for Kindergarten next year. But the whole conflict had already sent us researching our options. From the local highly-rated public school system (with actual gifted education options), to multiple nearby religious and independent schools, we have lots of options. Lots. I toured the nearby parish school. They do have an out-of-classroom program for advanced kids. They also have a big student body and still offer the option of half-day or full-day kindergarten, expecting that some of their youngest students will need extra social/emotional nurturing the first year. They have band and art and sports and after-school foreign language classes, and really most of the same offerings that our existing school has. 

And they are three minutes from our house. Our children spend most of an hour every day in the car, commuting to/from school. Next year, they will have about 10 minutes a day. And the parish school draws from the local neighborhoods, where the independent school drew kids from a much wider area, making playdates difficult to arrange.

Our daughter has done wonderfully at her current school and is sad to leave. She had her First Communion this year, and got to dance the Maypole during the May Crowning at school and I've been her Girl Scout leader for the year (something for me, personally, to feel sad about leaving behind). She has bloomed academically this year too--I suspect she is also gifted, though in slightly different ways than her brother. Her talents include a lot of deep insightful thinking, which tends to work really well in a classroom setting.

This is the right decision for our whole family for now.

I can't predict whether this will be our last choice of school. Perhaps we will be with the parish school until both children have moved on to high school. Perhaps we will re-evaluate after only a few years. I hope that we will not regret the decision, but somehow it seems that the events of the past year keep leading us down this path. Yes, I do believe that sometimes there are larger forces at work in our lives, leading us to where we belong.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Kids and Technology

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who treat technology like a tool to be manipulated and used to accomplish their goals, and those who treat it like a ticking time bomb, who are afraid to make any sudden moves for fear that it will send them into the beyond.

My husband and I are both software engineers who grew up with some of the earliest personal computers in our homes. For us, tech is a tool, much like a whisk or a hammer or a pencil. We are not afraid to use it, to occasionally abuse it, to remake it or rework it into something useful or necessary or entertaining. After all, that's what we are paid to do.

Our kids see us on the computer, on our phones, wiring up speakers and game consoles and MP3 players. Their father likes to mod computers, adding water cooling or lights and fans and paint and who knows what else. I'm more likely to be updating a website, creating craft projects in Photoshop or Acrobat, or sorting my ebook collection in Calibre. I think that our kids, too, treat technology as a toolset that they can pull from to solve life's challenges.

But lately, I keep hearing from other parents who are both appalled at the amount of technology that "kids these days" use. They want to limit the use of phones, gaming consoles, tablets, and so on. "Screen time". They say it isn't healthy.

Funny, some of the same people type as though each key contains a syringe, ready to draw blood. They call the Geek Squad every time they need to find a file on the hard drive because they aren't brave enough to start clicking on those little folder icons for fear they will break something. The are horrified and awed when I demonstrate how few clicks with the phone it takes to google a product, find a store that carries it, and pass the store address to the GPS navigation program which begins giving verbal directions on how to get there. How I can stand in one store, scan a barcode on a toy, and see who has it on sale (and sometimes go ahead and order, right there in the store, before I move on to the next aisle).

I was reading a blog post just now where a thirty-something mother mentioned being appalled that a three-year old was proficient at playing games on an iPhone. When my son was three, he liked to use my phone to take pictures and post them to FaceBook, and could dial or text his grandmother by finding her picture in the contact list (his texts were always something like zxxcvyyy but he frequently spelled out his name at the end). His Speech Therapy teacher uses games on an iPad in parts of their one-on-one sessions. Both of our kids have been allowed to play educational games from the time they could hold a mouse or a Leapster.

Not all technology is "screen time". When my 7-year old daughter wants to spend three hours on the computer watching tv show recordings, then yes, it is screen time. But I've given her hours on end to spend researching green sea turtles for school, and taught her how to save bits of text and photos with Microsoft's One Note that she later sorted and re-arranged to help design a poster and write paragraphs. When my son takes pictures and send them to people, he isn't just dumbly sitting and watching some inanimate object entertain him. He is using the information, synthesizing, coming up with new applications for it. This is exactly the sort of time, experience, and play that we should be encouraging our children to do. They need to learn not only to navigate devices, but to come up with new uses for them.

I want to teach my kids to program. I think I was around second or third grade when I found my dad's book on TI Basic for our ancient (Atari-era) computer and began drawing hearts and flowers on the screen with code. Charlotte is plenty old enough. Trystan needs a bit more reading, but he is already a creative problem solver.

People of all ages need to stop fearing technology. Start reading the manuals. Start pushing the buttons. Figure out what works, what doesn't, what you can do with something, why you might want to do it. And parents should stop being afraid to let their kids explore. Like with every other aspect of their growth, give them a safe, controlled environment to start (i.e. don't hand over an unlocked phone where the kid can spend hundreds of $ and spam your boss with photos in moments). This is no different than teaching them to tumble on a gym mat instead of concrete, or to wear a helmut when on their bike. But as the kids grow, make sure their virtual playgrounds grow with them. Sure, control the couch-potato aspects of their technology time, but encourage the creative problem-solving.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

A bird in the hand is worth...

Every time my husband goes out of town, there is a minor family disaster. Last time, it involved back-to-back fevers by my kids that took me out of work for most of a week, using up more vacation and sick time than I could afford.

This time, instead of Mother Kristi, it was Mother Nature. Hail. Baseball sized hail fell on our old neighborhood last Saturday night. By "old neighborhood", I mean "location of our previous residence, which we still own and desperately wish to sell". Yeah, thinking that the holes in the roof, siding, deck, landscape lighting, and trees are not going to be highlights of the home tour.

Yes, we have insurance. No, we don't have contractors working yet. Yes, the insurance companies are massively overbooked with the damage. Yes, I could start setting up appointments before an adjuster gets a chance to total it up. No, I don't have time.

I do have a job. And two kids. And running drop-off and pickup singlehandedly all week, plus morning and evening routines, packing all the lunches, etc takes a lot of time when there aren't any extra credit assignments to complete. (Single parents, please stop throwing tomatoes. Yes, I'm whining. But most of you don't have to deal with a dead bird).

Yes, I said dead bird. Inside the house. Inside the hail-damaged house-for-sale. Dead. Inside. (All together now: eeewwwww!)

At least the thing had the presence of mind to keel over on the laminate floor instead of the carpet. Never fear, though, he did nail the carpet pretty good. And the bathroom. His method of entry: bathroom vent. I know this because the bathroom was by far the smelliest place in the house, because the vent cover was hanging down from the ceiling, and because we've had trouble with birds attempting to make nests in that vent before.

So Thursday I spend a precious "vacation" day (of which I have like 2 left, no exaggeration) to drive all over town, meeting with my son's speech pathologist about transitioning to Kindergarten, going to the eye doctor for new glasses, and doing a little yard cleanup at the old house. That's when I found the bird. If I had to guess, he got freaked by the storm and flew into the nice, safe-looking hidey-hole of the vent, found his way into the house, and wasn't smart enough to reverse course after the sirens stopped. And then died of some combination of starvation, dehydration, and banging his head desperately on the window in an attempt at escaping.

I have scrubbed the bathroom from top to bottom (most of a bottle of disinfectant), cleaned every window sill in the house (I think he checked them all), cleaned the kitchen (just in case), mopped the entire family/kitchen/breakfast room laminate floor, and steam cleaned the rest of the carpet in that house. I still need to go back and vacuum up the chunks of fuzz that the steam cleaner left behind (why does it always do that?)

I have also rigged up a bird-proofing system on the external vent cover that involved window screening and a staple gun. The hardware stores sell nice-looking plastic vent covers specifically for this purpose. Alas, the vent in question is in a tight spot under the deck and the pre-fabricated ones don't work without leaving a gap wide enough to keep out, say, a bird-who's-scared-sh*tless-by-killer-hail. (Engineering friends will not be impressed with my handiwork as I neglected to include duct tape in the final solution).

My husband is now home. My house-with-furniture is a mess. My tummy is full of a yummy steak dinner. And we have two yards to mow and a million errands to run. Plus the likelihood of arranging for new roof, gutters, siding, window screens, and deck railings and post caps.

I guess the minor family disaster is over and we are back to our regularly scheduled chaos.