Tuesday, September 30, 2014

the belly of the beast

This is part 3 of a 4-part series on decisions that I face in how my daughter's education will unfold.  You can find part 1 here, in which I discuss a great preschool enrichment program she's attending; part 2 is here, in which I discuss my ambivalence about homeschooling.

In this segment, I will discuss the public school options that we have.  There are a ton.  Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) has a byzantine system sprawling throughout Davidson County.  It's a far cry from the neat, excellent public schools I attended as a girl.  Lawrence has a variety of factors that give rise to its great schools - a major university in the center of town, no competition from private or parochial schools (the word "charter" is still unheard of there), a real estate tax base that can be equitably carved up so that funding can be roughly the same for all schools.  A lot of it really boils down to:  it's a small enough community that it can be managed pretty easily.  MNPS, on the other hand, is gigantic.  In 2011-2012, MNPS served 77,617 students.  By comparison, my hometown school district serves ~11,000.

So, here are the viable paths that we can take for Vicki Jo (that I know of at this point - one of the issues with MNPS that I've found is that you have to really educate yourself thoroughly on your options.  No one is going to be calling you telling you about choices you have for your family):

1)  Lockeland Design Center.  This school is by far the closest to our home (literally, Google Maps tells me it is .2 miles).  We can walk there in under five minutes.  It is an amazing school.  It is ranking in the top performing elementary schools in the state of Tennessee right now.  It's also a magnet, and an exceedingly popular one at that.  Because it is designated as an optional school, we have to go through a lottery.  We are in no way guaranteed a spot at this school.  In fact, the lottery has become very selective in the last few years (because of massive increases in applications), so that only about 40% of children in our neighborhood who do not currently have a sibling attending there are getting spots in Kindergarten.  Unless something changes about the zoning, I cannot count on LDC as a sure bet.

 a)   I have the additional decision to make of whether I should apply for Vicki Jo to enter  Kindergarten early (fall of 2015).  I have to make this decision fairly soon, because the lottery takes place around the turn of the year.  She has gone through the necessary testing and been approved to do this, if the principal and I agree it's a good idea.  We generally have to make application for the lottery by somewhere around December 1.  I can't help but admit that the soaring popularity of the school is contributing to my thought that I might try to enroll her early.  If we don't get in through the lottery, we can always try again for Kindergarten next year.

2)  Warner Enhanced Option Elementary.  Warner is our "school of zone."  This means that we do nothing to enroll there except show up.  Warner is a school that draws from a very integrated demographic, which is attractive to me.  I love the idea of Vicki Jo experiencing education with people from different backgrounds.  This school has also been making strides in terms of performance and testing.  (Blech.)  It's a bit larger than Lockeland (350 students vs. 305), and the school day is 45 minutes longer (this is what makes it an "enhanced option" school).  There are a core of parents that are very dedicated to improving Warner, and I have to admit that it's a school that is growing on me.  I need to tour.  I like the idea of escaping the crazy stressful process that is the lottery.

 a)  I have the same decision to make about early admission to Kindergarten here as I do at Lockeland.  The jury is still out on that one.

3)  Hull-Jackson Montessori Magnet or Stanford Montessori Design Center.  These are optional schools that require a lottery.  We are not in the priority zone of the lottery for either of these schools, which makes acceptance a long shot (worse odds even than getting into Lockeland).  The benefit of these schools:  Montessori!  I love the Montessori method and would love my children to be experiencing it.  These schools use mixed-age classrooms and start enrolling at age 3.  So, I applied through the lottery for Vicki Jo to go to both of these schools last year.  At the end of all five of the lottery draws, we ended at numbers 31 and 7 on the wait lists, respectively.  I will apply again for these school, but I will have to decide where they fall in priority, along with Lockeland.  We can only make one application, and have to rank up to 7 choices on that application.  A downside of either of these schools is that they are not in our neighborhood.  They would entail a bit of a commute every day, which would be annoying.  They also don't support our local community in the way that I would ideally like to.

(Are you feeling overwhelmed yet??)

4)  Charters.  There are a few options in our neighborhood, but I'm not interested.  I don't think giving power to for-profit companies to increase school choice and effectiveness is the way forward.  Especially when we have so many other viable options in our neighborhood and in our family's life.

5)  Pre-K.  MNPS has made a commitment to expanding their pre-K programs (which are defined as programs offered to children in the year before they start Kindergarten) so that all students will be able to attend free of charge.  There are two pre-Ks that I'm interested in:  Ross Early Learning Center and Warner Pre-K.  Lockeland does not have a Pre-K.  We very nearly went to Ross this year - we made application and were accepted and everything.  But it ended up not being much cheaper for extended care than what we currently pay at King's Daughters.  (The catch is that it is "free" for the school day - but if you need any care for your child beyond 8-3, you pay $70/week!).  The difference between Ross and Warner Pre-Ks is that Ross is a freestanding center with multiple pre-K classrooms, while Warner is a Pre-K housed in an elementary school.  The big benefit at Warner would be that if that ends up being Vicki's elementary school, she gets an added year for continuity and stability.

I feel completely exhausted just typing all of this.  As I mentioned above, I had to pretty much dig up all this information on my own.  I can't imagine that a parent with less luxury of time (because of working multiple jobs, being in service industries, etc) would have the ability to do this kind of research.

My bigger issue with all of this has to do with what is trending in public education, regardless of how "good" or selective the school.  Longer class times, less teacher freedom, more testing (much more testing), less enrichment, less recess.  Do I want my young child to jump right into all this?  Vicki Jo will probably do fine, because she can sit still pretty well.  But do I want Todd to jump into it at 5, and be labeled ADHD because he acts like a 5-year-old?  These are the difficult questions.  When I started Kindergarten in 1990, we went for half a day, and we still had a rest time.  Those days are gone in our public schools.  So what's a mom to do?

Monday, September 29, 2014

potato no more!

In general, I want to dislike neatly-packaged "programs" that lead to "results."  For instance:  Dave Ramsey.  He seems so slick.  Almost like some kind of snake-oil salesman.  All the little slogans - it just seemed like groupthink.  But then I read the book, and my previous church started running his program.  And dang it.  It works.  His principles (which are really just the sound personal financial planning that we no longer learn from family or in school) help people get out of lethal debt and manage their finances so they can faithfully give.  I really didn't want it to work.  But it does.  I've used the debt snowball myself to great effect, and currently only owe student loans and my mortgage.

Another program I loved to hate was Couch to 5K.  This is super-straightforward.  It's a program of walking/jogging that promises to get you to running a 5K by the end of nine weeks.  It entails three weekly workouts that take no longer than 30 minutes.  I've seen people talking about it for years.  But I scoffed.  And I seemed to think that somehow, magically, I would just get in shape without having to start somewhere.

For a year after the birth of each of my children, I have taken a drug called domperidone to help me be able to nurse them more fully.  Along with a delightful herbal tea, domperidone has been a lifesaver for me.  But the ugly side effect of domperidone is increased appetite and inability to lose weight.  And boy, did each of those nasty effects hit me like a ton of bricks.

My pattern with both kids has been:  I lose almost all the weight I gained in pregnancy within eight or ten weeks of birth.  Then, because of the domperidone, I gain it all back (and then some) over the course of the baby's first year.  I stop taking the drug after baby's first birthday and realize that I've got some serious work to get back to a healthy size.

So here I am three days after Todd's first birthday:  as big as I have ever been, even fully pregnant with either of my kids.

I realized, looking at that picture, that I needed to get serious - and fast - about getting fit.  I needed to get over my suspicion of a program like Couch to 5K.  So I jumped in.  I started the program.  I mapped the runs into a neat chart so that I could mark off finished workouts.  I breezed through the first week.  The second and third weeks took a little more effort, but I got it done.  I had bad foot and ankle pain that was immediately remedied by getting fitted for new shoes and inserts at our amazing neighborhood running store.  I found a super-duper sweet double jogging stroller on Craigslist for $85 and am now a dedicated Baby Jogger brand snob.  I was feeling really good about my progress, jogging with the kids on weekends, with the dog on my day off, and on our walking track at church during my lunch break.

And then I hit week 5, day 3:  walk 5, jog 20.  Twenty minutes of uninterrupted jogging proved to be really, really difficult for me.  I had to re-attempt probably two or three times before I was successful.  Weeks 7 and 8 really slowed me down.  We are getting into jogging pretty long portions:  25-28 minutes.  I will admit that I still have not finished the program! The final week is three workouts of walking 5 minutes, jogging 30 minutes.  I still can't quite do it.  But I work at it.  I jog 2-3 times per week.  And I feel amazing.

And I've lost a little over 20 pounds, to boot.  This is not the end of my "after" story, because I still have a long way to go.  This is really just the end of the beginning!  It's the beginning of me getting over my pride and my ridiculous objections to simple programs that encourage fitness.  I hope, if you're on the ledge, you can get over it too!

Friday, September 26, 2014

denim skirt lady

This is part two in what I'm reckoning will be a four-part series on how on earth I plan on educating my daughter in this crazy world.  See here for part one, in which I discuss the Encore enrichment program offered by our public school system.

Once upon a time, like many others, I thought homeschooling was kind of a quaint, fringe thing.  If you had strong religious objections to what was taught in public school, or you lived waayyy out in the country and it didn't make sense to send your kids into town - that kind of thing.  Basically, I thought all the homeschooling moms were the kind who wear denim skirts and grow their hair out long and kinda look like the scared FLDS women:

As in so many things in life - I was wrong.  I first saw that homeschooling could be more mainstream when I read Ree Drummond's blog.  Homeschool was discussed as a viable, normal choice for the first time for me in the playgroup I had with fellow Bradley birth moms after Vicki Jo was born.  As I became more exposed to the Weston A. Price Foundation practices of diet and lifestyle, I heard more and more about homeschool families.  There seems to be a large crossover between natural foods and medicine and homeschool, for whatever reason.  Finally, after moving to Nashville and our church, I met several families who had successfully homeschooled their children.  And not a denim skirt in sight.  It's a choice that's growing in popularity in my neighborhood, and there seems to be a wealth of support.  Co-ops, tutorials, fellow homeschool families.  They are everywhere!

I have extremely ambivalent feelings about homeschooling my kids, and they center around three main concerns:  (1) I feel duty as a conscientious citizen to support local public schools so that the community can benefit from the investment of my family's resources.  (2) I may not be the best teacher for my kids.  (3) The public schools in our area may not be the best fit for my kids.

1)  I'm a proud product of excellent public schools.  I have to say that I really didn't even understand the elite private school system in our country until I went to Columbia.  It was so far removed from my reality.  My hometown had no competitive private schools.  There were a few parochial schools, but not even one that went through junior high at that point.  Our schools worked well for a few reasons:  there were not other drains on the system (no magnets, no private schools); the community was small enough that they could be funded by real estate taxes and have districts equitably divided to include high values in each school zone; there was a critical mass of invested families; and we did not have the historic issues that seem to plague many school systems since integration (for example, city/county school district mergers, or white flight to private "Christian" schools).  I recognize that Metro Nashville Public Schools can only be as great as the families that are committed to them.  I hear my teacher friends lamenting that there is "only so much" that can be done in the classroom.  At the end of the day, the family really is the first and greatest teacher.  If I opt out of that system, am I becoming part of the problem rather than solution?

2)  I'm pretty sure that I'm not called to be a stay at home mom.  (Although never say never!)  I received a calling into ordained ministry before I received a calling as a parent, and they are equally relevant and demanding calls in my life.  Of course, even without a ministerial appointment, I would remain an ordained pastor.  But this is really an aside in the conversation.  The point is that I am not a trained, qualified teacher.  I did not go to school to learn pedagogy.  I'm not knocking anyone who wants to teach their kids at home without these qualifications.  But great teachers are called into teaching.  I know this because some of my closest friends are amazing teachers and school administrators.  And to put up with what they put up with - friends, it has to be a calling.  I'm not sure that I have received that calling in life.

3)  But let's counterbalance numbers 1 and 2 by saying that our particular public schools here in Nashville may not be the best for my kids.  For instance, I hear a lot about recess (or the lack thereof) these days.  I will address this much more in a later post on our public school options (because there are many), but I feel that plenty of outdoor play and exercise do much to enhance education.  I'm concerned about the level of testing that is happening in all public schools.  I'm not really sure what to make of Common Core (although I refuse to be alarmist about it - most of my teacher friends find it to be totally fine).  I guess the bigger question is:  does the issue of inequality in public schools get balanced on the backs of my children?  All parents have to make that decision (although some have fewer choices).  My social justice crusader side says:  absolutely.  My protective mother bear side says:  nope.

So, clear as mud, right?  Now you know how I feel!  But when I entertain the option of homeschooling, there are several sort of "schools" that I'm attracted to.  Montessori would be amazing (and God knows I could never afford to send my kids to the private Montessori schools around here) - but once again, I am not trained.  And Montessori in particular is a pedagogy that requires precise training with the materials and philosophy involved.  Oak Meadow curriculum is beautiful, soft, warm, and Waldorf-y.  I have recently discovered Charlotte Mason and fallen in love with the talking points of her educational system.  All of these streams of educational philosophy have dedicated followings and groups in my area.

The part of me that loves planning and filling out lists just want to dive straight into designing and executing curriculum for my kids.  But being able to do that stuff doesn't necessarily make you a good teacher.

Thought this was interesting.
The good part is that I have time to decide.  For now, I lurk around several homeschool Google groups and Facebook pages.  I see what moms struggle with.  There is even a beautiful community of single moms who are homeschooling and supporting one another.  I have barely even touched here on the practical issues that homeschooling my kids would entail.  Would they just come with me to the office?  Would we all work together?  Would I have them in some kind of childcare, and then do school in the evenings and on the weekends?  There are many possibilities, but all of them present quite a bit of upstream swimming against our prevalent cultural model of the "school day."

One thing I'm not afraid of is being iconoclastic.  I have already opted out of a lot of what society expects of me.  But this is a decision that is much bigger than anyone's opinion.  A helpful piece of advice I got early on in considering homeschooling was:  "just take it one year at a time."  I'm not deciding my kids' entire educational future if I do decide to homeschool.  Food for thought.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Let me just preface this whole post by saying how annoying I know it is when parents talk about their genius kids (with or without substantiation of geniusness).  It's only slightly more acceptable in grandparents, who for some reason are culturally permitted to think their grandkids are perfect.  So, throughout, when I talk about my smart daughter, please don't hate me.  Thank you.

Vicki Jo is now 3 and a half.  She is the most charming, needy, mercurial, slight, gorgeous, frustrating being I have ever known.  She is already a complicated person, and I'm sure that will only multiply in the years to come.

Is my metaphor too thick?
We have known Vicki Jo was bright for a long time.  She spoke early, clearly, persistently.  She reasons and jokes with me and follows the arc of a conversation.  She is beginning to read by taking books that she has memorized through repeated narration and using phonics to sound out the words she already knows.  She enjoys identifying letters in everyday situations, and has developed good letter-sound correspondence.  I have done nearly nothing to encourage this, aside from LOTS of reading together, and talking with her a lot.

We lucked out when Vicki was accepted at King's Daughters.  She has experienced a warm, rich, deep educational setting with teachers who are committed to early childhood education.  They periodically hold parent-teacher conferences, and my hunches were somewhat validated at our first one:

Them:  "Do you know how gifted your daughter is?  Do you think she will be well-served by the public school system?  What plans do you have for her enrichment and further education?"

Me:  "Uhhhh . . . "

I still feel really good about what's happening with her at King's Daughters, and I think that the value of stability in a small child's world cannot be overstated.  So, she continues there for now.  But we have been urged to consider early admission to Kindergarten.  This would mean she starts Kindergarten in Fall 2015.  

Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS for short) is a monster of a system.  It's a county-wide, consolidated labyrinth of 155 schools.  There are magnets, zoned schools, special schools, pre-K sites, and more that I'm sure I don't even know about.  For someone like me, who wants to research things thoroughly, it's a years-long process of educating yourself about this school system.  And by that time, things have changed enough that you have to start over!

I wasn't sure if we wanted to follow through on early admission to Kindergarten for sure, but I wanted it to be an option.  And that meant testing.  Over the summer, we took Vicki Jo for a series of tests with a school psychologist.  I'm not sure exactly what was included in these tests, because I was not allowed to be present for them (I sat out in the hallway).  The psychologist reviewed the results, and then we were scheduled for a meeting with a panel of educators:  a zoned school teacher, an "Encore" teacher (this is what MNPS calls their gifted program), a school psychologist, a school administrator, and me as parent.  I also brought my friend Steph for good measure (she's a middle-school teacher for MNPS).  

What we heard at the meeting was basically that Vicki Jo is extremely gifted, scoring in the high 90s of percentiles in all categories.  She was not given an Individual Education Plan (IEP) yet, because a child must demonstrate that the current classroom setting is an impediment to their learning - and she doesn't have a classroom setting yet!  But she was approved for early admission to Kindergarten, and she was referred for Encore services.

For preschool children, all Encore classrooms are housed in an old school building called Robertson Academy.  If your child is tested and qualifies, you are offered one three-hour block of enrichment per week, free of charge.  We signed Vicki up for Wednesday mornings, and it's been awesome!  She looks forward to going, and I think it's fun for her to be in an environment with children who enjoy similar levels of challenge and critical thinking.


One hard spot has been the School Standard Attire (aka SSA aka uniform).  All MNPS students have to follow SSA to one degree or another, depending on the school.  My headstrong girl does not like being told what she can and can't wear.  She has been dressing herself for nearly a year.  These moments make me seriously dread the years to come . . . 

A favorite outfit I like to call the "full owl."
Her teacher, Mrs. Sturgeon, has been so helpful about communicating well with us beforehand, reaching out to each parent and informing them what the program would be like, and sending home detailed descriptions of each lesson.  We also have little bits of "homework" - essentially just discussions she wants us to have with our kids about the subject matter.  

My hope is that, after spending some time with Vicki Jo, Mrs. Sturgeon can offer me some better insight about whether early Kindergarten would really benefit her.  There would certainly be positives, but there may be more negatives.  Post forthcoming on the early Kindergarten decision!

Friday, September 19, 2014

cold brew

Coffee.  My sweet lifeblood.  Sometimes it's the only thing that I look forward to in the morning.  Am I addicted to caffeine?  Absolutely, beyond a reasonable doubt.  I'm trying to keep it to three cups a day, because if I get any more than that, I have trouble getting to sleep.  But the thought of giving up coffee entirely seems laughable - absurd, even.

So it's fortuitous that I live where I do.  I'm lucky that we live in a neighborhood with so many awesome walking destinations.  We can go to the playground, two ice cream shops, the post office, the library, the hardware store, the herb shop, the health food store, the butcher, two farmers markets, and three coffee shops.  Within a half mile in any direction!   If we "go for a walk," you can guarantee that there's going to be coffee involved for me.  I always order a double shot of espresso - either hot or on ice, depending on the season.  This was a little conspiracy I developed with a barista during my maternity leave.  I was walking in every morning with Todd, ordering an iced latte.  One day she whispered, "You know, it's a lot cheaper if you just order the espresso and add the milk yourself."  She was so right!  And that's what I've been doing ever since.

But at some point you have to cut the spending and start making it yourself, at home.  I was a little intimidated by the idea of cold brewing coffee.  But you have no idea how easy this is.  I was imagining some kind of intricate cold brewing process.  No, my friends.  When they say "cold brewed," it just means you let the coffee grounds sit in cold water and then strain them.  There is no active "brewing" involved in your part!  So try it out.  Feed the beast.  I like to enjoy this double-strength concentrate with equal parts milk, over ice.  

Cold-Brewed Coffee
2/3 C ground coffee
3 C water

Take your coffee:

And your water:

And put them in a French press:

Push the plunger down a little to ensure all the grounds are in contact with the water, and leave it in the fridge for at least twelve hours:

Then enjoy!

[This post submitted to Real Food Wednesday and Pennywise Platter Thursday.]

Friday, September 12, 2014

macaroons two ways

So, eggs.  We have eggs every morning, scrambled in butter that I've been making from our raw cream.  I buy a couple dozen from our Old Order Mennonite farmer in Kentucky every week.  Eggs are sort of amazing because they're the only protein source that costs 20 cents apiece (in my case, each dozen costs $2.50).  I used to scramble two every morning and that was enough for us, since Vicki eats like a tiny little bird, and Todd was still sort of aiming things at his mouth.

But now we are entering the dreaded phase I knew would come . . . the one where my kids eat a bunch of food all the time.  I heard it gets worse.

So now I scramble three every morning.  Do the math . . . 3 x 7.  I use 21 eggs per week on breakfast.  That leaves three or so eggs a week for whatever else:  baking, meatloaf, ice cream, or (kids' favorite) - chocolate pudding.  Nevermind that it ends up smeared around the kitchen like finger paint.  Pudding is great for using egg yolks, but then you're left with those pesky whites.  Not much to do with them except meringue.

Or macaroons!

These are so simple.  Four ingredients.  It's really kind of a formula that I use, based on how many egg whites I need to use up.  For each egg white, use 2 T sugar (feel free to use an unrefined version like sucanat), 1/4 t vanilla, and 3/4 C unsweetened shredded coconut.

Now, you can go one of two directions here.

1)  You can whip the egg whites with the whisk attachment in your stand mixer, adding vanilla and slowly adding sugar, beating until glossy with stiff white peaks.  Gently fold in the coconut.  Drop onto a parchment-lined sheet and bake at 325 until the little meringue-y puffs are set and golden brown (about 20 minutes).  Remove to a cooling rack.  This method will make about 7-10 macaroons per egg white.

Or, 2)  You can mix the egg whites with the sugar and vanilla using a spoon.  Stir in the coconut and mix well.  Roll the mixture into 1-inch balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Bake at 325 for about 25 minutes, until they are lightly browned.  This is the more traditional coconut macaroon texture - dense and rich.  You will get fewer macaroons per egg white doing this method - probably about 5 each.

Either way, these will be gobbled up by your children before you know what's happened.  And I guess that's a good thing, seeing as how these little ones need to eat!