Monday, December 16, 2013

Can Do

Since I posted about the effect of pushing standardized test improvement on one third grader in the system (aka, my kid), I learned this: if you want to triple your readership in 24 hours, write about how much you are frustrated when your kid is not only privy to her standardized test scores, but asked to set goals to improve them.

Thank you, readers, for all of your thoughtful comments and messages to me. It feels like we can't change the system, but it is nice to know we have the numbers—not test score numbers, but hoards of parents wondering how to fix this before their kids go bonkers—to speak up and be heard.

When I picked up EJ from school on Friday, fired up by your response to my post, I asked her how her day was, hoping that testing was now wiped clean off her plate, replaced by a busy day of fun December activities planned at school. She told me that her class spent time during the day graphing out all their test scores, and then writing new goals to improve them. I started to fall deeper in the "this makes me so angry I could..." pit, but then—hurray!—she said "I'm not worried, Mom, because for reading, I am CLEARLY in the margin of error." Small victories in the big, weird war are always appreciated.

Since Friday, I have been pondering what we can do for our kid in the climate of school testing madness, how we can make things better, how we can try to turn the ship around when it is heading into icy waters (and the captain of the ship is going too fast to stop for icebergs.) Then the anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown happened, and our dog got even more gravely ill, and my brain went back to the place where it says to self, for sanity's sake, "Well, testing stress isn't the worst thing in the world."

Sigh. Perspective can be a killer to activism. All wasn't lost, though, and I haven't put down my flag, yet, thanks to what happened the rest of the weekend. 

Friday through Sunday, EJ spent the majority of her time either rehearsing or performing in The Nutcracker, and because of that, we spent hours with family, neighborhood friends, and kids who would just make your heart melt as they danced their feet off up on stage, having practiced and prepared all autumn, excited to perform in their beautiful costumes to sold-out crowds.

Watching them up on stage, I was reminded: these kids shouldn't be worried about standardized tests. Seeing them feel so accomplished underscored how ridiculous, and how downright counterproductive, it is to push kids to improve test scores in order to feel successful. This was success: working hard, practicing, and then getting to tangibly see/feel/experience/encounter the reward. No tiny test-score increase, well within the margin of error, can make the same kind of impact for a kid. On the way home from the last performance, EJ was already talking about next year, how hard she wants to keep practicing, how she can't even guess which part she might have if she keeps at it (but someday she really wants to be a policinelle, and who wouldn't?)

I also talked to so many parent friends and acquaintances, several of whom had read my blog, and had similar concerns about where all this testing was going. A common theme was, "WHAT THE @#*$)@*(%&! IS GOING ON HERE?"

When I had downtime, between putting up ballet buns with sticky hair gel that feels, at best, like snot, and keeping everyone in the house fed, I read my friend's work. Marta wrote beautifully about what it really looks like to treasure your children—in real life—in the wake of a tragedy like Sandy Hook. Carrie followed suit by quoting the president, suggesting the best way we can do something to help right now, given that no one individual can figure out how to mend our country's affinity for gun violence, is to be kind. I thought again about how I wanted to live a kind life, not just a nice one.

When we got home from the ballet, and our guests were gone, EJ's homework was done, and our dog looked stable and resting, I sat down to catch up on email, and then just relax once the kiddo was in bed. I noticed that more people had RSVPed to our annual New Year's Eve party, and I remembered: kindness is right around the corner.

Every year, we host a family New Year's Eve party, where "make your own" homemade sushi rolls are the main event. Kids love it, parents love it, we love it, and everyone fills their belly and generally runs around and has a good time. In lieu of bringing champagne, we ask our guests to contribute canned goods, pantry items, and toiletries for one of our local food pantries, St. James. We started this tradition of donation the second or third year we hosted the party, mainly because we had so many bottles of wine and champagne left over as host/hostess gifts, and we are not big drinkers, so we couldn't get through them all by the next year's party. "What if we asked guests to bring food for the pantry, instead?" one of us asked the other, and the rest is history.

What we have learned through this practice is that replenishing the available food supply after the holidays is critically important for those who are food insecure, especially as our harsh Chicago winter continues after the Christmas lights have been taken down. The week after the party, when we gather the goods and bring them to St. James, we are always met with smiles, gratitude, and the parting note, "We wish everyone could collect pantry items at their parties." Churches and organization have big food drives, but individual people throwing parties do not tend to ask for donations—what if all of us had a party this year where we provided the food and drink for the guests, and all of us provided food and drink for the hungry?

No, it won't improve the testing dilemma—we'll each have to follow-up at our schools for that—or the even scarier school-shooting/gun-violence dilemma, for which I don't even know where we start. Collecting food will help, though, and it will be kind, and if we all did it—if all of us had our own "Fill the Pantry Party" in 2014—it sure would be a good thing.

Sushi school, our house, every New Year's Eve.
Feel free to wear a crown, and you can eat what you make.
Bring your food donations, and we'll see you there!


  1. What a fantastic idea!! We have an annual Chili Cookoff, complete with a Golden Spoon trophy. I'll see what I can do to rally the guests around this idea.