Work and Life In Chi-Town

Last Tuesday at around 4:30, I was sitting at my desk studying google maps trying to figure out how to get from O’Hare airport to a hotel in the Loop in the cheapest way possible. I won a scholarship from a journalism group to attend a writers conference in Chicago, which paid for the hotel, airfare, and the conference, but ground transportation was my own responsibility. A cab ride wasn’t going to break our budget, but I like my side of the Quicken budget to be in the black, not the red, so I studied the subways lines.

I happened to look over at Steve’s desk behind me in time to see Ian sloop out of his chair and hit the floor. His eyes were open, but his body was stiff for about five seconds. When he came back to consciousness, he asked why he was on the floor and said that he had image flash through his head before he passed out. He said he thought he was at a New Year’s Eve party. He said that this image had flashed through his head a few times in the past month.

I’ve seen seizures before. When I was a special ed teacher in the Bronx many years ago, I had a student, Shawnee, who would have grand Mal seizures every day in the class. She would shake and tremble for about ten minutes. Ian’s episode wasn’t anything like that, but it still did scream “seizure” to me, so I texted his reading tutor not to come and immediately called his pediatrician and neurologist.

Afterwards he was fine. Went back to his video games and his homework like nothing happened. I was a wreck. I scheduled doctor’s appointments for the following day. I told Steve. I arranged with my sister to help out with one the appointments, because I had my own appointment to get my usual pre-conference haircut and blowout. The cab was going to pick me up to take me to Newark airport on Thursday at 5:30am. If my hair was good, I could just wake up and go. Dinner plans were scrapped, so Steve got a pizza on the way home from the train station.

At the second appointment at the neurologist at 5:00, she said that she didn’t think that Ian should be left alone until we figured out what was going on. So, I arranged coverage of Ian between the end of school, before Steve got home. Again, my sister was enlisted to help. Steve left work early, but couldn’t skip out of work entirely.

The conference itself was good. The topic was the transition from high school to college. Various experts, who hoped to be sources for news articles, gave presentations for two days. We crammed into a stuffy little room at Northwestern and asked questions that were general enough to not show our hands to other journalists in the room.

As I walked through a deserted Newark airport at midnight on Friday, I relaxed for a minute. The adrenaline that had kept me going through those few days was ebbing. My overnight bag dug into my shoulder, because I always overpack when I’m nervous. Next time, I’ll pack less, I promised myself.

But will there be a next time? I’m already long in the tooth for this career. My most recent plan was to do something completely different for a couple of months, and write some long form essays and book proposals that have been percolating for months. I even filled out a job application before Ian’s slump. My sister texted me to say there was a message on the answering machine from a manager of a bookstore.

Plans to work outside the home were shelved, because I need to be available for more doctor’s appointments. I can’t take advantage of family to mind the kid, while I work a minimum wage job for kicks. Hopefully, we can figure out what happened quickly, and then I’ll try again after the holidays.

Over the weekend, I just processed information and recovered from the days of stress. I cancelled plans with friends and nested with family. Jonah came home for the day. I cooked. I boiled down some chicken bones from the freezer and other scraps to make a witch’s brew of soup broth.

I did a couple of chores in the morning yesterday, and then left to pick up Ian at 2:00 for an EEG test. The technician measured Ian’s head and marked up his forehead with a red marker. We assured Ian that those marks were for the suction cups sensors, and there were no plans for brain removal. We sat in a dark room for an hour, as the technician looked for misfires in his brain. We’ll get results today. If the test is inconclusive, he’ll have to wear an electrode cap for two days for better results.

Hopefully, the tests will show that he was just tired or dehydrated. Maybe it was a weird kind of migraine headache. But 30 percent of people with an autistic spectrum disorder also get epilepsy, so we do have to seriously prepare ourselves for a worse case scenario. The worse case scenario isn’t terrible — medication is great these days — but it will be just one more burden on the kid, who already has his share of burdens.

With fingers crossed for a good phone call from the neurologist at 9, I’m making adjustments in work plans. I’ve been writing an essay in my head for the past day, using the scraps and bones of information from the conference, previous articles, and recent experiences. Like my chicken broth, it’s going to take some time for all this to cook and for the flavors to marry. Hopefully, in the next few weeks, Ian will have a clean bill of health and I’ll have an essay or two sealed up in tidy little jars that can be sent to editors.

Models of Education That Are Really, Truly Happening At A School Near You. Like This Isn’t a Crazy Theory. It’s Happening. Get Used To It.

Back when I was in elementary school in the mid 1970s, I read a lot. I would have a stack of books on my side table and read several simultaneously. If I really loved a book — The Boxcar Children, The Wolves of Willougby Chase, Anything by Laura Ingalls or Louisa May Alcott, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, All of a Kind Family – I would read the book seven or eight times.

Because I loved reading and did it a lot, I got pretty good at it. I was several grades ahead of my peers by third grade. So, that meant that I was bored in regular class. I had already learned that kids hate you if you know all the answers, so I would pretend to not know answers to the teachers’ questions. Pretending to be dumb became such a habit that I was in college before I stopped doing that. Weirdly enough, I had to learn to act dumb again when I moved to the suburbs, but that’s another topic.

What kept me sane in English class was the beloved SRA kit. A quick google search for the “SRA Kit” brings up tons of nostalgic blog posts. In a nutshell, the box contained color coded, short reading passages and questions. If you answered the questions correctly, you moved up to the next level. Every kid worked at his or her own level. So, I could go as fast as I wanted and didn’t have to be publicly shamed for being smart.

Today, this is called individualized learning. With the rise of technology, the proliferation of low-cost chrome books, the popularity of Khan Academy, schools are increasingly looking at how they can leverage technology to supplement regular instruction. In a traditional classroom model, all 30 kids have to learn the same material at the same time. Teachers can’t reach the very smart or the learning disabled. With limited time and resources, they have to teach for the largest group of kids — the typical ones.

The advantages of moving towards the individualized learning model is that everyone is served and can learn at their own particular speed. The disadvantage is that it is heavily reliant on technology, and some kids are bored by machines. There really needs to be a teacher in the room providing feedback, support, and all that.

The more advanced form of individualized learning has a few different names — mastery-based or competence-based learning are most commonly used. This model goes back to the SRA kit. You can’t progress from yellow cards to the orange cards, until you have provided evidence that you really know the yellow cards. So, as Sal Khan explained to me, students can’t move onto do algebraic equations until they know fractions. Right now, in most schools, they do. Schools need kids to move from subject to subject, from grade to grade, as a cohort. But in his new private school and others like his, that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s not about seat time, they said. It’s about showing mastery of a topic.

That system of showing proficiencies in a range of topics is not theoretical. It’s the system in many schools in New England and in many of the top private schools in the country. Our very vanilla school district in New Jersey is considering implementing a system like this here. It’s coming.

Now, many of you might wonder how a kid like Ian, a non-traditional learner, would fare in a school that didn’t ring the bell to change classes every 50 minutes.

Ian already has a version of this individualized learning model within a traditional school and after traditional school. He is in a special ed reading class, but he doesn’t get much out of it, because his learning differences are totally different from the other kids in the classroom. So, in study hall, the school district bought him a reading program — IXL. He plugs through the different assignments. And then I supplement all that with a real teacher after school. He’s made a lot of progress in the past year. I think he’s up two reading levels.

And then some school geniuses put him in the lowest level math class in fifth grade, where he learned absolutely nothing. He was stuck in that level for all of middle school, because his teachers weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. So, I took matters into my own hands and signed him up for Kumon, where he learned at his own pace, completing worksheets. And guess what? He’s out of special ed and getting an A in his class.

Because of his differences, he is in the resource room class for science and social studies, where he watches a whole lot of videos on the computer about particular topics. It works for him. He has a better grasp of American history than many of my students did when I taught at CUNY.

I don’t even have time to talk about how community colleges are increasingly taking over the job of high school education. The college model of one lecture and lots self-directed reading/research is basically this individualized education model.

So, it’s happening, people. It’s happening, because it does work for some kids. It’s happening, because we’re slowly working towards a system with fewer teachers or a system with lower expectations for teachers. It’s happening, because people don’t want to pay for traditional schools.

So, with changing notions of education comes a changing needs in school structures.

Never Give Up

When Ian was really little, like five years old, I had a meeting with a high level special education administrator. I was pretty miserable at that time. I didn’t feel like he was getting enough support for his disability or being appropriately challenged. We knew that he was smart. His test scores were in the 99th percentile. But he had SO MANY issues at that time.

He could barely understand what people were saying to him. His ability to comprehend language went down to zero when he was upset. His pre-school teacher would pass him written notes during those times, because he could read, but he didn’t understand what she was saying.

He frequently screamed or got upset, but couldn’t tell people what was bothering him. Looking back on it, he was just scared all the time. You would be too, if you didn’t understand what people were talking about. He had lots of sensory issues; he couldn’t tolerate loud sounds, bright lights, clothes.

Now, when he hears songs from that time or an old movie pops up on the TV as we’re flipping through channels, he runs out of the room. He said that those images and music trigger “nightmares.” He said that he gets flashbacks. I think he suffers from PTSD from autism.

Anyway, I was in this office with the administrator to request that he be held back for a year, so he would have another year to grow and catch up with his peers. She said no, because it would cut short his time in high school when they would have to train him for a job. In other words, she looked at him and saw someone who would need lots of training to stack shelves in Walmart. She had sized him up at age five and wrote him off.

Twelve years later, Ian took his PSATs this month. He spent an entire day at a band festival yesterday, playing bass drum and marching around the field. He blended in. He still has language deficits, sensory issues, and nervous tics, but he’s also rocking his talents in music and computers. He has a future ahead of him. A good one.

Every year, he gets better. This year’s band festival went much better than last year. He’s less likely to get irritated with peers who do random things. He doesn’t need an aide to supervise him. He chatted with classmates. I get lovely notes from his teachers, who tell me that he’s continues to surprise them.

Here’s what I’ve learned from raising a kid with autism — brains heal. They don’t heal completely, of course; Ian will always have his struggles. But with lots of work and opportunities, brains do get better. So, sizing up a five-year old and predicting adulthood is not only useless, it is harmful.

That administrator urged me to stop being so miserable and accept my kid’s limitations. She suggested that I spend more time on my career. Just the week before, another administrator had told me to stop worrying and to get a manicure.

I am so glad that we didn’t listen to them.

Travel: Camping, Outdoorsy Stuff in Roscoe and Livingston Manor, NY (Catskills)

About halfway between the NYC metropolitan area and the upstate New York Colleges is the Roscoe Diner. Now, it’s nothing fancy. You’re safe going for the diner usuals, like the grilled cheese deluxe, pancakes, a burger, but eat at your own risk on the rest of the menu. Still, this joint has always been a ritual pitstop on the way to college with fresh linen and clean notebooks, and on the way back with a killer handover. The Roscoe diner knows its place in the world and is profusely decorated with college pennants from all over the country.

I did my share of hangover pancakes there in the 80s, as my folks drove me back from SUNY Binghamton. Over the years, we’ve camped in the area. So, I can say with confidence that I’ve been visiting Roscoe, NY for thirty years.

It has changed.

Prohibition Distillery, Roscoe, NY

That whole area is infested with Brooklyn and Upper West Side New York people now. In addition to the Roscoe diner, there have a restaurant where you can get brick oven pizza with a ramp pesto. There’s an artisanal gin company. Over priced farmers markets. Ironic furniture stores. The gays moved in and gentrified the place.

Now, I have mixed feelings about all this, because, truth be told, the ramp pizza was excellent. We got loaded at the distillery and bought some excellent gin. But it’s a little annoying to see people on vacation, who probably (let’s just admit it) look a lot like us. Sigh.

And the locals clearly have mixed feelings about the rich folks moving in. On the one hand, they like to sell them overpriced produce and sandwiches. On the other, the new people jacked up property values and have all the wrong bumper stickers.

The locals are Trump voters. Massive banners on the side of barns announce, “Farmers For Trump!” They like their guns up there, too, so they view the gun haters/tourists with major distrust.

Tense politics and questionable fellow vacationers aside, this area of the Catskills is gorgeous. There are a ton of opportunities for hiking, camping, fishing, and canoeing. It’s hard to take a bad photograph there. We had a marvelous time and will probably head back up there in a couple week for an Octoberfest.

Here are the links to things to do:

  • Camping at Russell Brook. Tents and Cabins. Privately owned. Has a game room for kids and hosts events like Bingo on the weekend for regulars in the trailers and the tent people. A general store where you can buy things that you forgot for double the price.
  • Al’s Sports store Fishing licenses, canoe and kayak rentals, organized trips. We canoed down the East Branch Delaware. 3 to 4 hour trip. Al’s wife followed Steve’s car down to Roscoe and then brought him back up to the sports store, so we canoed to our car. Left the canoes down there.
  • Prohibition Distillery in Roscoe. Super nice vodka and gin.
  • Roscoe Beer Company in Roscoe.
  • Kaatskeller, Livingston Manor. Outdoor beer garden and fancy pizza place. Can hang out for long time and use their wifi.
  • Main Street Farm. This place has been around for a while. Nice earthy, crunchy place. Sandwiches and soups.
  • Brandenburg Bakery, Inc. Seriously must go there. We had the donuts and two or three kinds of bread. Got some loaves on the way out of town for home.
  • The Red Rose Motel. I think it’s a boutique hotel right now. We didn’t see the rooms. We went to the tavern. Nice burgers and beer in hipster joint. Played chess and used the wifi for hours.

Travel: Camping In Tents

I love sleeping outside in a tent. Weird, right?

It’s probably because of all my years in the Girl Scouts. Steve was also a Scout. Unlike me, Steve earned all the badges to become an Eagle Scout. I was a slacker scout, who went on all the trips way into my high school years, but never earned a single badge. I couldn’t be bothered to read the manual. Still, that experience was formative enough to hook me on the outdoors.

I like the mobility of life in a tent; you can find a campsite anywhere. I’ve camped in a New Mexico desert and on an island in Maine. It’s super affordable. There’s nothing like sleeping in the fresh air and drinking wine around a roaring fire in the evening.

We took the boys camping last weekend. We haven’t gone as often as we have liked with them in the past, because Ian had trouble functioning in a world without Internet access, when he was younger. (He’s fine now, so we’re going more often.) Even with those obstacles, we were able to go once a year and accumulate all the right equipment piled on a shelving unit dedicated for camping in the basement.

The fall is actually a perfect time to camp, because the temperature in the Northeast is not too hot and muggy. The leaves are turning, so the views are magnificent. We’re going to go again in the next few weeks to take advantage of the local Octoberfests. And camping gear is all on sale.

In the next post, I’ll share all the links to places we went, in case local readers want the details. In this post, I’ll just give some tips about how to do it:

  • Get a good tent. If it rains, you do NOT want to sleeping in a puddle. Good brands are Kelty, Marmot, or Big Agnes. Make sure the system has a ground cloth and a tarp. Tents can be found at REI, Campmor, and Amazon.
  • With a family with teenagers, everybody should get their own tent. And always go a size up for comfort; a two person tent is really a one person tent.
  • Bring your own pillow. Camping pillows suck.
  • Good sleeping bags are a must
  • I love our air mattresses. I couldn’t sleep outside without one anymore.
  • We only cook breakfast at the camp site. We’ve got a propane stove for that. A coffee press is essential. Need a cooler and ice for eggs, milk, and the white wine.
  • On the way into the campsite, get some wood at the local supermarket. (Don’t forget the fire starter and fire gun like we did this year.) It’s also good to have the day’s newspaper in the car. You read it, then crumple up the op-ed pages for tinder.
  • You have to go for two nights minimum to make it worth the effort of setting up a site.
  • We’re medium level campers. We’re not eating freeze dried lasagnas or carrying all our gear on our back. Nor are we “glamping”. That middle level means that we go to campsites where you can park your car at the site. These sites are also near civilization where a person can find a decent burger and beer in the evening.
  • Most camping sites come with their own picnic table, so if your trunk is short on room, then you can skip folding chairs. But if have room, a comfy chair is nice.
  • With the four of us and all our stuff, we usually do need the car roof top cargo holder. We’ve got the canvas one, which means that we have to wrap everything in plastic garbage bags. When it dies, we’ll replace it with the hardtop version.
  • Lanterns are needed, of course.
  • Put your food in the car over night, so you don’t get a visit from bears who can smell your s’mores a mile away.
  • And here’s my favorite camping/hiking memoir:

Prepping The College Kid For College (and Life)

The kids are on the way out. Jonah goes back to college on Saturday. Ian is lingering until next Thursday. Sigh.

Getting boys ready for school isn’t very tough. My kids got new sneakers, a new backpack, new binders, and, boom, we’re done. They honestly don’t give a crap about how old their t-shirts are. I think Jonah knows that his charm is in eyes, not his clothes, so he’s cool with Old Navy’s best.

But there’s more to preparing a kid for college, than just handing over the credit card for textbooks and the dining hall pass. There’s also preparing them to be good students.

As a dual-PhD family, we assumed that Jonah would know what he was doing once he got to campus. I guess we thought the knowledge about college would pass to him by osmosis or something. Sadly, that didn’t happen, and his first semester included some painful learning bumps.

But college is nothing like high school. There are strange offices — what’s a bursor’s office? — and jargon. There are dozens of majors with confusing names. In some schools, like Jonah’s, it’s possible to major in public policy in three different departments. There’s more reading than lectures and few deadlines. Tracking down elusive professors to ask questions takes patience and cunning.

After we figured out that Jonah needed direction, Steve and I swooped in to help. (Yes, my kid is ridiculously privileged.) We created a lecture about how to be a successful college student and still repeat our key points from time to time.

One lesson was about the importance of talking with your professor. Showing up at office hours and having the professor get to know the student is worth half a grade.

Tom Ferriss, in one of his self-help books, said that he would show up to every office hour in college and fight over every point on his exam, so that the professor would avoid pain the next time and give him a better grade. I don’t want Jonah to do that, but establishing a relationship with a professor does make it harder for them to give you a bad grade.

We’ve also been talking lately about the benefits of clubs. See, Jonah thought that students belonged to clubs to pursue hobbies and interests that they found genuinely fun and recreational. He thought a good club should be something like a frat, that would boost one’s popularity. Well, maybe, but mostly the purpose of a club is to put another line on your resume that signals to future employers that you’re a serious person. He had no clue. So, he’s signing up for clubs this semester.

In this week before school starts, I’ve been sending him to various workplaces of friends and relatives to sample work environments. Yesterday, he was at an engineering firm and an architecture firm. Today, he’s on Wall Street with Steve.

We made his first resume. I made his summer busboy jobs look like a NASA engineer. It was fun. Then we sent to him to these jobs in chinos and a button down Oxford shirt. We talked about how every company has a wide range of jobs. You don’t need to be an architect to work at an architecture company. So, he should shop around for the type of environment that he liked working in and for a company that revolves around a passion of his.

Last month, I met a woman who crunched numbers for the Bronx Botanical Garden. She wasn’t in love with the spreadsheets, but she loved working in such a beautiful place, so she was a happy person. I told Jonah her story and few others.

Jonah’s leaving us on Saturday about ten pounds heavily than he was back in May, when he staggered home after finals pale and skinny. He’s a lot smarter about many things. I’m sure he’s ready to have a couple of days to hang out with his friends before school starts on Tuesday. I’m putting off the sadness of losing him again with mini life-lessons. I think that’s what I do.

Parenting Right: It’s Hard to Find Time to Make Dinners, Take Hikes, and Be With Grandparents, But It’s Worth It

For a long time, I’ve complained about the toxic environment that our kids inhabit today. On Sunday, Kim Brooks in the Times wrote that schools need to change — longer lunches, recesses, less emphasis on tests — to make kids’ lives better.

But we need more than some simple fixes in the school day. WE need to change. Schools are democratic institutions; they reflect the will of the community. And the community wants their kids in the best college possible. So, that means squeezing in more desk time and padding the resume with lunch-time bogus clubs. In order for schools to change, we need to change. And even if schools change, that’s not enough.

I hesitate to talk about how Steve and I have parented our kids, because I don’t want to parent-shame anyone. And we’re not perfect. I love my cellphone way too much. So, let me talk about what we’ve tried to do, not always perfectly.

We have family dinners about five or six times per week. I cook a meal, we sit at a common table at the same time, we eat it, and we talk a bit.

It sounds really simple, but not many families can do that anymore. I haven’t considered job openings in NYC, because there’s no way that my family would have food on the table if both Steve and I walked in the door at 7:00.

Even cooking at a beach house.

Aside from the benefits for mental health, with 2 teenage boys, we would very quickly be broke if I didn’t cook dinner regularly. They seriously eat VAST quantities of food. Last night, I made a chicken stew with about 4 pounds of chicken, 12 carrots, 3 onions, 3 celery stalks, wine and chicken broth, herbs from the garden, 5 potatoes, loaf of bread. It cost about $20. If we step into a restaurant, even McDonald’s, it’s a $60 minimum. I hope to squeeze it into a second meal by putting the leftovers on rice tonight.

Dinner time is a good time to debrief everyone at the same time about their days. It’s a time when we can catch problems or put a bandaid on a mental boo-boo. It’s a transition time for Steve, who is still sometimes in work-mode when he walks in the door. But even with pressure cookers, it’s very hard for families to do what I do every day. That chicken stew meal took about 2-1/2 hours to prep and cook; very few people have that time today.

We do a family activity together every weekend. Sometimes we go on bike trips or hikes. Sometimes we visit extended family. We go to museums a lot. None of it costs a lot of money, but it’s hard to have the time to do those things if the kids are in lots of high pressure sporting activities and are working on school projects. Or if the parents are catching up on household chores on the weekend.

Weekend hikes are fun!

We live near extended family. Again, this was a sacrifice. I didn’t put myself on the national market for an academic job, because I wanted to live near family. It’s good for the kids. And it’s good for me. My mom is driving Ian to band camp today, so I can get in a full day in front of the computer.

Always celebrating something.

I think we all know that these things (and more) are important for kids, but it’s hard to proscribe cures that are unworkable for most families. People need (and want) to work long hours. It’s also very hard to run in a different direction from other people in your community; if their kids are in all weekend sports programs, then your kid is going to want that, too.

In some ways, we’ve benefited from having a special needs kid and have always been on the outside of suburban life. Still, I think even with the limited time, families could step off the fast lane a little more. It’s actually super fun.