Friday, September 18, 2009

Hot topic: How was back-to-school night?

An SF K Files reader asked me to start the following thread:
My daughter just started kindergarten at a public school and tonight was back to school night. It was a great event, and I have to say that I feel as if I can finally relax after attending this event. We had a tough time going through the kindergarten process and we were very uncertain about where to send our daughter to school. After this event I finally feel as if we're settled at our school. I feel as if we made the right choice. It was great to hear the principal speak and to hear my child's teacher go over what happens on a typical school day. And I connected with other parents. It just felt really good. Anyway, I'm wondering how back to school night went for other families?


  1. I came home from back-to-school night and googled "san francisco private schools". This is first grade. We never have toured a private school and absolutely can't afford one.

    I admit, I expected that eventually the Star schools' skill-based curriculum would become an issue, even in the immersion program in which he is enrolled. I just didn't expect it to happen so soon. It's just that I found the teacher's presentation so totally devoid of any content or experiential learning. Setting goals with six year olds to "improve my reading level by 1.5 years" and to "reach 80% of the math standards" is ridiculous. What will they be learning ABOUT? and HOW will they be learning it?

    My son is not unique in his disappointment of 1st grade, but he articulates the weakness of a skill-based curriculum so succinctly:

    "They make us work and work and work, but I never learn anything. Don't you send me to school to learn?! I just wish I could read a book, but I can't. So I look out the windows 'cuz there's clouds."

    I hear complaints from parents across demographic boarders regarding this curriculum. Although they may not be able to pinpoint the issue, they seek to understand why their children are so turned off from school or they complain that school seems so stressful for their family.

    A lot of my PTA friends have a good idea of what the curricular issues are. However, there is a pervasive attitude that the present curriculum benefits the vast majority of the students and since we choose to put our children in a diverse school environment we just have to accept it.

    I totally disagree. This approach to education is the most damaging to the very children it is designed to help. I can compensate for my child. For example, we'll pull our son out and go to a museum during the week. But most of the children in his class aren't getting that. If the school keeps them in classrooms working in workbooks all day, well, that's what they get.

    I truly believe that children learn best when they have a purpose to learn and when there is true relevance for that learning in their experience. Expanding experiences expands learning opportunities. The opposite is also true.

    I'm not against some direct skills instruction; I just don't think the scales should be weighted in that direction.

    Too bad the district rejected the Waldorfish Spanish immersion charter. That might have worked for us...

  2. Anonymous, if you would care to share more specifics with me I will keep your identity confidential. I'm intrigued because I don't think Carlos Garcia would think what you have described is in alignment with our strategic plan.

    Feel free to email me offline.

  3. P.S. - Totally disagree with you about the Waldorfish charter but in the interest of accuracy I should point out that the petitioner withdrew her application for the charter; the Board did not vote it down.

  4. Back to school night was good! Love the teacher, and I love reading what the kid has written (mine is in an older grade). I've been to many, many of these, so they kind of run together after a while, but this one was very nice. After I got home, my kid and I had a sweet conversation about his desk, his books, and what he likes about his teacher and classroom. I think that may be the real value--showing the kid that you care and that you value his education, and show your face to the teacher.

    In re to the person who wrote about skills based curriculum, I believe what you say, but I haven't seen it. There's some of that (times tables in 3rd grade) but some stuff just takes that. There's been plenty of hands-on and creative work, art, field trips and so forth over the years; it hasn't felt out of balance.

    Could it be the teacher? We had one along the way we didn't like so much who was a little old-school. Happy this year (and most years) though! I also know a teacher at a very low-income school in the city who is one of the most creative people I know. So much is about the teachers and the community of teachers.

  5. Enjoyed back-to-school night but realized our child can already do all the things that kindergarteners are expected to do by the end of the year.

    If there were more unstructured time for free play I wouldn't mind. She would greatly benefit from that. But worksheet after mind-numbing worksheet on concepts or skills she mastered long ago? Poor girl is hating school and homework.

    So tempted to pull her out.

  6. Loved our back to school night for our second grader! Amazed at all the written work the students have done in just three weeks and how the teacher has integrated art, science, math and social studies into the written work. Could not be happier!

  7. Learned a lot from the time with the teacher - there are programs and enrichments that happen at our school I didn't know about when we signed on. Some are infrequent, some are just starting but it did feel like there is a lot of variety and they are trying to round it all out. And, it seems like things are finally starting to settle in for the kindergartner, so feeling much better about school in general.

  8. "tempted to pull her out" !! Seriously, she knows how to do it all? I realize that not all schools are the same, but what about singing with her friends, and doing PE or dancing, or gardening or whatever the other things are that makes school a rounded place. Are you saying there is NO other stuff? You should look into how you can make it happen. So much less effort than you might imagine.

  9. One teacher I spoke to this year commented on how much tougher Kinder is for those kids who are older, who have done 2 (or more) years of preschool, who already know how to write and count and even read who are a little jaded and bored by the whole big school thing. It is ironic that the very parents who sought out the perfect pre-school now look for more play and less "school" in Kindergarten. I even read on another thread of this blog that there are pre-schools that do homework! It's crazy and where does it end? Rather than reacting to the crazy (the ever earlier introduction of academics) which is what I thought we (the parents) were doing, I'm starting to believe that we are actually responsible for it. Back to the topic - Our back to school night was great, I love our school, but our experience and that of our First grader could not be further from those described by 11:23pm and 7:34pm. It is sad to me that schools in the same district, constrained by the same issues, can produce such different experiences.

  10. 7:34 here: Our school has enrichment, but it adds up to 2-3 hours a week.

    She went to a very unstructured, play-based preschool but taught herself to read, anyway, and learned a lot about numbers through cooking projects and by counting the coins she finds on the sidewalk and saves.

    We don't believe in introducing academics at an early age, but our child just happened to pick these things up.

    She is really disliking homework and the worksheets at school. They might help other kids master concepts, but to her they feel like pointless busywork and she is starting to say that school is stupid.

    So sad...

    I would look into accelerating her to 1st grade (I have no doubt she could handle the academics), but socially and emotionally, she is with the right group of kids.

  11. 12:49

    I assume you have spoken with the teacher? She may be willing to offer alternative activities or extensions for your child. I did this back when my kid was in kinder, and it worked well.

    Beginning of kinder is hard as the teacher is still doing assessments and meanwhile the kids are all over the map in terms of development, age (the older ones bored, younger ones may not be ready) and educational background. As time goes one, some things will flatten out and others sort themselves out, eventually and through the years your child may end up, in some academic areas like reading, in an advanced group that meets her needs. (Other things, like science, will still be taught as a whole). My kid had an academic peer group of about 3-4 kids at her level and it was enough. She also learned *much* from kids not at that level in lots of areas.

    If your child is in the right group emotionally and socially, then for heaven's sake don't move her after 4 weeks. You know, baby, bathwater. Try first to address the problem in front of you.

  12. We spoke to the teacher briefly about it, but she won't even differentiate the homework assignments. So my early-reader has to circle pictures of things that start with a particular letter and color them. I'd rather she spend the afternoon reading books (or writing her own!) or doing more open-ended art projects.

  13. It takes your child all afternoon to finish a homework assignment requiring her to circle the initial consonant in a word? Perhaps your child isn't as advanced as you think. That should take about five minutes.

  14. If your child is really miserable about it, and the work that she hates really is taking more than 5-10 minutes (my kids were too advanced for these kinds of projects too, but were willing ot race through them in order to get to free reading time in the book corner):

    1) Ask for a longer meeting with the teacher to address possibilities for differentiation. Explain specifically how frustrating it is for your daughter (tears, etc.) and how it is becoming an impediment to being a joyful learner (I hate the term, but it is a catchphrase). Also, ask for the teacher's understanding of how your child is doing and where is ahead and where she is struggling, for example, in making friends, or physically, or anything else. The point here is not to attack the teacher, but to try to reach a common understanding of what your daughter needs and how it can be provided. Perhaps you can work together to find puzzles that your child can do while the others are circling letters. Or maybe she can go to a first grade reading group. One of my kids did that.

    2) If the teacher is defensive or refuses to make changes, then ask for a meeting that includes the principal and/or school outreach counselor.

  15. I had a great back to school night at SOTA, especially listening to a team-teaching (9th grade English) tandem talk about their enthusiasm for literature and for building writing skills. They've got the kids attending the weekly film showings at Randall and sharing their journal entries with each other.

    Also, a splendid hands-on physics teacher. This--engineering actually--is my field, and I believe hands-on work is the key to fostering enthusiasm for science.

  16. i really liked our first BtoS night at fairmount (with our first-grader). first, principal cranna addressed the parents. it was all very warm and friendly -- like a big family. we sat on the central steps (the cafeteria is small and they have yet to hold a big gathering there). then a born-and-raised SF police officer in charge of school safety then spoke about drop-off and pick-up safety. i felt like there was school spirit, substance and warmth in equal doses, but the principal left curricular matters largely to the teachers.

    when we got to our class, it was clear that our teacher, the estimable ms. laura, had put a lot of work into the individual packets of information as well as kids' work assembled beautifully on each desk. she spoke authoritatively in both english and spanish about what to expect this year, what she needed from us, the curriculum (including what's new) and how best to communicate with her. she even included a postcard every parent was to write a wish on for her child -- what they wished for them to achieve or enjoy in school this year. then she mailed them -- very exciting for the kids to get.

    although total B2S attendance was not as high as at clarendon jbbp, our old school, there was a respectable spread of people from all walks of life. i have noticed in our classroom that parents contribute in different ways -- some by buying organic snacks, some by taking the chairs down each day, some by cleaning the room, some by assembling homework, some by reading in spanish to the kids every morning or translating for blundering gringos like myself. to each his own.

    overall, it is the *warmth* of this school that shines through at every event. that counts for a lot with me. it just infuses everything fairmount does academically. i really like that.