Saturday, November 18, 2006

how far away is December?

Not far enough.

Around here, December is the beginning of K-8 school applications for the Jewish day schools. I've sharing serious subconscious space with the issue, going on dream-tours of schools, sitting over pages of unhappy looking numbers.

I want it to all be over. And yet, I'm not ready.

In this post, I mentioned that I went to a day school Q&A, at which three of the six? local Jewish day schools were present. The ranking went like this: the Reform school, the Conservative school, the pluralist school. Missing were the Orthodox school and two of the Lubavich, or ultra-Orthodox schools. I'd hoped to talk to the Ortho and pluralist schools, our two top choices, with the Conservative place a back-up in case of major spousal deadlocking. Phooey. And, by the way, not so very much the Q and A - more the schools' directors of admissions talking about how wonderful the school is and why everybody should give their kids a Jewish education, and the parents talking about how much they love the schools. Blah blah blah.

finally, I raised my hand, and waved my sheaf of papers. I sort of took the Q&A part literally, I said somewhat sheepishly. And then took over the meeting while the other parents sat in silence.

The results were rather fun, a sort of duel between the spin doctors, but here's what I don't understand:

how can you have no questions? These institutions will wield an extraordinary influence on your child's attitude towards learning, his moral sense, his social interactions.

why do these directors of admin think that a slick line and a quick tour is enough? Even if I had the most ordinary child in the world (anyone out there with one of those? somewhere? no, didn't think so), this would be like buying the first car the car salesman shows you. Directors of admissions are selling a product, and they should be viewed as such.

And alarming to me is the influence that rumor holds here. So and so pulled their kid out, is the school going down hill? So and so switched back, and did you hear that they are losing enrollment? Yes, they say they are happy, but did you notice in shul (synagogue) that their kids aren't singing along? Sigh.

My plan was simple: visit the schools, ask a million questions. Then, sit in classrooms for most of a day, watching various teachers at work. Finally, meet with the director of the Eldest's preschool to discuss his learning style and what environment will best support him.

Here's how I've been foiled:

stage one: visit schools, ask a million questions.
After the tour, there is a typical fifteen minute period of time. This allows max, four questions (none of which are answered without speechification). Walk away muttering about content versus seizing the opportunity to hold forth.

stage two: sit in classrooms.
One school calmly accepted this idea. Another called me over and over, passing me from High Personage to High Personage, trying to figure out how to accomodate me, and whatever was wrong with me that I would attempt such a thing.

  • Am I overly attached to my child, and will have separation issues? no.
  • Am I trying to pre-select my son's teachers? no.
  • Am I worried about food allergy? yes, but that's no reason to observe a classroom.
  • Am I a wierd, possibly pedophilic person? Good grief, people. Wanna see my CORI clearance?
  • Am I going to be critiquing the teachers, making them nervous? of course I'm going to be evaluating the teachers! That's the whole point. But not out loud...
Finally, school # 2 invited me to come, and escorted me nervously from room to room. I got maybe 5-10 minutes per room, then the requisite four questions. I was left with the following gem of advice: if my family truly wants a (religious style X) education for our child/ren, we'll choose that school. It should be simple as that.

Ah. So it comes down to a question of religious identity, does it? School #2 has been losing enrollment over exactly that attitude, as the liberal Orthodox, smelling pedagogical blood in the water, take their kids over to the pluralist school. And so sinks a once successful school, even with a whopping 10 million dollar grant.

If only school #2 had been impressive in snapshot format. But it wasn't. Too many indifferent teachers, too many classrooms with glossy posters instead of the kids' work. And when the kids' stuff was hung up, it was way too uniform.

And the biggest strike? teachers mixing interpretive narrative (midrash) with the biblical text, and making no distinction. Never mind that while I was in the classroom, boys were called on twice as often as girls. Never mind that 'wiggly kid' to the principal means 'ADHD/ADD,' or that when asked what their goals are, the administration showed nothing beyong 'Keeping Up With the Kerrys.' Their communication skills lag, yes, but above all this is a school that is purporting to teach Orthodox Judaism, and they are being sloppy about it. Phaugh.

Author's note: yes, this is a minor point, mixing text and interpretation, but it rings a specific alarm bell. A school that allows confusing of pshat (straight up text) and drash (intrepretive narrative/text) may also mix minhag (custom) with halacha (law), or fail to give the range of practice on a single law, giving only one variant, as if it were Law, rather than practice of law. I find this to be intellectually dishonest, and actually discouraging to the student who might otherwise be taught that the Talmud's dialectic is still on-going, and that s/he could join in or observe the conversation in process.

Really, it comes down to the kind of religious mind you want to train: mimetic or active choice and study. My experience is that mimetic religion is far too dependant on environment (a community of like practicing individuals, friends and family, easy access to things like kosher food, etc) and falls apart more easily than active choice when, say, a kid leaves the Orthodox bubble to go to a secular college. Or mimetic religion is the kind that is easily swayed to the right or left by charisma (anyone remember the kids who seriously frummed out, becoming super-right during their year in Israel? and where are they now?). Seems a risky foundation to be building, if the goal is a child who grows into a thoughtful, religiously invested adult.

Oh, yes, and that keeping me out of the classroom thing? Way to inspire trust, people. Jeez.

And yet I wish it worked. I went into this knowing that #2 would make us happy, religiously, but with vague alarm bells ringing. I pursued #2, hoping to find some glaring flaw, some awful evidence that would show it clearly as Bad For The Child. I saw mediocrity, poor communication, lack of innovation and awareness. But no Great Educational Evil, unless that evil is expecting middle of the road thoughts and work from children. And not listening to them.

(Actually, I think Dante was remiss in not having a circle just for people who do not listen to children, and teach children to talk to them. Corruption, perhaps, but not listening to earnest young spirits? Burn, baby, burn.)

I waited for the heavenly voice to decree that yes, for my son I am absolved, I do not need to place religious training higher than shaping a thinking, questioning brain. Or maybe that with this sea of money, wonderful transformative things will happen to school #2. Possibly next week.

The hell with the heavenly voice. This is the right thing, my bones tell me, my brain tells me. On Friday, the Man threw his hands up and stalked off, muttering. He knows enough, he says.

And yet, I can't just start filling out applications. Because I have a process, damnit, and I don't yet know what stage three will show. Okay, so maybe I do, but see earlier grouchy comment re:process, cross-referencing with hope regarding heavenly voices.

a small, irritable voice in my brain is telling me that this obsession with gathering every relevant scrap of information is part of the reason I haven't finished that chapter in my dissertation. I hate when those wee voices are right, therefore I shall ignore it.

Ah, the hell with it all. The new Sharon Shinn book is here, courtesy of, and I'm going to dive into it and let this all sit.


mother in israel said...

Um, I think your expectations are slightly unrealistic, to say the least. But who am I to say?

mama o' the matrices said...

Hmm. Very likely they are. But in what ways, exactly, do you mean?

mother in israel said...

Just about all of them, but it will have to wait for another time. We just came back for a meeting of future first-graders ourselves.

mother in israel said...

Okay, I linked to you on my blog and answered your question, sort of.

mama o' the matrices said...

m.i.i., thank you for your post (here I am, and always have been, bad at settling. Or at least extremely ungraceful about it.

Somehow, this attitude seems self-perpetuating, no? If we don't push our schools, well, who will?

okay, hopping off the soapbox, the stirring John Williams music can now fade. But still. Part of me is prodding school #2 because I feel they *should* be responsive to me. Part of me is pushing forwards because I'm looking to assess the amount of, as you say, garbage that we'd have to manage if the Eldest went there.


dykewife said...

wow! before boy went to school bran and i went to the school (public - french immersion programme) and talked to the principal, the k'garten teacher and looked around. we asked all kinds of questions - our particular concern was that he not fall behind on english speaking, writing and reading skills. in all our dealings with the school we were involved like dirty shirts and the school welcomed it. that's a public school.

you're talking about a school that you pay to send your children to. i'm astounded that they aren't more willing to accomodate you and your requests. i definitely say, 'buyer beware."

Jerusalem Joe said...

"unless that evil is expecting middle of the road thoughts and work from children. And not listening to them."

that's about as evil as it must be terrifying to have to send your kids to be taken care of all day by such people. i can't wait...