September 2010

Today our after school group is quiet. We make popcorn and have snack and talk about numbers. We talk about big numbers, like googleplex and infinity and then we talk about Pi. My six tells us there won’t be Choice time this week because it is only on Fridays and there won’t be school tomorrow. When I ask why he tells me that it is because the numbers end. He explains how the numbers end at 30 or 31 sometimes and this month it is thirty and then there aren’t any more numbers. I explain that the new month will just start and so there will be school. He is skeptical, wonders if there shouldn’t be a space first, like there usually is..interesting kids..

Now he is drawing a picture with a new pencil he has learned to sharpen over the trash rather than over the dining room table, a present from his new first grade teacher. Nearby two kindergarteners are making mosaic designs with small color cube magnets on black metal surfaces. The treehouse king is one of them and he is still wondering about the work bench, which I keep promising to put on the porch so he can learn to work with tools and wood. He also asks if we can make more plans for the treehouse. I have already shared that one of our day care grandfathers came today to measure and will soon price the wood, that progress is happening for real.

I also offer to take down the tree house plans on the computer. He wonders if I will print them out and when I say I will he agrees to the plan, begins to build his mosaic, which earlier he said he didn’t want to do. Now he says “Look at my Eiffel Tower. Do you know why I made it up here? So people won’t bonk their heads on the clouds.” He begins taking his design apart. “I’m going to make another Eiffel Tower. I know just how to do it. Actually, I’m going to make a mouse trap. I’m really good at it. My mousetrap is going to be awesome…Do you have any blocks here?”

“Oh, my gosh, do I ever.”

“Yes, she does. In the playroom.”

“Are we allowed to use them?”


“Actually, I’m better at making mouse traps with these things..”

“What color should the cheese be?”

“Probably that yellow” and the six points, taking a break from his drawing.

“I need more dark blues.” says the other kindergartener. “Do you have any dark blues I can use? No, but you have the other blues.”

“I have dark green.”

“Do you like what I’m making?


“The mouse is blue. Do you know how the mouse trap works? First, he’s walking, he’s walking, he’s walking, he’s walking towards the cheese. This piece, this piece, this piece, then boom..The house falls down.”

“Maria, do you have any stuff that we could build with? Cause I want to make mouse traps all over the place.”

“Lots. What do you want to use?”

And the other k shares, “Blocks, legos, lots of stuff.”

“Blocks” he says firmly, going off to the back room and shutting the door.

I love blocks..yeah.

Last night I showed up late to the first Choice Council Meeting of the year. I felt lonesome for old friends who were gone, disoriented in a sea of change, tired as a working mom who had been on the go all day could be, but ready to see what next, what next, what next.

Meeting was open and honest and real. Best of Choice, that. New principal was there, answered questions, contributed to the conversation, expressed hope about a vision going forward.

Some teachers were there, mostly the old faithfuls, but also a few of the many new faces. Some of the old folks were there, co-chairs women I worked with in my time in Choice leadership, doing their best to move along to the next phase of whatever is coming, combining of two programs at the Healey. Some new folks were there, too. Many were brave and intelligent, spoke up and said their bit. I like that.

Near the end we talked about the budget, about opening Choice Council Meetings to all the parents in the school. Not easy, those discussions. Lots of unknowns, potential to be misunderstood, hurtful, hard to say good-bye to the old thing, when, as always, you don’t know what’s coming.

Afterwards, one mom, who I have known and who has been kind to me the last four years our kids have been in school together, came up to me, as many have this year, and said she was glad I had come, had wondered if I was still around, if we had left the school. That kindness alone made it worth it for me to show up.

I miss it, though, that Choice Council scene. Miss the privilege of being in teacher meetings as a parent leader, of leading a process of planning and change, or trying to, of figuring out a future for a program that felt very much like the families had a say. I’ll never forget the summer and late night meetings sitting around a table trying to figure out what we believed, what we wanted to fight for, what we could do to make it real. Others may be doing that now. I don’t really know. Not me. I show up at meetings every so often. Raise my hand in the air and hop around like a kid in her seat trying to get her teacher’s attention, wanting to give my opinion (answer), hoping to be heard. Feel like the keeper of history sometimes, reminding the group of things like the Ad Hoc document, of how budgets and meetings worked in the past, trying to reintroduce the idea of Choice time or the value of play. Not sure anyone hears that last part. Seems like a pipe dream now, to have water tables and clay and blocks and free time for children to do as they please, even the idea of one fifteen minute recess a day in an Extended Learning Time school felt like a big accomplishment to the new principal, when I questioned our advocating for a longer day, knowing that in the past longer recesses and lunch weren’t on the table.

But, onward we go, my kid included. Today, from 4 to 6, there will be interviews with two groups of potential consultants to help with the transitions. One is the Center for Collaborative Education, which I tried to get on board several years ago, with no luck..glad they are in the mix now. Would like to hear what they have to say, and to hear from the group I have never heard of til now, Teach something or other. But of course, I am working til 5 or later, will be able to make the tail end of the interviews and presentations. Do want to go, though, want to have faith and hope. Haven’t given up yet. Do miss my comrades and friends very, very much. Place is just not the same. And if I am forced to have my after school kids picked up by a transportation service, instead of picking them up myself each day, I will become even more disconnected, no playground vibe or talks with kids or parents or teachers to clue me in to what’s happening in my kid’s school. Going to miss that very much.

The issue of the van needing to become a class 7-D vehicle and me needing to get a class 7-D license, and turn my personal vehicle into a modified school bus, or paying the transportation service 8,000 per year to bring the kids from school to after school has been weighing me down…

The licensing regulations changed and I am getting caught up as my license is up for renewal next month..lots of things changed…all add-ons, no subtractions that I can see, except that we will no longer be subject to surprise visits every year. Seems that was too overwhelming for the licensors, who are no doubt overworked and have a very large case load..

I’ve been working to figure out how to comply with this change in regulation. It really doesn’t affect other providers in the area, as Somerville is the only place I know without school buses, which would otherwise likely drop kids off right at my door for free (or for a fee that parents would have been charged by the district along with all families needing to use school buses to get their kids from home to school and back again.) No other Somerville family child care providers I know take children for after school care.

Seems to me providing family child care to school age children after school has too many advantages for me to give it up. So, with that feeling cemented in mind, I am working hard to figure out this latest challenge. I’m gathering information and insight by talking to day care families, friends, colleagues, insurance agents, researching online and even talking with the carpool kids and looking at all the vans with school bus signs we could spot on our drive to Framingham.

Once I’ve gathered all the data I can manage, I’ll put some of it in my spreadsheet budget and see what I can see..hopefully we’ll come up with a plan that works for families and for me. I can’t figure out a way to stop doing after school care and to continue to pay my bills, or to feel good about the decision, so it seems I need to keep working to figure this one out. As long as I’m a licensed family day care provider, it will always be my job to adapt to the regulations. A long time ago, I imagined that if I went to meetings, wrote letters, made phone calls, and organized with other providers, I could influence the regulations and make them more reasonable. Sometimes I think this works. Somehow, in the case of transportation, I missed out on that phase of the battle. Wish me luck in fighting phase two, implementation.

Feeling close to tears after my morning of working on the transportation issue…taking short breaks to keep my spirits up, making bread for snack, read a few pages of my new book, Lit by Mary Karr, listening to a Genius mix on my itunes, reading my facebook page.

Bad news is my auto insurer won’t carry me if I carry working on investigating Commercial coverage, can’t be good…

Good news is Bob Dylan and Tracy Chapman and Kate Wolf and Paul Simon and Greg Brown all get it, as did Henry David Thoreau..not alone in the world or in the universe or in history in trying to do something that feels too hard, in finding my way, in trying to make a dream that sometimes feels too much of reality, sometimes feels like a castle in the sky..

Have some inspiration with your lunch or your afternoon coffee. Greg Brown made me cry and H.D. Thoreau made me smile. Good as it gets on a rainy day full of licensing chores and housecleaning in an empty house on my own..before picking up kids from school for after school and high hopes of more work on the treehouse or just imaginary play in the back room or in the yard.

Greg Brown, Worrisome Years on ilike

And H.D. Thoreau, shared from Facebook. Where would I be without the internet? Down in the dumps:)

Do not worry
if you have built your castles in the air.
They are where they should be.
Now put the foundations under them..
Henry David Thoreau

For now, though still working on those castles in the air, and their foundations, getting through the worrisome years, with a little help from my friends…all stolen material, this life, or feels that way some times.

I made part 1 private because I felt self-conscious as a complainer. This time I am going to try to stay balanced and put the issues out there without naming names or whining more than is absolutely necessary…

Rage number one: I am spending three days of the three weeks before the licensing visit out of the day care to do chores and paperwork to prepare for the visit. These are just three mornings of many days I and my co-teachers will spend outside of our time with children working to do all it takes to keep our family day care in compliance. Alice is working on repairing our climber with her husband David. I bought the climber twelve or so years ago and thought I could always get replacement parts for this high end equipment from a reputable company that advertised having provided a climber for the White House lawn. Sadly, when I called this spring to get a new platform, I discovered the company has been out of business three years. So, Alice and David will improvise to built a new platform from marine plywood, which we hope will last another decade.

Meanwhile, Liana and I are going over piles and piles of records with a fine tooth comb. Twenty five kids enrolled during the school year alone, another five or ten enrolled for school vacations, and our file boxes on the bureau in the day care kitchen are bursting. Then there are the caregiver files, with reams of paper in professional development certificates, medical statements, cpr and first aid certificates, proof or registering with the state, licenses, and on and on. All the new regulations this winter have added layer upon layer of recordkeeping to our already full family day care lives, so a big part of this renewal visit is adapting to new ways, new permissions, new trainings, new routines (toothbrushing), new ways of doing things.

The big challenge in my day was sorting out the new transportation requirements for family day care providers who drop off or pick up children from school. That’s me. In Somerville there are no buses. I started doing after school care when my son who is now nearly sixteen was a kindergartener. Otherwise, I couldn’t have picked him up at school and he would have come home to me and a house full of younger kids. For the last ten years, I’ve had various transportation arrangements. Originally, I only cared for children of friends, and all the parents took turns driving. Then over time, I expanded the pool of children doing after school. Once I started taking half day kids in the morning to make space for after school kids in the afternoon, the dye was cast. Now I have five after school kids most days and five napping kids. I pick up some at the Healey School and this week made an arrangment to pick up another at the Brown School. I give kids hugs and ask them about their days and talk to their teachers and other parents at pickup each day. Most years we played on the playground for a good chunk of time after school. This year we haven’t, in part because three of our after school kids left the Choice Program for other schools and I’ve replaced them with other kids, not all from the Healey, and we need to get home to meet those kids..

But now, the new regulations require me to have a class 7D license and vehicle, just like a school or group care or school age child care program, if I want to pick kids up from school. Basically, I would have to turn my van into a school bus, complete with PUPIL license plates, SCHOOL BUS signs affixed to the front and back of my roof, a door open signal, a fire extinguisher bolted into the front near the driver, and a log I would need to check each time I drove to school showing I had checked about thirty things, including the fluids in various things and the air in the tires. Whoa! That doesn’t even hint at how much it would all cost, the retrofitting of my 2003 Honda Odyssey with School Bus parts, the additional time and fees to get a new drivers license and registration and license plates, the higher fees for insurance, the time it would take to do all that. And forget about the humiliation of driving myself and my family around in a school bus. For those of you who have watched Arrested Development, I would feel about as normal driving my school bus van around town in my personal life as they felt driving around in the stair truck.

Bad news is I did my homework on alternatives and a van service will cost fifty bucks a day, split between four or six kids, that’s big bucks. Over a ten month school year, that comes to over 8,000 dollars to get kids home from school. Hardly seems fair or right, but how do I argue? Who will pay? Which of us has 8,000 dollars to spare. What does that expense really gain?  A stranger will drive the kids home. They won’t be able to play on the playground. I won’t be able to talk to the teachers or the other parents or caregivers. We won’t decompress together with CD’s and talk I overhear and learn so much from on the way home. More institutionalization of children, more money to more people for things we should be able to do ourselves, but are no longer allowed to do..I am mad, frustrated, worried about the future of our world and our children when this sort of solution is the best we can do..

And then at school, the news I did get, because I was there at pickup and couldn’t be there this morning for the parent coffee, because I was home doing licensing chores, I heard about the new “instructional time” agenda, which really means our kids are being bombarded with math and reading, missing out on everything else, including read alouds, singing, science, social studies, play, projects, recess, snack, conversation, all mandated subjects to be tested take precendence over all teacher and student initiated needs and desires. TOO MUCH CONTROL FROM ABOVE> WHAT CAN WE DO???

Which brings me to some possibilities. I left school feeling like I couldn’t go back, at least not to trying to make a difference within the system. Time for a picket sign or a revolution. On my facebook page and Sudbury listserv, there was discussion of teachers organizing rather than griping, and of a new charter application in Oregon for a Sudbury model school..Here are some links..I needed some hope in my days. Hope right now for me is that things have gotten so out of control people won’t be able to help fighting back to change things.. but I don’t know how much is reversible and how long it will take and how long the collective memory and will can sustain a memory of the time before the standards movement took over.

Don’t even get me started on my kid’s MCAS scores, which were the finale to last night’s School Open House…UGH!!

To make some difference:

Go see The Race to Nowhere, in theaters now or next week, and August to June, when it comes out soon.

Read a good article on alternative assessment ideas:

Ways to Measure Student Learning
Readers respond to an Op-Ed about the limitations of standardized testing.

feel inspired to imagine a different way:

Keep me away from
the wisdom which does not cry,
the philosophy which does not laugh
and the greatness which
does not bow before children. Khalil Gibran

Sign up to be a voice for change:

Stop Griping, Start Organizing Teacher RoundTable Survey

Time to band together with hope and vision and fight the power. Our kids deserve better.

More good news on the treehouse. Today at lunch I put a bucket of books out for the kids to look at while I made lunch. My three asked if she could look at a book in the bucket. Turns out it was a lovely treehouse book her own mother had shared with the day care. She looked at it along with several other day care kids. When her grandfather arrived to pick her up, he wondered about the tree house project, took a look at what was there, and asked for a drawing to show what we were hoping to make. The kids have been busy making those upstairs. Yesterday my six made such a fancy drawing that when the kids saw it today after school (we have a sketchbook where we are collecting the kids’ ideas) she said, “Whoa! Our yard is not that big!” The drawing had a draw bridge, turrets, plastic torches, and was filled in and surrounded in living color.

Today the after school kids came in talking tree house and spent a long while looking at the tree house book. My nine said, “These are too fancy. We can’t make these!”

My six, who is the tree house king, said, “We can use the pictures to get ideas, though.”

After the nines had left to get more playmobil from my daughter’s daddy’s house, the six sat on the kitchen floor pouring over the treehouse book. “Do you think we could ever make this one?” he wondered, gazing longingly at a small treehouse poised amidst the blossoms of a cherry tree, and on the facing page, in the same tree in the middle of a snowy field.

“How about you mark the pages with pictures you especially like with pieces of paper?” I suggest.

“Ok, and I’ll put smiley faces on the pages with the really good ones.” The book is now full of page markers. The tree houses there are lovely. I get a dose of reality, when I glance at a page which talks about getting building departments to approve tree house projects. I am hoping ours will be so small no one will mind, but I wonder if I am naive.

Also, I got an e-mail from the twelve who was here on Tuesday offering to stop by today to work again on demolition. My adult friend, who has offered help with construction, plans to come and meet with me and the kids on Monday after school. Another mom has offered some good weather proof wood. Alice thinks she may have some roofing shingles. My daughter plans to paint the inside walls. She also says she will be spending a lot more time in the yard when we have our treehouse.

Something about a treehouse brings out the imagination in all of us. Even if we end up with a slightly modified version of our current treehouse platform, with walls and a roof and windows and a door and a ladder safe enough to be used by the day care and after school kids, in a design safe enough that our licensor will accept it, I bet the kids will be pretty happy. If, however, we can add some of the fantasy elements in the kids’ drawings (a zipline from the upstairs porch for sending things back and forth, pulleys with buckets, a lower floor made into a fort, possibly with sail cloth which could be taken off in winter when we use the hill below for sleds, or a set of plastic lanterns or a ladder which can be raised and lowered), we’ll be pulling off something good.

For me the fantasy is making it happen with kids and adult volunteers and teachers working together to improve the yard of our family day care home, to work with tools and wood, to make something we can all really use. How cool is that?

If you’re curious about the treehouse book we love so much, see if you can find it in your local library or bookstore or online:

The Treehouse Book by Peter and Judy Nelson with David Larkin

The Treehouse Book

A two is telling a joke about a one. The two, who has just begun to talk finds the one’s way of saying my name a bit funny. He repeats it to the fours, whose favor he has been currying throughout the day, “He says, Marya, Marya.” the two says to the fours.

“We’re teenagers so we’re not even going to laugh,” says one four to the other, who proceeds to whisper rules for the teenager game into her friend’s breakfast ear.

Later as we walk home from the park, passing through the high school parking lot, the fours again talk about being teenagers. “Let’s dress up like teenagers,” they conspire.

“Hey, let’s be teenagers for Halloween.”

“I was going to be a princess,” says one to the other.

“I was going to be a kitty. I can be the pet to the princess.”

“And R– can be the pet froggy to the princess!”


And the princess, kitty, froggy theme drowns out the teenager theme. Fours. Gotta love ’em.

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