My Convertible Life

Friday, February 6, 2015

How do you grade a school? See for yourself.

Yesterday morning, a friend texted me following a tour of our assigned middle school. Our oldest kids are slated to go there after next school year -- she's planning ahead, visiting magnet schools as well as our base school.

Her text: "VERY impressed!"

After her visit, my friend happily talked about "the spirit" of the school and how the students were "so proud and so excited." When's the last time you saw middle schoolers excited about school? That sense of community, combined with a growing engineering program, connections with NC State and enthusiastic teachers is what won her over.

This morning, the newspaper ran a full-page listing of the letter grades assigned yesterday to all public schools in North Carolina for the first time. According to that report, this same school is a D.

So who's right?

I'm betting on the assessment made after actually going to the school, hearing from the students and talking to the teachers. That barely passing grade from the state is calculated using only last year's scores on end-of-grade reading and math tests (80%) and a small measure of student academic growth (20%) -- it doesn't come close to capturing the full picture of what students and teachers are accomplishing in the school, where more than half the population lives in poverty.

In a statement Thursday about the grades, Senator Pro Tem Phil Berger (R) basically attacked anyone questioning the validity of the labels. "We’re troubled by early knee-jerk reactions that appear to condemn poor children to automatic failure," Berger said. "And we reject the premise that high poverty schools are incapable of excelling, since today’s report shows numerous examples that are proving that myth wrong. We must give these grades a chance to work so we can learn from them and improve outcomes for our children.” (WRAL)

Berger seems to think that it's the grades that will change the schools, not leadership development, instructional supports or professional salaries for teachers. Despite Berger's allegation, no one believes that "high poverty schools are incapable" -- but decades of research and observation tell us that poverty creates challenges and obstacles to effective teaching and learning that have to be overcome. Slapping a letter grade on a school won't change that.

Rep. Craig Horn (R), chairman of the House K-12 education committee, acknowledges that the formula might need to be adjusted, but says the letter grades are easy for parents to understand. "At least A, B, C, D and F, people have a much more definitive idea of how that school is performing and will make judgments accordingly," Horn said (WRAL).

It's exactly those "judgements" that scare me.

When parents see a D or F assigned to a school, it will be easy to remove that school from the consideration set. But when parents make decisions about whether or not to send their children to a certain school based only on that letter grade, they could be missing out on a great school. That decision can quickly turn into a vicious cycle for the school, where reputation becomes reality as more parents with the means to make different choices opt out of the school.

That's not what I want for any school -- but especially not for the school my son is likely to attend in another year, a school that has worked hard to become a popular choice after spending years rumored as a school to avoid.

Even Republican Senator Jerry Tillman, sponsor of the original bill calling for performance grades, predicted that the grades "may fall along demographic lines." Then the senator, also a former public school administrator, added this surprising statement: "If that's the case, I will be pushing to see some changes. I'd rather be in a D school making great growth than in an A school where growth is stagnant. I know if these kids are growing, there has to be good teaching and good leadership for that to be occurring." (The N&O)

I don't expect to see changes to the law any time soon -- Sen. Tillman acknowledged as much, and Sen. Berger is far too pleased with the law as it stands.

What I hope, though, is that parents and community members won't judge schools by this law. I hope that they will take the time to walk into these schools and judge for themselves. Look for the good teaching and good leadership that Sen. Tillman referenced. Get a sense of the community in the school, watch how students interact with each other and with their teachers.

The feeling you have inside the school will tell you far more than any letter grade -- regardless of what that letter happens to be.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

5 Places to Shop Small Business Saturday in Raleigh

I don't do Black Friday. Fighting my way through crowded stores filled with frantic bargain hunters does not put me in a holiday spirit.

That's among the reasons why I love Small Business Saturday -- I'd rather rest on Friday and only visit smaller, locally owned stores on Saturday. I also love the idea of supporting stores in my community, including one where I get greeted by name when I walk in.

Raleigh has lots of fantastic locally-owned small businesses. With a plethora of shopping areas outside the big malls -- like Seaboard Station, Glenwood South, Cameron Village, North Hills, City Market and other downtown spots -- there's no shortage of options. But in case you need help getting started, here's my pre-Friday's Five:
  1. Stone's Education & Toys: I've already shared my kids' lists of favorites from this beautiful store. Go here for toys, book, school supplies and lots of fun, plus a great space with a great staff.
  2. Quail Ridge Books & Music: One of the last, great independent book sellers, you just can't go wrong here. Books for everyone on your list, plus CDs, calendars, tote bags, note cards and other bits, with a knowledgeable, friendly staff.
  3. Vestique: I discovered this shop last week thanks to my Instagram feed (because I'm not young and hip enough to have known about it sooner) and spied exactly the sweater I'd been looking for in their online store. I'm pretty sure the salesperson who advised me was Haley Dunphey, and she was super helpful. Plus, their prices are more reasonable than the typical fashion trend boutique. 
  4. Papa Spud's or The Produce Box: You might not think of your local CSA for holiday gift buying. But in addition to buying a membership for someone (or yourself), you can also use your CSA to get delicious locally-grown and locally-made treats. Jams, jellies, sauces and mixes make tasty stocking stuffers, or bring a prepared pie for your holiday hostess. I've written about The Produce Box before, but recently got to meet the fine folks from Papa Spud's -- use this link for a $15 off deal. 
  5. DECO Raleigh: If you can't find something you want at DECO, then you're just not paying attention. Every time I go in, I want to buy at least 47 different things -- jewelry, tshirts, pillows, prints, napkins, baby books, glasses, soaps, ornaments, you name it -- and loads of it made by local artists and designers. Be sure to look for items from my friends at Posy!
Can't get to Raleigh for your holiday shopping? All of the above (except for #4) have online stores, so you're not left out of the fun.

As a side note, if you have an American Express card, be sure to register it before you shop on Saturday to get a $10 credit at participating stores. Deco and QRB are on this year's list.

Leave a comment below and share your favorite local stores.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Top 5 (or 20) Holiday Gifts for Kids

Last week I took the kids with me to wander around Stone's Education & Toys store -- it's a beautiful, environmentally-friendly, sunlit space at the border of Raleigh and Cary near I-40. I wanted to get an idea of what they'd like for Christmas beyond their usual requests of LEGOs and an American Girl doll. There's nothing wrong with either of those -- it's just that we already have 8,473,922 plastic bricks and I simply can't bring myself to spend that much money on a doll that will wind up shoved in a closet.

While in the store, I could barely keep up trying to follow the kids around to get their recommendations. Amazingly Junius only glanced at the LEGOs and Pippi didn't even notice the Frozen display at the entrance. They were too busy checking out everything from teacher-supply-sized packs of writing paper to sample sets of magnetic building toys.

Not surprisingly, they wanted one of everything.

When it comes to making Christmas wish lists, it turns out I'm no better than my kids at keeping it short. Particularly when I've spent an hour (or two, who's counting?) at Stone's, it's nearly impossible to pick just few favorites. But in case you're looking for gift ideas for elementary-school-aged kids, I'm sharing my top five lists in four different categories. (Yes, I realize that's actually 20 items. Shhhhhh...)

For the record, all prices listed are rounded to the nearest penny to make them easier to read.

Junius's Top 5

Junius is 9 and in 4th grade. His room is littered with the aforementioned LEGOs, Snap Circuits, robot parts, biographies and hockey gear. 
  • Snap Circuits Motion or Snap Circuits Light ($80 each, or $35 for the starter set of Snap Circuits Jr) -- Just look how excited he is in this photo! But seriously, he has the Snap Circuits Jr set plus an add-on set and he can't get enough. 
  • Youth Football Goal Post Set ($40) -- I'm envisioning Charlie Brown, but all he sees is his future NFL career. Either way, he's outside burning energy.
  • MicroPro Microscope Set ($40) -- When I asked him why he wanted a microscope, he replied, "So I can study all the things in my room and see what they're really made of." I'm wondering if he'll start with the funk growing in his hockey bag.
  • Crystal Growing Experimental Kit ($20) -- He got a taste (not literally) of this project at science camp during the summer and he loved it. 
  • Ultimate Dino Dig ($16) -- After a few science museum visits, I think he fancies himself an archaeologist. This seems cheaper and less messy than digging up the back yard looking for fossils.

Pippi's Top 5

Pippi is 6 (and-a-half) and in 1st grade. Her bedroom walls are covered in her artwork while the floor is strewn with clothes, stuffed animals, books and still more LEGOs.
  • Color a Dog House ($35 - link is to Color a House, but they have the dog house in the store) -- That face says "Mommy, I know you won't get me a puppy, but will you please love me enough to get me a cardboard dog and doghouse that I can color?" I don't know how she'll fit it in her room, but at least it won't shed or pee on the carpet.
  • Young Artist Essentials Gift Set ($50) -- She's almost 7, so I think she's finally ready to ditch all the broken crayons and nubby pencils for something nicer. 
  • PlushCraft Pillows ($18 each) -- She wants the fox, of course. Another mom who happened to be in the store commented that her daughter had made one of the pillows and absolutely loved it -- it's become their favorite birthday gift for friends this year.
  • Fuzzy Wuzzy Knitting ($25) -- She's fascinated by the scarf that Nanna has been knitting during her visits. Maybe this way they can knit together without Pippi trying to take over Nanna's needles. 
  • Goldie Blox and The Movie Machine ($30) or Goldie Blox and The Builder's Survival Kit ($60) -- She got the first Goldie Blox set last year after the Rube Goldberg video won me over. She still plays with it some, but she needs more parts to try out new ideas. 

Shared Top 5

I'm a big fan of giving Christmas gifts that lead to fun family time. And by that I mean things that will entertain my kids at the same time so that I can actually sit down for a few minutes. These are the items that both kids wanted -- and all are things they could play with together (although we'd have to get two stunt cars to reduce whining).
  • Sands Alive! Sunken Castle Discovery ($40) -- Craziest feeling stuff you'll ever play with and shockingly not messy.
  • Turbo Twister RC Stunt Car ($28) -- Finally a remote control car that can break dance and doesn't get stuck on its back.
  • Doink-it Darts ($30) -- Magnetic dart board, so no sharp ends to poke an eye out with.
  • Squeeze Popper and Sticky Target ($20) -- Silly, competitive fun and the most satisfying popping sound ever.
  • Roller Racers or the EzyRoller ($100) -- Could not get them off the test racers they were driving all over the store.

Stocking Stuffer Top 5

How do you get small gifts for friends or stocking stuffers for the kids that don't involve a) candy or b) crap that you'll just want to throw away? Try these gifts.
  • MadLibs, coloring books and "Who Was" series -- Fun for days, alone or together.
  • Tapeffiti Caddy Set ($14) -- Last year we gave Pippi a roll of scotch tape and it was almost her favorite gift. Colorful tape is almost too much awesome to bear.
  • Toob ($.60-.90 per figurine) -- Anything you can think of in a tiny figurine, from the Arc de Triomphe to hippos.
  • Thinking Putty ($11) -- Impossible to put down.
  • Tornado Tube ($2.50) -- Junius recognized this from school and pronounced it "very cool."

Okay, I'm going to stop now. Back away slowly from the wish list. But if you're heading over to Stone's, be sure to pick up their catalog and get the coupon on the back -- $10 off $50 purchase or $20 off $100 purchase through November. 

Full Disclosure: I was invited to visit Stone's to write a post about my top 5 or 10 Christmas gifts. (Yes, again, I know there are 20 here. Shhhhh.) They gave me a catalog, a $50 gift card and the same lovely customer service they offer to everyone. They did not attempt to sway me or my crazy children into selecting certain toys or influence the writing of this post.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


My nephew Andrew died last week.

That's not a sentence I ever expected to write.

When I was maybe 13, a boy whose family went to my church was killed in a freak bicycle accident. I think we was probably 10 years old or so. And I remember my father being so sad, even though we didn't know the boy very well.

At the time, I didn't fully appreciate what my dad told me: "When you're an adult, you expect that at some point your parents will die. And you know that there's a chance your spouse will pass before you do. But you never, ever expect to have to bury your child."

Andrew was 22 years old and in graduate school studying entomology -- an adult by most standards, but still his parents' child. My mind will not allow me to comprehend the heartbreak that is bringing them to their knees.

He was 9 years old when I married his uncle and became his aunt. We always lived in different states, so we mostly saw each other at weddings and biennial Thanksgivings. I'm sorry to say I didn't know him well.

But the news of his death -- so sudden, so unbelievable -- seems impossible to process. As a parent, I now understand what my father meant all those years ago. When any parent loses a child, all parents join in their grief.

So I've been reading the tiny, beautiful, honest and sometimes funny eulogies left by his friends on his Facebook page, getting to know bits and pieces of a life well-lived. I've been saying steady prayers for Andrew's parents, brother and grandparents, along with the rest of the family. And I've been squeezing my own children a little tighter, a little longer to remind myself of what a gift I have in them.

I think my sister-in-law, another of Andrew's aunts, probably said it best, so I'll leave you with her words shared on his page:
"Andrew touched the lives of so many people through his love, friendship, words and actions. You, in turn, have helped make the world a better place because of his influence on you. At the risk of sounding corny, go and do a good deed for someone. Take a hike or walk outside. Look at the roly polys and the ants. If you're so inclined, share a beer with a friend. Life is too short. Let someone know that they have made a difference in your life."


Monday, August 25, 2014

Sampling Some Super Sunscreen

We don't leave for the beach until Saturday, but I've already started mentally packing. Books, towels, chairs, swimsuit, sun hat, umbrella, gin, tonic, limes. What else could we need?

Sunscreen, of course.

If you're a regular Convertible Lifer, you know that sunscreen is serious business around here. After losing chunks of my forehead, part of my back and countless little spots here and there, I don't mess around with keeping my skin protected -- but I also still really like being in the sun.

So when I got an email earlier this summer from a company offering to send me a sample of their new sunscreen in exchange for a blog review, I was intrigued. SmartShield claims to be "serious sun protection" -- sounded like a good fit, but wouldn't it have to be sticky, smelly and thick to really be serious?

For the past two months, I've been wearing SmartShield's Rehydrating Face Cream with SPF 45 almost every day. Billed as "a luxury face cream with a unique formula for sports enthusiasts and professionals," it is the best everyday sunscreen I've found for my face. It's rare to find an everyday sunscreen with an SPF as high as 45 -- and this one isn't sticky, smelly or thick. In fact, it made my skin feel really soft and lovely, which was a total surprise. Make-up goes on easily over top and doesn't slide off halfway through the day because the sunscreen is oil-free. But even more importantly, it works -- even when I found myself in a sunny seat at the baseball game with no hat on (shhh, don't tell my dermatologist!), I didn't get sunburned.

In short, it's great.

Now you'll have to take my word for it that this is an honest review and in no way tainted by the free sample. If I were just sucking up to SmartShield, I probably would have written this review two months ago when they first sent me the sample, so maybe that helps with my credibility (or maybe it just shows that I've missed nearly every deadline all summer). And I will add that there are a few items on the ingredient list that might not appeal to those who are cautious, close-readers of labels, but I have to balance that with finding a product that works well.

Actually, I'm hoping they'll send me some of their other sunscreens, lip balm, insect repellent and the self-tanner to try out -- but I'm probably just going to have to buy them like everyone else.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

J-Fest 2014: The Last Single Digit Year

Dear Junius --

Technically it's still your birth month for a couple more hours, so I'm going to just call this a victory. If you're reading this years later and you don't remember, I promise we didn't miss your actual 9th birthday -- I just missed writing about you on the day, that's all.

When you were younger, I remember thinking that I'd have so much more time to write once you and your sister were older and in school. That's just one item on a long list of things I've been wrong about when it comes to parenting.

I'd like to claim that the reason I haven't written a whole series of posts about you and your birthday this month is because I've been so busy spending time with you and treasuring the fantastic little man that you're becoming. But the truth is that I've been overwhelmed doing pretty much the opposite of that -- ignoring you in order to squeeze in more than my scheduled hours at work and then collapsing on the couch when we are finally home together again.

It hasn't been the July I was hoping for.

We are both first borns, you and I. Not just any old first borns either -- we are textbook cases. We want everything to be fair and everyone to love us. We want the whole world to be happy and we want at least partial credit for making it that way. We want to know the plan in advance. And sometimes we just want to be home where we can control the little space in our own rooms because everywhere else is too crazy. I watch you crumble sometimes as you wrestle with reality and I ache for you. It is all painfully familiar.

But there are some things you've already figured out that took me much longer to discover. Even when you'd rather stay safe at home, you put on a brave face and walk into spaces where you know no one in hopes that it might be worthwhile. You volunteer to be the first to fight Darth Vader, or skate onto center ice and fist bump NHL players before the national anthem. You're developing a tough side that you can hold together for at least a few minutes. You attract friends among strangers easily. It is all quite impressive.

This crazy July, in between the billable hours, I have managed to teach you a few things that seemed worth passing on. You're now hooked on solitaire, a perfect game for the kid who likes rules and fairness. You've discovered the power of the pointy elbow, that family trait useful for boxing out and pushing through. You can fry an egg and cook chicken nuggets, which gets you two of your favorite meals. And you've learned to keep a book in your bag at all times, just in case you've got 15 minutes to spend reading while you wait.

I am hopeful that we will find times to slow down and appreciate your being 9 this year. Your next birthday brings double-digits and I don't expect I'll handle it well.

But I worry that life is going to get in my way, so I'm asking for your help. Maybe now and then you could remind me to say yes when you ask me to play horse or Monopoly. Maybe sometimes you could let me skip Monopoly and play solitaire at the kitchen counter while I make dinner. And maybe some days you'll just tuck in beside me on the couch when that's all I've got left.

I love you, my firstborn. Thanks for being patient with me.
- Mommy

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Friend In Deed

Two weeks ago, a dear friend of mine sent me an early morning email that was exactly what I needed. She's one of those friends who has known me long enough to love me anyway, despite the fact that I almost never call and rarely visit. We've been roommates in more than one country, seen each other through boyfriends who turned out not to be husbands, stood together at weddings and a funeral. 

I don't know what I did to deserve her, but I'm so very grateful. In fact, I could never have earned all the wonderful friends that I have -- and thank goodness we don't have to earn them. This particular message was too beautiful to leave in my inbox, so I'm sharing it here with you (names changed to protect her boys). May you all have a friend (or two or twenty) who can show you in small ways that she loves you. 


Some days you just need someone else to make your coffee. Or tea. Or, Jonah's recommendation, chocolate milk.

I must feel that way often. At least, Starbucks has been keeping track because, to my surprise (though perhaps not my husband's), they sent me a gold card which meant I had visited their fine establishments 30 times last year. I don't know whether to be boast or cringe about my new status. Regardless, there were 30 days last year when I just needed someone else to make my coffee.

Two times had to do with rites of passage. Right after I dropped Cam off to big kid school because the bricks I placed on his head didn't stop him from growing, I drove myself to Starbucks and stood in line behind a mom and dad who had just undergone the very same knife-to-heart ritual. That day called for a Venti, with extra caramel and yes please some whipped cream on top and why don't you stock alcohol here?

Weeks ago, I stood in that same line -- where they now know my name and my usual -- just minutes before picking him up for summer vacation. Not my usual, but it was a Venti day again, somewhat in celebration that Cam and I would be back together for the summer. But mostly because I needed that big of a cup to soothe my insides drained raw from a year of missing him. It was a "Whew, I can't believe I made it. I'll have a Venti."

During these 30 visits over the last year, Jonah became well acquainted with the love of someone else making mama's coffee. The benefit to him was a more aware and relaxed mama. As I market the deal
to my husband, it's cheaper than therapy. And sometimes at these visits, on the whims of mama, Jonah would score a milk, usually vanilla but once in a while, chocolate.

Even if all mama gets is a straight coffee, Jonah likes to be hoisted up in a spot right beside the sugar-in-the-raw cubby where he can peer behind the counter and "watch the magic happen." His word choice has won him many barista friends. Also a dead giveaway that mama saved on therapy 30 times in the last year.

Well today, with your dad having his procedure, I thought you just might need someone else to make your coffee. Or tea. Or I won't tell if you get chocolate milk. I hope it will soothe your insides and let
you know that you all are loved. This Venti's on me*; after all, I need to keep going to maintain my gold card status.

* Starbucks e-card will be coming to your inbox.


That afternoon, while my kids were at camp, I left work early and headed for Starbucks. I'm not a coffee girl, so I seriously considered Jonah's chocolate milk recommendation before opting for a fruit smoothie. Dropping into a sunny seat, I savored the sweetness of a rare moment alone to say a quiet prayer for my dad (who is fine, thanks for asking) and one for my friend (who is far too good to me).