My Convertible Life

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Back-to-school is awesome

In about 10 days, my kids will go back to school -- and just in case you run into them in the next week or so, please do me a favor.

Do not ask them if they are sad about it.

Seriously, until you pose that leading question, it never even occurs to them that they should be sad. In fact, they're actually quite excited about the start of a new school year -- just look at their happy faces on the first day last year.

Setting aside the hard reality that, for some kids, school is the one place where they feel safe, fed and cared for, let's remember the promise that comes with a fresh set of school supplies and a brand new year ahead.

Think about it -- they get to spend time with their friends learning interesting things from adults who care about them, they get to play sports and run around at recess, they get to read and draw and experiment and explore, they get to ask questions and investigate answers. What's not to love?

Now, will they be sad when the pool closes in a couple weeks? Yes. Will they wish they could have a few more lazy mornings watching last night's recorded Olympic events? Of course. Would they like an extra week's vacation at the beach? Obviously.

But they are not sad about going back to school.

When you ask them the question that way, it implies that school is boring or hard or generally not a nice place to be. When you ask that question, you put the idea in their head that perhaps they shouldn't be excited after all.

So instead, here's what you can ask them:
  • What good books did you read this summer?
  • What are you most excited about for the new school year?
  • What did you miss about school over the summer?
  • What advice do you have for someone starting school for the first time?
  • What was your favorite adventure or experience while you were out of school?
I promise those questions will do a lot more to encourage them -- and the answers to those questions will be much more entertaining for you.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

And now he's eleven

My breath catches in my chest each time I look at this photo, taken earlier this year.
That's my son, who I've seen nearly every one of the past 4,015 days, but there's something about this picture that just stops me in my tracks. I realize the tuxedo -- rented for his junior cotillion ball -- is cheating a little, but it's his face more than his ensemble that really does me in.

Seems like every year I've written a post on or (ahem) around his birthday simultaneously celebrating and bemoaning the way he just keeps on growing up. In many ways, this year is no different. He's older than he was, younger than he will be -- and growing faster every day.

Over the past year, he started going to the pool on his own, spent his first week at sleep-away camp, competed on the swim team, played more hockey, joined the Battle of the Books, learned the fox trot, took his first out-of-state school field trip, got his own email address, taught himself to make chocolate cupcakes from scratch, graduated from elementary school, went kayak-beach camping with his dad.

And in August he will start middle school, an event which seems both thrilling and terrifying -- at least to me.

There are so many things, both big and small, that I cannot protect him from. The world around us seems like it's going to hell in a hand basket -- so much fear, anger and ugliness that I cannot explain and feel powerless to stop.

Maybe that's part of what I love about this picture. In his sweet, handsome face, I see both the baby he was and the man he will be -- and in that, I see hope.

In this particular moment, I'm not even exactly sure what that means. He's still just a kid who forgets to put his breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, purposefully torments his sister for sport and has started having tween-age mood swings that threaten to undo me. But when he's not occasionally sulking in a corner for no apparent reason, he's a really nice guy with a creative mind, a big heart and a fierce sense of justice. That all seems like a good start.

Plus he looks great in a tux.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The truth about neighborhood schools

It's no surprise that respondents to a recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools survey say they want their kids to attend school close to home. Of the more than 27,000 people who completed the survey, 86 percent said that a school's proximity to home is very or extremely important.

As a parent, I get that.

From a purely practical sense, being able to get to my kids' school in about 10 minutes certainly simplifies my life -- particularly on the days that I'm dropping them off in the morning, then back for a lunchtime reading group, then back again in the afternoon to pick them up. And knowing that my children don't have to spend an extra hour on the bus to get home each day certainly makes them happier.

What's important to note, though, is that the question specifically asked about the value of "location/proximity to home." It did not ask about "neighborhood schools." This may sound like semantics, but it's an important distinction.

While the question is fine, how the answer gets translated causes apples-to-oranges problems. My house is exactly one mile from two different elementary schools, although technically neither one is in my neighborhood. But the idea of having a school that belongs to the neighborhood where you live -- an idea fed by continued use of the phrase "neighborhood school" by media, researchers, parents and politicians alike -- is one that parents often cling to.

The real truth is that "neighborhood schools" -- that Norman Rockwell vision of every child in a 12-block radius skipping down the sidewalk to attend school together -- don't really exist for most families anymore. Just within the few blocks closest to my house, the elementary-aged kids attend two charter schools, three private schools, three magnet schools and two base schools. Particularly as districts like Wake County offer more theme-based and magnet programs and with the cap lifted on the number of charter schools that can open across the state, parents have more choices than ever -- and they're taking advantage of those choices to find the right fit for their families.

As education innovators try to move away from outdated classroom approaches that aren't preparing students for today's world, why should we cling to this Rockwell imagery that supports old thinking?

Here are some other problems with the notion of "neighborhood schools"...

  • Neighborhoods tend to be economically isolated -- that's not really news, but it does impact school demographics. In recent years, the Charlotte area was named on the top 10 list of large metros where the wealthy are most geographically segregated and Raleigh isn't dramatically better. That means that pulling a school's population from within a specific neighborhood is likely to give you only a specific economic group. That tends to create a system of low-poverty schools and high-poverty schools.
  • If your high-poverty neighborhood creates a high-poverty school (those that serve more than 50 percent of students on free and reduced-price lunch), you're more likely to have higher teacher turnover rates, lower volunteer rates and lower academic scores (see here and here). In North Carolina's new letter grade system, schools' grades essentially became a proxy for poverty levels. Note that it's not a question about how successful low-income students can be -- it's an issue of how well a low-income school can function.
  • Researchers have documented that students’ exposure to other students who are different from themselves and the novel ideas and challenges that such exposure brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving. Creating diverse schools -- racially and socioeconomically integrated -- results in benefits for students as well as the communities they live in.
  • In the same CMS survey, more than 70 percent of respondents said they valued exposure to children from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Wanting proximity to home doesn't mean that respondents don't care about diversity. 

Now what?

Unfortunately, I don't have an easy answer, any more than I did six years ago when my son was in kindergarten or 20 years ago (gulp) when I was teaching in a predominantly black high school. But I do have a suggestion:

Stop complicating the matter by continuing to use the phrase "neighborhood schools" -- the term is loaded with more baggage than any kid can cram into a backpack and suggests an us vs. them divide that won't help any community.  (I'm looking at you, reporters, researchers, politicians and even parents.)

Instead, let's try the following:
  • Talk about student assignment plans that minimize travel time from home as much as is reasonable without isolating students into neighborhoods.
  • Allow educators to focus on how we can get the best academic and social learning experience for all students. 
  • Engage parents, businesses and communities in the conversation about how to ensure successful graduates -- check out this Wake County event on April 29.
  • Start building up our whole community rather than walling off into subdivisions.

Friday, March 25, 2016


In case you missed it, the Pope is on Instagram now. Pretty sure he's just copying my favorite @circuspadre, but it works. Today, for Good Friday, he posted a photo from outside the Colosseum in Rome with this caption: "Everything in these three days speaks of mercy."

If only the North Carolina General Assembly would speak with mercy this week.

Instead, their legislative voice spoke only of fear and discrimination as they went into special session on Wednesday and voted to (among other things) prohibit cities from passing nondiscrimination laws, exclude groups of citizens from protection against discrimination in North Carolina and ban transgendered people from using public bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity.

As I binged through Twitter and Facebook yesterday (see #WeAreNotThis), searching for some reasonable answer as to why my state legislature has its head up its collective ass, I found nothing to help -- although this clip from John Oliver at least made me feel less alone. Then I saw a post from my friend Mamie, who happens to be a Presbyterian minister and a generally fabulous person. Although she no longer lives in North Carolina, she's still very much a Tar Heel -- and she's still fighting for those of us who are here.

With her permission, I'm sharing her post with you here. It's a letter she's sending to the CEOs and consumer affairs divisions of NC-based companies who have not yet spoken out publicly against the ridiculous discriminatory laws passed this week.


As a Tarheel born and bred, I have been horrified to see the changes happening in my home state. Living now, as I do, away from North Carolina, I see the pity and concern people have for those who are “unfortunate” enough to live in a state wracked by hate and discrimination, evidenced publicly by the repugnant actions taken by the current legislature. Any doubt remaining as to their oppressive intentions were put to rest yesterday when House Bill 2 passed into law with the signature of Gov. McCrory. The law goes well beyond its name and supposed intent to monitor bathrooms around the state. It takes away local protections for LGBTQ citizens, veterans and pregnant women as well as flaunts the desire of our forebears to be free of discrimination because of religion.

You have no doubt seen the threat that Walt Disney Studios has made to leave the state of Georgia if it passes a bill not unlike HB 2, and my neighboring state of Indiana lost 12 conventions and $60 million dollars after passing their “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” -- a law much closer to that just passed by North Carolina than its name would imply. The economic growth and prosperity of the state is now under threat, as is the reputation of any company who chooses North Carolina as its home. Red Hat CEO and President Jim Whitehurst, Biogen and Dow Public Policy all spoke out against this bill on the day it was hastily introduced. American Airlines, Wells Fargo and even the NCAA are concerned about this legalized discrimination. You can join their chorus in continued pressure to change the law so that equality and fairness are not undermined in North Carolina.

You are a leader in industry in the state, and as such, I urge you to speak out in favor of diversity and justice and against the codification of fear and weakness. Being based in North Carolina, your name and balance sheet are also on the line, and any silence you choose will speak. Your ability to attract a full-range of highly qualified, critical thinking, flexible and compassionate work force will be damaged by this law, and no tax breaks are worth diminishing the humanity of others. Please make the weight of your voice heard by the legislators and the people of North Carolina.


Everything in these three days speaks of mercy.
Todo, en estos tres días, habla de la misericordia. 
Tutto, in questi tre giorni, parla di misericordia.
Tudo, nestes três dias, fala de misericórdia.
Au cours de ces trois jours, tout parle de miséricorde.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Signs You Have the Right Friends, Part 1

I recently emptied and reorganized the cleaning supplies/medicines/extra toiletries shelf in my linen closet. At left is the photo of items left over and no longer needed at my house that I then emailed to a select list of friends to see if anyone wanted something from the pile.

Within two hours and a dozen email exchanges, I'd not only found homes for all the stuff, I'd also been treated to hilarious stories of children using tampons as toys, requests for an extra box of sanity if I find any and one friend who wondered what category of sponges I was offering because she couldn't see the photo at first.

Nothing profound, but I couldn't stop laughing at the electronic trail we created based on a reject pile.

These are my people -- friends who a) don't think it's weird that I'm trying to give them my linen closet leftovers, b) help me clear out my house and c) entertain and distract me in the process.

Sometimes my life feels a lot like that shelf -- everything just kind of jumbled on top of everything else, much of it useful but not always accessible, some of it expired or unnecessary, all of it completely crammed in together. I'm just grateful I don't have to take care of it all on my own.