Friday, September 28, 2012

Stuff I Find

The Boy and The Girl have taken to walking to school in the morning. Originally, The Dad and I had approved only The Boy for this privilege/responsibility, but one day last week, The Girl wanted to walk and The Tot Who's Not wanted to drive, so I let my little rule-follower accompany her big brother on the walk to school. I suspect this enthusiasm for walking (and early morning brotherly-sisterly affection) will drop when the temperatures do, but for now, I'm enjoying The Boy's and The Girl's newfound independence.

It also gives me some one-on-one time with The Tot Who's Not. While I wasn't at all teary-eyed on The Tot's first (or fifth) day of K drop-off, I'm still feeling a bit lost without a little partner in crime. I find myself flirting with babies on the train, or sympathizing with other mothers at the grocery store. I'm starting to understand why generations of women begin pestering their daughters to have children as soon as they get married. I have to wait another 20+ years for grand babies? (Please let me wait at least another 15 years for grand babies...) I suppose I could nanny, but given my views of childbearing, I doubt anyone would hire me.

So I find myself ready to enjoy snippets of time with my youngest child -- such as in the car on the way to school. Yesterday, we stopped to salvage a dresser from the curbside trash. The Tot Who's Not has watched me do this often enough; he waited patiently while I found space for 5 drawers and the case piece itself. Once we were back on our way, I thanked him for his patience. He told me he has a lot of patience.

After he was safely with his class, I went home to unload the car and inspect my find. While some may be horrified by my trash-picking ways, they are probably not on the low-budget side of Apartment Therapy's readers. I get a kind of acquisitive or satisfied high when I find something usable or pretty in the alley. I didn't realize this before now, but it's apparently a trend to do this. I'm not brave enough to look inside cans or dumpsters. I'm pretty sure that Chicago residents, like those of other large cities such as NYC , Philly, or their environs, leave large pieces outside the cans for this reason. I know it's the reason that I left my broken-down Mac Volo stroller outside after a recent garage clean-out.

Like these writers, I get a thrill in finding something useable and unique in the alleyways around my neighborhood. Over the years, I've managed to amass two wooden chairs, one sewing table, an IKEA dresser, a teak side table, a giant wooden built-in cabinet, a chair and a half, two storagalooza bins, a white toy bin, a wooden rung ladder, cabinet doors, two IKEA wooden storage units, a wooden nightstand, a 1905 oak interior door, and a wooden file bin. Some things I've since given away via freecycle. Others have become projects in The Boy's and The Girl's nascent interest in woodcraft. The rest have been repaired, painted, refinished, or recovered in some fashion and put to use in our tiny Chicago Foursquare. Or, in the case of this week's finds, are in my garage awaiting their transformation. There are many things that I do better than this, but this is not a bad way to feed my creative soul or familial predisposition to putter. I do have a couple of rules for how I find and treat my alleyway treasures:

- do not pick up upholstery, carpets, or other soft items
- do not sand painted or stained wood
- air out all items in the garage for a bit
- inspect everything in the alley and when home to determine what/how to fix
- clean everything with hot water and/or vinegar and/or oxyclean before it comes inside
- list it on freecycle if I don't love it and/or use it within a year

Look for a "stuff I found" tag soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I Am the Lorax

The CTU strike of 2012 was an eye-opening experience in many ways. I've reaffirmed that I'm not cut out to be a teacher (how do homeschoolers do it??), that I still hate summer, and that Mitt Romney is an asshat who is out of touch with reality of 98 percent of the population. I also learned some new things--some of which may have a devastating effect on my faith in humanity.

Over the summer, I read a series of books written by Rosalind Wiseman. The subject of them was primarily about girl bullying, but they also dealt with the societal pressures on girls and women not to show anger or true feelings that may be seen as "bad" by society at large. Wiseman made a rather salient point about how social media and mobile phones have changed the face of bullying since I went through elementary school in the 1980s.

They've also changed the face of organizational movements, as parents or other individuals fed up by large groups' inability to act quickly in response to _____ banded together to add their voices to the fray. Indeed, this is how Raise Your Hand got started in March 2010. Raise Your Hand got its start in advocating for fair funding of Chicago schools; to support its advocacy in this, it has launched two campaigns: a push for an elected representative school board (ERSB) and a statewide effort to introduce a progressive income tax.

In some ways, Raise Your Hand's efforts seem like a bypass/doubling of those of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), which began in 1987 in response to the last CPS teachers' strike. And in some ways, PURE's efforts seem like a bypass or doubling up of the efforts of the Illinois Congress of Parents and Teachers -- aka PTA. It's not widely known among Internet-savvy parents, but PTA has been building relationships with CPS in an advisory role since 1996 with the creation of the PTA Advisory Council. Like RYH and PURE, the PTA's nonprofit status prohibits the organization from taking a position on labor negotiations.

During the Karen Lewis-Rahm Emanuel standoff, another group, calling itself Chicago Students First, launched, urging parents to make their voices heard. I find it somewhat amusing that hundreds of parents who were pissed off that they had to actually pay for childcare because the teachers had the audacity to band together to fight for what they believed in...banded together to do the same.

Presumably, some parents (although I don't know who they are) also support the efforts of groups like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and Stand for Children, although I believe these groups are PACs with nonprofit arms.
How many groups are we up to? But wait, there is one more -- CPS's own Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE), which employs 17 area/network directors, each with a number of FACE officers under him or her. The FACE officers I've met all have extensive backgrounds in community organizing.

So there are seven organizations that I know about. Seven groups purporting to advocate for me as a parent. Yeesh. Although I admire these groups for banding together, I kind of feel like having so many groups to "speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues" dilutes the message. Parents want a seat at the table, but who gets to sit in it? Shouldn't that person or group be democratically elected or chosen? Otherwise, what's the difference between Matt Farmer and Penny Pritzker?

At my kids' school--and as I suspect was true at many other schools--the strike was a deeply polarizing issue among parents. There were those that baked cookies and visited the teachers on the picket line, those that protested the picket line, and those who fell in every place in between. If that can happen at one very successful Northside school, how can anyone reasonably speak for all parents? As school resumed, I read many Facebook statuses that asked their fellow parents to remain mindful of what we have in common rather than what divides us. I hope that all parents in Chicago can remember that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


So it's the end of Day 3 of the 2012 CTU strike and I'm feeling much the way I felt on August 27: utterly sick of my children. To quote a fellow Disney II parent, "I've grown tired of attempting to be cheerful with my kids." The boredom-induced bickering is just one of the reasons that I hate summer. 


I get that this is what the CTU and our teachers need to do. And suffering through more stretches of time in forced home-schooling with my children during this strike is the price that I'm willing to pay for (possibly) real education reform. Because Ms. Lewis's "real schools" comment had nothing to do with $7,500/year private school. To borrow a tired sports analogy, I'm willing to take one for the team on this.

Because I recognize that we, on the NWside of Chicago, live in a bubble. Our children, in large part, attend schools that are CPS's education superstars. Our teachers willingly gave up extra pay to give their students extra classroom time. Our teachers work evenings and weekends, and they are pleasant to us when we run into them in our daily lives when school is not in session. Our teachers have our support as parents every hour of every day. But it's not like this for every teacher or at every school. I think it's like this for very few teachers at very few schools within the system. Some of them are schools that I never want to enter to confirm that what they report is true. 

Like many parents, I'm frustrated by the necessary lack of transparency in what the hold-up is between CPS and CTU at the contract negotiating table. Why can't they compromise? Karen Lewis and Mayor Rahm Emanuel seem locked in a battle of wills that's holding the rest of Chicago in a captive standstill. It's anyone's guess who'll prove him or herself to be the biggest donkey in the end. 

But I'm also frustrated by what is reported in and opined by the media. Like balanced government, balanced reporting also seems to be a thing of the past. I've long known that the Chicago Tribune is a screamingly conservative paper, so maybe it's not surprising to anyone else that the only source in Jon Kass's opinion piece from today is from a man who formerly led a group called Americans for Limited Government before he came to lead the neutrally named Illinois Policy Institute. The IL Policy Institute's directors also include an equity firm partner, a portfolio manager, a lawyer and political appointee in the Reagan administration, and a former CEO who now works to "reduce government involvement in commercial enterprise." To quote The Girl: seriously?

Mr. Tillman, will your "nonpartisan" group consider reducing the involvement of commercial enterprise in (setting policy for) government? The only thing that introducing corporate practices to the public education system has done for it is to make it as unstable as corporate America. I'm neither a Republican nor rich, and I was fortunately raised in an educational era where learning to think--and speak/write--critically was more highly valued than not seeming to fall behind my peers, so I'll be lucky if five people read this. But I must say it: Of course executives like Mr. Tillman are anti-union. They're not offshoring their jobs to India or Bangladesh; they're just offshoring their money.

Union labor got its start in the Gilded Age, as a response to the rich-get-richer and the poor-get-poorer political climate of the late 19th century. Some Many argue that the need for unions is over, and that many protections advocated by union labor have been codified in our society. But I look around at the rapidly disappearing middle class and think we're headed back to the Gilded Age, if we aren't there already.  "Soon the government was protecting the rights of wealthy Americans instead of all Americans." (italics mine)

Mr. Tillman's statement is disingenuous. People like Mr. Tillman are trying to break the union because they think that teachers are like widgets--entirely interchangeable. I'm quite sure there are teachers within CPS who phone it in--just as there are employees everywhere in America who phone it in. But what a huge disservice it would be to Chicago's children to get rid of teachers with 20 years of experience because they've gotten too expensive for the district's books. Too bad we can't offshore teachers, eh? 

But even if CPS can separate the wheat from the chaff, can the best teachers overcome poverty in the absence of adequate resources and supports (and the funding for these)? This Tribune editorial conveniently omits some critical points in its assessment of the importance of great teaching: 

First, the metro areas mentioned in the editorial--Boston, NYC, Houston--put their money where their mouths are. All of these cities spend more per student than Chicago does. Houston ISD ties teachers' pay to student test scores, although what that actually means will be anyone's guess in the next few years as most of the country moves to the Common Core State Standards while Texas remains with its state-developed STAAR. 

Second, Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust mentioned the importance of great teachers in her statement. But she didn't just say strong teachers. She said strong, well-supported teachers. And this is what teachers on the line are asking for: more/better resources. It's not just about pay. But because of SB7, pay becomes the focal issue.

The Tribune bills Education Trust as an advocacy group. It doesn't specify for what or whom the Education Trust does its work. Not surprisingly, the group's senior leadership has strong ties to the Children's Defense Fund, which in turn has strong ties to Stand for Children and charter schools. It's not that difficult to understand why Ms. Lewis isn't going to urge her teachers back to work without a contract while they work the details out. This infamous video is partially why. That and they've been negotiating for over 10 months already.

The Trib wrote, "Parents and principals need to know which teachers excel and which take up space." I agree with this because I already know which teachers excel and which take up space. As do most parents who are nominally involved in their children's education. I consider this part of my job as a parent. Good principals know this too.