Monday, February 10, 2014

How I Shop for a School

Since we've moved recently,  a number of friends and family members have asked how I find a good school for the boys.  Let me start with a disclaimer: My system is far, far from foolproof, as you'll (hopefully) see in a companion blog post I've been itching to write on bullying.  Neverthless, we've been basically satisfied with the school we found for the boys here in Berkeley, particularly because we know that it's temporary: we have a great elementary school to go back to in Salt Lake (Go Oakridge!), and because we have indeed benefitted from participating in our Berkeley public school and seeing new and different approaches to teaching, curriculum choices, homework, recess, afterschool care, and the like.  Also, we've been lucky enough to live in areas of the country in which school choice is a very real and active opportunity.  I'm sure there are many places in which there is no choice: you go to your neighborhood school, and that is that.  I like that system, too -- it certainly saves parents AND districts offices a LOT of headache.  So this post is only for those times when you find as a parent you do have a choice in schools for your children.   I thought I'd put these thoughts on picking schools up here to save myself from having to search through thousands of emails later in case I get asked this question again.

How I find a School




1. Go online to http://www.greatschools.org/, type in a zipcode, find a listing of public schools in that area.  I use the site to see rankings and reviews of the schools (always of course to be taken with a grain of salt, as different schools work well for different families).  The site is good to use for public schools, but less information is provided for charter and private schools.  Other than Challenger preschool, I don't have any personal experience with private schools so if that information is what you're after, this is probably not the website for you. Perhaps a reader who's in-the-know in this regard can leave a comment pointing to other online resources to use.

Greatschools.org is a great starting point for your search, but it's just that: a starting point.  I use it to help me make a list of interesting-sounding schools in my area, schools I'd like to visit and treat as serious candidates. 

For each school on my list, I then:

2. Read the school's own website and find out everything I can about the school, special programs (Chess Club? Skiing outings? Alligator husbandry?), after school and before school care (cost? hours?), etc.  I also read the parents' reviews (concerns about bullying, bad teaching, uninvolved administrators, etc.).  I then come up with a list of questions that aren't answered (or raised) by the websites and reviews.

3. Ask the Principal of  each school for an appointment for a tour.  (Not every principal has agreed to meet with me, in fact one notable principal blew off my appointment with her three times, and not every school has allowed me past its office, but I take whatever I can get.). Once I get my foot in the door,  I bring my list of questions to the appointment and knock them off one by one while I have the principal (or other school representative)'s attention.  I try not to bring any children along for this particular scouting visit so that I can put my full attention on the school and not have to be policing my own children at the same time.

4. Ask to meet the relevant grade teacher(s) / sit in for a few minutes on a class. I look for total teacher engagement, and a class that isn't easily disrupted by my visit.  I also look for active involvement of the children but NOT chaos. This is especially important (to me) for kindergarten and younger age groups.

5. Check the school lunch menu, the cleanliness and approachability of the bathrooms, the gym, the playground, and any other common areas.  When I'm touring for a kindergartener, I like to see whether the kindergarteners have their own bathroom facilities (usually adjacent to the KG rooms, or within them) or whether they will eat and play with older kids, and/or use the restrooms that bigger kids use.  This is primarily because a certain child who was once a kindergartener was a certified Space Cadet, and would never have made it from his classroom to the bathroom and back within the three hours of the kindergarten school day had it not been for the fact that the bathrooms were contained within the kindergarten room itself. 

6. Look at the artwork and school work displayed on the walls and compare it to what I know my own children can already do. Will my kids bored or challenged there?  

7. Look for parent involvement in the form of lots of volunteers around and/or a very active PTA.  Healthy parent involvement is always a dead giveaway that the school is going to be a good one.  I don't mean you should feel like you should participate yourself (I've never been a member of the PTA, and I volunteer quite rarely due to my job) BUT the fact that there are parents who do generally means all the kids in the school are better off, with more adult attention provided to all children, whether their own parent volunteers or not.

It all boils down to whether I feel comfortable and happy with the school while I am making the visit.  I've found that if I feel comfortable and happy there, the boys will sense that comfort and adjust quickly as well.

Oh, and also:


Once Suresh and I have decided on a school, but before the kids start there, we've introduced the new school to the boys by bringing them to the school's playground on a weekend or after school hours. We let them play there and in the case of any child who would be starting KG, we told him what a big boy he was going to be to go here, and how he would be going to go to this school and that's why we made this a special day to visit his new school's playground, etc etc.   My kids, at least, loved this and Aditya was so excited to go to kindergarten that  he didn't cry, even on the first day when other children were melting down around him :)  

Actually, I was the one who cried.

For those of you actively looking for preschools or elementary schools who have asked for this post, best of luck, and feel free to call me on your child's first day if you need a Kleenex or an empathetic ear.  ;)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Falling Hard for Fused Glass


At the start of the new year, Suresh reminded me that, in the 'spirit of the sabbatical,' I should try something new.  He pointed out that both boys were trying out pottery, Aditya was now writing poetry, Suresh himself had sung in a band, and now it was time for me to expand my horizons (beyond blogging, which I thought was significant enough!).  After some resistance (I resist change quite emphatically, thank you), I signed myself up for a fused glass class at Berkeley's Stained Glass Garden, and after the first class, during which I made the coasters shown above, I was hopelessly addicted.  The problem with my addictions are:  they are usually expensive, they require the acquisition of specialized (and expensive) equipment for serious hobbyists, and when I fall for something I fall hard and thoroughly.


The last time I was this obsessed, I brought a plant from Walgreens home and 90+ orchids, special ordered growth media, a humidifier, hygrometer, and a full spectrum light stand later .... yeah, you get the picture.  Hopeless, I say.  Absolutely hopeless.  And I am poorer for it. And my life, well, my life is that much richer.  Thanks, Suresh, for starting something you'll probably live to regret. :)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Kiss


Sacred Places


As the daughter of two atheist-leaning agnostics, I grew up largely ignorant of organized religion. As a family, we were not at all tied to religious holiday traditions, church or temple-going, or any form of worship.  My mother would simply put it:  "I believe somewhere, somehow, there is a high power. And that power wants us to do good in the world."

I've always believed in that: doing good in the world, but thanks to many welcoming friends I have also been able to attend a patchwork of religious events, ranging from services in the Episcopalian, Catholic, Unitarian, and reform Jewish traditions, to a Bat Mitzvah and an LDS baptism.  I have attended talks by the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel, and read books touching on a religious spirit by Anne Morrow Lindberg and Ursula Goodenough (who, coincidentally, is a cell biology professor I had at Wash U).  There have been many times when the words of the pastor, priest, author, rabbi, or religious leader have touched me and rung true, and I am sure that whatever recognizable religious beliefs that I, as an atheist-leaning agnostic myself, hold within me have been instructed by those experiences. I am grateful.

When I was a teenager, wrestling with the ideas of my own beliefs, there was one place I felt completely at home with God. I always thought of this place when I needed some quiet within. I would imagine myself in a field, a wide open space, where I could run and run and dance and spin under a starry night sky. A place where I would feel close to infinity, close to the endlessness of our universe, so quiet that I could hear the harmonies of all living souls, interwoven and beautiful.  I still think of that place, and remember the feeling of flight. Of joy.


Now that I am older, I know there are two "real" places I can go to experience the same elevation of spirit:  one place for me is looking down the double barrels of a powerful microscope, marveling at the tiniest of all things: the beating undulations of a paramecium's cilia, waving in a delicate dance, the developing muscle cells of a zebrafish embryo allowing it to writhe and squirm for the first time, as if to say in delight, "I am alive! I am alive!", the formation of cell membranes around grasshopper embryo nuclei floating in a sea of protective and nourishing yolk. I have spent hours in a darkened room, alone with the fluorescently stained mitochondria of neurons, silently watching as they yield up the secrets of what they do and where they go. Hours more, looking at the wing vein patterns of Drosophila, celebrating how a single fertilized egg can give rise to such intricacy and majesty. And lucky I get to see it all unfold, in that quiet, dark place, and in so doing, ask hushed, respectful questions of Nature. And, on rare and wonderful occasions, get an answer.

My other sacred place is the California coast: the wild and rough coastline from Monterey Bay, around the tip of Pacific Grove, along Carmel Bay, to Point Lobos. We hiked the rocky coastline trails here recently, from shady Cypress groves to pinnacles of rock that looked out to the sea, the wind whipping our hair, the gulls crying forlornly, the seals on their rock barking in spirited cacaphony.

Sea Lions were on this same rock when I visited 19 years ago!


We saw the tiniest of distant whale spouts. Harbor seals sunning themselves on the sand. Brown pelicans stretched their wings while perched on a sheltered outcropping below us, while a sea otter bobbed on its back, diving and playing with the seaweed.


Harbor seals





















In recognition of my affection of tiny things, we poked around in the tide pools along Monterey Bay, finding snails and colorful anemone awaiting their engulfment by the waves again.







The expansive and the microscopic, are all here, united and interwoven in a fabulous fabric of the wild and free. This is a magical place.  A place where even a tired, old cynic as I can now be at times can find space in the spirit to take flight.



Monday, January 6, 2014

2013 Holiday Wrap Up

Before I get woefully behind on this blog, I think I'd better post a few photos of our recent holidays.

Thanksgiving
I did not realize how Martha-Stewarty I actually looked in this photo until I searched for it just now. I've always thought of Martha as my polar opposite, she a domesticated goddess, and I her domestically incapable and humorous counterpoint, the Wild Woman of West Virginia.  Here in this photo, however, when out of focus, I look pretty darn domesticated.  Amazing what combing one's hair for the holidays can do.  Berkeleyites, who tend to helpfully include the name of the chicken who produced the eggs you are buying in a pamphlet tucked inside each egg carton at the grocery store, will be so proud to know that no animals were harmed in the making of this Thanksgiving meal (pictured are vegetarian pot pie, artichoke and potato greek salad, and green beans and almonds.  Gingerbread cake and lemon curd topping, and pumpkin pie were the desserts):



And we have the children's initial reaction to the meal:
The sweet little girl running away from the table, the food, and/or the boys, is Suresh's cousin (Uma)'s daughter, Maya, who came with her family to spend a glorious week with us.  The children got along famously and it was very special for me to have this little girl, and her mom and dad, in the house.

Christmas Break
A special treat this year was the long holiday the children got off from school.  Thanks to the fact that Christmas and New Year's Day fell on a Wednesday, we had two full weeks to galavant around the Bay Area. And galavant we did.  Here are a few pictures from our roamings. I was especially delighted that my long time friend Melicent Peck, her son Noah, and her husband Dave Weber, were able to come with us on many of our outings.

Crissy Field




Rohan loves his pal Noah


A special treat: sculptures on loan from the SF MoMA on Crissy Field



 My dear friend Melicent, and her adorable son Noah, and my Wild Woman hair



California Academy of the Sciences

All decked out for the holidays, the Cal Academy had snow machines running, live reindeer out back, and special programming with holiday animations and Santa dives.  Their 'Evolution of Genetic Traits' exhibit is a must see!




A special visit from Scuba Santa, who fed the colorful fish for us in the CAS coral reef aquarium before leaving for the North Pole. He parked his live reindeer just outside the museum, which we also got to see.


































The Exploratorium

Always a favorite spot for us, now moved to a new, larger spot on the San Francisco pier next to an artisanal chocolate factory!  Science and chocolate -- what more could anyone ask?!  The fruit flies and zebrafish embryo under the Zeiss microscopes were my favorites, reminding me of the reasons I went into developmental biology to begin with.  Suresh enjoyed the physics exhibits and the stunning, accessible ways in which the museum presents science and math.  The boys just soaked it all in.


Aditya's shadow painting (center)






















































Big Sur


A visit with one of Suresh's long time friends Muthu, his wife Vladimira and beautiful daughter Eira at their cozy home in the remote woods of Big Sur led to an idyllic walk amongst the California Redwoods, a fantastic meal, and a lot of good company with old friends.

Monterey Bay Aquarium


Karen's Happy Place
An animal that captures the awe and humor of nature best, every time we see it




Reaffirming to me that all the Earth's creatures are works of art



Christmas

Christmas was a simple celebration this year.  We left all our decorations and holiday gear in our home in Salt Lake, so this year we strung up some lights on a coat stand, decorated a gingerbread house and gingerbread carousel, played Handel's Messiah on an infinite loop, baked two kinds of cookies (double chocolate peppermint cookies and glittery lemon sandwich cookies), and dashed out for a pizza feast on Christmas Day with Suresh's former graduate student, Parasaran Raman (who is beloved by our children), and his friend and fellow photographer/ artist Franzi.


Aditya's handiwork
Rohan's Christmas Carousel



No live trees harmed in the making of this makeshift contraption.
Presents! Santa found us!!
Despite the fact that a) we moved away from Salt Lake City and b) were in a house with no chimney, unlike our Salt Lake home, and c) there was NO SNOW anywhere to be found (all of which caused great consternation for Aditya and Rohan), Santa found us anyway.  The man is a logistical genius.



Friday, November 22, 2013

Toto, We're Not in Salt Lake Anymore

We've been here three months, and in this short time several events have transpired to remind us that we are not in Salt Lake anymore.  People here ask us where we're from, and as soon as I say, "Salt Lake City," with a great big smile (how I do miss the place!), they respond, with a significant look, "Wow. BIG change."  They couldn't have said  it better.  (There was even that one time when the followup question was a conspiratorial, "Are you a Mormon?"  to which I wish I had whispered in response, equally as conspiratorially, "No. But are you a hippie?")

So, what are some big differences, you ask?  Here are a few we've found so far.  I must admit I am sad to report that the list does not include meeting any hippies, or even having one conversation with a dreadlocked member of society in which my conversant utters a "Whoa. Faaaar out, man," which before coming here I was really looking forward to.  Since we're not leaving til May, there's still time for me to amble up and down Telegraph Ave. calling, "Here, hippies, hippies, hippies!"

1. Quakes.  Within the first month of our arrival, we felt our first quake [Richter 3], which apparently wasn't notable enough to anyone but me, but nevertheless had me running to the store to stock up on emergency water the next day.  A week later, there was a second little rumble, which reminded me to stock up on candles, too, but nothing since then.

2. Diversity. Every newsletter, announcement, or email that comes home from school is accompanied by the Spanish translation on the back.  School presentations for parents, (e.g., "Kindergarten Orientation," etc.) are conducted in both Spanish and English.  And with a quick glance around the Rosa Parks playground, one can easily pick out at least five or six different ethnic backgrounds. This diversity means we spend a lot more time learning about "Dia de los Muertos," and other cross- and multicultural events.  And enjoy authentic tamales from the grocery store. Arriba!

3. Food.  OK, everyone likes food, and we have some truly awesome restaurants in Salt Lake, so difference here is not that they have better food here in Berkeley, but they have more of it.  And there is an obsession here with food that goes above and beyond what I would consider the norm. Berkeley is seeped in the culture of food, from the gardening and cooking classes offered in every public school, to the grocery stores devoted only to produce (e.g. Monterey Market) or fish (Tokyo Fish Market), to the internet foodie sites. Berkeley Yelp plays a central role in determining whether a business here, particularly a restaurant, dies or thrives. Yelp has made the consumer king, regardless of whether the consumer is fit to review a place or not (I've found that college kids tend to give great reviews to mediocre joints just because the food is cheap and plentiful, but they also don't hesitate to knock a place down if slighted by service the least little bit).  

There's also an obsession with healthy eating. For example, it's against the school rule to pack a lunch with a small chocolate treat in it. Gummy fruit snacks and juice boxes are also frowned upon. A mom shared some cookies on the playground with some kids after school and another mom chided, "Oh, I see you give in to that stuff."  The first mom said, "Yep, it's just who I am. I have a sweet tooth and I can't help it."  Chocoholic that I am, I liked her instantly, and delightedly accepted my cookie from her when she offered. 

The Berkeley Bowl, a grocery superstore that functions like an every day Farmer's Market (and do not doubt they have a Farmer's Market in various spots of Berkeley almost every day of the week, too, in case you need to eat your vegetables literally within minutes of them being plucked from the ground), carries a huge array organic and non-organic produce. Because of the sheer vastness of organic, non-GMO, pasture-raised, cage free produce offered, even a "quick" trip to this place can take upwards of two hours.  I have stood for several minutes in an aisle completely dedicated to different kinds of tofu, at a loss for what item to get.  "That place makes you grumpy," +Suresh has observed. Well, yes, after having devoted a whole fifteen minutes of my life to pondering the benefits of organic, vitamin-infused, silken or firm tofu, and then another significant chunk of time in front of the free range, cage free, pasture-raised, Omega-3 fatty acid eggs, and another in the produce section wondering what people do with banana flowers and how to prepare nopales, and then coming out of the store two hours later with just bread, milk and eggs (all organic, mind you), overwhelmed by choice, I am a little grumpy.


The intimidating Aisle of Tofu (Pictured: 1/3 of the aisle)

Banana flowers?
How do I eat banana flowers?
(Center, top shelf)
An item I'd never considered food before now.




























4. Walking.  Berkeley is a walking town.  It's great to be able to walk to Semifreddi's Bakery in the morning for the crispy croissant or morning roll and coffee, to walk the kids to their pottery class at a lovely little studio run by a professional potter after school, to take a short bus ride to the public library, to walk to the pool.  Everyone walks, and it's a great town for doing it in.  The difficulty is having to constantly look out for walkers, whether they decide to take the crosswalk or not, while behind the wheel.  And parking: well, let's just say I figure in an extra 15 minutes for any trip with the car just for circling around looking for a space on the street.

5. Start-ups and the competitive culture. When we first moved to Berkeley, both boys told me they'd like to continue piano lessons while we were here, so I immediately started searching craigslist for a piano.  We didn't need anything fancy, just something that had all 88 keys and could hold tune.  I soon found one, and after paying the owner a small deposit to hold it for us, scheduled piano movers to pick it up at a time and date compatible with the owner's schedule.  On the day of the move, I got a call from the owner, saying that he's very sorry but his company just got bought, and he's stuck in San Francisco helping to broker the deal.  Could we reschedule? Of course, I said, and texted him with alternative times and dates. After an entire week of texting back and forth with both him and the movers, and not finding a single time when he'd be home to meet the movers, we finally decided I should just get my deposit back and try again with someone else.  Where else but the Bay Area do we say, "I'm so sorry, I can't make your such and such appointment, because my company just got bought" !?  It's a fun line, and darned if I'm not going to try it sometime.  

There's a up side to being in Start Up Land, of course, and that is that nearly everyone here is fluent in internet, email, Facebook and the like. Heck, most people have their own websites, whether they own a company or not.  The downside, of course, is instability. Start ups have this nasty habit of going up and down, appearing and disappearing, thriving and failing when you least expect them to.  It means, usually, both parents have to work, and work long hours, to afford the astronomical mortgage and costs of having a family here. It means stiff competition for after school programs. It means newcomers are treated not with open, welcoming arms, but with a slight wariness, a friendliness-at-a-distance, because you, too, may come and go, appear and disappear, and in the meantime, you're just here competing with the locals for limited (organic) resources. It means that despite the near-perfect weather, the gorgeous view by the Bay, the immense cultural richness and diversity we have to celebrate here, there is the ubiquitous undercurrent of stress. A great deal of stress.  [Don't just take my word for it:  Here's what some locals said in response to KQED's poll, What Do You Give Up to Live in the Bay Area?]

I am grateful to be here experiencing the richness and the vibrancy, the energy and the beauty. And I am also grateful that I have a home in the Wasatch Mountains, a place of peace and grace, and deep friendships, to return to.




Saturday, November 16, 2013

Disneyland


Thanks to some great Disney-going tips from my two Disneyophile friends Jeremy Schow and Jacob Perry, we were able to visit the resort at a beautiful time of year without having to fight crowds and wait for hours in line for rides.  Unfortunately, we were not able to escape the infectious cold season in California, and the trip was nearly canceled or called to a halt several times as we battled various health problems, including a fever of 101 F (Aditya), severe dehydration leading to a blinding headache on the first night (Rohan), a severely sore throat that made us consider the possibility of strep on the second day (Suresh), capped off with an accidental blow to Aditya's eye by a complete stranger on the last day.  Incidentally, we discovered a pirate's eye patch and gold earring to be far more effective cures for an elbowed eye than a visit to the park's well-meaning if somewhat overbearing nursing station:

especially if one's uninjured younger brother is able to get in on the act:


Despite these set backs, we all managed to have an unbelievably great time, made possible in part by the kindness and professionalism of the staff at Disneyland, the great weather, the beautiful attention to detail in the park itself, the thinner crowds, an app for Disneyland ride wait times by Walkee, and some prior planning using Bob Sehlinger's Unofficial Guide.

Perhaps one of our best memories will be of our triumph against the forces of Darkness:
 



We also of course enjoyed engaging in some underage driving,



flying in tires, zooming in rocketships, and spinning in teacups,



and soaking in the spectacular sights:





Of course,  no matter where we are, we also never pass up an opportunity to unleash our inner geeks:


or become superheroes:


Aditya also learned he loves roller coasters, such as Space Mountain and the Matterhorn, while Rohan reveled in the preponderance of cotton candy and popcorn. Suresh and I were impressed by the Aladdin show, and we all enjoyed the cartooning lesson from the Animation Academy.
All in all, a great trip. Thanks, Disneyland!