teens on the train

Overheard on the F train heading northbound, crossing through the sunlight at Smith and 9th.

Girl 1 (stylishly urban, approximately 16 years):
"Everybody at Beacon lives in Park Slope."

Girl 2 (working her own unique style, the same age):
"Or it just seems like they do, they spend so many nights there"

"I heard that it used to be that nobody from Manhattan ever came to Brooklyn!"


"I love Boerum Hill. It is sooo pretty. Dumbo too."

"Yeah, good restaurants. Brooklyn Heights is kind of just houses. I love Red Hook."

"Have you eaten at The Good Fork? It is awesome."

"My dad is totally into Ocean Parkway. He bikes there."

"My mom wants to retire to the Upper West Side!"

"Big dreams!" (all of us laughing)



prom dresses

Picture this: Two 17 year old girls, size 2 skinny jeans, Forever 21 t-shirts, urban attitude, nerdy aspirations, who hate to shop - in the Macy's Prom Dress Section on the 4th floor.

Girl 1: "This is my worst nightmare!"
Girl 2: "Let's find the ugliest one"

I get a call from Silfath Pinto, a fashion stylist (with a lilting French accent) who has agreed to tackle the prom dress gauntlet.
"I am in the dressing room by Tahari. Just call my name and I will get you."

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Lovin' 5th ave. from 11th to 25th

It is the last day of the month and I had to go get the car inspected. Usually, I grab a coffee at the Red Horse (6th Ave./12th St. - they also have great scones I think from Baked in Red Hook), drop the car with the St. of Ancient Silver Hondas (Mohammed at Bartroni on 5th Ave./24th St.) and go up the hill across the street to sit by Minerva in Greenwood
to watch the ferries go back and forth. But today we needed more work and I walked home, discovering and remembering some wonderful things along the way.

Officially the second best pizza in the USA is in a tiny ordinary looking store front named Luigi's (according to them, the first best pizza makers eat at Luigi's) on 5th between 21/20th St. Get the "grandma" pizza. If you don't enjoy watching them make it one pepperoni at a time go two doors down to Laurntino's for pastry (supposidely a former baker from Veniero's owns it). We heard that there were great empanadas along that strip and I think that I found them at La Boulangerie Lopez (20/19th St.). We have always taken out of town friends for a vodkha tasting at Adam's Liquors (corner of 17th St.). Don't go in asking for Grey Goose..."unless you are using it to kill rats". Try the Sobieski, Bull Grass or Honey Vodkha. Skip Eagle Provisions and go straight to Jubilat Provisions for your local Polish sausage fix (they smoke it in the back, or get the fresh which is garlicy and wonderful) - also great poppy seed loaf. Kumon has opened a new bigger location (15/16th St.) right across the street from the beautiful new home of Park Slope Schoolhouse (they should be moving in any moment now). I have been missing the Salvation Army that moved out of the big corner space on 13th St. years ago and was surprised to see a groovy new second hand store there, Life. They accept donations and give tax receipts for all clothes and furniture. It is staffed by volunteers and the proceeds go to Pediatric Cancer Research as well as other programs for children with serious illnesses. My daughters did all their tween budget fashion shopping at Rainbow and Mandees (12/13th St.) but Fresh (11/12th St.) is still the only place to get your skinny jeans. I was surprised at how many new little interesting bars have popped up like crocuses on the avenue and I am making a May 1st date with my husband. We will send off the first college check and then go for a pub crawl down 5th Ave.


what if there is no buzz?

If you are looking for a school outside of your zone or you want to move to a neighborhood and don't want to pay top dollar to move to a highly sought after zone, what options do you have? Public schools don't have the time or money to do pr or branding. Sometimes they are lucky and a savvy parent or teacher will put together a snappy website, but if they don't have an enterprising individual to step up, the school may labor in obsurity. Parents might logically think that if the school is good they would have heard about it, but I am here to tell you that it doesn't have to be the case at all. If there is no buzz, it could still be a honey of a school.
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advice for freshmen (students and parents)

There is a terrific article in the NY Times for college freshmen and a parent on the parent NY of teens list-serve asked the group if there was anything like it for high school freshman.

Here are my two cents.

Every single high school senior will tell you, “get involved!”. To awkward freshman ears it only sounds like a come-on to get kids to join the clubs that the seniors have formed to pad their college resumes, but it is great advice. It is the best way to instantly stop feeling like an outsider. The longer they resist getting involved, the longer they are going to feel like they don’t have any friends. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard, “I wish I had done this in freshman year”, or, “why didn’t I ever do that?”.

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twinsburg, ohio

Why drive 8 hours one way to the suburbs of Cleveland? - for the largest gathering of twins in the world. This trip has been my girls' dream for years and this summer they finally got us to agree by saying that they would use it as a topic for their college essays. They know how to deal with us. We figured it would be a silly goof of a weekend. I believe that they will probably attend every year from now on if they can.

On one side it is a small town fair; hot dogs, a couple of rides, a bouncy castle, a parade with antique fire trucks and a talent show. On the other, it is over 2000 sets of twins, triplets and quads of all ages, races, shapes and sizes, gathering for 3 days of unqualified understanding, comraderie and silly fun. I have rarely seen my kids as happy. In normal life, even in twin filled Brooklyn, they are oddities. "Who is older?" and "who is the evil twin?" are the first two questions that they are always asked. They occasionally enjoy the attention but it can also be a burden. During Twins Days they are the normal ones (we singletons are the misfits). Everyone gets it. Everyone has a bond that has no age, race or philosophical differences. It is a beautiful thing.

Side note: they will want you to know that they are not in any of these pictures although they did dress alike and had their picture taken by a National Geographic photographer (watch for the twins edition in Nov. 2011)

state test scores by district

While we wait for individual (check your personal aris link in a couple of weeks) and school wide scores to be entered online. We have some district wide scores. As reported they are way down to compensate for what the Board of Regents felt was grade inflation next to NY State's national progress. While the 3rd, 4th and 7th grade 3s and 4s scores are way down, when you separate out the kids scoring at level 4 (above grade level) are almost all up by a bit. Interesting. So perhaps if you have a student who regularly scores high, maybe you can sleep a little easier until your individual scores come out.
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road trip

I have logged a lot of hours on the road with my family (masking tape down the center of the back seat). This is the summer of college tours so we will be doing even more. I choose to drive because then I don't have to be the one turning around to constantly monitor the food and fun in the backseat. Now that the girls have their music for the road, things have gotten a lot quieter back there, but there are some family traditions that they still enjoy participating in. I do believe that my family's love of brain teasers has been instrumental in their success on the SHSAT (it isn't why we did it, but they have years of experience with logic puzzles). The best test prep is an active mind.
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high school parent coordinators

NY 1 reported that School's Chancellor, Joel Klein, will allow high "school principals to lay off parent coordinators and abolish the position as a way to combat the city's money woes." This policy only affects high school parent coordinators. The budget situation is extremely serious and it is seen as a way to give principals move room to adjust their budgets. "A spokesman says the Department of Education feels high school parents may have less of a need of the services provided by parent coordinators."

No one wants to see teachers laid off or budgets slashed, but on a purely personal level I know in my heart that my daughters success in two large public high schools was due in large part to the efforts of their parent coordinators. In a million ways, they have given our family crucial support and now that we are heavily into the college search, their efforts have greatly enhanced the talented but limited resources of the schools' college office. I just sent off two very heartfelt letters to the principals of my daughters' schools. It is the least that I can do in thanks for service above and beyond the call of duty.

test scores are only a small piece of the puzzle

How do you judge a school? You can look at the test scores. These may come in the form of the School Progress Reports (the DOE's flawed number crunching), the more nuanced but not fool-proof Quality Reviews or the number rankings given by the national websites. The black and white reality of a simple number or letter ranking is that it predicts how well your child will be able to complete a standardized test, not the quality of their education. The tests are scorned by parents whose children already attend school but the scores are often clung to as a measure of quality by prospective parents. Assessments need to be made and there has to some kind of accountability, but the richest learning doesn't happen within test prep and the score can be a smoke screen.
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Middle School: Part 3

So it is the first day of middle school, congratulations! This is what every sixth grade parent wants to hear as their darling comes in the door, "thanks mom and dad, that school is great! It is everything that I dreamed it would be over those long months last year, when we were waiting to hear where I would be placed." This is what you undoubtedly will hear, "It smells funny." That is if they are being kind.

This is what parents need to remember for the next two weeks. Your darling has not been in a new school since they were 5 years old. They have been the kings and queens of their elementaries. They knew everyone. They knew exactly what to expect. They knew all the teachers and it smelled familiar. But now they have to change classes in a building that they are afraid to get lost in. Even the sweetest teacher is putting on her mean face to keep the upper hand on the first day of middle school. The kids, whether they are giant and menacing 8th graders or not, are strange. Even kids they have known all their lives are coming back from the summer with breasts and different voices. How weird is that? It can't possibly be a good day.

So here is what you need to do:
First give them a protein filled snack. They probably had lunch at 10:30. Let them zone out for a while at the mindless activity of their choice.

Don't ask them how they liked school. You won't get the answer you want.
Just ask about facts. What color was your math teacher's hair? Do you have to climb stairs? How many minutes in between class? What do you want for lunch tomorrow?
In a couple of weeks they will start to say things like, "I met a nice kid today." "The science teacher is pretty funny." and you will finally get your rewards for dragging them on a million tours the year before.

And children...
have pity on your poor parents. They only want what is best for you. When they look at you pleadingly, hungry for any detail and praying that they made the right choice, say, "Mom, Dad, I love you anyway."

Preparing for Middle School: 2

Are you worried that your sweet darling is going to turn on you without warning the minute puberty kicks in? I can't help you with that, but I may be able to warn you about a couple of things that may give you a slight edge in the situation.

Your 6th grader doesn't have to have instant computer communication with all of their friends. This communication does seem to be necessary when they are a bit older, but in 6th grade they need to figure out how to deal with their new life and time management. Too much unregulated access (and do you want to be the policeman?) is a giant sink hole of problems. If it is difficult for you to self regulate your time on Facebook (you know who you are), it is impossible for your child. You have the power to choose what comes into your home. I just advise that you make conscious choices at each step along the way. Consider whether it is wise to have a computer in their room. This is not necessarily a trust issue. How many times have you looked up from the computer and it was three hours later and you had no idea that time was passing (I am doing it right now!). The time will come when they will go to bed after you are long asleep, but right now they are the ones that really need the shut eye. They are so much nicer when they get it.

That brings up the fact that they look old, but in many ways they still have the same needs that they did when they were toddlers. Sleep, eat and read aloud should be your mantra. They grow when they sleep and they are growing inches every day. Studies show that US teenagers are chronically sleep deprived. I am mean when I am tired (really, don't cross me!) and they will be too. Why go there?

Feed them right away when they get home from school, something healthy with complex carbs or protein. They probably had lunch at 10:30. They are HUNGRY. Feed them before you ask about their day or they will bite your head off.

6th graders have a lot to deal with (more on that in the next "preparing..."). A funny thing happens to many of them. They occasionally take up a little baby language, they climb their giant 5' frames onto your lap, they form a sudden nostalgia for their "childhood". While they are desperately trying to be older, they are also uncomfortable with letting go of the familiar. This is why it is nice to stay friends with kids that are not going to your middle school. They have to be cool with their school friends, but they can be their old selves with their old friends. Don't get rid of all of the Legos or stuffed animals just yet.

They may not want to talk about their day when they get home. A parent can look pretty lame in the cold light of day, but at night, when they are cozy in bed and the lights are low, you look like their beloved moms and dads again. Everybody likes to be read aloud to. If you keep doing the bedtime reading (or start back up) you will be amazed at what happens. First the books just get better and better. But you may find that you don't spend much time on the books. You may end up just talking, and the longer you can keep that tradition going the better.

Happy reading!

Preparing for Middle School: 1

I always waited for the first day of school to get the teacher's list of supplies. Then I would go to Target or Staples and wait in an endless line for the last of the stray, wrinkled, stepped on notebooks that nobody else wanted. I wanted to go in mid summer when the pretty notebooks were out, but NYC starts school so much later than any other district that when I was on vacation in other states, the shelves were clear by mid July. I just went to Staples yesterday and got my gross of $.19 pocket folders and you can too, before they are all gone.

Here is a shopping strategy for the parents of rising 6th graders ready for their first year of Middle School. It is a tough call because your tween will want to wait to see what everyone else has. They may also want the giant binder with pockets and subject dividers for the first time. These will not go to waste even if their teachers don't require them. They will use them all sometime unless they become plastered with Jonas Brothers stickers which will render them "gross" and outdated in 6 months.
This is what you should get:

  • the tried and true marble composition books one for each subject (and lots of extras)
  • pocket folders for each subject
  • spiral notebooks with perforations so that the pages can be torn out without the fringe

If you go shopping now you can find colorful (actually attractive) composition notebooks. Get them in different colors for each subject, red for ELA, blue for math, green for science etc. Then get the corresponding colored pocket folders and spiral notebooks for those subjects too. That way when the books are strewn all over the living room at 7am and your child only needs science and ELA that day, he can easily see what needs to go into the backpack. If they are all the same color or random designs imagine the horror (and notes home that he doesn't have his work in class).

  • pads of graph paper for math (some have 4 sq. per in. on one side and 5 on the other so that you have all bases covered)
  • lots of #2 pencils, a sharpener, and some mechanical lead pencils for math
  • colored construction paper, glue sticks, markers of all kinds (you thought the projects would stop?!)
  • extra poster board (white and in color) and a spare tri-fold card board display (thanks Felicity)
  • lots of extra printer paper and many extra ink cartridges

Middle school is when the computer becomes a part of your child's body. I have a couple things to say about this. ALWAYS HAVE AN EXTRA INK CARTRIDGE IN THE HOUSE. Oh yes, you will use the last one and think, I will reorder that in a couple of weeks like I normally do, but a week later at midnight when the giant social studies project is due, suddenly there will be no ink, because your child spent the last week printing out multiple copies of different size pictures of civil war uniforms that they didn't use. Hear me now or suffer the consequences. Always have at least one extra cartridge and ream of paper in the house. Always.


Happy shopping!

My Dad; living green

I just need to brag on my dad who turned 80 this year. He and my mother moved to a "community for active seniors" a couple of years ago and he joined the model sailboat club.

My father was an art teacher, librarian and school audio/visual supervisor, but mostly he has been a lifelong user of recycled materials in an effort to have more fun. He made kites out of the Sunday funnies. He once attended a costume party wrapped in bubble wrap with a hidden tape recorder that played heavy breathing sounds. His office and library were decorated with objects that he found or created and we couldn't wait to visit to just hang out in the environments that he made. Give him an afternoon, some toilet paper tubes and a solar battery and stand back. I joked when they moved to Greenspring that there would be a pile of "hall walkers" who had coronaries in front of their door when his motion sensitive, kinetic sculpture jumped out and said "HELLO!" (My mother, a minimalist, decided on a less stressful option)

His sailboat club, located a few miles from the Pentagon, is full of former Navy guys. When my father joined, he began experimenting with different sail materials, and winning races. Imagine the uproar when he showed up with the non-regulation red nylon (which helps him actually see his boat from across the pond). The ultimate triumph occurred the other day when he showed up with a sail made from the wrapper of a Costco bushel of paper towels. Needless to say, he cleaned up in his races that day.

Teen Treks

My teens are all over the map this summer.
They got back from a great Teen Treks bike trip across Mass. from Albany to Provincetown on the Cape. This is the second trip for one of them and it didn't disappoint. The rain and the Berkshires didn't deter them (although now when we are sitting in a car and they see a slight incline they exclaim "oh no, a hill!") It was a fantastic small group this year and they did everything from Tanglewood to Great Adventure, lots of beaches and two days in Boston. I highly recommend this trip for giving them a real sense of accomplishment and adventure.

We hardly had time to scrape the bike grease off before we headed to the family reunion in Chicago. Chicago is a great town for kids with amazing free summer concerts and programs all over the city (and a great bike path along the lake and its own beaches). It is a little early, but we decided to tour Northwestern as long as we were in the neighborhood. There is plenty to love there and I highly recommend their tour which was "awesome!" We had a very excited tour guide who also happened to be extremely knowledgeable (good job Northwestern, my kids are now looking further west than they were a week ago).

I have to give a shout out to Daniel, junior at Stuy, who I happen to know, follows this blog religiously. He is doing a summer debate program at Northwestern that sounds interesting. It seems that I have a few fans at Stuy, Hi J.! which keeps me from writing anything really interesting about my kids.


The words every mom of a teen is fearful to see in a text, "I got the baby!" These were not so ominous because she only had it for 24 hours, so I texted back, "awesome!" and waited for Robobaby to arrive.

My daughter, as a sophomore, has had "Health" this year instead of gym. It has been a terrific class, which the teacher gleefully describes as having one goal - making sure that none of them gets pregnant. It is much more than that. This class has been so enlightening that I think of it akin to the salad making scene in "To Sir, With Love". Ms. B. is getting them ready for the real world; they rolled the dice to get a job or career (so far, so good), they planned their weddings, wrote vows, made a yearly budget ("why do I have to pay for my husband's deodorant?!"), watched videos of real births ("like, 15 times! disgusting!") assembled their layettes, and finally she brought Robobaby home for a sleepover.

First the school had us sign a paper saying that if anything happens to Robobaby we are responsible for the cost, $350. (I imagine my husband at 2am going at Robobaby with a phillips-head, trying to disarm its crying mechanism.) The kids get the baby for a day (no raw eggs or bags of flour for Murrow!) They have a key that is attached to their wrists with the kind of unbreakable tag that you get at amusement parks so that you can't hand responsibility over to someone else. The key disarms the crying mechanism. The baby records how many times you neglect it or don't support its head. My daughter had to get special permission to delay her baby because she was in a play. For a split second she could tell, Ms. B was thinking, "well, what are you going to do if you had a REAL baby?" and she thought better of it. (Nobody crosses the Murrow Drama Dept.)

So, yesterday afternoon she arrived and was promptly placed in the darling hand painted cradle that held the stuffies and cowbaby. Of course as a new mother, my daughter checked her every 10 minutes because the baby wasn't doing anything. (She had been told it was programed "colicky"). I said, "just wait", and yes, at midnight Robobaby started to cry at irregular intervals until the three of us made my daughter and her progeny sleep on the sofa where we couldn't hear them scream. I am sure that she will get a good grade. She is a very attentive mother. Mostly, I am thankful that she can now stick to a budget, that she knows how much her cell phone costs, that she is thinking about her 401K and that she will make her husband buy his own deodorant.

Author/Illustrator talks to schools

I just heard Melanie Hope Greenberg speak to several elementary classes this morning at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. She is the author/illustrator of many picture books including "Down in the Subway" and her current "Mermaids on Parade". She was adorable and so interesting and the room of 60 or so kids just ate it up. She describes her process in a very engaging way. She walked us through the illustration process from her plans through preliminary sketches to the finished work. She described the editing process and how it is helpful and hard sometimes. She showed us pictures and told us stories about her inspiration and gave personal details that she weaves into her work, which made us feel like real insiders. The kids were jumping out of their seats to ask questions and she spoke to them with an ease that let me know that she was with her people. Today she was speaking in conjunction with the show of her work in the youth wing of the Central Library (free to the public through June 13)
She is always available to speak to local elementaries. All you PTA's should call her to set up a program for your librarian!
Also a little shout out for the libraries. If you have a little to spare they are in dire need. You can contribute to your own local branch too. No amout too small.
They are also planning a special start to summer reading festival on June 4. Come sign up for your summer reading goodies and have fun in the plaza. That is a school holiday so come and enjoy the library! More information on that shortly.

NUTS again

This was one of my earliest posts, but I went to parent/teacher conferences last night and I think that it is still relevant.

I invented a new sport in my mind tonight. “In my mind” is my favorite kind of sport because I always win. I went to Parent/Teacher conferences at Murrow. We are blessed with a “Type A” perfectionist. I have nothing to complain to her teachers about and it is usually a 3-minute love fest. (Hey, I like my compliments cheap and often) The trick is to see all of the teachers in the 2 hours allotted. I need my teacher face time.

Let me explain the rules. You wait with hundreds of other parents in a giant shivering mass outside the school doors like it’s a Who concert with festival seating. (Imagine how those teachers feel, trapped inside with only an endless line of “issues” before them) If you are an “elite” NUTS player like myself, you have a list of teachers and room numbers coded by location. In a school the size of Murrow, this is key. You race to the farthest room, sign your name on the list outside the door and repeat on all lists in the near vicinity. Then you send your husband who is having trouble reading the map to sign up on other floors. (This may be a tactical error) If you are positioned outside the door when your name comes up on the list, you may go in and have your 3 minutes. If you arrive back to the classroom after your name has already been called you go to the end of the now endless list. The art of it is to fit in a couple of the less popular teachers between the majors. The team who finishes all their conferences in the least amount of time gets to go home and have a stiff drink.

10pts off for brow beating the poor student organizing the list outside the door.
5pts for doing the quick switch with the team right behind you on the list when you arrive just a minute too late.
2pts off for getting cornered by the candy sellers
10pts for giving them a $5 and not taking any candy
5pts for snagging a chair
10pts off for erasing names ahead of you on the list
10pts for visiting the phys ed. Teacher
Good Luck and may the GAMES BEGIN!