School is out and we’re off to California: it’s pre-production time for the second American Red Nose Day so we’re going to Los Angeles to support my current boyfriend, who is busy recruiting celebs and working on fundraising films hoping to beat last year’s total of $23 million. As it’s Spring Break and school is closed for a fortnight, I’m taking my boys with me.
After two terms of the New York education system, I’m nowhere near qualified to give you any sort of overview, but I can tell you a few things about our new academic life. My boys’ school is four years old and progressive... There are only three main classes per day, each of which is an hour and a half long, to focus their minds in a deeper way than changing subjects every 40 minutes. And at primary level, every second day all lessons are taught in Spanish so the children will grow up bilingual.
As a parent, I get about four school emails every day. I’m sent each child’s homework so I can keep an eye on their prep, and the rest have news about various school-based activities, like the Clothing Drive for Gently Used Clothes (love the passive-aggressive wording), the Children’s Film Festival, the four-week Summer Camps, the Community Service programmes, the Book Recycling Project, the Food Bank volunteers, the walking art tours, the session with foster care survivors, and the 753 different sports departments. It would be possible to spend an entire working week just keeping up with school activities.
I’ve been especially fascinated by the mediated Parents’ Discussion Group for teen issues like internet safety, bullying, cliques, drugs, sex and alcohol ... Sometimes things are quite different to the UK — one parent in the group takes a daily photo of her liquor bottles so she can see if her daughter is drinking. However, that system is no longer working (she’s drinking and then topping the bottles up with water) so her dad is installing CCTV in their sitting room. Last month the school held LGBT Awareness Day. One pupil boycotted it, saying that as there was no Heterosexual Awareness Day he didn’t see the need to treat the LGBT community differently.
But my favourite moment from this last semester (oh yes, I’ve gone over to the linguistic dark side) was a Math (yup, you heard it) lesson where children made a spreadsheet for a fictional New York parent. They learnt how to balance his books until his bills and lifestyle matched his post-tax income. Already this was more than I learnt in 18 years of education.
They were then told his son had won a partial scholarship to a private school, so they had to adjust the spreadsheet to somehow find an extra $100 per week. But one day the fictional son came back saying one of his classmates was going to the Hamptons for the holidays and could his family do that too? The class then discussed how to explain to the boy that his family had less money than some of his peers and how to be thankful for what he’d got: and Math morphed into a class on home finance, emotional intelligence and, ultimately, gratitude.
So there’s a lot here that’s different, holistic, modern and compassionate. But then, of course, some things never change... I asked my 12-year-old son how he thought of the education in America compared to that in London. “Well, the sex education certainly is better.” I did not expect that. “How?” I asked. “At my London school, they said we weren’t to laugh, then they showed us a video and we laughed and they got a bit angry. In New York, they said we could laugh as much as we liked, and we discussed it all and it was interesting, though, you know, a bit private.” “Really?” I said. “Nobody laughed?” “No,” he said. “Although by mistake the teacher stood in front of a picture of a penis, and it looked like it was coming out of the top of her head.” “And did you all laugh at that?” “Durr. Obvs.” The Daily Telegraph