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Science to prove it

May 21st, 2009
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I have never had a slightest of doubts in the veracity of the statement I made on many occasions: My children benefited greatly through their experiences of living in a foreign country, and definitely got a leg up on their American peers who did not have such experiences.

Now, there is a scientific study that argues a similar notion. As this article in The Economist describes, the results of a recent psychological study suggest that expats acquire a discernible creative edge over their more stationary compatriots.

I feel validated.

Expat Topic, Schooling

Homework on Fridays

March 18th, 2009

I wrote in the past about my views on British education and its differences from the American brand. The main gist was that under the right conditions, British system looks somewhat superior, but in the state educational environment on grammar school level, I don’t see much of a difference. I kept forgetting to mention one issue that always bothered me, and now it is sort of coming to a head.

Throughout her two and a half years at a state grammar school in London, Kimmy has been given homework only on Fridays, to be turned in on the following Friday. Most of the time, she can breeze through an entire assignment in 15 minutes.

15 minutes of homework a week.

My memory is failing me here, but I am pretty sure that even in the first and second grades in a New Jersey public elementary school she had daily homework assignments, something not too taxing but aimed at reinforcing what was recently learned and at developing a habit of independent work on the course material.

Without such a habit, she is getting to the point where she resists doing her homework even when she knows that she can easily complete it. It’s boring, it’s a waste of time, and all that. And since homework has never been established in school as an important part of the studying process, whenever she gets to something that she cannot easily do within the assignment, she dismisses it as unimportant.

We are pretty relaxed about maintaining any sort of study regimen for our kids, but we always did plenty of extra-curricular studying with them. Kimmy has fun with that. I always held that I did not particularly care about the quality of school instruction on the elementary school level, because it is more important what you do with the kids that age at home, IMHO. But, nevertheless, I’d like the school at least to refrain from instilling bad habits and negative attitude in my child.

So, Natasha has long been supplementing any extra-curricular learning activities with exercises directly related to Kimmy’s current school subjects. We privately expressed our disdain with the homework practices, but Kimmy has always been near the top of her class in all subjects, so there was not a reason for a real concern.

Now she started acting out against homework. She is ok with doing things with Natasha, but not ok with doing her once-weekly school assignments.

We either need to find a way to seamlessly incorporate the actual homework into the stuff Natasha does with her on the side, or to force her to spend a set amount of time on homework every day to work her into a more rigid structure of studies. Which is going to be really silly – stretching those 15 minutes over the course of a week. (It will probably be more strictly-regimented overall studies, both homework and the fun stuff on the side, which has a clear danger of making the latter less fun.) In either case, I feel we’ll be treating the symptoms rather than than the cause of the problem.

I am more than a bit put off by this. Becky, who may have not been much challenged in her elementary school years in New Jersey, but who always had some homework to complete, never had this type of a problem…

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I fully recognize that this post can be seen as a negative generalization of the British education approach, a generalization based on a highly-unscientific observational sample of a single school. I admit that I have no knowledge as to whether Fridays-only homework is a standard practice in state British grammar schools. Anyone reading this, whose child goes to a state grammar school in the UK where homework occurs daily, I would greatly appreciate a shout to help me properly qualify my statements.

Schooling

GCSE choices

February 11th, 2009

If we were to stay in England for another year or two, Becky would have to start studying for GCSE’s next year. Year 9, which she is in now, is when the students choose their optional subjects.

First of all, there are 6 compulsory subjects: English, English Literature, Information & Communication Technology, Mathematics, Science (which encompasses Biology, Chemistry and Physics), and Religious Education.

In addition, 4 other subjects, one of which has to be a modern language, can be selected based on the inclinations of the student.

Becky’s choices are: Spanish, Drama, History and French, with Geography specified as an alternative in case one of her other choices creates a clash in the schedule. There is also a separate qualification awarded for Phys-Ed, which she plans to be taking as well. What got left out are Art, Design Technology, Music and three other languages offered at the school, Mandarin, German and Latin.

Given that Drama, History and foreign languages are Becky’s favorite subjects (none of the mandatory subjects makes that distinction, by the way), it was a pretty obvious choice for her. I may have gone for Mandarin over Geography, but that may be too many languages to seriously study simultaneously. She anyway already has a Russian language qualification

Schooling

Some education

October 10th, 2008

Kimmy’s Year 4 program in literature includes a module called “Fantasy Worlds”. Guess which texts she was supposed to be studying in that?

Harry Potter books! And not just the books – all movie installments to date were apparently part of the program as well.

On top of that – wait for it! – the pupils would then progress to watching Star Wars movies.

I’m not kidding!

Now, I like fantasy as a genre a lot and I am a big fan of the Star Wars, but I am not sure that they are an appropriate curriculum for a bunch of 8-year-olds. And, frankly, Star Wars as a literary work!? Really?

Many parents objected, Natasha included (I largely stay on the sidelines when it comes to communicating with schools; after all, Natasha is an educator by trade – she has an insider view on how to navigate a parent-teacher relationship). Star Wars were canned, cinema sessions rolled back, and the plan is now limited to the very first Harry Potter as sort of a modern fairy tale. But in greater detail than before.

I’m sure the kids would be unhappy if they knew that their parents prevented them from watching movies all the time.

Schooling

Re-visiting education (Q&A, part 2)

September 25th, 2008

Continuing our Q&A exercise, in which I successfully engaged one single person to ask me questions, let’s address another one of Jeri’s queries. (Part 1 is here.)

I’m assuming your children are in British schools – what are the advantages and disadvantages of American vs. British school systems?

I did, in fact, produce a rambling essay on this very subject more than a year ago. It is worth to briefly restate it here.

Becky attends an independent – British equivalent for private; in other words, fee-paying – girls-only school that is reportedly one of the top schools in the country. Kimmy goes to a regular co-ed state school, one that is rated as “good” – but not exceptional – by the Ofsted.

After close to two years of experience with British schooling, I firmly hold that, if taught right, British approach to school education is both wider in its range and deeper in its substance than American schooling approach. The simplest example of greater depth is the fact that pupils actually learn how to prove mathematical theorems as opposed to just checking them off as “facts”; the former trains the mind, while the latter is pretty useless on its own merits, in my humble opinion.

The greater width is best characterized by the existence of more diverse subjects, as well as the social sciences curriculum that is balanced enough to teach children about the world, not just the country that they live in.

If taught right is a very important qualifier, though. The quality of schooling varies from area to area and, as you might experience in the US as well, tends to be worse in urban areas and better in more affluent suburban ones. Moreover, state schools are unflinchingly egalitarian, in that children with different abilities and attitudes are taught in the same classroom; the pressure on even the best teachers to dumb down the instruction to the lowest common denominator is too great – the student mix becomes a dominant factor in the level of schooling that your children obtain.

Having said all that, I have no doubt that, all other things being equal, my kids will end up more well-rounded and open-minded individuals than their American peers because of the years they will have spent in British schools.

Expat Topic, Schooling

Becky takes a GCSE exam

April 28th, 2008

In America, SATs are used as one of – and, occasionally, determining – criteria for gaining admission to a higher education institution. In England, the functional equivalent is called A-levels, and they carry enough social recognition, so that college graduates habitually list which of these examinations they passed on their CVs.

The main obvious difference between SATs and A-levels is that the former do not examine proficiency in specific subjects, while the latter are discipline-specific. The less noticeable difference is that SATs are open for all schoolchildren of a certain age, while eligibility for attempting A-levels at the final stages of your secondary education depends on doing well in earlier examinations called GCSEs.

I am going to skirt the debate on whether it is efficient or elitist to close the doors to higher education for a considerable percentage of children even before they attempt college-entry examinations. It is largely a fact, however, that you need at least 5 high grades on GCSEs in order to take A-levels.

Among the numerous GCSE disciplines, there are several dozen of modern languages. My enterprising eldest daughter figured out that one of those GCSE high grades was hers for the taking and scheduled herself for examinations in Russian language.

The exam can be taken over several sessions, concentrating on one skill at a time: speaking, writing, reading… So far, Becky has done only the speaking session. She had six topics on which to discourse to choose from, and the examination was basically a conversation between her and the tester, who was a native Russian speaker, no less. Becky ended up choosing the least-regimented “me, my family and my life” topic; the conversation was tape-recorded, and some central commission will eventually look at it and issue a grade, which will later be combined with similar grades for the rest of the skills to produce the final GCSE grade.

Becky says she did well, which is likely a correct assessment. I think the only area where she can stumble is the writing portion. Her approach to writing in Russian is to “write exactly as it sounds”, and, while Russian is a comparatively phonetic language, even true native speakers need to know quite an amount of grammar in order to be able to write properly. Hopefully, the overall grade is not weighted too heavily towards writing…

She did not prepare in any specific way, surmising that her fairly comprehensive command of the spoken language should be enough to pass with flying colors. The problem is, she is unlikely to spend any extra time studying for the rest of the sessions. Conscientious student as she is, she would definitely meet any extra studies with resistance.

Let’s not forget that it is almost a certainty that my children will enter the American system of higher education, rather than the British one. In that light, taking these exams is no more than a sort of training for some future tests. I am a bit torn between my inclination to view them from this angle and my expectation that the brilliant daughter of mine should ace any exam she takes…

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P.S. I realize that there are some parallels between the British examination system, and how the Soviet schools used to work when I was a kid. We had mandatory exams in a handful of disciplines at the conclusion of our 8th grade (akin to GCSEs), after which almost all of the less-apt students left for vocational schools and such. Those who stayed for the two more years of high school had to take another handful of exams at the end of the 10th grade (not unlike A-levels), which played a bit part in determining how many university entry exams one had to take.

The vast majority of us still had to take exams directly at the higher institution of their desire; many of us had to do better than hundreds of other applicants in order to gain entry. Failure to do so often meant waiting at least a year for another chance…

Schooling, That's England

Immensely proud of Becky

March 11th, 2008

Natasha went to the parent/teacher conference at Becky’s school last night. In a manner deserving of the expensive private institution, the conference was smoothly organized as a series of face-to-face meetings with every teacher that Becky has classes with. There are seventeen of them for Becky’s form, so the process was a bit like speed-dating in that the teachers were seated at “stations” and parents, accompanied by the pupils themselves, rotated from station to station. Quite impressive, Natasha noted.

Even more impressive was the universally exuberant praise for our elder daughter by the teachers.

All language teachers gave her effusive panegyrics: She is easily top of her class in Mandarin and Spanish, and is doing quite well in French (even though, she claims that she does not like the latter). A common thread of a possible career that has to do with languages was mooted several times.

The English teacher lauded the way Becky forms and expresses her thoughts in class, noting, however, that she tends to “dumb down” her style when writing essays. Hey, it would be too much even for this proud father if she had nothing to work on in terms of improving!

The RE teacher gushed about her mature and well thought-out opinions on every topic that the class discusses. “She has a philosophical mind”, the teacher said. This is Religious Education, admittedly the least favorite subject of our pupil’s, and the least consequential from her parents perspective, but the inference is clearly positive.

The Phys Ed teacher extolled Becky’s enthusiastic participation in various sports and the example she sets for other girls.

The Art and Design Technology teachers complimented her attention to detail on projects that she gets excited about, but noted that she finds it hard to sustain the same level of effort when her feelings about the work at hand are lukewarm.

All others invariably said that she was bright, talented and effortlessly ahead of the curve, while lamenting the already public notion that she is unlikely to return for the next full year.

The Drama teacher, who is also the form tutor (aka классный руководитель), provided the strongest bit of criticism. Becky is strong-willed, confident in her opinions and judgments, and that often leads to her taking over the discussion and taking charge at the expense of less assertive girls.

I actually do not see that as a handicap of any sort, but I wonder who she gets that from?

Yep, that’s my girl! B)

Children, Schooling

School trips are fun

November 26th, 2007
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One way in which British school curriculum differs from its American counterpart is in the quantity of school field trips. As they bring variety to frequently dull coursework as well as often become an effective tool for learning certain topics, we are quite happy that our girls are exposed to that.

Consider. In this trimester already, Becky has been to the Eltham Palace for a field study of Art Deco, on a day-trip to France structured around culinary arts, and on a visit to Buddhist and Hindu temples as part of religious studies (she does not like the subject, but she very much liked the trip). There are five or six more of these scheduled for the rest of the school year.

Public schools are not far behind in taking kids out of the classroom and into some interesting environments. Kimmy, for instance, has been this year to a storytelling workshop. And today, the trip was to the British Museum – her favorite. She likes it mainly because she can normally get an activity backpack there (these backpacks provide a semi-scripted way to engage children in appreciation of different artifacts). Visiting with her entire class, there was no chance of getting a backpack, but the children were taken around the museum and shown many interesting things, according to Kimmy. More trips will follow for her class, as well.

I can’t recall more than one or two trips in a school year in America…

Schooling

On relocating with kids

July 27th, 2007

In my posts, I occasionally touch upon subjects that could be collectively described as Things You Tend To Not Spend Time Thinking Seriously About When Making Decision To Relocate. Since I’ve gathered a few of those after all these months, I figure I can devote an occasional post to such a topic exclusively.

So, what about relocating with your kids?

First of all, why the question?

The reason is fairly simple. I know many expat couples that have kids – and they are all faced with similar kid-related logistic problems. And while every one of those families obviously spent considerable time figuring out how to set up said logistics, nobody actually goes far enough to think of the overall implications. Until it becomes a nuisance, that is, at which point changing it may be an undertaking of the same magnitude as the original relocation…

I am not going to give you any advice here, just some food for thought.

There is no argument that bringing your kids to live abroad is a stupendously positive experience. Okay, let me qualify that. No argument, unless your destination is of an oppressive, authoritarian or otherwise inherently dangerous to foreigners type. But with relocating to Western Europe, the benefits of exposure to different cultures and places and of expanding children’s horizons cannot be underestimated. (And if you happen to disagree, I am sorry to say that that is the thinking of a stereotypical narrow-minded and ego-centric American – I did not come up with the stereotype, mind you, I am only borrowing it from some America-bashing Euro intellectuals).

But you would not move half across the world just to expand your offspring’s horizons, would you? No, for most of us, a professional opportunity is the big part of the picture. And chances are, the adults in the family are themselves keen to experience different people and places and a different lifestyle. The kids will simply tag along.

Not so simple, unfortunately.

Let’s see. We came to Europe because we like to travel. But anybody who’s ever went with the kids to something other than a beach or the Disneyworld will know that you end up adjusting your plans around children’s stamina, or lack thereof, as well as their attitudes towards playgrounds and souvenir stores (cool!) and museums and idle walks (bo-o-o-o-ring!).

Oh, we certainly considered it beforehand. And overrode our own concerns with Well, we’ll do our best. And if you have been following our adventures, you’d agree that we’ve done reasonably well thus far in satisfying our wanderlust and keeping the kids happy at the same time.

Of course, I have two bright girls, who are normally receptive to the idea of a museum visit and sometimes even surprise me with their appreciation of what they see. And they can always be negotiated with, even on their most restive occasions.

But suppose that they were less curious. Or less amenable to spending time on what the parents like to do in exchange of a promise of following that up with something that they would enjoy. (How about we go to see Van Gogh for a bit and then hire the water bike? And we’ll let you pedal!)

Or suppose that the kids are simply too small to be travelling and sightseeing. Do you forgo your travel plans? Do you always go only to leisure destinations? Do you leave the child(ren) with the nanny and spend your getaway constantly feeling pangs of guilt and worrying about the neglected little one?

Travel, after all, is just a discretionary pleasure. School is a whole different matter.

You see, in England, living near a good public school does not guarantee that your child gets into it. It certainly improves your chances, but a good school is likely to be a popular choice of many, and if it happens to be oversubscribed – or already full when you apply – then your child may end up being “invited” to another school in the same district (called catchments here). Quite possibly, no longer within walking distance.

You may get lucky and get into the school that is your first choice. Or you may decide to go for an independent (that’s private in American) school right from the start, and that will allow you to look for a permanent accommodation after the school situation is cleared up (which is not really possible with public schools since you normally cannot apply to one without having secured a residence in the catchment to which it belongs).

But it is very likely that you’ll first find yourselves a suitable house or an apartment, and then realize that your 12-year-old daughter will have to take two connecting buses to get to the school which is a couple of miles away. And there are no school buses even as a concept.

A braver parent might just let the kid travel on her own (and surely I did so at an even younger age myself), but I am not that brave. So, instead, I drive Becky to school every morning, which takes me over half an hour since I have to come all the way back to the house. Natasha then picks her up in the afternoon, occasionally spending well over an hour in the car on the account of traffic. Talk about different lifestyle! My morning commute, which I was so keen to reduce compared to what I used to have in New Jersey, is pretty much stuck at the same hour-and-a-half.

So, there you have it. The questions of school and travelling with kids did not get enough of consideration when we were considering relocation. And they certainly should have.

Now, in truth, it is unlikely that we would have changed our minds even if had the foresight of my morning school runs. But who knows?

Children, Expat Topic, Schooling

Putting your kids in school: American versus local education

July 3rd, 2007

The American School in Central London costs around £20K per child per year. Unless you receive on-going subsidies as part of your expatriate package (see my treatise on relocation packages for further reference), you would probably be put off by this price tag. We obviously were, although the cost was only one of the reasons why we put our girls into local schools in England.
Read more…

Expat Topic, Schooling

Soccer, parents, school…

January 11th, 2007
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Anglification of me – I have watched three full soccer games on TV over the last four days.

The curious thing is that I also caught a glimpse of a match between two 4th-tier teams (so-called CocaCola League 2) – on the main sports channel, in primetime. I guess you could watch minor-league baseball on YES, but even they probably would not broadcast a Class A game, to say nothing of ESPN. Here, it’s a common occasion to see lower-division footie games on TV, when the top flight does not have a game on the schedule.

The British obviously know how to show football. Every goal chance or otherwise key play gets plenty of replay from various angles; commentators are knowledgeable, and often fun to listen to; scoreboard takes a very small corner of the screen and is devoid of sponsor ads. At the end of half and the full time, the commentary always includes replay of every single goal. Eminently watchable! Too bad that I do not have high-def here…

I also watched a bit of rugby, which is slightly confusing, but quite exciting. I have not been able to work up the will to invest time in cricket, though.

My parents stoically brave the unpleasant weather, and have visited most of the major sights in London, including a couple that we did not get to ourselves yet. The last couple of days they were completely on their own, but armed with travel cards and a good map, they managed to find their way around via public transportation without major mishaps. They even rode a bus smack in the center of the city – a feat that I have yet to attempt.

For all of its regular unreliability, London transportation deserves the props for being quite convenient and easy to use.

The girls started the second semester in school. The school schedule is very different in England from what we used to in America. The year is normally broken into three trimesters: September – December, January – March, April – July. There are two-weeks-long holidays between the trimesters, with about a month and a half holiday during summer. In addition, each trimester is further divided into two parts by a week-long holiday. So the kids were off from Christmas until this Monday, and will be on holiday again in just five weeks. The schedule is pretty much universal across all of state and independent schools, making it six “standard” holiday periods through the year. Large organizations explicitly stay away from scheduling important business activities during those times, as many people take time off to do something with – or, at the very least, provide care for – their kids.

Our trips – the ones that are longer than a weekend, anyway, – are being planned around the same paradigm. You may even notice the time blocked in my Calendar as “school break”. Such blocks will be replaced with specific trips once our plans firm up.

In the meantime, I am off for the last two vacation days of last year. My entire allotment for this year will start dwindling down only in February.

Chronicles, Schooling, Sports

And a week went by…

October 13th, 2006

After a long post last weekend, almost a week-long silence. To my regular audience – and I know who both of you are – my sincerest apologies. I had planned on writing the blog at the end of each workday, but there is too much stuff to deal with during the day and it is too hard to force myself to stay in the office for a bit of creative writing…

But, hey, I now have my home computer and a broadband connection, so, hopefully, I’ll get to be more diligent about writing.

Anyway, what happened to me during this week?

I can honestly say that life is already taking a shape of routine.

I am timing my commute quite well. Sadly, the trip back always hovers around 45 minutes, as I have to leave some buffer in order to make sure that I catch the once-in-30-minutes train at Lewisham. On Thursday, actually, I took a different train out of Lewisham – 20 minutes earlier than mine – which brought me further away from the house (but still within walking distance). When all was said and done, I walked for about 20 minutes, arriving exactly when I would had I waited for the right train.

The morning commute is normally less than 40 minutes. Yet, DLR was packed more than usual this morning, which resulted in extra time at stations, which brought the total time to [sigh] 45 minutes.

So much for the initial idea of being 30 minutes away from the office. I keep reminding myself that on a good day, I will still be saving over 2 hours in total over what my New Jersey commute used to be. In other words, “Look at the bright side”.

Then, there are things that really turn out to be easy and pleasant.

Such as selecting a school for Kimmy, for instance. The education advisor working with me found that one of the primary schools in close proximity to the house had open spots. The school is also doing comparatively well as far as level of education. I called and arranged for a visit. The headteacher (i.e. principal, директор ) spent a whole hour with me, introducing me to the entire stuff (including the cook; I’ve heard so many Mrs.This and Mrs.That that I honestly couldn’t put a name and a face together if I tried), walking me around the school, extolling the features and benefits of the school’s approach to achieving its mission (it’s not a joke – every school in UK starts with a mission statement), and basically leading me to saying “I certainly would love for Kimmy to become a student here”. I was only happy to oblige. It must be me having a soft spot for older women being nice to me…

In truth, I have not seen a school closer to the house than this (it should be noted that British educational authorities consider proximities in straight lines, so there may be another one that is technically closer), it looks being taken care of, I have not seen anything unpleasant as far as surroundings are concerned, and I surely wanted to have at something turn out not be a hassle. So, come October 30, Kimmy is a Year 2 student at Middle Park Primary School in Greenwich.

Finding a school for Becky is more complicated. She is going into Year 7, which is the first year of senior school. The process of applying to senior schools starts in October of preceding year, and all good schools are obviously oversubscribed, which means that there are currently no open spots in any public school that has good educational results.

In UK, your place of residence defines your “catchment” – the primary local area in which the kids are supposed to go to school. However, you are neither required to stay within your catchment, nor are you guaranteed a spot anywhere. Proximity to institution plays an important factor in being placed in a particular school, but if you do not live on the doorstep of a school, you may be offered a place pretty far away. And with good schools, it is doorstep or forget it.

We are not close to any senior school, but it is hardly relevant, given that there are no really good schools in Greenwich (which is our catchment). Nearby Bromley has several schools that are better, but neither are they close by nor do they have open places. The best public senior school available to us is actually not too far (maybe, a mile) and is quite ok by Greenwich standards (but still slightly below national average as far as educational achievements). We will consider it, but we are not too excited.

We are additionally looking at private schools (they are called “independent” in Brit-speak). Quite expensive, but also quite a different level of education. I am visiting one of those on Saturday for an open-doors type of thing (for those who is not paying attention, it is October – i.e. the application season for the next year; most schools – public and private – are having open-doors days throughout the month). Becky will have to go for an entrance exam there. At another independent school, there is a two-day trial for which she is already scheduled. We’ll see how that turns out.

But I digress.

The other highlights of the week had to do with getting broadband equipment. First, picking up a parcel from a post office. In our suburban area, a post office is almost always a convenience store, looking nothing like what you’d expect from a real post office. I honestly thought at first that the sign “Post Office” was the name of the store, like “Hallmark” or something. But it really fulfills some of post office functions. For instance, if you cannot receive your parcel at home, you can arrange to pick it up at the post office, which is half a block away from the house.

The package from British Telecom contained a broadband router (which is kind of flaky when installed and configured wirelessly, but otherwise is very simple to set up and use) and a decent cordless phone/answering machine combo. There was also a note indicating that I was supposed to get a super-duper broadband phone instead, but it being out of stock, a temporary substitution was made. I am pretty sure that the terms of my phone/broadband contract do not include any charges for equipment. Without having experienced setting up similar connection in the States recently, I find it pretty amazing that a router and a phone were included with the new line for free. Maybe I am up for an unpleasant surprise when the bill comes…

And the rest of the week was work, work, work. Although I did go out with some colleagues on Wednesday, and even paid for a round of beers.

Tomorrow, after school visit, is the continuation of car search. I am test-driving a couple that I did not get to last week, plus I found a Volkswagen dealership that evaded me previously, and I want to take a look at a Jetta.

Children, Chronicles, Schooling