Guest Blogger Jenny: How Does A Private Elementary School Handle Bullies?

Bullying is getting a ton of press these days, mostly due to the use of the internet (whether on social networking sites or live streaming video) to harass victims, sometimes, it seems, to death. In those cases, “bullying” seems a bit too mild a term for what occurred; complete invasion of privacy, harassment, and true criminal intent fits the bill a bit better.



The type of behavior our kids experience on the playground is usually of a lesser grade, more in line with what we once experienced at school ourselves. Kids get shoved off of playground equipment, excluded from games, called names, are ostracized for unique physical traits, and have their names mocked. Though highly unpleasant, this seems to be a childhood rite of passage, and I’m not sure anyone escapes unscathed.



My daughter got her first true taste of bullying in first grade, and she got it right between the eyes. Some fourth grader terrorized her on the playground, demanding her immediate removal from the monkey bars (she did not back down). This went on for weeks until she finally asked for help. Although the threat of physical violence seems bad, the worst was coming. The girl terror in her classroom, run almost solely by a very manipulative and obviously miserable little girl, was highly exclusionary and very sophisticated. My child could easily defend herself against a physical bully and win out (a decent life lesson), but she had little to no defense against the whispering rumor mongering wretch who made her whole year miserable.



This happened at a public school, and when I approached the teacher to complain, she just looked tired and replied she was late for a meeting. Some conference with the girl’s mother and the teacher happened eventually, but the girl terror pretty much lasted the entire year. I had to promise my daughter she would never, ever again share a classroom with that girl. A girl who, much like the girl bullies portrayed in the NYT article Christina previously posted, seemed old for her age, wielded a cell phone at six, and emulated teenage behavior.



Keep in mind: bullying behavior creates more bullying behavior. Kids learn it from somewhere, and most bullies were victims themselves. I watched this in action during her third grade year, as most of the class (my kid included) teamed up against an overweight girl who had often bullied others herself. It might have been payback, but it was still unacceptable. Thankfully, the teacher called the entire class to task, and everyone learned something, except the victim herself, who kept calling herself the victim even as she continued to shove my daughter off the ends of benches. Whatever.



So, that’s my experience with bullying at a public school. What would private school be like? I had no illusions that it would be a bully free environment; I went to Crossroads starting in 8th grade, and the social bullying was tremendous. And Anna* had been left with the impression that all kids were mean, so the idea of being the new kid, and thus an easy mark, weighed heavily upon her.



I’m happy to report that, at least at Mirman, bullying appears to be non-existent. Anna’s transition into the social scene has been pretty easy. There are some kids there who do appear to have poor social skills, and are less than diplomatic about wanting a turn on the monkey bars, but there seems to be none of the Lord of the Flies atmosphere of 3rd St. Anna has been included in impromptu recess theater performances and older girls teach her new gymnastic bar tricks every day. If someone gets a wrong answer in class, it isn’t an opportunity for humiliation.



Anna informed me (and this just might be Mirman student rumor mill) that some upper school students were busted for bullying, and were actually suspended. I’m not sure if this is entirely accurate, but the information certainly reassured her that she was safe from harassment at her new school. The kids at Mirman might be precocious, but they’re not particularly sophisticated in a pop culture way. The nastiness, disrespect and sarcasm of “Hannah Montana” and “The Suite Life” (shows my daughter is forbidden to watch) just doesn’t gain any points in the Mirman environment.



Mirman has a Character Counts education program, with six pillars: caring, citizenship, fairness, respect, responsibility, and trustworthiness; students voted to add cooperation, perseverance and friendship as well. If a school truly pushes this agenda, it doesn’t make for an easy bullying environment.



Plus, The Mirman Parent/Student Information Manual states very clearly: “The school does not condone physical/verbal/cyber harassment of bullying of any kind. Such actions are considered suspendable offenses, Extreme offenses may result in explusion.



So, since I can only speak for our limited time at the Mirman School, I’m curious: what do other private school parents deal with in terms of bullying (The Willows has a similar policy on its campus). Do the other schools have a definitive policy with genuine follow through? Have there been cases of outrageous bullying at your school? And, if so, how did the school deal with it?



In some ways, I worry that the extreme zero tolerance for bullying of any kind might just infantilize our kids. Learning to defend oneself from nonsense is a good skill to have; learning to ignore the malicious whispers and persevere builds great character. But, when bullying becomes almost organized on the playground and entrenched in the social scene, it leads to a break down in the natural order of things, and fosters an entire bullying environment where nothing is off limits. In the end, it’s another one of life’s delicate balancing acts: allowing enough adversity to build valuable life skills, while squelching the truly evil stuff before it poisons everything. And that’s the challenge all schools face when it comes to bullying.


Jenny Heitz has worked as a staff writer for Coast Weekly in Carmel, freelanced in the South Bay, and then switched to advertising copywriting. She has been published in the Daily News. She now writes about gift ideas and products on her blog, Find A Toad.

Guest Blogger Jenny: Notes From The Homework Scene At Mirman

From everything I’ve read, there’s a lot of conflicting opinions regarding homework at the elementary school level. Those in favor of it believe it promotes responsibility and makes the parents more involved; those opposed think it interferes with more important aspects of a child’s time (and can lower self-esteem).


But I think it’s a lot more nuanced than that. My daughter switched in 4th grade from public school to Mirman. I had heard horror stories about the homework at Mirman: freaky little prodigies obsessing over homework in carpool. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from the school, or from my daughter’s reaction to whatever change there was going to be.

Mind you, she had no shortage of homework at 3rd St. elementary. In fact, I would say that that school’s homework approach was, “let’s give them a lot, then add more.” In 1st grade, my daughter had a teacher who really piled it on. Pages upon pages of boring worksheets. Reprimands for six year olds who didn’t complete it all. Even reports with detailed instructions that only an adult could complete (her animal report, on the black widow spider, was really my best effort all year. I received excellent marks for that one).


By 3rd grade, though, she had it down. She’d come home, plop down, and scrawl through those worksheets as fast as she could. In 15 minutes, she’d be done and on to playtime. It was doubtful she’d done her best work; she didn’t care as long as she got it out of the way.

So I wondered: what would Mirman bring? Thus far, Mirman’s approach is to use homework as a path to organization and long term planning skills. Anna is given a list for her week’s homework on Monday, and it’s her job to complete as she sees fit. Other classes assign more during the week. She also has reading to do every night.


It sounds like a lot, and it kind of is, but her response to it is very different than when she was at public school. She has Homework Club after school on Mondays, and she completes much of her weekly quota there. She has started, of her own accord, keeping an agenda and scheduling her work. Most meaningfully, she doesn’t resent or rush it the way she used to. All the homework reflects the week’s lessons, much of it is interesting, and none of it is busy work. In other words, the homework’s very existence makes sense to her, as there’s a good reason for everything assigned.


Now, she cheerfully comes home and heads upstairs for study time (yes, she has tests and quizzes, and the school teaches the students how to take notes during class and study them later). There have been no fits or stubbornness regarding the work. I’m curious to see how she handles the inevitable long term reports and assignments, since, ironically, after 1st grade she never had another report to do outside class.

The one time she was overloaded with a book that was beyond her reading level, it was handled with extraordinary grace and sensitivity. She was allowed to choose another book, one she could realistically complete in the remainder of the time, and keep her self-respect intact. I was impressed.

All in all, if you’re considering an academically challenging school like Mirman, but are worried about pressure, don’t worry! All in all, my kid is so intrigued by what she’s learning during the school day that homework is just an extension of that excitement. And, although she has a longer school day and more work once she gets home, she’s learning to manage it so she can fit in her other activities, like softball, piano, and tennis. I can’t speak for anyone else, but so far, the homework scene at Mirman is just fine, and I’m confident that it will prepare her for the ever greater academic challenges provided by middle school, high school, college and beyond.

Jenny Heitz has worked as a staff writer for Coast Weekly in Carmel, freelanced in the South Bay, and then switched to advertising copywriting. She has been published in the Daily News. She now writes about gift ideas and products on her blog, Find A Toad.

Guest Blogger Jenny: Those Pesky Application Questions!

Ah, it’s application time again. I remember mine well. Sitting down at the kitchen table, pen in hand (why can’t they have these things online, since I’m way more comfortable on a keyboard; I always pitied the AD who had to decipher my chicken scratch printing). I tried to bust them all out in one evening, figuring that once in the groove, completion was possible.


What struck me most about the applications were the questions that weren’t really about my child. I could handle the strengths and weaknesses type of questions. One can always turn a child’s weakness into a kind of strength. For instance: “Although my daughter likes to play independently, that independence makes it easy for her to work on longer term projects.” Reading between the lines: my kid doesn’t do well in groups, but you’ll never have to harass her to get her work done on her own, either. It’s a decent enough trade off.


If faced with these types of questions, there are probably terms you should avoid (and remember, this is just my opinion). Terms such as “spirited,” “strong-willed,” “energetic,” and the godforsaken “Indigo child” should be stricken from the application record. Private schools aren’t actively looking for kids who are a pain; they’re looking for kids who will fit in with their program. Stick to a story that demonstrates strength of character. And think about reports you’ve received about your child’s in class behavior. Kids historically always behave worse with their parents, (ostensibly because the parents, unlike non-relatives, won’t leave their badly behaved child by the side of the road), than with their teachers. Use these classroom behavior reports to describe your children; they’re going to be in classrooms at these private schools, not throwing a fit over bedtimes and privileges.


But back to the murkier questions I mentioned, the ones that have NOTHING to do with your child, and everything to do with you. How about this one: To which clubs and organizations does your family belong? (Yes, there is a question on one of the applications that reads along those lines). Now, you might be tempted to write, “Bacon of the Month Club” (a service I heartily recommend). But that’s not what they’re asking. Let’s be brutally honest here. There are only a handful of desirable answers to this question. Places like California Club and Jonathan Club are right up there. Hillcrest Country Club, Wilshire Country Club, L.A. Country Club, and Riveria Country Club are good ones, too. This is a money question. If your family can afford clubs such as these, your family might be able to generously contribute during Annual Giving. No mystery there.


Here’s another one: To which charities and community organizations does your family belong? Again, I’m not sure the schools really care about the fifty bucks you give to Greenpeace. You know what’s really exciting? If you’re on the board of, say, Children’s Hospital. Yes, they’re interested in that type of involvement. That being said, know your audience. If you’re very active in Planned Parenthood, but you’re applying to St. Brendan’s, you might want to avoid that detail.


On the other hand, if you were part of a neighborhood drive to get crime under control, or raise money for Haiti, or were heavily involved in the running of your old school, DO mention it. Private schools want go-getting parents who organize groups and get things done; they want parents to be involved in raising awareness and money. If that’s your skill set, flaunt it for all it’s worth. Even though it has very little to do with your child.


So, don’t be intimidated by those bizarre queries. Not everyone applying to these schools is a millionaire. Not everyone is on a board, or belongs to an exclusive club, or even belongs to the Bacon of the Month Club. Go with what you feel you have to offer, all the while turning anything negative into a positive. And, for goodness sake, use a good pen.

Jenny Heitz has worked as a staff writer for Coast Weekly in Carmel, freelanced in the South Bay, and then switched to advertising copywriting. She has been published in the Daily News.She now writes about gift ideas and products on her blog, Find A Toad.

Guest Blogger Jenny: A Tale Of Two Curriculums

There are plenty of jarring differences between public and private school. But none, so far, have been as different as the presentation of their respective curriculums.


Recently, I attended my daughter’s Mirman School curriculum night. It was a lovely evening up on that hill. A spread of finger food was laid out for the parents to nosh, before they split up into class level groups in different locales. Soon, we were regaled with presentation after presentation from each specialty teacher: Spanish, Computer Science, Art, Science, Music, Drama, and Physical Education. The presentations weren’t particularly slick or practiced, but they were pretty clear in expressing specific subjects, goals, and teaching styles.Every teacher had his or her own web site, up on the SmartBoard for everyone to see in turn, listing examples of work, lists of goals, and contact information.


After an hour of this, we moved on to our individual classrooms. Sitting in my daughter’s seat, I could see the supplies she’d proudly told me she’d “color coded.” The classroom was already festooned with interesting work, relevant art, tons of books, and, of course, a SmartBoard. And then there was her teacher, a truly old pro who communicated such joy and reverence for the art of teaching, she moved me to tears. Seriously. By the end of the two hour curriculum night, I was beyond impressed. As her stepfather put it, “All we have to do is get her there.”


Compare that with last year’s public school morning parents’ meeting. Held at the chirpy hour of 7:30 a.m., a bunch of sleepy adults listened to the teacher talk about the curriculum for twenty minutes. Sort of, anyway. Because, honestly, what is there to say when everything is pretty much taught to the tests? She did have a Great Books program (which I think my daughter enjoyed; she rarely discussed anything academically related then). There were going to be plays. There appeared to be a SmartBoard in the class, but it wasn’t in use. The teacher explained that she had managed to get the funding for the actual board and training for herself (it wasn’t clear whether this was through private or public funding). The hitch: no laptop. This wonderful piece of educational equipment sat inoperable and unused (eventually, this was remedied through parent donations and a laptop was purchased for SmartBoard use).


There was a lot of emphasis placed on field trips. Now, mind you, this was a public school with fairly well-off kids, most of whom have been to the Aquarium, the Zoo, and LACMA tons of times. Later in the year, I noticed that there wasn’t much connection between what the kids were learning in the classroom and the trips. And, of course, nothing got done the day before one of these trips, either. It was a well-meaning curriculum addition, but I couldn’t figure out the actual value added in terms of learning much of anything new.


The definition of curriculum is an explanation of all the fields of study an institution has to offer. Mirman did that, and did it extremely well. But what it added to that is the intangible sense that my child is being cared for, enriched, nurtured, challenged, and molded into a better version of herself. And I guess that shouldn’t surprise me so much, since that’s part of what you’re paying for at a private school.But here’s the thing: we pay for public school, too, with our tax dollars, and the difference in quality of education, even down to the way the curriculum is presented, seems shockingly different.


If you are one of the parents considering beginning this crazy journey from public to private school, hang tough. There is a shining, golden, perfect carrot at the end of the complex application process. And when you sit, next year, at your child’s curriculum night, you’ll know just what I’m talking about.



Jenny Heitz has worked as a staff writer for Coast Weekly in Carmel, freelanced in the South Bay, and then switched to advertising copywriting. She now writes about gift ideas and products on her blog, Find A Toad.

Our Guest Blogger Writes Traffic Jam: The Importance Of A Good Carpool

My mother has this story she likes to tell. Back in the 1980s, my little sister attended the then Westlake School for Girls. She was in a carpool. One the families in the carpool decided to divorce, but it hadn’t gone through yet. The wife found out that her not-yet-ex-husband was having a fling with one of the other carpool moms. Was the wife furious at the betrayal? Yes. Her response: an outraged ”That’s my carpool!” Never mind the demise of the marital relationship. Her carpool trumped all.


Extreme example? Maybe, but you really can’t underestimate the value of a carpool until you really need one. After I switched my daughter’s school from our local, two minutes away, fully walkable public school (3rd St. Elementary) to a private school (Mirman) on the other side of the moon, I knew I needed a carpool for sanity. Because, you remember when Christina wrote a post awhile back with the ridiculous squiggle line from “your house” to the perfect “private school?” That could be my commute.


I initially thought I’d be in a small carpool to start, maybe just one other family, and we’d all switch off. But instead, it turned into a four family carpool, including two moms I don’t know at all. Fine. It means even less driving for everyone. Except that I have a small car that can only fit three kids (my daughter is big enough to ride in the passenger seat in relative safety), a slight wrinkle that has since been worked out to everyone’s relative satisfaction. Frankly, I would’ve jumped through hoops of fire to make this carpool work out.

Thus far, the actual commute has been unpredictable. Due to the mercurial nature of L.A. traffic patterns, it seems impossible to choose a reliable route. On my first day of afternoon pickup, the traffic on the 101 just stopped. I mean, stopped dead. For fifteen minutes. I really got concerned when people started getting out of their cars and rummaging in their trunks for bottles of water. I kept thinking: there must be a logical reason for this. No. Traffic started up as mysteriously as it had stopped, and the rest of the commute was smooth sailing.

What’s really brutal is the morning pickup. Carpools depend on the requirements of the individual drivers, and two of those drivers want their kids to have time on the playground before school begins, necessitating a 6:45 pickup time. Seriously. My daughter has taken to awakening to her alarm at 6am, turning it off in a stupor, and waking in a panic at 6:20. She’s developed the sleeping habits of an adolescent overnight.

Still, it’s hard to complain. This is a good carpool. This is a carpool I need. This is a carpool I must keep sacrosanct. Other people’s horror stories, however, abound. There are stories of forgotten children, awaiting carpools that never showed. Or extra kids showing up, requiring “doubling up” of seatbelts (probably illegal, but what’s a mom to do, leave them? Don’t buckle them at all?). I know of one kid who refuses to let his parents join a carpool, because he doesn’t like having other kids in “his” car. How about kids who hate each other and fight all the way, every day? Or fears about someone’s car model and safety (unfounded, but in this fear-laden culture, probably unavoidable).

Sometimes I look back with nostalgia to my high school Crossroads carpool. Sitting in my friend’s mom’s Country Squire station wagon, the mom’s long crimson fingernails clicking on the steering wheel in time with the crooning of Neil Diamond. That carpool had many different characters: the silent, hulking, smelly 9th grader, the hapless boy who stumbled out his front door always half-dressed, the mean girl duo who refused to speak to me. My mother says she learned more about teenagers in that carpool than she ever wanted to know, just by listening to our morning conversations (“You guys must have thought I was deaf,” she says).

Once your child is in the perfect private school, in the most inconvenient location, you’ll become a tolerant carpool soul. There will be pickups at the crack of dawn, or pickups that are outrageously late. There will be punches thrown in the way back of a minivan while on the freeway. There will be smelly breakfasts to-go, which leave grease all over the backseat. Someone’s child, at some point, will be forgotten, and everyone will have to be forgiven. You know why? Because it’s your carpool, damn it, and without it, life will be unmanageable.

Jenny Heitz has worked as a staff writer for Coast Weekly in Carmel, freelanced in the South Bay, and then switched to advertising copywriting. She now writes about gift ideas and products on her blog, Find A Toad.