An Open Letter to My First Grader’s Teacher About Homework

An Open Letter to My First Grader’s Teacher About Homework

Dear Ms. Case,

I can’t thank you enough for your persistent kindness in dealing with us parents and the kids you skillfully shepherd. You’re inculcating a love of both school and learning in my daughter, a priceless gift if ever there was one.

Unfortunately, one issue has been weighing on our family: homework.

Each night you assign twenty minutes of reading, either solo or with a parent. My daughter easily meets this flexible requirement, curling up on the couch with a Magic Treehouse book, asking me to read aloud from a library selection like A Cricket in Times Square, or listening to the picture books chosen by her siblings. We even count minutes she spends perusing a magazine, a toy instruction booklet, or the side of a cereal box.


Photo credit: Allison Busch Photography

But then there’s the nightly page of math. She has no desire to do it. She also often can’t complete it without help. Sometimes I take a look, and I’m unable to figure out what’s being asked of her despite my extensive education.

I’m left with two options. I can nag her about the math, reminding her each evening to get it out and then walking her through it. Since we don’t have a TV or iPad, this means ripping her away from a book or creative pretend play with her siblings. It also teaches her that she can’t handle schoolwork on her own and sets her up for the life of academic dependence decried by former longtime Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford University Julie Lythcott-Haims in How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success and Jessica Lahey in The Gift of Failure.

My other choice is to keep doing what I’ve been doing: telling her homework is between you and her, and that it’s her responsibility to sort out when and how to complete it. I want my daughter to learn time management, and to experience frustration but then keep trying so that she realizes she can almost always find her own way to a solution. I believe this to be the best approach for inculcating grit, perseverance, self-control, and other markers of success described by Paul Tough in How Children Succeed.

On this path, however, when the homework doesn’t interest her or is too difficult or confusing, she just doesn’t do it. She’s then either penalized, or something worse: when there are no negative repercussions at school for failing to finish it, she comes to believe that all work assigned is meaningless and optional.

We are left adrift, biting our tongues and nails as we leave her to her own devices, then stepping in to direct and assist after seeing an entire week of the workbook untouched.

Luckily, there’s a third way. Research shows that elementary school homework is at best unnecessary and unproductive. Much of the time it’s even detrimental. The three articles below ably summarize that information:

In light of our personal experience and the data provided by these articles, I ask that you move toward getting rid of homework entirely, raising the issue with your teaching team and school administration. At the very least, please consider limiting it to flexible assignments like your current reading requirement.

I want my daughter to continue to build positive associations with school, to be given the freedom to use her time outside its gates to learn through play, and to grow to be independent and capable.

Thank you for your time, and for your invaluable service to our hearts’ joy and nation’s future,

Gail Cornwall

NOTE: The preceding letter was written at the request of my daughter’s teacher, whose name has been changed for anonymity, so that she could have something in hand when taking my concerns, with which she agrees, to her superiors.

How To Choose Books for Kids (with Recommendations)

How To Choose Books for Kids (with Recommendations)


Images courtesy of Allison Busch Photography

Looking at the stack of books on my bedside table, some I’ve picked for education and growth (Cory Booker’s United) while from others I ask for amusement (Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?) or to be swept away on an adventure in time or emotion (Karen Marie Moning’s Feverborn). My three kids choose books for a similarly diverse set of reasons, including everything from a chance to process conflicting feelings (Grimm’s Fairy Tales) to having a good laugh at a grown-up’s expense (The Book With No Pictures).

Come to think of it, good juvenile book selection mirrors the adult variety for many reasons:

  1. Pick an author and stick with them

Finding a writer whose style reliably appeals to me is like opening a Wonka bar and seeing a flash of gold foil. That is, unless dependability becomes predictability. Take John Irving, for example. I devoured A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp, but after a few more of his titles, I just couldn’t take any more bears, boarding school, and wrestling. J.K. Rowling, however, mixes things up enough to keep me coming back for more.

Our best-loved picture book author/illustrators—Chris Van Dusen, Kevin Henkes, and Audrey Wood (often with Don Wood)—do the same, offering complex, engaging, and legitimately novel tales plus unique artwork perfectly attuned to the unfolding story. Beverly Cleary dominates the chapter book category, filling book after book with emotional storylines that enchant my six-year-old with enough surrounding silliness to keep my four-year-old tuned in. The follow-ups to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, however, left us all feeling cheated.

It doesn’t really matter who their favorites are though. The trick is having some.


  1. Give bestsellers a try

There’s a reason The History of Love, The Silver Linings Playbook, and The DaVinci Code were all bestsellers: they’re enthralling. The nearest recent parallel for children has got to be Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site. Yes, we’ve received it as a gift five times, but that’s because it’s awesome. As are other perennial fan favorites such as Where the Wild Things Are, Blueberries for Sal, Goodnight Moon, The Snowy Day, Make Way for Ducklings, Miss RumphiusCaps for Sale, The Frog and Toad Collection, Go, Dog. Go!, Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?, Goodnight, Gorilla, Where Is the Green Sheep?, and Blue Hat, Green Hat, to name a few.

  1. Don’t be afraid to revisit

I started the Twilight series just before giving birth to my first child. A few weeks into her troubled infancy, I finished the last book and depression suddenly descended. I sat there topless, sick baby attached to a breast, tears rolling down my face as I asked my husband, with no sense of irony, “Now what am I going to do with my life?” He suggested I start the first book again. I put aside my lifelong conviction that rereading is unproductive and boring, and it worked.

It also made me more tolerant of my kids’ insistence on reading the same books over and over again. For the baby, that’s I Like It When and I Am a Bunny. Both of my older kids put Fancy Nancy, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, and Albert the Fix-It Man on repeat as toddlers. When it comes to chapter books, they don’t beg to start the whole thing over, but many times my kids have asked to reread a certain chapter or vignette.

When the repetition tests the limits of my patience, I spice things up, adding in gestures for each page of Boy of Mine (like waving, tickling, and a modified head-shoulders-knees-and-toes routine; spoiler alert: it’s just head and toes); asking them questions about details in the illustrations; or making like a shrink and turning their questions back around (e.g., “Hmm, I’m not sure why Ramona’s dad did that. Why do you think he might have?”). I also remember how much I loved Midnight Sun, Stephenie Meyer’s retelling of Twilight from Edward’s perspective, and ask my kids what a bit player in the story might be thinking or what would have happened if the plot were tweaked in x, y, or z way. I’m often surprised and highly amused by their answers.


  1. Fads and phases are okay

For a while it was all dinosaurs, with a fixation on Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs and Dino Dig. Then there was some concern over how much I care, apparently: I Love You Stinky Face, The Way Mothers Are, and Mama, Do You Love Me? featured prominently in the nightly line-up. Firefighters came and went with Firefighters in the Dark and Tito, El Bombero dominating the scene for a while. Just when I thought reading Inside Your Outside Machine or The Magic School Bus: Inside the Human Body one more time would liquify my brain, that too passed. Just like my summer-long obsession with Kennedy biographies in college did.

  1. They don’t all need to teach something

I read so many parenting books that I write an entire blog about them. But that doesn’t mean I can read two nonfiction books back to back happily.

My kids are the same way. The Quiltmaker’s Gift helps them learn to empathize and prioritize people over things, Violet the Pilot and Giraffes Can’t Dance tell them girls can be anything they want to be despite naysayers, Iggy Peck, Architect warns against judgment made out of fear, Cookies enhances their vocabulary, and Chimpanzees of Happytown imparts: “things will always blossom if we dare to set them free. It’s no different for a little flower than for a chimpanzee.” But sometimes they just want a little Bee-bim-Bop, Moo, Ba, La La La!, or Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons for the lyrical whimsy, or Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus so they can be the ones saying “no” for once.

My bottom line consideration when choosing books for my kids is that the experience should prepare them for a lifetime of loving the written word. That means it’s more about process than content. I can’t get enough of Scottish time travel romance novels. Weird? Yes. Lowbrow? Certainly. Utterly captivating? Why yes, m’lord.


For my kids, I set baselines, eliminating inappropriate material and anything downright unpleasant for me to read aloud. Beyond that, I follow their enjoyment, flipping pages written by beloved authors and new ones, on the subject du jour or old stomping grounds, forward, backward, and all over again.


Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. Her work has been published online by the Washington Post, Salon, the Huffington Post, and Scary Mommy, among others. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at

Why Kids Should Send Thank You Notes

Why Kids Should Send Thank You Notes


In the Information Age both formalities and paper products increasingly get left by the wayside as “Hi” overtakes “Dear” for professional salutation of choice, and Paperless Post steals market share from Hallmark. Last holiday season, The Guardian’s Peter Ormerod urged parents to embrace this trend, and “bid farewell to thank you notes,” replacing them with “a phone call, a text message or a photo via Instagram or Snapchat.” After all, Ormerod reasons, “thank-you letters are really all about the parents,” and “there can be few worse ways of inculcating in your offspring an attitude of gratitude.”

Not so fast. As with most parenting tools, the constructiveness of the practice depends upon its implementation. In general, forestalling greed is all about encouraging a spirit of “enough,” distinguishing needs from desires, and prioritizing people over things. Kids taught to seek out and consume only what their bodies need to function well—rather than eating whatever is tasty whenever it’s available—have much lower rates of obesity. Similarly, children who know they can entertain themselves with very few toys will see any additions as a boon rather than a right. Kids who view a gift as a reflection of a relationship rather than merchandise are more likely to think the thought counts.

How do we get there? Shift the focus to what they already have. Start by modeling. A parent who takes her own possessions for granted is unlikely to raise grateful children. When I’m out shopping with my kiddos, I pick up something lovely, like a pair of Christian Louboutins and say: “Do I need these? They sure are pretty. But I already have two pairs of black heels. That’s enough.” Reading books such as Just Enough And Not Too Much and The Quiltmaker’s Gift can also help. Every time our kids get a present, my husband and I recite, “Open the card first to show . . .” and the kids chime in “we care more about what they thought than what they got.” Another trick involves perspective. I casually mention that some kids get no presents at all and watch the little wheels turn.

Writing thank you notes folds all of these strategies into one activity. Instead of Omerod’s mental image of a child shackled to a table until he can churn out sufficiently effusive missives, picture a kiddo with age-appropriate art materials sitting beside a parent. As mama writes her own thank you notes, junior decorates a card and places a prefab “thank you” sticker beside his drawing. They chat about the recipient of each note and how much he or she will enjoy getting it (in this way, the fact that “letters just aren’t a thing any more” makes the custom more valuable, not less).

Mom’s notes express delight at being remembered rather than at the value of specific gifts. She muses, seemingly to herself, how lucky she is to have such engaged loved ones. The letters are completed piecemeal whenever he feels like working on them, even if the task takes a month. The activity is collaborative, fun, and leaves room for free will.

With an experience that’s more demonstrative than didactic, it’s not so much “fake it ‘til you make it” as it is producing a genuine feeling of gratefulness through the process of expressing appreciation.

Gratitude aside there are child-centric reasons to continue the practice. In order to succeed, one must learn to be both respectful and dutiful. We offer Grandma the first pancake, we obey the rules of her house, and we send her thank you notes—not to appear respectful but to act respectfully. I have to take out the garbage and wipe down the toilets; my kids have to put their dirty clothes in the hamper and write thank you notes. Deference and obligation are part of a fulfilling life, at any age.

Then there’s savvy. Ormerod decries writing notes so as to beget more gifts as “a transactional approach . . . to human relationships.” When my son recently planned to send one to the principal of his big sister’s school, I asked, “Why? He didn’t get you anything.” My three year-old responded, “That’s why I’m going to put Mr. Slater on my thank you note list: so that he knows I’m grateful, and next year he’ll get me something.” It wasn’t exactly a shining moment for “enough,” but I appreciated the thinking nonetheless. Thankful or not, that boy is going places.

Don’t say goodbye to thank you notes; say hello to grateful, respectful, dutiful, and/or savvy children.


Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mom of three and writes about parenthood. Born in St. Louis and raised in the Bay Area, she’s a serial monogamist of urban living who resided in Berkeley, New York, DC, Boston, and Seattle before committing to San Francisco. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at

Screen Time and the AAP: Wait Just a Minute

Screen Time and the AAP: Wait Just a Minute


Parents across the Internet rejoiced this week, declaring themselves well rid of “screen time guilt” after an announcement by the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly signaled it will amend media guidelines discouraging screen time for children under two and limiting it to two hours a day for older kids after the AAP’s 2016 national conference on the topic.

News that TVs and iPads are healthier for our infants and toddlers than previously thought would indeed be cause for celebration as a world of cheap, flexible babysitting opens. But it’s a little premature to be ordering cake and filling balloons, for a few reasons.

In “Beyond ‘Turn It Off’: How To Advise Families on Media Use,” Drs. Brown, Shifrin, and Hill offer a handful of suggestions for families already using screens such as: “Prioritize how your child spends his time rather than just setting a timer.” These helpful hints—though the primary content of the text—aren’t the main cause of parental commotion.

The hubbub surrounds the article’s title and a few seemingly loaded lines. For example, after citing the guidelines established in 1999, the authors state: “[S]cientific research and policy statements lag behind the pace of digital innovation.” They also write, “In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” Which leaves some parents popping the bubbly and others asking: what exactly does that mean?

Much of parenting young children has an aspirational quality to it. “We don’t say things just to hurt other people’s feelings,” I interject into my six-year-old’s dispute with my son, “it’s better to be kind than to be right.” Ten minutes later, I land a solid zinger on my own younger brother, pointing out his hypocrisy in a way that confirms my superiority without advancing our conversation. “We use our words, not our hands,” I then say, as I pull my fighting kids apart with brute force.

But I don’t stop setting lofty goals because I know neither I nor they will completely meet them. I don’t let my fear of seeming like an old lady who doesn’t understand the real world keep me from establishing ideals.

Parents turn to the AAP for best practices based on scientifically informed, reasoned judgment. Two rationales support the AAP’s existing guidelines. First, despite the fact that—as John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Baby, summarized in 2013: “Very little high quality research has been done in the area”—there is some direct evidence that screen time is harmful for kids’ development. Second, TV watching displaces more interactive behaviors that are proven to be better for healthy growth, such as reading with adults, self-directed play, and physical activity. It’s hard to see how increasing use of screens undermines either of these two original concerns.

Let’s consider a physical health analog. The AAP recommends that children be offered water rather than soda or juice, since sugary drinks have been linked to poor diet quality and obesity. This is true both because refined sugar itself isn’t ideal dietarily and because kids who fill up with sugar eat fewer vegetables. But Harvard researchers report that children in the U.S. consumed an average of 224 calories per day from sugary beverages from 1999 to 2004. A recent article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that American kids still imbibe about 10% of their daily calories in sugar-sweetened sodas. Yet the AAP hasn’t changed its guidelines to meet this reality.

“Beyond ‘Turn It Off’” says, “The public needs to know that the Academy’s advice is science-driven, not based merely on the precautionary principle.” This statement would seem to suggest that the initial restrictions were issued too early based on sparse evidence of harmfulness and a better-safe-than-sorry rationale. But the authors’ remark about obsolescence forebodes another rush to judgment. A reactive swing in the opposite direction.

We, like our kids, need an angel sitting on our shoulder, reminding us what’s best, especially when it’s inconvenient or counter-impulsive. Parents need a parent, an organization that’s willing to preach what’s right, despite being considered unhip.

If the latest science shows that screen time is not detrimental, because we know more now or the screens kids are using have changed for the better, it makes sense to amend the guidelines. Believe me, I’ll waste no time in joining the parental ticker tape parade.

But if the most well-conducted studies available at the 2016 conference instead support the unpopular guidelines, let’s hope the AAP stands firm.

In the meantime, I’ll continue allowing the current recommendations to guilt me into acknowledging my own internal voice—the one that knows my kids are better off scraping sticks through the dirt than watching a TV show, even our beloved Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

The Books With No Limits: B.J. Novak, Hervé Tullet, and Storytelling That’s Both Inspired and Inspirational

The Books With No Limits: B.J. Novak, Hervé Tullet, and Storytelling That’s Both Inspired and Inspirational

Here are two articles I recently wrote for the Children’s Book Review!

The Books With No Limits: Exploring Collaborative Storytelling

Most children’s books feature what education theorists call “frontal instruction”: the caregiver reading the book delivers information, and the child absorbs it with little real interaction or collaboration. To be sure, individual readers can make the experience more child-centered by engaging kids in a dialogue as they go. Plus there have long existed books that challenge this model at the fringes, like pop-up books or the little board books with textured pages (think Pat the Bunny).

In recent years, however, a group of children’s authors has revolutionized the process of storytelling. Mo Willems’ wildly popular Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus provides a perfect example. At the outset, a bus driver instructs the kids not to allow the pigeon to drive the bus. On almost every subsequent page, the pigeon asks to drive the bus in an increasingly creative and desperate way, and the kids have to say (or shout, in my little ones’ case), “No! No, pigeon! No way!”

Two new books—presented by JCC San Francisco’s “Arts and Ideas” family series—take this interactive bent even further, one by way of encouraging writing and the other artistic exploration.

The Book with No Pictures By B.J. Novak

In The Book with No Pictures, B.J. Novak (best known by parents as Ryan from The Office until the release of his wickedly smart and funny adult book One More Thing) teaches kids to think of words as instruments of excitement and power. The book sets the stage by having the reader explain, “Here is how books work: Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say. No matter what.” The primary script continues, listing a series of silly statements such as, “My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named BOO BOO BUTT.” The genius lies in the asides that follow each bout of ridiculousness in a smaller, less colorful type. For example, after saying, “I am a monkey who taught myself to read” in a read-aloud voice, the caregiver then says, “Hey! I’m not a monkey!” These asides, which Novak likens to a reaction shot of straight-man Jim on The Office, naturally push the adult to ham it up, feigning frustration that the kid has tricked her into saying something ludicrous and eventually even begging to be allowed to stop reading. In comedy parlance, it kills. Kids go absolutely bonkers, punch drunk on a combination of silliness and control.

Mix It Up! By Herve Tullet

The latest from Hervé Tullet, known as “The Prince of Preschool” in France, similarly breaks the storybook mold, instructing children to physically manipulate the book in one way or another in order to teach color mixing. In Mix It Up, the follow-up to NY Times bestseller Press Here, a page has three circles of paint: one red, one yellow, and one blue. The caregiver reads, “With one finger take a little bit of the blue. And just touch the yellow. Rub it . . . gently . . . .” When you turn the page, voilà, a green circle appears. The pages that follow show complex color combinations and maneuvers (like tilting the book sideways) that allow kids to feel like they’re actually producing the page that follows through their responsive actions. My kids inevitably ask to paint after we finish reading the book, an urge Tullet clearly seeks to incite; he even orchestrated creation of a massive mural after his reading, somehow creating more art than havoc after filling the JCCSF lobby with dozens of paint-wielding toddlers.

Again, enthusiastic storytelling can render a traditional picture book just as captivating as The Book with No Pictures and Mix It Up; but as Novak notes, there’s a huge value-added for parents in not having to drum up the energy to improvise at the end of a long day.

A Q&A with Hervé Tullet (Yes, It Rhymes)

Why do you think kids respond to Press Here and Mix It Up with such enthusiasm?

Well, I don’t know. And I don’t really want to know. When I create a book, I do not test, and each book, as I’m working on it, is a surprise. I don’t know how the children will react and that’s what I love to discover when I’m doing readings. Of course, I’ve done about eighty books, and more and more I understand that my books encourage confidence, dialogue. And the style—slots, dots and scribbles—speaks very much to the child, as if we were talking with the same vocabulary.

What drove you to start creating children’s books?

A revolt! When I had my first child, children’s books looked like some stupid marketing thing. There were a lot of stupid characters, stupid childish stories, ugly illustrations, fake tiny children and fields with bears talking to rabbits. I needed to help. I knew books could change your life. So I wanted to help children with books that sparkle, and help the teachers, librarians, educators, in their daily life—which can be very difficult—by giving them a way to change the routine. Maybe to change the world! By bringing them innovative and funny books, activities, and ideas to their work and play with the children.

Do you have any suggestions for parents on how to make the most of reading your books with their little ones?

Just have fun, get involved in the reading, the reading  of the world! The world is a book—look at it like that! Take a walk in your neighborhood as if you are reading a book. Ask, “What’s going on in this house? What is this mark on the sidewalk?” and so on. Children need to understand us and the other way around.

Originally published at:

San Francisco’s Strange and Wonderful Public Schools

San Francisco’s Strange and Wonderful Public Schools

Originally published in the GGMG Magazine, September 2015 issue

It happens all the time. A mom and I bond over our desire to explore this gorgeous, vibrant city with our budding urbanites in tow. I envision the friendship blossoming over the years. Then she says, “We’re looking in the East Bay.”

“Why? Your place is perfect. You love San Francisco!”

“Yeah, but Mabel will be ready for kindergarten soon so . . .”

Or, just as often, a mom brings up the topic of the public school lottery at a GGMG Neighborhood Meetup, fretting over the limited number of “good” schools, the extremely low odds of getting assigned to one of them, and the nightmare that is the lottery. “What if my kid gets the lowest number in the city? Then he’ll be at the very end of every school’s list!” Anxiety spreads through the room like peanut butter on hot toast. I intervene, asking the speaker about her experience with the process. “Oh, Henry’s only three, but I hear . . .”

It’s natural to worry, especially about a system that’s more complex and less predictable than most. Yet much of the discussion among parents of young kids in San Francisco features a dearth of accurate information and an abundance of apprehension. The truth about our public schools may surprise you.

Assessing school quality and character

As a parent setting out to evaluate the 72 public elementary schools in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), several sources of information are available: test scores, lottery demand rankings, school tours, the annual Enrollment Fair, the Enrollment Guide, and word of mouth—which includes websites and blogs, as well as guidance from the nonprofit Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (PPS-SF).

The most quantitative and easily obtained of these are test scores and demand rankings.

The Academic Performance Index (API) attempts to measure schools’ performance using standardized testing. Under the old system, parents could access each school’s raw API, a three-digit number, as well as a statewide rank on a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 correlating to the highest scores. Since the California Department of Education (CDE) is currently revamping the API, the 2012 (statewide rank) and 2013 (raw scores) data are the most recent available at press time.

<NOTE: The raw results of the new test administered last year should become available in the coming months, but they won’t yet be accompanied by a framework for statewide comparison. A brand-new metric, the School Quality Improvement Index, is also scheduled to be released this fall in conjunction with federal funding, giving schools point-based scores in the academic, social-emotional, and culture-climate domains; but it will be entirely untested, pun intended.>

Unfortunately, test scores are not a reliable proxy for school quality. Students grouped as “Socioeconomically Disadvantaged,” “English Learners,” and “Students with Disabilities” tend to score lower. Therefore, a school with a higher percentage of these students will have a lower API, even if it is making tremendous strides educating them. The phenomenon has led many to assert that the numbers say more about incoming students than school quality, and to refer to the stat as the “Affluent Parent Index.”

Plus, all standardized testing fails to capture educational success—actual learning—to some degree. As Albert Einstein said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Michelle Obama adds, “If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn’t be here.” In other words, using test scores to evaluate SF public schools currently means using old data that serves as a proxy for a proxy.

That doesn’t mean the numbers are worthless, however. In a school with a statewide rank in the 2012 data of 1, 2, or 3, the majority of students probably still struggle to meet state standards for one reason or another. Conversely, at a school with a rank of 8, 9, or 10, most students—whether because of background or school quality—likely exceed the standards.

Demand rankings should also be used circumspectly. SFUSD releases a list of the top 15 most requested schools in the prior year’s lottery as well as the supporting data, which enables a parent to fairly easily put the remaining schools in order of popularity. Yet factors unrelated to school quality—such as start time, availability of after school care, geographical location, school size, and bussing availability—play into parental preference. Also, demand rank can function as a self-fulfilling prophecy for two reasons. First, parents assume that the most in-demand schools from last year must be the best ones and rank them high on their list of desired schools. Second, many people slap high-demand schools at the end of their list because of a possible lottery advantage. Since the metric is calculated using the total number of requests, the result is a demand-rank that doesn’t accurately reflect either eagerness to enroll or school quality.

Moreover, both sets of numbers are unreliable indicators of personal desirability thanks to differing instructional character. Different parents want different educational environments. Luckily for all of us, SFUSD is incredibly diverse.

Although all public schools use the Common Core State Standards, quite a bit of pedagogical variation remains. There’s SF Public Montessori, and other schools feature project-based learning or have a science focus. I walked into one classroom where the children sat rigidly around a long table, their hands tightly clasped in front of them. A teacher stood at the front of the room and used a wooden pointer to tap an overhead transparency displaying the letter “B.” She stated, “B, B, B says buh.” The children repeated in chorus, “B, B, B says buh.” At another school, instruction seemed predominantly child-led. One school I toured places a premium on discipline, requiring uniformed students to walk in silent, single-file lines down the hallways, while others allow more bodily freedom. Though the maximum number of students per class is set at the state level (22 for kindergarten), schools have two, three, or four classes. A school with 44 kindergarteners will be different than one with 88, in a way that cannot objectively be called good or bad.

I found myself looking for a mid-range school in terms of both size and structure. I wanted an environment where not everyone knew my child’s name, but most recognized her face. I liked seeing kids smiling and skipping through the halls, but didn’t want chaos. An extremely high-demand school with some of the best test scores in the city felt too rigid for me. I valued diversity, rejecting homogeneous schools, whereas others want their children to feel comfortable, surrounded by those of a similar background. A lot of parents prefer language instruction of some sort; we had no interest, which drove us toward the confusingly labeled “General Education” track. <NOTE: SFUSD offers several language pathways, ranging from “Newcomer” instruction for those with very little English through “Biliteracy,” “Immersion,” and “FLES,” the least intensive.> Arts and movement during some part of the day were deal-breakers for me, but a friend couldn’t have cared less. I was ready to rally the troops; others want to know the PTA/PTO is already well-established.

All this is to say, what one parent considers a “good” school can be very different from what her neighbor seeks.

Though the SFUSD website contains quite a bit of qualitative information, tours and the Enrollment Fair are the best way to learn about school culture as well as things like classroom feel, the presence of play structures, the principal, field trips, collaboration with businesses, sports teams, and parent involvement.

Word of mouth can be invaluable if from a primary source, not the rumor mill. The hype schools receive is often both overblown and outdated, as schools change quickly. One source described Miraloma and McKinley as “dumping grounds” just a few years ago; now they’re two of the most in-demand schools in the city. Also, keep in mind that every school will have at least one disgruntled family. One way to get to the bottom of things is to attend a school event open to the public.

Midway through my search, I thought I’d be competing for a handful of slots. Then I toured 16 schools. I found five that had everything we desired within walking distance. An additional five schools would require a longer commute but were still exciting in terms of quality and character. Here’s the part that shocks most people: half of those ten schools sat low enough in the demand ranking that we could safely rely upon getting a seat.

How the lottery works

The SFUSD enrollment lottery is infamous for being confusing, but it’s a quick study.

Parents can apply to as many of SFUSD’s kindergarten programs as they like; that’s 110 options, counting language programs separately. There are “attendance area” (AA) schools for which residing near the school may come into play in the enrollment process, and “city-wide” schools and programs for which it won’t. Each school that is not “city-wide” has an area of neighboring streets delineated on a map, but the school doesn’t always sit right in the geographical center; as a result, your AA elementary school may not be the one closest to you.

Parents submit an application with supporting paperwork (like a birth certificate) that lists the programs they wish to apply to in order of preference. This form effectively functions as a separate application to each program listed. Each program then runs a lottery and randomly assigns each student in its pool of applicants a number. In other words, your child will have a separate lottery number at each school, meaning the common fear of ending up at the end of every school’s list is misplaced.

When there are more applicants than available seats, seats are not filled strictly in lottery order. Each school first pulls out students that have “tie-break” statuses.

Tie-break One: Younger siblings of enrolled students receive seats first. That means if your son was assigned lottery number 11, but a girl assigned number 135 has an older sibling attending your first choice school, she will get a seat first.

Tie-break Two: Students who live in the attendance area of an AA school and are already attending its pre-K or transitional kindergarten program get preference next. A very small number of children qualify for this tie-break.

Tie-break Three: The “Open Enrollment” tie-break enables students who already attend a “low-achieving” school to attempt to transfer into one with a higher API, but it doesn’t apply to kindergarten seats.

Tie-break Four: The “test score area” or “CTIP-1” (Census Tract Integration Preference-First Percentile) category attempts to give disadvantaged students access to the city’s most in-demand schools. Applicants who reside in census tracts (basically chunks of neighborhoods) with the bottom 20 percent of test scores get pulled out next. That means if your son has lottery number 11, but a girl assigned number 135 lives on Treasure Island, she will get a seat first. Since location is an inaccurate proxy for need, some children of means benefit from this preference, especially in rapidly gentrifying areas like the Mission and Bernal. For this and other reasons, the CTIP-1 tie-break is the most controversial part of the lottery process; some recently sought to reorder the tie-breaks, but the Board of Education rejected the proposal.

Tie-break Five: Finally, students who live in the attendance area of an AA school will receive seats.

Only after offering these groups placement will each school tick down its remaining applicants in the order assigned by its lottery. That means your child could draw lottery number 11 at your first choice kindergarten, there could be 66 seats available, and you still might not get a seat in the first round of the lottery. The highest odds of this happening are for applicants living outside the attendance area of a high-demand AA school.

You will always be given your highest ranked choice that is available. If your second, fourth, and tenth choice schools have a seat for your child, you will simply be assigned your second choice school. There is also an automated swap feature meant to optimize the outcome for all families. If your tenth choice school has a seat for your son, and my eighth choice school has a seat for my daughter, but your tenth choice school is my first choice and my eighth choice school is your third choice, the computer will automatically switch our assignments. Because of this “trading up” step, it can be advantageous to list additional schools after your legitimate preferences, and the longer the list the better. If the computer runs through this whole process and a seat is not available at any of your listed programs, your child will be offered a seat at your AA school if any seats remain, or, if they don’t, at the school closest to your street address that has a seat available.

If you’re unhappy with your child’s school assignment, there are subsequent rounds. In the second round, you list only those schools you would prefer to the one your child was first assigned. In the third, fourth, and fifth rounds—known as “waitpool”—you list only one school. The process continues through the first two weeks of school. Then a “no transfer” period is imposed for current SFUSD students with an opportunity to submit a transfer request for January’s spring transfer period. Seats that open up during the fall will be held open at schools with pending transfer requests; when there are no transfer requests, non-SFUSD students, such as kids attending private school or those who have recently moved to town, are eligible to fill open seats.

The city’s two SFUSD charter schools and three state public charters do not participate in the SFUSD lottery; they use a separate application and admissions process.

Your odds and the bird’s eye view

Of the 30-plus families with whom we navigated the enrollment process for our daughter, about 25 got their first choice in the first round. Every single family who stuck with the process eventually obtained a seat in their first choice program. Some put down a private school deposit in order to quell the fear of an unacceptable option come August, ready to walk away from a seemingly big chunk of change knowing that it actually pales in comparison to saving an average of $8,549 per child per year. (One can even recoup a deposit or tuition payment through careful navigation of the contract termination process or by purchasing tuition reimbursement insurance.)

SFUSD statistics support this anecdotal evidence. In last year’s lottery, 70 percent of kindergarten applicants received their first or second choice placement in the first round of the lottery. More than half (60 percent) got assigned to their first choice school right off the bat. These statistics include the younger siblings of already enrolled students, but all families who hang in there through the summer are quite likely to receive the seat they desire most. Rachel Nip of PPS-SF reports, “Last year about 700 kindergarten families received a seat at their waitpool school.”

That means the odds are in your favor. The notion that SFUSD has very few good schools that are impossible to get into is just plain wrong. The more families who trust in this fact and invest in our schools, the more wrong it will be.

When I meet parents who accept this premise but are still frustrated with the complex and time-consuming lottery process and lack of predictability, I try to provide perspective with two points.

First, the biggest time suck is in learning the system. By reading this far, you’ve done that. You don’t need to tour 16 schools. Just pull up the map of schools, consult the “at a glance” chart in the Enrollment Guide, attend the Enrollment Fair, and tour the handful of schools that seem like they might work. Filling out and submitting the actual application takes only an hour or two, and the mechanics of the process are spelled out clearly in the Enrollment Guide (including birthdate eligibility, definition of residency, procedures for twins, and deadlines).

Second, when we lived in Downtown Seattle, our kids were zoned for a school a 25-minute bus ride away from our home. There was no ability to maximize for walkability, to contemplate whether our child would thrive in a larger or smaller school, to seek out a disciplinary ethos that felt right to us. There was no choice at all. Coming from that situation, the opportunity to engage in the SFUSD lottery felt like a blessing.

Choice and uncertainty can be overwhelming, but both breed opportunity. Ignore the hype; quell the panic. Look for the beauty in our big, multicultural, and pedagogically-diverse school system. And then do what’s best.


Greatness in Grimmness: Fairy Tales and Today’s Child

Greatness in Grimmness: Fairy Tales and Today’s Child



Photo by Carmen Dunham Photography

As a lover of books, I thrilled when my first child finally stopped squirming during storytime. Reaching for the beautiful green and gold volume of Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales she’d been given at birth, I began to read: “‘I will tell you what, husband,’ [said] the wife; ‘we will take the children . . . into the forest . . . then we will go to our work and leave them alone; they will never find the way home again, and we shall be quit of them.” Gah! I skimmed ahead: “Then Gretel gave her a push, . . . and she shut the iron door . . . . Oh how frightfully she howled! But Gretel ran away, and left the wicked witch to burn miserably.” I snapped the book shut and shoved it under our chair, having no interest in adding the encouragement of separation anxiety or the normalization of violence to our bedtime routine.

My reaction is quite common. In a 2009 poll of parents conducted by, three-quarters “try to avoid stories which might give their children nightmares and half of all parents wouldn’t consider reading a single fairy tale to their child until they reach the age of five.”

Unfortunately, experts say that succumbing to this protective impulse does our kids a disservice. From a young age, children intuit life’s constant threat of death, illness, abandonment, maltreatment, and betrayal. When presented in a certain way, traditional fairy tales actually help kids process their fears of physical and emotional tragedy, as well as provide a slew of other developmental benefits.

A brief history of fairy tales

The stories we think of as fairy tales began as folk tales with paranormal elements crafted for an adult audience in the tradition of oral storytelling. Well-known collections produced by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm—as well as the works of Hans Christian Andersen and George MacDonald—are based upon these “fast-paced adventure stories filled with bawdy episodes, violent scenes, and [bathroom] humor,” writes Maria Tatar in Off with Their Heads! The goal was to entertain, and there was no need to sugarcoat. In the original “Sleeping Beauty,” for example, the king doesn’t awaken the slumbering princess with a kiss; he rapes her. And an early version of “Rumpelstiltskin” reportedly ends with the little man lodging himself in the miller’s daughter’s genitalia.

In producing their first edition, the Grimms made drastic changes, mixing versions of the tales, filling in plot holes, resolving paradoxes, and eliminating off-color humor. They also added a Christian sensibility, including moral instruction and happy endings. The resulting tales were still awfully intense. The wicked stepmothers in “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel” were biological mothers, Rapunzel got pregnant, and Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit into the glass slipper.

In subsequent editions, the Grimms further “censored…to make the tales more accessible to [middle-class reading audiences] and more considerate of children as readers and listeners of stories,” explains Jack Zipes by way of introducing The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. They left in the violence, however, and actually added quite a bit of bloodshed to cautionary tales.

Over the last 200 years, countless versions have further modified the original tales. We are left with stories that feature adult themes like love without the sex, subversive plots with abrupt happy endings, and gruesome violence described in a nonplussed tone.

Why can’t our kids get enough of this strange genre?

In almost all versions, the “descriptions are bare; the dialogues, curt; and the action, swift. The storytellers get to the point quickly,” writes Zipes. In Enchanted Hunters, Tatar explains that children are drawn in by “wow” moments “that offer up the exquisite, the terrifying, and everything in between.” Though many tales moralize, quite a few feature excitingly illicit behavior like lying and stealing. Moreover, she tells us, the blood and gore that result when fairy tale characters are disobedient, “meant to repel children,” can actually prove “a source of unending fascination.”

Kids are also attracted to the simplicity of fairy tales. The characters’ problems are ordinary, and the “figures are clearly drawn”; they are “either good or bad, nothing in between,” explains Bruno Bettelheim in his famous Freudian treatise on the subject, The Uses of Enchantment. “All characters are typical rather than unique,” he tells us, and as a result they are known only by their roles like “girl,” “stepmother,” or “giant” (when they do have names they tend to be either descriptive, like Cinderella, because she was covered in the grime of cinders, or common, like Gretel was in the Grimms’ Germany).

As a result, the characters are readily relatable. Kids see themselves in exploited Cinderella, who’s forced to do chores, impish Pinocchio, who fails to be good despite multiple attempts, innocent Snow White, who suffers at the whim of a grown-up dealing with her own issues, and impetuous Jack, who is denied the wonderful things that big people have. They see others as well. Archetypes such as kings, queens, and giants stand in for power-wielding adults; wolves, witches, and tricksters represent predators and evil impulses; charming princes, helpful animals, and wise old people personify the forces of good; and fairies, godmothers, and other meddling magical creatures symbolize the vagaries of life outside one’s control.

The transparency and familiarity of fairy tale characters and their woes—in addition to quick plot development, shock value, and repetition—greatly appeal to children.

The benefits of reading fairy tales

Whether we should read the dark tales that so enthrall them is another matter. As it turns out, there are many reasons to do so:

Enable kids to work through fears and conflict

In both literal and symbolic fashion, fairy tales address what Bettelheim calls “the psychological problems of growing up”: issues such as sibling rivalry, transformation, being tested, forbidden fruits, feeling oppressed, powerlessness, and learning to identify those who wish one ill, as well as fears of abandonment, being unloved, and death.

According to Bettelheim, by “project[ing] themselves onto fictional characters, [children] work through real world fears and internal conflict on an imaginary stage.” Under this school of thought, children need “dreadful creatures of the imagination to conserve idealized images of their parents,” Tatar writes. In Bettelheim’s most famous example, the “typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother” allows kids to feel angry about the small injustices they suffer at the hands of their mothers without threatening that bond. Similarly, he says, “since a giant is an imaginary figure, the child can fantasize . . . to overpower . . . him, and still retain real grownup people as protectors.”

When we attempt to hide life’s ugliness, children are left feeling that they alone have destructive impulses. But “these older tales legitimise the murderous and violent instincts that all children experience, freeing them from…guilt,” British author Tim Lott writes. And when we read them the stories, we tacitly credit the difficulties they face and sanction their stormy internal worlds.

Foster imagination

The fantastical elements of fairy tales—such as supernatural creatures and magical powers—provide children with a framework for their own imaginings. Make-believe play in turn enriches children cognitively, socially, and emotionally.

Teach history and promote cultural literacy

Fairy tales offer a springboard for historical discussion (“What is churning, and why is she doing that to the butter?”). Also, since they are part of a shared culture, familiarity with fairy tales means understanding references to things like “the Goldilocks principle” down the line.

Encourage literacy through storytelling

Reading tales aloud leads to compounding literacy growth, since kids who hear stories develop a “sense of story”—a basic understanding of style, setting, narrative voice, character, plot, sequencing, and theme—that makes them more likely to tell stories themselves, and in so doing learn to comprehend, and then relate, more complicated stories. Beginning with “once upon a time” starts our kids on the path to reading and writing “happily ever after.”

Impart morals

Modern parenting guru Harvey Karp describes “side-door lessons” as a way to “sneak into our children’s minds and plant seeds of kindness and good character without our little ones feeling lectured to.” By relating fantastical struggles with right and wrong, but not explicitly stating morals, fairy tales provide one such “gentle, indirect, undemanding, and therefore psychologically more effective way” to convey “the advantages of moral behavior,” writes Bettelheim. “[A] compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself [is] presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination,” adds Vigen Guroian, author of Tending the Heart of Virtue.

Build problem-solving skills and resilience

Although the specific solutions of fairy tales, like chopping down a beanstalk, rarely apply to our kids’ problems, they model how the downtrodden and overwhelmed can get out of a pickle with ingenuity and fortitude. In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough reports social science data linking character skills like “effort, diligence, and perseverance” with success. The best way to foster these skills is to teach children that we all face obstacles, and that both intelligence and creativity can be enhanced through hard work. As Bettelheim writes, “Amoral fairy tale[ characters such] . . . as ‘Puss in Boots,’ who arranges for the hero’s success through trickery . . . giv[e children] the hope that even the meekest can succeed in life.” This hope is what promotes the effort and tenacity required to successfully venture out into the world.

How to make the most of fairy tales

These general benefits leave quite a few loose ends. At what age should we start? With which version? Do we allow kids to stew over the story independently or add our own thoughts?

According to Bettelheim, “[E]nchantment can be experienced, only from the story in its original form. . . . The simplified and bowlderized fairy tale loses all value.” Yet, as Tatar notes, there is “cultural dissonance generated by telling nineteenth-century stories”—written for children growing up with high mortality rates, and thus already surrounded by death—to today’s kids. She also highlights the sexism inherent in the originals: “Curiosity and disobedience, along with a variety of other vices, are seen as the besetting sins of both children and women.” Then again, Disneyfication usually only exacerbates the problem. For example, in “American rewritings of ‘Snow White,’” Tatar points out, two types of femininity are contrasted: a power-obsessed, “forbiddingly cold woman [and] . . . a girl who makes her dreams come true through her flirtatious good looks and her effortless ability to keep a house clean.”

Fortunately, “each [generation] creates its own folklore through rereadings as well as retellings,” notes Tatar. “The places where we wince, cower, laugh, comment, whisper, [or] shriek . . . determine the way the child perceives the story.” We should therefore read the original tales conscientiously, and in tandem with explicit discussion about social mores and violence. Zipes agrees that sanitizing the tales is misguided, even hypocritical. By instead acknowledging the physical and social brutality of the stories, we can teach our children to think critically about their world.

As for age, luckily there are hundreds of well-known tales with varying degrees of complexity and explicitness. In “Choosing Fairy Tales for Different Ages,” Joan Almon provides a handy guide:

  • Young threes: Simple nature stories such as “Sweet Porridge”
  • Older threes: Sequential, repetitive tales such as “The Turnip”
  • Fours and young fives: Stories that are “slightly more complex” but cheerful overall, such as “Three Little Pigs,” “Billy Goats Gruff,” and “The Shoemaker and the Elves”
  • Fives and sixes: More challenging tales that still “do not weigh too heavily on the soul of the individual” such as “Frog Prince,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and “Hansel and Gretel”
  • Older sixes: “Tales in which characters have a personal experience of suffering or sorrow,” such as “Cinderella” and “Rapunzel”

Be brave of heart

In The Genius of Natural Childhood, Sally Goddard Blythe writes, “If as parents or society we seek to protect children from all unpleasant events, we do not equip them to deal with the real world.” Having internalized this message, I eschewed helicopter parenting in favor of inculcating independence when exploring the city streets. And yet, I overprotected my kids in the safety of their own bedroom.

Seeking untold emotional and developmental riches, I recently tackled my own fears and stepped into the mean world of fairy tales. After just a few readings, my kindergartener sees herself in “Little Red Riding Hood,” my 3-year-old relates to Jack, and I . . . well, with a new baby in the house, I deeply identify with all the sleepy characters.


Originally published in the Golden Gate Mothers Group Magazine – June 2015