Pragmatic Mom

December 31, 2009

Public or Private School?

As my daughter nears middle school, my husband and I have started to wonder…public or private school?   Private school is not something we ever contemplated for our children.  We live in a great public school system and both of us graduated proudly from public school systems in California which were not as good as the school system we currently attend.

I attended an Ivy League college and my recollection, confirmed by others with a similar mediocre high school experience as mine, is that:

— It took me two years to catch up with classmates who went to good high schools.

–There are good public high schools and good private high schools and there are also mediocre private schools.  I only knew three other people from a Catholic high school who were going to college with me and they felt their high school was even worse than mine.

–What were some of the marked differences from the prep school/top public high school  kids and me ?  Foreign languages really stood out.   Despite meeting my foreign language requirement in high school, I tested into beginning French which was basically a remedial class with a dozen of us from bad public high schools and even worse accents.  Good high school = foreign language fluency, as in conversational or being able to read magazines in a foreign language.  Some kids had opportunity to study abroad in high school; not at my school!

Breadth of classes.  My friend from the Catholic High School was envious of a kid from Palo Alto High School (a great public high school) who had Asian History at her school.  I couldn’t believe that my friend from Stuyvesant High School (a magnet school in NYC that routinely sends two dozen kids to Harvard) had economics; micro AND macro!  And my freshman dorm pre-med friend who studied with the nuns in Cleveland really learned how to think, as in problem solve.  He tested into the advanced pre-med chemistry class.  I did not; at my high school, it was more about regurgitation than really understanding how to apply your knowledge…and no AP Chem class either!

I remember bitterly complaining with other like-kind kids and vowing that my kids will never have to play catch up when they go to college!  So my advice would be not so much public or private but how good is the school?  A great public school can kick the pants off a mediocre private school.  There is a list below from the Wall Street Journal about which schools successfully send the most kids off to top schools but if these schools are not an option, dig deep to find out:  1) Is there a study aboard program?  2) How many honor and AP classes are offered?  Look for a wide range of class offerings.  3) How many kids are fluent in one or more foreign languages?  What does the curriculum include?  Language labs?  Small class size?  Native speakers as instructors?  4) What are examples of kids being taught to problem solve versus regurgitate?  5) Finally, where the pedal hits the medal … what is your college placement record?  And the corollary, are you double counting the smart kids that got into multiple top colleges?  What schools are the kids actually ATTENDING.

OK, maybe college placement is getting a little ahead of ourselves.  I do think that it’s not necessarily Ivy League or Bust, but more about the right fit.  The same goes for public versus private school.

My O.B. who lives in the same city as me but at a different elementary school, puts public education into perspective.  She describes her oldest daughter as smart but not a genius, social to a fault, not academically inclined without being pushed, and not disruptive.  In short, to a teacher with 20 plus students, she’s invisible.  Couple that with two working parents who don’t have the time to be omnipresent volunteers at school meant that her daughter was getting no attention.  She switched her to private school by 2nd grade (but she was glad to have 3 years of free public education).  When her daughter got interested in boys, she switched her again to an all-girl school.  In contrast, she says two other doctors at her practice also attend the same elementary school and are having a great experience.  But the kicker…her partners have spouses that are  stay-at-home moms and volunteer like crazy at their school. 

My experience at public elementary school has been mixed and entirely dependent on the luck of the draw.  My middle daughter is having an amazing experience.  My oldest has had great years, medium years, and one god-awful year which, luckily, is not this year.  All in all, public school, with or without volunteering like crazy, has been a pretty good experience.

But, as middle school approaches, our parental anxieties start to heighten.  To be an informed consumer, I started to research private schools in our areas and, more importantly, studies on how children perform in public versus private school settings.  I found some very interesting and surprising results!

New York Times:  Public Schools Perform Near Private Ones in Study

But this is contradicted by a NAEP Study:                                                                                           
However, according to Science Daily:  Public Schools Outperform Private Schools in Math Instruction     
An article in the Christian Science Monitor found that “After accounting for students’ socioeconomic background, a new study shows public school children outperforming their private school peers on a federal math exam … When children of similar socioeconomic status were compared, the public school children scored higher.”
According to a University of Illinois study:  students in public schools learn as much or more math between kindergarten and fifth grade as similar students in private schools.  In their previous 2005 study, they found that public school students tested higher in math than their private school peers from similar social and economic backgrounds.  Their conclusion:   “school type alone doesn’t explain very much of why these scores vary … in truth, whether the school is public or private doesn’t seem to make that much difference.”
According to a CEP study (Center on Education Policy), private school students and public school students perform equally on achievement tests in math, reading, science, and history.  The one difference that CEP found between private schools and public schools involves SAT scores. According to the study, private school students have the edge on the SAT. The CEP notes that this could be because private schools tend to offer more test prep resources than do public schools. 
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in its annual National Compensation Survey,  public school teachers are paid 61% more per hour than private school teachers, on average nationwide. 
Here’s a balanced article:  Public Versus Private.  Which is Right for Your Child? 
Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s 2007 list of Top High Schools by placement at top colleges.
Not that this is necessarily the end goal, but here’s an interesting article by the Wall Street Journal on How To Get Into Harvard.
Our conclusion, though by no means complete, goes something like this:  it is going to cost about $105k to put one child through private middle school.  If that money gets parked in their 529B college fund, it will (hopefully) increase to equal about 2 years of graduate school.  So…wouldn’t it be more impactful on their lives to have graduate school paid for so they are not in debt?  Wouldn’t that be worth going to public middle school?  That is the million, or rather $105k, question we currently ponder.

December 12, 2009

Birth Order and Personality

I clipped this a long time ago from a paper, but I’m not sure where but it may have been from The Boston Parent Paper.  I also read The Birth Order Book:  Why You Are What You Are by Dr. Kevin Leman because it was kind of fun to see what traits are associated with birth order.  One caveat, if there are large gaps between ages, the birth order switched around.  For example, if the youngest child has a ten-year gap between his two older siblings, this child is really an “only child.”  Likewise, a middle child of three girls is a true middle child but a middle child of girl, girl, boy is ALSO the youngest girl.

Take this quiz to see to what degree classic birth-order characteristics run in your family.  (This is a pretty accurate description of my three kids, give or take a few!).


  • Responsible
  • Conservative
  • Doesn’t make waves
  • Follows parents’ wishes
  • Emotionally intense
  • Authoritarian
  • Perfectionist
  • Driven
  • Surrogate parent
  • Leadership material


  • Peacemaker
  • Negotiator
  • Highly attuned to the needs of others
  • Doesn’t like to follow authority
  • Creative
  • Independent
  • Peer-focused
  • “Chameleon”


  • Comical/entertaining
  • Highly social
  • Laid back
  • Dependent
  • Creative
  • Unconventional
  • Few expectations of self

October 8, 2009

Great Kids’ Book Club Meetings

I  run two book clubs for my kids and participates in a book club for my last kid.  My kids think that book club is their very favorite activity in the entire world.  I notice that there seem to be two schools of thought when creating a book club.  One version is a parent/child book club that tends to be a little more structured and literary.  My book clubs are more along the lines of an organized play group centered around creating interest in reading.

If you are thinking of creating a book club for your child, some advice:

  • Defining the group will help alleviate hurt feelings later on.  For example, my two book clubs are centered around a group of kids who are all friends from a particular class .  My preschooler’s book club is defined by all the kids who will attend the same elementary school one day.
  • 4-7 seems to be a good size for a book club.  Start smaller if the kids are younger.  You can go bigger if you require an adult in attendance for all book clubs.
  • Choose a group of compatible kids AND moms (or adults) even if it’s a kids-only book club.
  • Length of book club is as short as one hour to as long as a sleepover, but 2 hours is a good general timeframe as book clubs are kind of like a small birthday party.
  • For my book clubs, the hosting family chooses the book and supplies it for all the members. For other book clubs, the host mom might buy copies of the book for everyone, but each parent pays her back.  If a book club kid already owns the book, it’s one less the host needs to buy.  Sometimes the kid chooses the book, sometimes there are suggestions from the organizer to choose from, and sometimes the parent picks the book — it’s all good!

How Pragmatic Mom’s Book Clubs Work

My  preschool book club was just one hour.  The book club met once a month and rotated from house to house.  The hosting family choose a picture book and read it aloud to the group.  After the book reading,  there was an activity and snack.  For this book club, we did NOT buy and distribute books because picture books are quite expensive and the group was pretty large at 7 kids.  The kids were ages 4 and 5 and did very well sitting still for the book reading, and enjoyed the snack and a very simple activity.  usually the child was accompanied by his or her mom.  Because our preschool day ended at noon, we held the book clubs usually at 1 or 1:30 for an hour so that it ended in time for an older sibling pick-up.

My middle child’s book club began the summer after Kindergarten.  The idea was to keep a group of friends connected as they went into a new grade with potentially different teachers.  It was modeled after her older’s sister’s book club which focused on group dynamics over literary discussions.  The group started off with 4 girls and has settled into 5 girls two years later.  I  feel like 1st and 2nd grade is when her girls were learning how to play in groups.  The book clubs are slated for 2 hours, but usually go longer and seem to extend into an informal happy hour for the moms.  We found that two moms on deck seems to work nicely so there is typically a hosting mom and a helping mom who stays (which is necessary when the hot glue gun comes out).  This group is also starting to take the kids on field trips to tie books into fun outings.

Her oldest child’s book club began after 1st grade and is going strong through 4th grade.  The group has fluctuated between 5 to 6 girls as someone is usually out of the country but eventually returns.  Her group is based on the older girls from a combined K/1 class.   As these kids mastered group play by the middle of 1st grade, I noticed that projects that used to be individual could be tweaked into team projects to teach group dynamics of leadership and compromise.  It’s been really rewarding to watch them learn how to work together and it hasn’t always been easy for them.  In this group, moms drop off their kids for 2-3 hour blocks.  Sometimes the book clubs are also sleepovers.

Successful Book Club Meetings

To Purchase a Book, Simply Click on the Image of the book to buy at

93 in My Family by Erica S. Perl.  Activity was to draw your family using template printed from her website,  Perfect for Preschool through 2nd grade book club.  A fun rhyming book!  In a separate book club meeting, the book club members met at bookstore nearby where Erica Perl hosted a book reading for her new book Chicken Butt. The kids were captivated by her presentation which included songs, a chicken hat and chicken shaped cookies.  The parents were captivated by hearing how her book evolved from one idea into the final evolution of the book.  We ended the book club at a nearby park for snack and free play.   If she’s coming  to your town, don’t miss her!  Her book tours are also on her website.

Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens.  The activity was to plant a container garden that each child took home.  Plants included tomato, cucumber, sweet basil, marigold and parsley.  Perfect for preschool through 2nd grade book club to do in late spring or early summer.






The Story of Ping by Marjorie Flack.  I used the picture of Ping on the front cover to cut out larger ducks out of white tagboard.  The kids decorated their ducks using markers, feathers and glue sticks.

Mr. Tanen’s Ties by Maryann Cocca Leffler.  Using white tagboard, the kids decorated large ties with paint, stampers and dot-dot paints.

Clocks and More Clocks by Pat Hutchins.  The activity was to create your own clock.  You will need a clock kit per child and a handy mom to host.  Perfect for 1st through 3rd graders.

The Greatest Power by Demi.  This book coincided with Chinese New Year so we went this that theme.  The book is the sequel to The Empty Pot.  The book goes over the achievements of the Chinese by answering a question posed by the child emperor of what is the greatest power?  We folded origami cups (very simple), fortune tellers (not that hard) and cranes (hard).  The kids took turns trying to pick out candy from a bowl using chop sticks to fill their origami cup.  Technically, origami is more of a Japanese art form but candy is appropriate for Chinese New Years because you are supposed to eat something sweet to get good luck in the year ahead.  Perfect for grades Kindergarten through 2nd grade.







My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother by Patricia Polacco.  The children each brought a handful of family photographs that they could use to make a photo album scrapbook.  I supplied blank scrapbook pages purchased at a craft store along with glue, scissors, and markers.  We bound each books using a velobinder but stapling the books together is fine too!  The kids wrote captions under each picture.  This was a 1st grade book club.

Wedding Flowers by Cynthia Rylant.  We made tissue paper flower bouquets (use tissue paper and cut into petal shapes and scrunch up at the bottom).  We had teams and each team dressed a girl in a wedding dress made of white crepe paper (more durable than toilet paper).  We decorated cupcakes.  You could also recreate the wedding feast in the book.  1st through 2nd grade book club.





My Haunted House by Angie Sage. A perfect pick for an October book club, especially one near Halloween.  The host mom baked brownies and cut them out in the shape of bats.  Activities were outdoors and included bobbing for apples, chubby bunny (put crackers in your mouth one at a time.  After each cracker, you say chubby bunny.  When you can’t say chubby bunny anymore, you’re out), and relay races.  1st through 3rd grade book club.






The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson.  The activity was to make a coin purse using fabric and glue guns.  The mom then set up a “grocery store” with her week’s shopping and displayed the prices the each item.  The kids had $10 to buy food.  The idea was that 2nd graders may not realize that $10 doesn’t buy a lot of food.  Another spin would be to have each child bring $10 from home and then go to the grocery store to buy $10 worth of food to donate to a food bank.  This book club was during the holiday season because the mom wanted to have the kids think about others.

Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties by Toon Tellegen.  This was a really great book club meeting.  The mom hid invitation cards filled out with instructions throughout the house.  As the kids found the cards, they did the activity.  Here are some of the cards which make up different steps of planning a party.  1) Go to the living room.  Learn the dance:  Blame It On The Boogie.  2) Make Fruit Punch.  Directions:  2 cups fruit punch, 2 cups gingerale, marachino cherries, ice.  Mix in pitcher. Remember to work together!  3) Make a centerpiece for the table.  Work together!  Be careful with the glue gun!  Also make placecards with your name on it.  You may decorate as you wish.  (She supplied a styerfoan cone plus cuttings from the garden and other decorations).  4) Decorate the cookies.  2 cookies each.  Share frosting.  Don’t eat cookies yet!  (sugar cookies).  5) Enjoy the treats.

My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles.   Using large sheets of tagboard, draw your own dragon.  Tangerines for snack.

Sideways Stories of the Wayside School by Louis Sachar.  The kids all liked this book but I thought this was a quirky book with stories of very strange children.  I hosted this one.  I suggested that the kids pantomime a character like charades and have the kids guess who it was.  This was vetoed.  Instead, it because a group project in which they created a scene of the class using tagboard, markers, tape and glue.  They were absolutely quiet for 2 hours working on this project and said it was a blast.  It wasn’t even that messy!  Perfect for grades 2nd through 4th.  This author was so popular that the following book club was Angeline by Louis Sachar.






The Doll People series by Laura Godwin. This series was so popular that we did three book clubs in a row, one book after the other.  For the first club, the hosting mom created a scavenger hunt of clues to find the aunt.  This was a big hit!  For the second book, the hosting mom had the girls create a doll house using tag board cut out in the shape of a doll house.  The girls drew the characters hidden throughout the doll house.  I have to research what the activity was for the 3rd book; her daughter thinks they just played.  Perfect for 2nd through 4th grade book clubs.

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.  The activity was to create nature survival guide by finding edible and poisonous plants in your neighborhood.  I printed out wildlife information from  Another site is I also bought a flint & steel combination fire starter from EMS and had the girls try to start a fire like the boy in the story.  This was supervised by an adult and done on pavement.  It was pretty hard to do!  We collected plant samples as well.  3rd through 5th grade book club.

Clementine by Sara Pennypacker and Marla Frazee.  This was a very simple but wildly popular book club meeting.  The hosting mom created a Jeopardy Game by writing trivia questions based on  the book.  She also asked each child to bring in two questions.   2nd through 3rd grade book club.






Tale of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler and Sarah Gibb.  This was my turn.  I copied a 5th grade assignment and had the kids create a game together based on the book using foam core board, markers, tape, scissors and cardboard.  It was a great way to practice group dynamics.  At first there was arguing over who was in charge.  After about half an hour, there was silence.  When I looked in, all the kids were happily engaged in their part of the project.  This was another big hit that was also very easy.  3rd or 4th grade book club.

Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris.  In the story, the princess creates her own perfume.  The activity for this club was making your own perfume using Perfumery Kit.  The kids loved playing “mad scientist.”  2nd through 4th grade book club.

Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins.  In this book club, we were fortunate to have the author visit our book club.  She happens to live in our city.  She was absolutely captivating.  She also talked about the evolution of the book.  At first, she thought this book would be a picture book about a boy rickshaw driver.  She also talked about how easy it was for her to get her first book published, but her second book took more than 10 years.  As a child growing up in Bangladesh and India, she compared cultures and talked about how Bangladesh was changing.  The boys were particularly captivated about micro-loans which were changing Bangladesh’s village economy for the better.  She also talked about her next book, Monsoon Summer which is perfect for middle school age children.  If Mitali Perkins comes to your city, she is a must-see!

We combined with the boys’ book club for same grade for the first time.  The boys stayed for the author presentation, snack and photo with the author.  The girls stayed for an art project.   They created Alpana designs using large brown tag board and white poster paint.  You could also create Alpanas using flower petals and ground colored spices.  I printed out alpana examples from the internet so they could get an idea of what the designs looked like:  The artwork turned out really well.  2nd through 4th grade book club.

Harry Potter (any of them) by J. K. Rowling.  This was from the 4th grade boys’ book club.  They played Quittage by using Tiki Torches and 4 square balls on a beach, but a field would work just as well.  3rd through 5th grade book club.






Holes by Louis Sachar.  This was a book club that other moms always talk about as the best book club their child ever attended.  She buried items from book into holes dug in her yard for the kids to dig up.  The combination of a wildly popular book with a wildly popular activity is the reason why everyone always talks about how fun this meeting was!  3rd through 5th grade book club.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  The Last Straw by Jeff Kinney.  My friend ran this book club for the 4th grade boys’  book club.  The boys had all read all the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books so she bought the newest one hot off the presses, hired a teacher to teach cartooning and had the kids create their own comic strips.  It was a big hit! Perfect for 2nd through 4th grade.






Matilda by Roald Dahl.  The mom hostess had just returned from a Transatlantic flight and was completely jetlagged.  She had them watch the DVD of Matilda but I think that is actually a great book club.  It’s always music to my ears when my daughter tells me that the book was waaaay better than the movie!  It would be fun to compare what was different about the book versus the movie.

Activities that Can Be Done for Any Book

  • Have the group work together or individually and create a game based on the book.  Provide cardboard or foam core board, markers, scissors, tape and staplers.  I like to introduce group activities to teach kids how to work as a team around 3rd grade.
  • Provide sculpey (a kind of clay) and have the kids sculpt a character’s head.  Would be good for any age.
  • Create bookmarks based on the book.  Provide stiff paper or cardboard, markers & scissors.
  • Create a scene from the book using a shoebox, paper, glue, markers, tape, etc.  You can even tell the book club in advance to bring in things from home to create a diorama.  You can do this individually or as a group.  For a group project, you could also create a scene using a big piece of tag board or foam core board.
  • My middle child’s book club is not shy about breaking out the hot glue guns… but you will need at least two adults on deck for this.  Using cardboard craft boxes or other container purchased at a craft store, use the hot glue gun to attach something related to the book in a design.
  • Create a trivia game by having each member bring in three questions about the book.  Have everyone  take turns drawing  a question and have fun answering it.  Remind everyone to read the book IN ADVANCE!
  • Act out a scene of the play and then have an adult record the show on a DVD recorder to play back.
  • Write a plot for a sequel to the book.  For a twist, do this in pairs or as a group.
  • Have everyone name something that would be different in the book if the setting of the book took place 100 years into the future.
  • Choose one character in the book.  Each member of the team must decide on what gift to bring to a birthday party for this character.  Consider the character’s personality, likes and dislikes.  Act out the party with each team member presenting their gift. Or make the gift.
  • Write a poem about a character.  Each team member must think of at least one line.  The poem must have at least 6 lines and must rhyme.
  • Write a script and act out a new ending for the book.
  • Make a 30 second television commercial to try to get people to read the book.  Be sure to include information about the characters, setting, and the story that will get people interested in the book.
  • If you can get your hands on a game called The Book Club in a Box (try ebay), play the game.  Many of the ideas for book clubs are from this game!
  • I received a great tip from the blog, Mother& for this book by Cindy Hudson, Book by Book:  The Complete Guide to Creating Mother-Daughter Book Clubs.

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