Mar 11

Parenting, Data & Outcomes

I tweeted over the weekend that we learned last week that SPL was accepted into the Mandarin Immersion program at Ohlone Elementary School for next year. It’s a huge development for us — it’s why we moved to Palo Alto a few months ago, and something we didn’t really expect to happen, given that the odds were stacked against.

So we were pretty overjoyed about it, and still are. Of course, like in any endeavor, you celebrate and move on, and now we’re puzzling over any number of implications and next steps.

As we’ve been talking about it with other parents, everyone has been hugely supportive and congratulatory, and ask how we’re feeling about it. And as we’ve been answering, what’s become clear to me is this: parenting is a series of decisions that could have profound implications years from now that you have no way of really, truly understanding now. There’s an unfortunate lack of data on what works in education generally, let alone in language immersion programs.

(Although it’s important to say this: we know a LOT more about what works in education than we actually use in practice. Lots and lots of reasons for this: many are industry structural, many are cultural — we have a lot to learn about best practices in teaching still, in a data-and-outcome-oriented way — but it would be a big step to be able to use what we DO know.)

In the case of SPL and Mandarin, we really are excited about it, and SPL is, too. But it’s very hard to tell what it will mean in the long term. It’s been really clear so far that learning Chinese and English at the same time (since he was about 3) has been challenging, and that it’s affected the order of his skill development (in particular in terms of reading and writing, since he’s learning a couple of very different systems simultaneously). There’s some new research that suggests that in general, dual-language learners develop more slowly in terms of reading & writing until about 4th grade, at which point they catch up and develop normally. There’s other literature that suggests that kids who grow up bilingual have better executive function as adults, presumably because their brains become good at making snap decisions on which language to use in any given situation.

But in truth, who the hell knows? The data sets we have on this stuff are vanishingly small. As I wrote about Ohlone, in our experience there just aren’t any other schools that are constructivist and whole child and Mandarin immersion — so the data we have to look at is really just the 4 classes that have come before us. So we’ll see.

I’m not saying we haven’t worked the angles on this. Like so many of our friends, we can be a little, um…detail-obsessed and maybe even have OCD tendencies. And since Kathy’s a teacher, you might imagine that we’ve done a lot of thinking and talking about this with lots of friends and educators. And so we have good feelings about it, based on pretty good reasoning.

In that way, parenting is sort of like trying to operate a startup. You never have nearly the information you need to make decisions; and lots of times when you’re trying to make certain decisions you not only don’t even understand the implications of what you’re deciding, but often don’t even really understand the data that you think you do.

So now we’re off to the races. Will SPL embrace his Chinese over the years? Will he work in China 20 years from now? Will he reject it like so many kids reject piano lessons? How will it affect the way he thinks, the way he looks at the world, the way he makes his own way?

We don’t know — we’ve really got no idea at all. But that’s sort of the mystery and the magic of it. We’ll learn as we go. Nobody’s seen this particular movie before, and that’ll make it challenging, and interesting, and human.

Dec 10

Ohlone Letter to Palo Alto School Board

The main reason we moved to Palo Alto is for the public school options for SPL; the most compelling for us is a progressive school started in 1976 called Ohlone Elementary. Particularly compelling is a program within that school: their Mandarin Immersion program. For a lot of reasons I’ll maybe put into another post, we decided some time ago that it was important for SPL to grow up as bilingual (at least) as possible, and that Mandarin made the most sense as a 2nd language. Easier said than done, but at this point, at the age of 5 1/2, he’s reasonably fluent (we think), and we’re working hard on finding ways to support more over time. Ohlone is a unique program that blends progressive instruction with Mandarin immersion — it was started 3 years ago by some amazing people, including a friend of ours.

At the Palo Alto Unified School District board meeting this past Tuesday, the board took up the question of whether to change the status of this Mandarin program from essentially a startup to ongoing status. Even though we had literally just finished up with the movers to our new house, we wanted to participate, so I went to speak, and what I said, essentially, is that we moved here for the chance to participate in the program (it’s a lottery, so chances are uncertain) — and that it’s a critically important and unique type of program, but that it shouldn’t be unique. We need more kids getting more chances to build more comprehensive world views, and that starts with language.

Happily, the board approved a change to ongoing status for the program — a huge milestone for the startup program here.

Kathy & I also sent a letter to the school board prior to the meeting — I’ll share it below.

Congrats to Ohlone!

December 7, 2010

Palo Alto Unified School District Board
25 Churchill Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94306

Dear Board Members:

After living for 10 years in Sunnyvale, and more than 20 in the Bay Area, my husband John & I are moving to Palo Alto this week to give our 5 year old SPL the best opportunity for an exceptionally high quality public education in the area. And the specific school and program we’re most interested in is the Mandarin Immersion program at Ohlone Elementary. I’d like to share a bit of background on why we think it’s such a uniquely important program to support – for our own family, for children of Palo Alto, and for education overall.

Neither my husband nor I have any Chinese background at all; I grew up in San Antonio and my husband lived in many states growing up, as his father was in the Air Force. I’m an educator and have taught science at several levels in the Bay Area and internationally. As a teacher over the last 15 years (and currently mentor teacher in East Palo Alto), I’ve built up significant theory and practice and have a strong belief in constructivist practice, as well as a strong focus on social-emotional learning, so you can see why we’re so interested in Ohlone generally.

For my husband, in his job as CEO of Mozilla the last few years, he’s been traveling and working internationally quite extensively, including helping to set up their office in Beijing and working to build their Chinese efforts since 2007. He’s now transitioning from his Mozilla role to a new one as a venture investor at Greylock Partners, and China figures to be a large influence in that role as well.

As you might imagine, once we decided that we wanted a bilingual experience for our now 5 year old son, SPL, Mandarin was an obvious candidate: it’s extremely relevant to today’s world. That was the idea. Figuring out how to give him a high quality dual language experience has been an extremely challenging enterprise. We were fortunate to have friends who walked this road before us, and they were able to point us to an extremely competent early childhood caregiver who was able to start with SPL when he was 3; at 5 he’s quite proficient in both Mandarin and English. So we were lucky as a starting point.

We’ve spent much of the last year trying to figure out the best way to continue Sam’s Mandarin into more formal schooling as he enters kindergarten, and it’s a real challenge. There are, of course, several private options – but only 1 of them on the whole Peninsula had a strong constructivist approach, but the Mandarin is not immersion, and that school is, in any event, very much in the formative stages. And there’s CLIP in Cupertino, as a public school option, but we believe it’s a significantly more traditional Chinese approach to education than we’d like.

Which leaves Ohlone. It’s a public school with an incredibly strong history. It’s got a focus on the whole child, including supporting discovery for each child. And the Mandarin program is immersive. That combination of characteristics, in our experience, makes Ohlone unique. That’s not something we say lightly, but we haven’t found any significant blending of progressive teaching techniques and strong Mandarin instruction in any context, let alone in a public institution. It seems to us a wonderful option for our own son, and one that’s sorely needed in an increasingly multi-cultural Bay Area and nation. And it seems to us that it’s an incredible example of modern, ambitious education that works, and can help others around the country follow.

For all those reasons and more we strongly encourage you to support giving the program a more permanent status at Ohlone and PAUSD. Thanks for your consideration and efforts so far – the program’s been incredibly inspirational to us as we find our own way.


Kathy Howe & John Lilly

Jan 09

RConversation on changing the administration’s China frame

RConversation: Dear President Obama: in talking to China, remember its people.

One of my favorite & most thoughtful writers on China writes a great framing piece for the new administration. Great suggestions. One of a few areas that have made me uneasy in the new administration’s work the last couple of weeks. (Although as James Fallows points out, Secretary Clinton already has adjusted and made great strides.)

Dec 08

The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester

Winchester has written a number of masterful books — most notably (the oustanding) The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa, as well as the more recent A Crack in the Edge of the World. Anything he writes, I’ll pick up — he’s just a very careful and thoughtful historian who’s able to contextualize a great number of contemporary world events and help you make sense of the real history.

Anyway, this is a bit of an unusual book — it chronicles the life of Joseph Needham, a Cambridge scientist who became enamored with China and it’s amazing history of scientific innovation (especially from antiquity to the 1500s or so). He was right to be fascinated, of course — the Chinese invented printing, gunpowder, chain link, the segmented arch bridge, and on and on. He learned about all this as a British diplomat during and after WWII. Then later in life, back at Cambridge, put together a colossus of a history called Science and Civilization in China. Weighing in at 7 gigantic volumes, it’s never been out of print since its introduction (of volume 1) in 1956.

The book also details a bunch of Needham’s adventurous (escaping parts of China just before the Japanese occupation forces closed the roads, for example), peculiar (a confirmed nudist, clearly polyamorous, etc), and and controversial (blacklisted as a communist by McCarthy, duped by Mao’s government into condemning the US for alleged (and apparently false) claims of using biological weapons during the Korean war) paths through life.

I didn’t love this book — it was a little too long for so narrow a look — but am glad that I read it. Would recommend his other books first. But I’ll pick up his next book, for sure, no matter what the topic is.

Oct 08

Jimmy in China

An amazing meeting in Beijing — Jimmy Wales seeing Chinese officials at the State Council Information Office. I met Jimmy in Dalian at the WEF event a year ago — he mentioned then that people in the Chinese government were interested in talking with him about Wikipedia. Rebecca’s got a great writeup on it, as she apparently saw Jimmy at this year’s WEF event there (The event last year is when I met Rebecca, too.) We live in interesting times.