Friday, September 26, 2008

The Notebook

I walked into the room, nervous as if I was the "new kid" at school. This new school was having Open House, and it wasn't the relaxed, all the people in town, type of affair I was used to.

Instead, I had to go from room to room, recognizing only the kids' two teachers and one mom out of the parents of 166 children.

As I entered Aidan's classroom, I found his desk, and looked through his notebook. I look through this binder every evening. Check to be sure assignments are being done. Looking at his spelling. Checking out his handwriting. Making sure he puts things in the right section.

He doesn't always, but usually. Even though he carefully puts his things away, much more carefully than he ever has, the papers have wrinkled edges. The writing is messy. And he expresses that he likes school, but Mom, I have a headache. Or I have a stomachache. I have neck pain.


I recognize these symptoms. I know the panic feeling. I know the headaches.

I walk in, timidly, and note that Aidan's notebook is the only one that doesn't shut neatly. His papers, although done right, are crumpled.

I am NOT embarrassed or ashamed. I pick it up with pride, knowing that despite his difficulties, Aidan loves learning. And I bring it over to the circle with me. I listen to the parents complain about the new 6th grad math program that groups students together, regardless of ability. How will the advanced students get challenged? How will students who need extra explaining get the help they need? It doesn't seem to occur to anyone in the room that maybe it IS a good idea to teach everyone the same concept. That groups are artificial, and learning the concepts is the important thing. That advanced students can teach other students, thereby improving their own understanding of the concepts by explaining them, and that the other students might benefit from a different voice.

But that is not why I am writing.

I am writing because I realized as I drove home that maybe there is something to be said for identifying learning issues of gifted children. Aidan is clearly bright. But teachers say the same things about him that they used to say about me... "So smart... just doesn't apply himself." "Seems distracted" "Is always drawing rather than listening."

I'll be honest, a large part of me thinks, "SO??" I will also say that I believe he needs me to push him to see how he looks to others, to teachers, to his dad and I.

But as I stared out at the night, I thought, "WOAH." What if someone had said to me that I was ADD back then? That I was physically incapable of staying focused? My mom thinks I am ADD now. DO I even believe in ADD? And what does it mean to be ADD and Gifted? What does either label mean? And here, in Vermont, where there is no mandate to accommodate gifted children, should I allow Aidan to be seen as learning disabled? Would that get him the extra help to find strategies to get his work done, make it neat, and get him the OT help to fix his handwriting?? Or should I try and do it all from home?

I thought of his notebook, his noble effort to do his work well.

And I smiled. It doesn't matter what they think. I see a bright, beautiful, creative learner.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

School should always look like this!

New School, New Day

So the big ones are in public school once again, and my "UnCommon School" is a dream I have to shelve for another day. As I unpack boxes in the office, I find project after project, and realize that we did a great deal during our fall semester at home. I was so worried, so pressured to preform. how did I let it all get to me?

Now, Sage still comes home exhausted at the end of the day. And Aidan still struggles silently... his skills compensating for what he is missing, and seeming like he is deliberately not "doing his best" (one of the rules at the new school is "Do your best." It is the "D" in PRIDE.)

BUT... they like it. And they seem happy so far. Except for the "I don't feel good" and "I have a headaches". I am hoping this year we are able to give them the skills to get through that obvious nervousness. The skills to stay organized. The ability to focus. But my own tummy knots, knowing it had nothing to do with not trying for me. I tried and tried and tried. And everyone said I wasn't trying. It broke my heart.

I have recently found several interesting articles on gifted children's "Disabilities". Funny to think that "exceptional ability" could actually create "disability". At least someone is finally speaking the conceptually unspeakable. Kids with gifted creativity struggle to function in the modern classroom.

Recently PBS aired a special on education in the United States. It is not a pretty picture. And yet there are amazing alternative popping up. I know it is incredibly UN-Democratic party-like of me to say, but what if we just let the public school system die? What if let parents have school choice and the transportation to get there. Maybe at first impoverished schools in cities would fail. But no one is pumping money into them now. What if the Gates Foundations of the world were allowed to take on failing schools? I think people have assumed that innovative educators would abandon those who most need help. But most people who really love children, really love learning, really love life, would do anything to help those who most need it. The best educators often don't enjoy the stilted rich kid schools. They want the challenge of providing a rich experience for those who might never otherwise get it. I'd go get that stupid license if I had the opportunity to work in a unique school where the standards were actually based on what we know about how children learn, not on outcomes. Shouldn't we be encouraging critical thinking, the desire to learn, and the experience of working hard? Sitting on one's ass for 6 to 8 hous a day filling out rote work is not learning, not thinking, not working hard.

Farm schools, wilderness education, and internships shouldn't be for the priveledged or just for a week or two. What if children did chores every morning? As a school community? What if cooking, gardening, and operating a farm market were considered good uses of math and language and art? Sure, some rote knowledge of basic math and literacy skills should be happening. But kids remember more by using this information in a practical way. What if history, democracy, and social studies were learned by surverying and interviewing elders in the community? Listening to stories? Reading church records? Looking at old maps? Surveying the school grounds? Imagine the possibilities! Imagine the constant use of math, art, scientific method, social sciences methods for intervewing, the writing, reading, and listening skills! Maybe they'd even learn the rules for an old-time game or the verses to a tradtional song.

Maybe I am just a die-hard Dewey-esque Progressive educator at heart. But it seems so commonsense to me. Why should the very cool projects teachers are doing be loaded all into a Wednesday afternoon when they could encompass every moment of everyday of the whole school week???

One last question... why is "doing nothing" wrong? Imagine going out your front door and sitting down on your step, stoop, deck or porch. Now imagine sitting for 10, 15, 20, 25, even 30 minutes. What would you see? Who would you see? Would you see trees? Traffic? Animals? Pets? People? Buildings? Farm equipment? What would these things/critters be doing? Why? Where would your brain be? Your mind? Your soul? Would you be making lists of what you should be doing, or would you be observing? Truly seeing? Hearing? Smelling? Tasting the air around you?? I truly believe we must teach children how to do nothing. How to sit and watch. Observe. Sure, once they know how to do that, we can show them how to journal, make educated guesses about the life around them, draw what they see, record the sounds, make up a story about characters they see. But first they must know how to shut off their racing ideas and minds and see. Be. BE here. Be part of the world around them. Maybe the first tenet of the UnCommon school in our world should be this: Stop. Sit. Do Nothing. Be.

Maybe if we taught children how to stop their minds, we'd be providing them respite from the repeating recordings in their minds. Maybe they'd hear their true inner voice in the quiet. Know themselves. Maybe they'd hear their souls calling. We might not need to medicate them to get them to pay attention if we taught them how to pay attention.

And maybe we wouldn't need to tell them how to feel about themselves if they knew someone existed within the shell of skin and brain synapses.

I am not suggesting children not have to struggle and work. In fact, I am suggesting the opposite. That the "realness" of real life teaches us a great deal, and children deserve to be part of that rather than penned up in an artificial reality of school life where their meals appear out of nowhere, paper is used without concept of where it came from or how to use it meaningfully, where children are grouped in 12-month segments by geographic locality, without having to relate to the variety of people they will be exposed in the true work world. Get them away from their desks, and into the world! Let us cry freedom from tests and unreliable predictors of success and into the world. Let us make citizens of our children. Democracy comes not by knowing how to do what you are told, but in understanding how to question, think critically, and make decisions. A recent Time magazine covered a study of disaster situations that pointed out that the squeaky wheel really does get the grease. Those who did as the crowd did, or didn't panic, were morelikely to get hurt or die. Those who screamed, and encouraged those around them to get moving, not only saved themselves, but those around them. Their motivatiomn? To get home alive to those who loved them and to the causes they felt needed their work.

So teach your children to question, to think, to understand, to work, to love. It is the best survival kit there is.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

This Homeschooling Thang...

... Is for the birds!

I love being home with the kids. I love waking up in the morning, cuddled in bed as Colin leaves for work, nursing the baby, and hearing the older two breathing deeply and beginning to stir in their beds. One of them always begins to stir a bit more, and gets up, makes the sleepy-eyed, dizzy-headed trip to the bathroom. Eventually they stagger into my room, climb up over the side of our hand-hewn local maple bed, and snuggle up to me and the baby. Sooner or later, the other child climbs in, too. We smile and giggle, laugh and enjoy the early morning hour before breakfast, which is a good hour later than it was when they had to get up for school.

Sometimes it is hard to believe that even this beautiful moment is worth the cost. I can't work with them home. Some days I have to decide if I am Mama, or teacher, or house-cleaner/homemaker, or buddy, or soon-to-be-grad student. Do I wash the dishes? Do I make ooblek? Do I read a book? Play a game? Change the baby? Wash the g-diaper wraps and diapers? Prepare a dinner we can eat in six hours? Slaughter the duck? Finish cleaning out the garden? Study times tables with Aidan? Help Sage read a book on her own?

It's only October, but sometimes the idea I held in my mind of the hours of well-packaged fun I was going to devise for us all, while simultaneously enjoy the growing baby seem lost under the piles of laundry and the tense, worried words of my ex-husband. "Are they learning enough? The art museum is great, but why can't Sage read basic words? Why can't Aidan crank out a page of math in half an hour?"

For me, this is what we kept them home to escape. I didn't want to drive an hour away to send them to Waldorf school. I didn't want to pick them up at the end of the day from public school, sobbing. I do want them to see their friends and play sports and enjoy their day. After years of cranking out curriculum for early childhood and after school programs, why can't I write one for my kids? Why can't we stay on topic?

But that's just it, isn't it? Life is a journey of "what ifs" and "here and now". So as I sip my strong espresso, and watch the Sunday-afternoon clock, counting the minutes until I have to rouse Nadia to get in the car and go pick her half siblings up from their dad, I know that this week will be what it is. Masks, Hallowe'en art projects, night walks in the woods staring at pumpkins, Rural Vermont Hallowe'en party at the Outdoor Center, and trick or treating through the village with friends. The math and reading will just have to be embedded in our everyday, along with silly songs and stories, campfires, discussions about life and death as our very small of ducks becomes a very small dinner, and the honesty of a life lived with good intention. Perhaps the best lesson I have to offer them.