Friday, January 18, 2013

the school experiment

The demands on this Mama Builder's physical, emotional, and mental self are many. One of the most challenging lessons I've had to learn during the building of our home is when and how to say "no." It sounds cliché, I realize. A woman who struggles to say no. Come on! Think of a more original problem! Are you going to use the word "martyr" next?? Oy! I'll refrain from lingering on the "saying no" conundrum except to say that I'm a curious, engaged, ambitious person and I was raised in the '80s when the "women should have it all" concept was popularized. So, I guess I come by the problem honestly.

I realized with some regret back toward the end of last summer that I needed to let another thing go. Work was suffering. Home-building pace needed to drastically increase if we were to finish on time. Baby was getting more demanding with age. So I started looking into school options for the Boy Builder. We looked at private school, public school, homeschool cooperative concepts, private tutors, online school. No educational stone was left unturned.

We finally settled on the local public elementary school, primarily because of transportation. Tuition costs were another factor, but really it came down to the fact that public school offers bus service up our canyon. Papa Builder and I met with the teacher, reviewed the curriculum, and visited the school without Eden first.

We quickly realized we'd have to write off much academic progress for the year. The much-ballyhooed by the principal new language arts curriculum was uninspired. The math was stuff we'd already covered. No history at all. "Science" was a pamphlet of little activities that they might get to if they had time. Art was a once-a-month assembly with a parent-led craft activity. No dedicated PE teacher, and only once a week. Sigh. OK. We can let go. Allow Eden to enjoy the fun of the school environment without the pressure of academic rigor.

I asked questions about the discipline system and the teacher described a system of colored cards kids take for poor behavior and tickets they earn for good behavior. The teacher seemed a little intense and controlling, but she also seemed experienced and nice enough. Sigh. OK. Probably not someone Eden would create a strong bond with, but her room was decorated in bright colors with cartoon characters festooning multiplication tables and spelling words. It looked appropriately elementary school-ish.

So we enrolled and we all escorted (along with Eden's grandparents who happened to be in town) him to his first day. The beginning of our experiment.

First, the good: Eden's spelling has improved dramatically due to the routine of studying a spelling list and being quizzed on it once per week. Likewise, his handwriting. Our whole family found some benefit in the way school forced us to organize our time more than we ever had before. Eden was well-liked and enjoyed his classmates. The bus ride was regularly one of his favorite parts of the day. He liked playing organized games with other kids at recess and PE. He liked feeling smart and acknowledged for his smarts and helping his classmates. We got to see a compassionate, engaged, polite side of Eden that was brought out by the school environment that we didn't get to see as often in our homeschool setting. It turns out that Eden quickly learned how to do school-ish things like filling in worksheets and taking tests, which is a relief when we think ahead to events like college admissions.

Next, the bad: We started to see some issues within the first several weeks when Eden would complain about not being challenged enough academically. The early mornings, late afternoon returns, and demands of homework and eye patch time meant Eden didn't have much time for personal projects and our fantasies of extra science and math projects at home were quickly dashed. Every activity at school was followed up by a carrot or a stick and we were starting to see damaging results of this punitive behavior management program at home. The teacher seemed to struggle to manage classroom behavior and would say some pretty outlandish things like "I wish I were teaching you how to behave instead of your parents" and in response to some kids acting up in the computer lab "This is the only time I get a break from you all day!" She started taking away recess and PE time as punishments for bad behavior. Kids were made to sit in humiliating postures with their heads on their desks when they misbehaved. She changed the seating arrangements a couple times per week. She began issuing bathroom passes on a limited basis. Her "motivational" pep talks were more like "get your act together" diatribes in the ears of 3rd graders. She accused Eden, with zero evidence, of cheating on his book report. She did a backpack search of the whole class in search of Christmas ornaments from her classroom decorations (which were not found in anyone's backpack) and never told the parents about it.

Finally, the ugly: The issue that became the archetypal "straw" was group punishments. The teacher believes that punishing the entire class for the infractions of a few encourages kids to behave better through social pressure. The system was absolutely not working and was causing our relatively well-behaved, high-performing boy to feel like a frustrated failure. I tried bringing the issue up directly and was shut down. The teacher made it clear she does not desire our input as parents in an exceptionally rude and unprofessional way, while dismissing our concerns. The principal acknowledges some of the issues, but in the end, backs the teacher and has offered no further solutions. Eden asks every day if he can homeschool again and slides in an "I hate school!!" in every conversation he can.

Oh boy! Not the results we were hoping for from this experiment! After being "told off" by Eden's teacher earlier in the week, I was pretty emotionally riled up and needed to get some perspective. I've talked with a few friends, pow-wowed with Papa Builder, and sat with my own thoughts this week. In fact, we've taken the whole week off school. An inversion has set in, so it's much better up here at 8600 ft anyway. We're giving ourselves a break to reflect. We're also doing a mini homeschooling "experiment" to see if Eden can be a bit more independent than he was before so I can get my other work done.

This week has taught me some things. The most surprising of which has been that there's a large contingency of people who really want public school to work — for us, specifically, and for everyone, generally. I discovered I was feeling a lot of pressure from that contingency to overlook the problems and make this class work. I've been surprised by how often I have heard the term "socialization" recently to describe why school is important. (I mean, have you met Eden? This doesn't seem to be an area where he's struggling. <wink, wink>) I've relearned that my main responsibilities as a parent are to unconditionally love, stay connected to, and stand up for my children.

What's kind of bizarre, and I'm beginning to think not coincidental, is behavior problems I'd seen crop up over the last few months since the Boy Builder turned 9, have started to vanish. He's clearly feeling some relief. (And the extra zzzz's don't hurt, either.) Plus, I'd wager the kid has made more progress in math and science this week than the previous 5 months put together.

Likely, we'll be leaving our local elementary school behind for the remainder of 3rd grade. We're still working out the details, but we'll adopt a "community school" approach and find some outside cooperative resources to enrich what we do at home and give me a little extra time for my other responsibilities. During our experiment, Eden was tested for and offered a position at a magnet school for next year. We might give it a try. We did get some beautiful gifts from our experiment and have no intention of giving up on the system altogether. But, we'll be more discerning, more quickly next time.

I'm guessing that most public school attendees don't have as miserable an experience as we did (and, egads, some may have worse!), but I'm curious what others do who don't see any other options? Do they just deal and hope for a better teacher next year? It was alarming to me how desperate our local school seemed to be for the funds another student would bring. But there seem to be no resources to address teachers who clearly need more support. I have a new and passionate disdain for programs like No Child Left Behind that somehow confuse test results with education. Our teacher gets good test results from her kids and cares about her job, but is supported in using outdated, non-evidence-based, punitive disciplinary methods that have truly negative affects on kids. I have no regrets leaving that nonsense behind for a while.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

new year

Another trip around the sun is done. We've traveled approximately 584 million miles since the last December 31. In my own little corner of the universe, that distance helps put my own personal travails and travels in perspective. Somehow, embracing the smallness of my own existence — something I learned to do in 2012 — is comforting.

2013 promises to be the year that we finally move into our house. It has been such a long road, full of so much hard work and so many challenges overcome. The learning curve has been unreasonably steep. The investment of myself deeper than I could ever have imagined. I'm incredulous I could really be in the home stretch. 

But, in deference to another important lesson of 2012, I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself. I will surrender to each moment as it unfolds, doing my best to meet each new challenge with grace, dignity, and the best I have to give. I fail nearly every day at this, but perhaps that's the goal of 2013. To get better at meeting challenges whole-heartedly. And balancing that surrender with judicious ambition.

To forward progress!