A Year of Homeschooling

June 10, 2015

We wore out this reading book.

We wore out this reading book.

Back in the fall, we started homeschooling Simone for a variety of reasons, many I made clear in an editorial that, apparently, everyone in the world read. So, I won’t talk about how it got started. Rather, I’ll talk about how it went.

At the beginning we started by using a series of books called Everything Your ___ Grader Should Know. Cate was homeschooled on these, and it seemed a logical place to start. We more or less threw out the kindergarten book right away. Simone already knew all of it. That’s going to sound like bragging or something, but it’s really just the truth. There was nothing there we needed to cover with her beyond a few basic social studies concepts. So, it was on to the first grade book.

The first grade material had real meat. You learn to read in the first grade. You start to learn real math and so on and so forth. In the beginning, things went pretty well, we were trucking along. And then James happened.

James spent most of the school year in a phase called, I AM A TWO-YEAR-OLD DEMON. This made schooling pretty hard and a lot of it got put off until after I was home from work when one of us could go over things with her while the other ran interference. It took us a while to adapt and there was a good month there where I felt like we did a pretty crappy job, but eventually we got a system figured out and Simone quickly got back on track.

Later in the year, Simone provided her own challenges. A lot of learning has come easy for her and when something was a little hard, she wanted to quit. Some fits were thrown, but we managed to find a way around. We both knew that was going to be the challenge with her. Most things come easy to Simone and when they don’t, she’s pretty inclined to walk away.

IMG_0695Having reached the end of the year, she’s just reached the beginning of second-grade reading and she’s started working on second-grade math. She’s very deep into lots of science concepts, especially biology, where she’s always on me to teach her about evolution (yes, really). And, she has her own library card!

This sounds more perfect and serene than it is. There are definitely areas where we need to improve. I feel like we could do a better job with her arts education and we definitely need to do a better job with history and social studies next year. I stand by our decision, however, and we plan to continue homeschooling for the foreseeable future. The world is still too testing-obsessed, and we enjoyed being able to adapt ourselves to her interests. It meant that she stayed in engaged in learning the whole year, and even if we struggled at times and even if we ended up with some tantrums and tattered books, it has all worked out for the best, so far.

Technology in the Classroom

January 17, 2015

Recently, I had a discussion about technology in the classroom on Twitter. I love Twitter, but as is well known, it can be hard to fully articulate ideas on Twitter, and so , here we are. Blog post time.

I am not opposed to technology in the classroom. We should get that out of the way first. I’m not that stodgy. But, like everything, it isn’t an inherent good. The problem with technology in the classroom comes when people assume that all technology aids learning. Learning is about thinking. And you don’t need a computer for that. In fact, there is a recent study that shows that taking notes by hand instead of on a computer, for instance, enhances learning because it requires the note taker to think hard about what to write.

What technology can do is improve access. It makes it easier for teachers and students to access materials.

However, as we have seen, technology is not a required element in learning, and one problem comes with attempts to enforce it as a requirement. In order to use technology in the sense most people expect, you need one of two things: extremely reliable and high quality network access with in a school OR a full population of students with good access to technology. There are parts of the country, no doubt, where this is the case. However, given the percentage of US children who live in poverty, it is not, generally speaking, a reasonable assumption. Further, I can tell you from personal experience that trying to integrate technology is almost always frustrating. It goes something like this: “Hey, I put together this great interactive thing for you all to do, so we’re going down to the lab… Oh, wait, the internet’s down.” And, because the school day progresses, it’s not something that can be returned to. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

The other major problem with technology in the classroom is that a great deal of what’s out there has very little to do with education. Rather, it’s all about measuring. What did your child do today? How well did they do it? Did they sit still? These are the kinds of things that really don’t deal in actual learning. Further, they encourage achievement learning instead of mastery learning. This is bad.

For those who don’t know, achievement learning is all about grades. It’s all about doing well enough to get a check mark or an A or whatever, and once you get that, you stop. You’re done. Mastery learning is about, well, mastering a topic. It involves taking on intentionally difficult tasks with the idea that you will learn from your experiences and even – gasp! – your failures. Mastery learning is not compatible with a system that penalizes effortful failure, which is what all the metric programs do.

Those same metric programs, I can promise you, are almost always pushed on educators by non-educators. The government line right now, is that all students can be measured by how they do on a test. These same officials, of course, almost universally send their children to private schools, which do none of the standardized testing you see in public schools.

The point is that, if you see something from a school about a new way to track your student’s progress, it can probably be ignored. Instead, talk to your kids. Kids, you will find, are much better at telling you what’s going on than a decidedly un-nuanced number.

Technology is important, and it does have its uses in the classroom, but just as a few decades ago, educational videos seemed like a great classroom tool, we are likely overstating its importance. What kids really need is meaningful interaction with their parents, teachers, and peers. When that happens – whether it is aided by technology or not – learning can happen.

Education and Work

March 22, 2014

Reader,

I have found myself curmudgeonly of late. This comes of reading other people’s ideas about school and learning, and it comes from watching so many of us scurry around for the few crumbs dropped our way. It bothers me greatly that so much effort is put into the idea that schools should prepare students for the workforce and nothing more. I find it condescending and supportive only of the unbalanced wealth structure of our society.

Generally speaking, people work more hours for less money (inflation adjusted) than they used to. This is not how it should be. If you consider that technology has, in many ways, eased the production of so many of life’s necessities while scarcity of resources has not yet become a serious issue in our country, we should not find ourselves working more. We should find ourselves working less. Instead, what has happened is that, through various implementations of bad social policy, too much power has been placed into the hands to a wealthy few who then divy it out among the rest of us based only on how hard we are willing scurry around for it all while convincing us that we need many of the things we only want and that many of the things we want should cost much, much more than they actually do (go look at cellphone/internet costs internationally).

And so we work harder and harder for less. Failing to accumulate any kind of real comfort or wealth. Ever precarious. This is why I am a socialist (not a communist, there’s a difference).

And on top of all of this, we educators are coming to be regarded as mere cogs in the machine whose job is to produce more cogs that are “career” ready. I recently saw written that careers should be one of the results of education, but not the goal of education. This is precisely how I feel.

Much is made of the unimportance of the humanities in academia. Don’t study art history or English literature or film or anything like that. No. Engineering and hard sciences are the only way to go. Engineering and science are wonderful. No one who knows me will accuse me of deriding the STEM fields, but it is folly to think we don’t need the humanities. To point out the painfully obvious, there is a reason the first five letters spell “human.”

Instead of what we currently have, what we should have is a world where people have a vocation – a career – that contributes to society and which they find rewarding, but which also allows them the free time to engage with the world. Not to simply consume art and music and literature, but to make it if such things are of interest.

I don’t want my children to go to school only to learn career skills. I want them to go to school to learn how to be people. To learn how to engage the world in thoughtful and meaningful ways. If that is to happen those of us currently steering the world need to take more time thinking about why we spend so much time working. Why we have less time off than our parents. Why we don’t have paid maternity and paternity leave. Why so many of our children live in poverty.

As a society, we have surpassed the wealth disparity of the famously disastrous gilded age. This can’t endure. I’m not the kind of person who calls for revolution, but this isn’t acceptable. Things should be hard. They should take work. But they shouldn’t be this hard.

Trees as Metaphor

January 31, 2014

Hello Reader,

The school where I teach is very large and in the center of the complex, there is a small courtyard. Until last year, the courtyard was lined with maybe half a dozen large, healthy oak trees. I could see them from the window in my classroom, and it was nice to look out on in the spring and late summer. Our school is one of those built in the 1960s to accommodate the baby boom. These schools were built quickly and cheaply and they mark a stark line in the construction of school buildings. Before the boom, schools were often beautiful buildings made of limestone or brick. You’ve seen them somewhere. Think of the most beautiful school or former school building you’ve seen. Odds are, it’s from before the baby boom.

So, our school is in’t much to look at, and that always made the trees that much nicer because they blocked some of the view. They greened it up a little. Made it feel a little nicer. In my experience, trees do that.

Since last year, they’ve been slowly cutting them down. The last one is being taken down now. The branches have been taken off one by one. Soon, the main forks will come off and, in a day or two, the trunk. I don’t know the official reason for this, but given that the tree were perfectly healthy, there can be only one – the fear that a storm may come along and blow one or more of the trees down, thus resulting in costly damage to the school.

The result is a decidedly less enjoyable place for me, and, I assume, the students. The grounds look bleak now. All cheap brick and corrugated metal roofing. It is hard not to see this as a metaphor for what is happening in education now. Math. Reading. Math. Reading. MathReadingMathReadingMath. Public school children, is a factory, and you re the product. You are the worker bees of tomorrow. Enjoyment is irrelevant. Self-examination and growth. Creative expression. These are also irrelevant. Your comfort does not matter. We must avoid risk. We must produce a product as consistent in its quality as a fast food hamburger. Never mind the taste.

Am I pushing this too far? Maybe I am. But then, I’m a teacher, and I know what’s going on in schools. I know that electives are being cut. I know that extracurriculars are being cut. I know that our trees are being cut.

Now, I have a task for you. The next time you drive past a private school, take a look at it. These are the best schools we have, much better than public (at least, this is what many legislators are telling us). Do you think they have electives? What about extracurricular activities? What does the school building look like? Do they have trees?

How to Be Good at College

September 7, 2013

I meant to write something like this a while ago, but time got away from me, as it often does. Anyway, I seem to be in contact with a disproportionate number of college freshman this year for a 33-year-old man. And, like all grownups, I like telling the young people what to do. Given those two facts, it seemed a good idea to offer my advice on how to correctly navigate college. Here we go:

1. Do all your homework. I know, I know, I’m starting off with a rule you are totally going to break. But here’s the thing: When you were in high school, your lesser teachers sometimes gave you something called busy work. This is part of why much of high school seems pointless. College professors will not do that. Oh, you’ll have some awful professors, of course, but they’ve all been required to think hard about something at some point in their lives and they have good reasons for whatever they assign to you. You will break this rule, I know that. I also know it will also be something you regret when you think back on college.

2. Assume everything is interesting.

3. The extent to which you listen to your peers should be inversely correlated with how often they talk.

4. Avoid being the smartest person in the room whenever possible.

5. Be stupid on occasion. Small mistakes are okay. You need to take a few risks. Just don’t get yourself expelled from cheating and don’t impregnate someone/allow yourself to become impregnated. Those are big ones.

6. Don’t just hang out with people who major in the same thing as you. That is called an echo chamber.

7. Remember: The only thing new is you finding out about it.

8. Remember that the world exists outside of college. Not everything is theory.

9. I’ll leave this one to Sherwood Anderson: “You must try to forget all you have learned,” said the old man. “You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.”

You will not listen to my advice because you are human and humans are not good at listening, but if you think about it sometimes, it won’t hurt you any.

Some Facts and an Opinion

August 16, 2013

I know I just did the education thing last time, but then I ran across more cranky-making articles and I felt the need to post about it again. This is more about how we handle teachers.

Some Facts:

1. There is broad agreement among various studies showing that 60-70% of variation in student performance is the result of socioeconomic factors.

2. These same studies show that the remaining 30-40% is equally attributable to teachers and administration. That is, 15-20% of performance is teachers and 15-20% of performance is administrators.

3. Standardized test scores do not correlate especially well with either success in college or success int he workforce. They do correlate very well with other standardized test scores.

4. There is some evidence to suggest that less testing is good for students. As is less grading in general.

5. If one looks at the most educationally successful states in the US and nations in the worlds, one will find a lot of teacher unions. (I’m not claiming unions as the solution, btw. I’m just noting the lack of evidence that they are the problem.)

Opinion:

There is constant talk about teacher accountability and how unions are standing in the way and how we just need to fire the bad teachers and hire the good ones. People will advocate for all kinds of crazy things: firing 20% of the work force after 3 years. Firing teachers who’s students don’t improve on a test over the course of the year. There are shouts of rigorous assessment and evaluation of teachers from every rafter.

Now, let me ask you a question: If your goal is to hire good teachers, don’t you want to make teaching an attractive option? Perhaps, then, policy makers should use the facts above to redesign how things are done. Perhaps we should start making things like professional autonomy and respect a big part of teaching’s appeal. It doesn’t have to be all about money, but a little more money never hurt either (maybe we can take it from all the money we’re wasting on testing kids).

And maybe, just maybe, we should stop listening to the for-profit “education” companies that are the root of most of the ridiculous stuff going on right now. Maybe we should start shaping our policy based on what we know to be true and stop shaping it based on what we want to be true.

Tear Down the System

August 9, 2013

I haven’t written about education or education policy for a while. It’s not because I don’t have anything to say. Rather, I’ve been mulling.

I have seen an uptick recently in education stories talking about accountability, and I want to explain why accountability will never work.

Level One: All teachers. Indeed all people who are willing to pay attention at all are told that the primary goal is make students Life Long Learners. People who will continue to seek out knowledge and improve themselves free of outside motivators. Everyone agrees this is what education should be all about because people learn best when they are self-motivated.

Level Two: It is agreed upon that there are certain things kids should know and we should make sure to squeeze these in. As with level one, there tends to be general agreement here. It’s why pretty much the whole country has adopted the same set of standards.

Level Three: Someone up high notices that not all kids know the stuff they are supposed to know and goes looking for a solution. The solution is tests. This is where the word “accountability” usually shows up for the first time.

Level Four: Schools, realizing that much of their funding is tied to performance on these tests start paying a whole lot of attention to the stuff kids are supposed to know AND to how that’s going to be presented on the test. Suddenly, assessment is REALLY important.

Now, let me ask you a question: When has being told that there is going to be a test ever made you excited to learn about anything? If there is enough riding on it, it might make you scared. But excited? No. When that test is over you are out of there. Then imagine that was the only experience you ever had with learning. It was always about the test. Always about the assessment. Never a free leash. Never exploration.

Education has become divorced from everything that makes learning enjoyable. Too many places in our society have forgotten all about level one and how valuable it is. They’ve forgotten, that when we are at our best, teachers are little more than guides helping kids find their way as they explore. Keeping them from getting stuck for too long. Instead, we are supposed to ensure that they perform to a certain level on the state mandated tests which are also mandate by the federal government and tied to federal funds.

So what you end up with is a perfect correlation wherein the schools with the most privileged populations do the best and those with the least privileged do the worst. Learning isn’t fun at school, so unless someone else teaches you about it, you’ll never know it can be fun. And what kid wants to do things that aren’t fun.

Finnish children are not assessed or given homework until they are 13.  They are never given course grades like we do here. Imagine that. Doesn’t it sound like more fun? Go to school, try to figure something out. Don’t worry about your grade. Just worry about learning.

Many places in America have totally forgotten the point of education. It’s not about standards or memorization. It’s about learning to think for yourself. Sometimes, I want to take down individual policies or particular strategies, but this is really all it comes down to. We took all the joy out of learning. We made it a chore. No kid has ever wanted to do chores. Adults don’t want to either. Talk about teaching responsibility and whatnot all you want, but it needs to be fun and it needs to not be about the tests. They’re just kids.

I’ve seen a couple of articles recently about the evils of homeschooling. My hackles were especially gotten up by one saying liberals shouldn’t home school because home schooling runs counter to liberal values. At the moment, Cate and I intend to home school both our children, so I thought I’d take a moment to dispense with all the major arguments against homeschooling while providing an educator’s viewpoint on why it can sometimes be a necessity.

Argument 1: Your kid will be poorly socialized/School socializes your kids

Certainly, this is true of some kids, but that has more to do with the parents than anything else. If you want to cloister your kids, you certainly can, but you don’t have to. This is not the goal Cate and I have. We fully intend to have our kids involved in a number of activities. They’ll get plenty of socialization that way. And frankly, school often only teaches kids what it’s like to be constantly picked on by assholes. I can do without my kids encountering that and the negative consequences that can come with it.

Argument 2: You’re afraid of exposing your children to outside views and unfairly indoctrinating them

This is certainly the case for some, especially religiously motivated home schoolers. That doesn’t mean everyone approaches it that way. I find it absurd, however, that people believe public schools aren’t involved in indoctrination. Public schools tend to push a particularly simplistic and devotional version of patriotism that, while consistent with the goals of a government organization, isn’t good for critical thinking and an honest assessment of the society in which we live. Correspondingly, many students come out of school with ridiculous views about the benefits of capitalism and the risks of socialism. The current Obama as socialist panic is a good example of this kind of nonsense.

Argument 3: You aren’t qualified to teach your child

You might not be, but I am and so is Cate. We’re educated and fairly intelligent people. To an extent that’s our luck/privilege, but it’s also reflective of our values. If you don’t value education and don’t make an effort to constantly educate yourself, then no, you should probably not home school your children. In our household, it’s just about impossible to imagine our children surpassing Cate and me in the humanities, especially English and history, before they turn 18. It’s more imaginable that they’ll best us in science and math, but if that happens, there are other routes we can take to get them the education they need. We’re not afraid to outsource. And we won’t be unschooling. We’ll allow our children more room and time to explore those things that interest them most, but they will cover all of the basic subjects and there will be dedicated school time on a daily basis.

The other implication with this argument is that a high school education is highly advanced. In many, many schools and for many, many students, it isn’t. In fact, recent education reforms have mostly had the effect of forcing focus onto the lowest performing students (who are typically low performing for reasons that have nothing to do with teachers and schools and curriculum) and diverting it away from the highest performing students who could really excel in an area or two before reaching college. (aside: I’m not saying we shouldn’t divert extra resources to kids who need them, I’m saying we shouldn’t do it at the expense of other kids and in the useless way testing currently forces upon us.)

Argument 4: When parents home school, it lowers the quality of public schools

This is completely true. In an ideal world, school populations are ethnically, socially, and economically diverse. They are not testing focused. All children go to public schools. This isn’t an ideal world. A much bigger issue is the percentage of children in private schools and the way affluent Americans are able to congregate around the best public schools thus condemning many schools to high percentages of at-risks students and all the educational difficulties that come with that. As soon as there is genuine effort at educational reform that addresses the inequality inherently built into the educational system, I will totally get on board and send my children to a public school. However, as long as educational policy makers continue to live with their heads in the sand, I will be keeping my children out of the system.

Conclusion

Most teachers and administrators struggle daily to educate students under duress from higher authorities. I can tell you from experience, it sucks. A lot of teachers also utilize homeschooling and private schooling because we fully understand the problems inherent in the system and realize that sacrificing our children to such a system accomplishes little to nothing. I am a teacher because I believe that education is important and that I am reasonably good at educating kids even in our flawed system (though I would be better if we could get rid of pretty much all current policy). I understand that many people can’t home school and that their children still deserve a good education. By teaching, I am trying to do right by those children. I am, however, also a parent and I’m going to do what’s best for my children until the rest of the world gets on the same page and starts doing right by the public education system.

The Flaws of Capitalism

January 13, 2012

So, I realize I’ve been blog-absent for a bit. It’s been a busy time. I lost a friend, as you know, and the baseball world has been taking much of my writing energy. I’ll probably have a longer post soon, but I’ve come across some little nuggets lately that I wanted to share in response to all the capitalism-is-perfect bloviating coming out of Republican primary candidates lately. They go like this:

“All of our antibiotics are 50-years-old because it’s not cost effective for drug companies to come up with new ones.”

That might not be an exact quote, but it’s pretty close. I caught that snippet listening to Science Friday on NPR today. The discussion was about a strain of TB that’s been found to be resistant to all the drugs we have. Good thing capitalist companies are making money selling old and increasingly ineffective antibiotics while sending there R&D to work on problems you didn’t even know you had. Yea capitalism!

“There are no private schools in Finland.”

That’s from an article in The Atlantic. The Finland it refers to would be the Finland with the best education system in the world. All of its teachers are also unionized, but that flies in the face of what we know here in America – that unions are the devil and just encourage slackers and hangers-on to drag down the system.

Raising Curious Children

December 1, 2011

What do you do with your kids?

Kids need to be able to explore freely. And if you look at most households, they’re not designed for that. They’re designed to have the kid not explore. The kid comes into your kitchen and pulls out the pots and pans and starts banging on them, what’s the first thing you do as a parent? “Stop that, you’re getting the dishes dirty!”

Yet, these are experiments in acoustics. That’s what that is.

Whatever the kid is doing, if it has the chance of breaking something, you’re gonna tell them to not do it – without thinking that that’s the consequence of an experiment that they are conducting. And every time the kid wants to do something, provided it’s doesn’t kill them – It’s an experiment! Let it run its course, even if it makes something messy.

You agreed to have a kid in the first place. Fine, clean up after them. Because it’s those seeds of curiosity that are the foundation of what it is to become a scientist.

-Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Montclair Kimberly Academy, January 29, 2010

As is the case for most parents, I constantly worry about whether or not we’re doing all we can for Simone. Parenthood is all about flying by the seat of your pants. You know you’re going to screw up, but you hope the good you do outweighs the bad. When I saw the above answer that Tyson gave in an interview with an out of character Steven Colbert, I felt a little better and a little worse at the same time.

For what it’s worth, I think what Tyson says above is exactly right. Not only is it exactly right, it has lifelong consequences for children.

With Simone, I think we do a pretty good job. Our breakables are mostly out of reach. Our house is, in general, very kid friendly. I think we encourage her to be curious and experiment. That said, have we ever told her to stop doing something when really she was just exploring? Of course we have. That is, we could do better.

Simone is a very curious child. Few things make me happier than the enthusiastic “Yeah!” I get when I ask her if she wants to learn something new. The idea that she could one day lose that enthusiasm scares the hell out of me.

There’s another quote from Tyson that encapsulates what he said above, but goes beyond early development. I can’t remember the source:

We spend the first year of our kids’ lives teaching them how to walk and talk and the rest of their lives telling them to sit down and shut up.

This also strikes me as uncomfortably true. I see the results of what he’s talking about every day in my job. So many people believe that education is all about learning the rules of math or science or English and then regurgitating that back to the world. This, we are supposed to believe, is how you become a Productive Member of Society. It’s also sadly wrong, because this kind of learning – though necessary at times – is all about discouraging the most basic and important part of what education is really all about – asking questions.

Think about it. Most people in the US subscribe to a religion. Religion, in many of its forms, teaches that some questions are unanswerable (this is the real meaning of attributing something to a god) and thus, are not worth asking/should not be asked. Most of our economic focus right now is on producing people with skills so they can do a job. Learning a skill is not, generally, about questioning and thinking as much as it is about repeating what a teacher shows you.

These are the students I get. I’ve written about it before. Most of my students have a severe lack of curiosity and it breaks my heart because, by the time they get to me, it’s mostly too late. I can’t teach them to be curious after that impulse has been flogged out of them by parents and  religion and the education system for fifteen or sixteen years. I try, daily, to encourage them to come up with their own answers to problems, but they don’t want their own answers (one of the saddest moments of my job is when a creative writing student asks me to tell them what to write about). They just want to know what’s right. Tell me what to say so that I can say it and be told I have done well.

The result of all of this is the incurious society we have today. Think about the vast swaths of people who do little more than a drudgery filled job of repeatable tasks before coming home to sit in front of the television. Certainly, that’s not everybody, but it’s a lot of people, and you can’t really say it’s their fault. They’ve been taught not to think. They’ve been taught to regurgitate. Perhaps this is why so many find polarized media so persuasive. It tells us what to think. It asks for no mental effort on our part.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. And if there is going to be a change, it has to come from parents. Parents have to encourage children to be curious and ask questions even when the questions make them uncomfortable or end with something broken. We can’t punish a child for being curious. Sometimes, a child will break something. It’s not their fault the thing was within reach. Sometimes, things we say won’t hold up to their questioning. It’s not because there is something wrong with the questions.

All of this is a long way of saying that, going forward, I want to be a little more patient with Simone (and James, when he comes along). A little more willing to let her mess things up. I want her to grow into someone who engages with the world. Who is willing to ask difficult questions and not take the answers she gets at face value. I don’t want her to conform and regurgitate simply because that’s the best way to get a pat on the head and an approving smile. That’s going to be a hard thing to do, especially as she gets older, but I want to try. We’ll see how it goes, I guess.

(A Side Note: If you want to see the whole interview I quoted at the top of the article – it’s definitely worth your time – you can find it here. If you just want to hear the rest of what Tyson had to say about education, that starts at almost exactly 1:13:00 in the video.)