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Schooling [Jun. 2nd, 2010|01:07 pm]
[Current Mood |awake]

Between the Science article on science literacy and education, and a program item I saw on Nightline last night about a family doing "unschooling" in Massachusetts, my head is about to burst. 

First, some personal history.   I did well in a very limited public school system (south Texas, 1951-1963)--underfunded, overcrowded (40 in many elementary school classes), old textbooks, and some seriously bad teachers (a few really good ones, a lot of mediocre ones, some VERY bad--abusive, dishonest, incompetent.)   The school did not prepare me well for a major university, but given the resources, it wasn't all bad.  Still, from third grade on, I was always at odds with it--the expectations for girls in that era were such that I had to fight for the classes I wanted, and was always pressured to scale down my ambitions.  I often wished I could stay home with the textbooks--I was reading well by first grade (and tested at 12th grade level in reading by about fifth grade) and very self-motivated.  I wanted to avoid the hassles of the classroom and just learn.  By high school I hated school, but knew that doing well was my only way "out"--so I made the honor roll and graduated 12th in a class of over 300, taking the hardest courses I could find. 

So in college, when I discovered Maria Montessori's books, I started thinking how I would teach my own children--I really liked a lot about the Montessori approach, and recognized that my mother had used something similar before I started public school.   I also read (then and within the next ten years) John Holt's books on education, which influenced my ideas.  While taking my second degree, I found Karen Pryor's book Lads Before the Wind, in which she described using positive reinforcement training with dolphins, whales, ponies, and children.  I tried the techniques with a horse (very difficult to bridle) and in 45 minutes trained him to lower his head and open his mouth for the bit.   Aha--I had a new set of tools!   The utility of the techniques for child-rearing was obvious.   We could not have biological children, as it turned out, and adoption was a much slower process than we'd hoped, but at age 38 we adopted a baby who turned out to be autistic. 

The homeschooling movement, as an evasion of public school for the purpose of religious indoctrination and racial separation, was really ramping up then, in the mid-late '80s.  Though homeschooling had long been around, in small numbers and with different reasons, the movement to homeschool to prevent children being "contaminated" by people or ideas the parents did not want them to learn took off along with the religious right's increasing political power, and there was a push to legalize homeschooling in all states where it was not legal.   As it became clear that our son was severely disabled--and that the local rural school system lacked the resources to give him the services he needed (law or no law--there was no money)  I was working with him at home--and a private preschool also helped enormously for three years.   I found that using Pryor's behavior management techniques (as written even more clearly in Don't Shoot the Dog)   and Montessori methods (from the original books, making my own teaching materials because the official Montessori ones were hellish expensive), we made progress.   When he was of age to attend public school, the local elementary had a special ed classroom that was basically a warehouse--spec ed kids had no access to the computer room, for instance, and he was already using my computer to write) and the first grade mainstream teacher was only concerned with whether he would sit still and be quiet.  (With his severe language delays, he needed encouragement to talk, not enforced silence.)

So I began homeschooling him, with the blessing and relief of the local schools.   I had copies of the elementary school's curriculum and schedule...which didn't work for us, exactly, but gave me a baseline to work from.   He shot ahead in math and geography,  shot ahead briefly in reading (he was already reading single words) and vocabulary) but then began lagging in comprehension--all typical of autistic kids.  I homeschooled him for 12 years, then he transferred to the high school for four years, in spec ed.  By then, he had enough emotional stability, communications skills, and social skills to handle the high school environment in special classes without being a problem to others or suffering too much stress.  He loved it, in fact.  In the meantime, while homeschooling, we were able to travel off-season (less stressful), work on life skills, teach flexibility, etc. 

My goals were not all academic:  I wanted him to have the basic life skills to live on his own someday, so he was exposed to cooking, dishwashing (by hand--we have no dishwasher), clothing care,  choosing clothes appropriate to an occasion,  traveling by bus, train, subway, and airplane, etc, etc.  Many lessons were experiential, because he learned best that way--he learned to use hammer, screwdriver (both hand and powered of the latter), saw, pliers while  helping his dad build things or repair things.  He learned to paint by helping paint the hall.  But some were more formal lessons, especially early on.   It was, in fact, a mix of methods--whatever worked to help him learn a particular set of skills or body of knowledge that I felt was important.   Some certainly qualified as "unschooling" by John Holt's definition; some was definitely based on Montessori; some was based on what I had learned later, reading about cognitive processes and--in cultural anthropology books--about the teaching/learning methods in other cultures around the world.

I supported (had supported since my own miserable school experiences) homeschooling...but I was appalled, in talking to some other homeschooling parents, at their desire to prevent their children learning anything that conflicts with the parents' religious or political views.  (The Texas Textbook Massacre is a direct descendant of this attitude.)  Education should open doors, not slam them shut.  I consider any parental activity that denies children access to more knowledge to be a form of neglect.  Children will live in the world someday--they will not stay in the kiddy-pool forever, but will be flung, perforce, into the great ocean.  So they need to get those water wings off and learn to swim.  They need to know real history--not the invented history that hides unpleasant facts about our past.  They need to learn real science--not some invented makebelieve that suits their parents' narrow theology. 

And they need some structure, some organization, to what they're taught, by whatever method is being used.  Which is what made the "unschooling" family on the TV program so shocking.   Holt's idea was not the kind of chaotic mess that that family demonstrated--no schedule, no plan, no awareness by the parents that some skills are actually necessary and should be conveyed (by whatever means works for that child.)  Just turning kids loose to do whatever they want is not "unschooling"--it is anti-schooling.    It is a refusal to take paental responsibility for how those children will fare as adults.  "I want to do whatever I want when I want" is not a viable rule of life.   The irresponsibility of both children and adults in that family was...astounding.  The mother is an advocate for her version of unschooling (which includes never telling a child he/she can't do something, as well as not giving them any direction, any responsibility--they can do whatever they want whenever they want.)   There seems to be no sense of responsibility to society--no understanding of a social contract in a community setting.  It's hard enough to bring up children to have a sense of responsibility beyond themselves when you're working at it...these children won't have it--are already demonstrating that they don't have it.  Which means that if they ever leave home, they will be completely unable to integrate into society in any form.

I am not in favor of treating children like cookie dough, all to be cut with the same shape.  I know kids are different--I was very different--and I think we as a society benefit from recognizing, and developing, individual talents and skills.   I think more attention to individual skills and talents--and a broader base of education, with more methods available to suit more children--would be excellent.   I think kids who can learn on their own should be allowed to do so, and those who need more support should be given it.   But I'm also not in favor of treating children like a row of carrot seeds--just letting them grow, with no guidance, no instruction, no chance to learn the bodies of knowledge, skills, and character traits that will enable them to make real contributions to society and achieve more satisfaction for themselves.

The children in that family did not appear to be happy in their chaos.  The eldest, slumped in a chair on the porch answering an interviewer's questions, stayed up watching TV or playing video games until midnight or later most nights, and slept until 10 or so in the morning...he looked no happier than the average boy his age being asked questions by a stranger.  In fact, he looked less happy...he liked not going to school because he could do whatever he wanted, he said, but it didn't appear to be giving him any satisfaction; his face and posture expressed a kind of aimless boredom.  The younger school-age children appeared unable to settle to any activity, and spent a lot of time running around screeching.  I realize that a short television segment cannot present a true picture of anyone's life,  and perhaps the presenter chose particularly chaotic bits to show, but the body language of the children was that of individuals with no real relation to other family members.

And I cannot see happiness ahead for them, if they ever live anywhere else (and maybe not then.  Will the older brother who wants only to do what he wants when he wants it refrain from making use of his younger sisters when hormones get to work?  Incest is common enough even in families with boundaries,  I saw one younger child hitting at another while the mother, talking away, ignored them--how much violence will there be as they get older and stronger?)   Happy people, in general, are those with a constructive purpose, with healthy interpersonal relationships based on respect and reciprocity.  Nobody was showing that. 

I call this neglect at the level of abuse.   Children deserve a chance to learn more than what they find out when left alone, uncontrolled, untaught.  I found abuse within the school system, but that's no reason to tolerate abuse out of the school system.  Good education is not abusive.  Good education opens the doors and windows, shares knowledge and skills,  aims at freeing children from their own limitations to the extent possible.  Ideal education (which no one has yet quite figured out) would allow every child with a serious talent to take that talent to the limit...whatever the talent.  Every child would have the chance to learn--using the best techniques for that child--to the limit of his/her ability.  That's a dream, at this point.  But avoiding abuse is possible--abuse by teachers both verbal and physical, abuse by parents who limit what they allow a child to learn for religious or political reasons, and abuse by parents who ignore their parental responsibilities and call that "unschooling."


From: angela_n_hunt
2010-06-02 06:17 pm (UTC)

As a micropublisher of two homeschooling titles, you just articulated everything I've been thinking of regarding this.

For what it's worth, I do know that the family in question was portrayed as negatively as possible, but I also know that their form of unschooling is an extreme.

Thank you for this.
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[User Picture]From: hugh_mannity
2010-06-02 06:36 pm (UTC)
Children will live in the world someday--they will not stay in the kiddy-pool forever, but will be flung, perforce, into the great ocean. So they need to get those water wings off and learn to swim. They need to know real history--not the invented history that hides unpleasant facts about our past. They need to learn real science--not some invented makebelieve that suits their parents' narrow theology.


If one's theology cannot withstand the rigours of the world, then the problem is not the world, it's the theology.

I certainly haven't turned out to be the person my mother wanted me to be. But I'm a reasonably civilised, competent and self-supporting adult, so I guess I'm not too much of a disaster :D. My son isn't turning out to be the person I hoped he'd be (I was at least smart enough not to have a huge emotional investment in him having any particular profession, talent or other attributes). However, he is turning out to be quite an interesting person in his own right, so it's all good.

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[User Picture]From: lingster1
2010-06-02 07:18 pm (UTC)
Well said, Elizabeth. My schooling, in post-WWII Britain, wasn't luxurious or even modern by today's standards (40 in a classroom was the norm and the textbooks were old, supplies often non-existent,and teachers unsullied by educational theories who believed in establishing discipline in the classroom)but we were taught to think, challenge, defend, contribute, and we had mandatory religious history classes. Without that, how can civilization continue? Homeschooling is sometimes the only way those values can be preserved, but too often they become the means to keep children from thinking for themselves, especially on the religious front.
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[User Picture]From: litch
2010-06-02 08:37 pm (UTC)
The problem with 40 in a class room, etc. is not that it makes it impossible to get an education, gifted or dedicated students can thrive in even the most arduous circumstances. The problem is the kids on the back side of the bell curve, the ones who would at least approach their potential in a smaller nuturing class environment. Everytime you hear someone go off about how "I survived [that hardship] just fine..." ask them if they consider themselves the 2nd quartile of the people who went through it. That should be the target of public education for our society's sake.
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[User Picture]From: torainfor
2010-06-02 07:27 pm (UTC)
I have friends who homeschool successfully and some who question why I don't. Thankfully, my son thrives in the public school where he's surrounded by other kids and teachers who are actually trained in, like, how to teach squirrely-boys without wanting to fling them out the window and down a box of frozen Ding Dongs.

My friend was a sociology professor at the Air Force Academy. One of her previously-home schooled freshman students came in and asked if she could get clarification on the section they'd studied that week--human sexuality. My friend asked, "What part didn't you understand?" The girl said, "All of it."

It's not a unique situation. My sister, who went to Bible college in her thirties, after a divorce, counseled many home-schooled girls, as does a friend who runs a teen writing forum.

I'm glad there are options--public, private, charter, home--for schooling. My Creature went to a Montessori school for pre-school and kindergarten. I wish we could have kept up with it, but the public Montessori school (Yes! We have one.) is across town, and we can't afford the nearer private school.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-06-03 04:01 am (UTC)
IMO, successful homeschooling requires the right kid, the right parent (just being a smart parent isn't enough--not all parents have the temperament to make good teachers), and the right circumstances. It would have been good for me, I think. I was smart, motivated to learn--eager to learn, reasonably responsible, and needed not much more than "OK,what have you accomplished today?"

I can also think of kids, parents, and circumstances where it would have been (and is) a horrible mistake. On other internet venues, I've talked to other parents of autistic kids considering homeschooling--and I think it does take serious consideration of the personality of the teaching parent. Teaching one's own child is both easier and harder than teaching someone else's (for one thing, you have them 24/7. When I tutored, it was one hour at a time, even if several times a week, and I could go home and regroup--so could the student.) Parental pride (the wrong kind) is more likely to be involved when teaching one's own child...it's a little harder to stand back (psychologically) and analyze what's best for this particular child, and if the child has developmental disabilities, it's absolutely essential to be able to do this.
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[User Picture]From: reading_angel
2010-06-02 07:39 pm (UTC)

I went through several years of public school before being homeschooled for high school. I learned so much more about myself and the world and how it works in the four years of homeschooling than I did all through elementary and middle school. I was also able to study German at the local University for high school credit and take ballet, which was awesome.

It helps, too, that there is such a large homeschooling community in Fort Worth. My mom couldn't help me with science, but my brother's friend's mom taught lab science - using the science lab of a private school she was connected with - so I got hands-on chemistry. I was in a drama class, and a ballet class, and a choir, in addition to doing all the textbook work.

For years now, I've been an advocate for homeschooling, but I have realized recently that it's not necessarily homeschooling I'm passionate about - it's parents taking charge of overseeing their child's education. If your child will learn best at home, then do that. If they'll learn best in a school surrounded by peers, do that. However you can get them the opportunities to exceed and excel, do that. Whatever you do though, you should be encouraging your kids to learn from all kinds of experiences and developing both social skills and critical thinking skills. Teaching them to ask the right sorts of questions, and how to find their own answers - not just catechising them into what you happen to believe. My older brother excelled in public school - a social butterfly with straight A's. It didn't work for me so well, but homeschooling did. Every child is different and learns in different ways. My Mom always said, when people asked her about it, that homeschooling is just about finding the resources your kids need one step ahead of when they need them.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-06-03 04:01 am (UTC)
I LOVE what your Mom said! Yes! "Find the resources your kids need one step ahead of when they need them."
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[User Picture]From: jenrose1
2010-06-02 08:08 pm (UTC)
My daughter's first violin teacher was of the mind, "It's my job to teach, and if she's not learning, I should do something different in how I teach."

Thus my daughter was taught using several methods, several different schools of thought. My impression is that most 6 year olds start with Suzuki, but K ended up having a much better grounding in music theory for the eclectic approach.

I feel similarly about homeschooling. I wanted to homeschool Kailea. But it worked out that she wanted to go to school, and it was just one of the tools in the box.

Unschooling is fine for some children, when it is done "as intended" allowing and encouraging a child to investigate their environment from a learning perspective.

But as an inbred philosophy? It's a lousy only-tool.
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[User Picture]From: melissajm
2010-06-02 09:47 pm (UTC)
Hear Hear!

I can't imagine parents not wanting to give their kids all the education they can. I was in special ed until 5th grade. By then I'd read all the "official" books. I'm SO glad my parents expected me to go not only through HS, but to college.

How CAN people not school their kids, legally? I thought it was mandatory to have SOME kind of educational plan until age 16.
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[User Picture]From: cyber_istari
2010-06-03 03:29 am (UTC)
As linked below (not that I care for the HSLDA), it varies from state to state. The advantage, though, of lower-enforcement states, is that you are not locked into a curriculum that doesn't suit the child (been through several with one), or have a mandated grade level (have an autistic child myself, with severe-but-improving developmental delays; he's actually in a class at the moment, very small, kids with different learning issues, each working at their own level, plus he's learning how to "behave" with other kids), both of which can happen in heavily-regulated states.

I'm of the same opinion on "protecting" children from eveything that might disrupt their parents' cozy little world. My oldest is just getting to the age where she's starting to think about different things, and it's fun discussing things with her, and providing thinking opportunities. And she's chosen to school-at-home, because she gets a say in her books (not final say,but a say ;)) and she knows herself well enough already to know when and how she learns best.
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[User Picture]From: reading_angel
2010-06-02 10:46 pm (UTC)
Here's a brief overview of how it works in the US according to differing state requirements - http://www.hslda.org/laws/default.asp
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[User Picture]From: gifted
2010-06-02 11:42 pm (UTC)
I agree with you. Personally I had a pretty good education; we moved around a lot in my younger years, but I learned to adapt quickly to people and learning, and I did considerably more reading than most kids my age, so it had its positive sides as well.

The effort and care you've put into your son may be expected, at some standard, but you (and hubby) are still amazing for having done it, and striving for his best.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-06-03 04:15 am (UTC)
Fairly outgoing kids do well with lots of moving around; I've known adults who thought having to move was horrible and scarred them for life...so congratulations on being one of the successes.

I lived in the same house from 14 months on...went to school with the same kids for 12 years (and some of us had been in Mrs. Jordan's nursery school and kindergarten before that...no public school kindergarten in those days. She had a house about a block from the elementary school I went to.) We Wilson School kids met up with some from other elementary schools in junior high...and then with kids from the other junior high in town in high school...but there was a core group that had known each other all the way up.

There are advantages and disadvantages to just about any childhood circumstance (except outright abuse--no upside there.)
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[User Picture]From: moonsinger
2010-06-03 12:22 am (UTC)
I'm a product of Texas schooling as well. I graduated from what was generally considered the #1 district in the San Antonio area at the time. I found myself challenged very seldom but I was an A student. Looking back as a 41 year old adult, I think my best teacher was probably my Algebra 2 teacher who loaned me SF books to read. I wasn't pushed much. My husband went to an exclusive college prep school on scholarship in Georgia, and we met at Trinity University.

I was leery about public school when I had kids, but my daughter and son have had some excellent teachers and experiences in the Schertz Cibolo Universal City School District. For gifted and talented, they give a battery of tests and they give harder work (not more work) to kids in the subject areas where they are above grade level. She was given more difficult math work and allowed to read at will when she had finished her work and had the run of the entire school library. Her teachers also let her take books from their classroom home. When she was in 2nd grade, we asked for additional testing on her reading, so we'd know at about what level we could let her read. They really went the extra mile.

With our son, at 2, he was considered profoundly delayed in speech and diagnosed with apraxia. The school had a 2 hour program where they placed him with other speech disabled kids and there were 4 to 5 kids with one teacher and two assistants. Now at 4, his speech is much improved (we also did private speech therapy) and they've geared his program for his learning level (they are teaching him sight words and the alphabet and counting to 20).

I guess what I'm saying is that as bad as the BOE has screwed up, which believe me I fully think we need to kick them all out and/or reform the system, that we have some good school districts with some really good teachers and specialists. There is hope, but you pretty much have to move to the areas that have the exceptions. I wish fervently that every child in Texas had the educational opportunities and special ed help that my kids have had.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-06-03 04:11 am (UTC)
The only thing that surprises me is that you asked the school to test her reading level in 2nd grade to determine what level you could "let" her read. When I was between six and seven, my mother went to the public library and insisted that I be given an unrestricted card, and allowed to check out any book I wanted, rather than being restricted to my age level. My reading improved rapidly largely because I was reading everything I could get my little hands on, including much that was "beyond" me...but I learned by trying it.

I'm glad you've got good support in your kids' school district (incidentally, Schertz-Cibolo is where my husband went to high school, way back when.)
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[User Picture]From: shadowfay
2010-06-05 08:35 pm (UTC)

You have my admiration. I do not know if it would be best for my oldest son (he has high functioning autism), but I know that I could not homeschool him: our personalities are two different. However, I have made sure the his district provides the appropriate services so he is able to reach his potential. The biggest issues we deal with is social and sensory. He is in a gen ed classroom where academically he excels and socially was failing til he got a one-on-one, ABA (applied behavior analysis) trained aide. Still it is a battle and every day, I fight to stay positive. It is not that I don't believe my son has the ability to reach his potential and function in society; it is that society is to punitive (prefers punishment to reinforcement) that I am fear when he needs it most instead of my and the rest of the team voices will be over shadowed by a punitive society.

Add to it the emotional distress of his father's betrayal and abandonment, it is exhausting at times but I won't give up. As I often tell the "team" when we are discussing goals and objectives, where we are at, where we are going... "If sheer will power could do it, then he would be the most socially adjusted child with high functioning autism around"... but it can't. As I tell him, the power is in his hands. We can give him the tools, but he has to choose to use them before he is too overwhelmed to do it on his own.
Ramble over... thank you for sharing and your issues with homeschooling, etc. I so understand. I often joke that in my "next life" I want to write a book call A+B does not equal C because parenting is more then following the steps of the latest "parenting book". I am a firm believer in the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis... aka all behavior is based on scientific laws of behavior or all behavior has a purpose (to communicate, to escape, to avoid -- they are not the exact words used but the idea).

Ramble really over.
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[User Picture]From: filkferengi
2010-06-07 11:52 pm (UTC)
We're grateful it wasn't necessary in my case, but if it had been, I think my mom would've advocated for me as fiercely and intelligently as you've advocated for your son.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-06-08 03:49 am (UTC)
You know...I never thought of myself as advocating for him...there were people who told me I had to do that, and I didn't think I could. I was almost entirely outside the system, however defined, because I didn't have the energy to fight the system (any of them) and do what I knew he needed. It's a personality thing, in part. I can either do something, or not do something, but working through someone else...not so good, except in a crisis and even then I'm better at hands-on. And I lived in crisis mode for...um...a couple of decades at least. Backlash hitting now.

But whenever anyone gave me a dire prognosis (and boy, did they), my internal response was always Not My Son! Pure, unalloyed maternal fire in the eye and teeth bared.
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