Monday, September 10, 2007

Homeschool vs. Public School

Perhaps I'll revise that title later; it sounds like I'm heralding a steel cage deathmatch between two opposing groups of kids. I'm not (I'm NOT). I've been revisiting a longstanding debate between myself and.....myself: me vs. me (much more boring than my aforementioned wrestling intimation....but much less ethically volatile). Where to begin.... Do I start with the sometimes glorious sometimes grueling (mostly pretty terrific) year of homeschooling my kids that I only recently wrapped up with a preschool graduation ceremony at grandma's? Or should I begin with the school supply aisle at Targ*t last month, where our public elementary school list "outed" us in front some of our favorite fellow homeschoolers?

I'll just give you my lists...the nebulous coagulations of pros and cons and what?s that I've never organized into lucid bulletpoints.....never...until NOW.

What I love about homeschooling:

1. Spending time with my kids. If you've met my kids, then I don't need to elaborate on this one. In case you haven't, imagine hours spent pretending to be....any number of real and fictional characters....while hiking in the woods....sharing grapes, water, mudpies, and knock knock jokes much funnier than the ones that actually make sense....then add my kids to the scene and you have a fairly accurate rendering of the better part of our afternoons together.

2. Learning whatever interests them....and me. As it turns out, I love science and history: two facts that completely eluded me during my years of studenting (it SHOULD be a verb). As it turns out, they love EVERYTHING, with an emphasis on all things attached to a story, song, or bug net.

3. Field trips. I've said it before (is there a more arrogant introductory clause in the English language? I seriously doubt it), I am a terrible stay-at-home mom (so I'll balance it with a little self-effacement). I require the perspective of an apple orchard, or a stage, or a creek, or a museum, or a zoo, or a factory, or a festival, or a creek (yep, there it is again, we love them that much), or a park, or a tree, or a sky, or a library to keep me from going berserk (see my previous post wherein I describe the calculation with which I anticipated conversations with visiting mormons for further elucidation of this point).

4. Scheduling and unscheduling our days. I love poring over lesson plans, unit studies, children's books, and educational theories until my eyes burn and I have no feeling in my feet only to wake up WHENEVER WE WANT TO the next day and implement the very best of what I've learned with fantastic students or drop it all and celebrate Bat Day.

5. There are a million or so other things that we loved -- enough, at least, that I thought the bulk justified an open-ended numbered point. We love the seamless continuum across which we turn our loves into our lessons and our lessons into our loves. Josh and I get to play to our strengths, and I think we are all stronger for it.

Things I don't love about homeschooling.

1. Failing, failing, perpetually failing. Here's one glaring example: I planned a year of activities geared to address each day of creation across the span of seven months(so we would spend a month loosely discussing light, one on water and the sky, one on land, dirt, rocks, sea, plants, seeds, and climates........and there it stopped. No "etc." Who knew day three was so rife with educational potential? We didn't do half of the hands on exploration that I had planned for the first three months, and after a full year we were still jostling around in day three.) Some of you more generous readers (hi, mom) are thinking "that's not failure," but I bought wall-length charts of the human skeletal and digestive systems! I organized our entire children's library by their relationship to the days of creation! I planned science experiments, display posters, and literature-based unit studies that we never even broached! I bought wall-length charts! WALL-LENGTH charts! And it turns out we just really like dirt and plants! Who knew!

2. When they love school, they love me. When they hate school, get the idea. I am the one urging them to finish their projects, put away their markers...with lids...when they're finished, and stand for our closing song (oh, we HAVE a closing song, and an opening song, and transition music.....transition music planned to coincide with the relevant aspect of the day or creation we are discussing.....who can blame them for being annoyed?) And when I (also annoyed by my own anality [it OUGHT to be a noun]) failed to communicate the central idea of a lesson or the phonics concept or mathematical principle or logical structure during a given school period, I often failed, too, to love them effectively in the process. My patience waned, frustration mounted, and occasionally someone cried. It stunk. Some days, it really stunk.

3. Balancing passion and pressure. This point relates less to the time I spent with my kids, directly, and more to the interaction that I maintain with the homeschool community at large. The passion we share for enjoying and educating our children drives us together. The pressure to represent is overwhelming. And in case the nineties-rap jargon (you know how I love love love 90s rap) turned homeschool verb(al) seems confusing, I'll take a minute to unravel "represent." What's your curriculum? Is she reading? Phonics or whole language? TV or no TV? Latin yet? Music class? Art class? Ballet? Do you test? Co-op? If none of these questions resonates with you, think freshman year, "What's your major? Did you rush? Are you ready for finals?" or Fall semester, senior year: "What are you going to do when you graduate?" Or for you preacher-readers (hi, dad), "emergent or traditional? saved or baptized? gay-friendly or homo-phobic?" (as a side note, however, I need to point out that, although I referenced my father when I prefaced the religiously-oriented hot-button topics, I can't imagine that any one of these questions would cause him the slightest alarm or that he would venture into a discussion about them unless one of his kids needed a sounding board during a personal crisis....and it would have to be a crisis. He's not particularly religious, in the strictest sense, and RARELY engages "issues" of religion.....unless we make him:). Exhausting! And if it's exhausting for ME to have to represent, imagine the trickle-down effect on my kids! (Emotional Reaganomics!)

4. Which brings me to number four: homeschool weird. There, I said it. I don't think the socio-psycho-pop-cultural-iconifiers have constructed an esoteric label for this one yet, but it's a very real phenomenon. Somehow, the pressure to represent (see number 3)mingles with the overarching sense of failure (see number 1), yielding an environment in which homeschool weird is likely, if not certain, to take over. I don't buy the "lack of socialization" explanation for HSW, for a couple of reasons. First, most homeschool students have a broad and active peer group in their communities and churches. Second, I think the factors that contribute to the HSW phenomenon are so obvious and so obviously unrelated to issues of socialization that I'm surprised they are still discussed so frequently in tandem. Here's an example of the petrie dish in full effect. I have attended a number of homeschool plays, concerts, and performances at which the performance anxiety in the audience is as high or higher than that which is on stage. The sense that lines misspoken, a blip on the public school screen of parental concern, reveal some amplified failure to educate or support by parents whose days and often nights are spent thinking acrobatically of ways to educate and support their children oppresses the otherwise joy-filled atmosphere of a homeschool gathering. Which is why, in the homeschool dyad, it is quite often the parent and not the child who winds up HSW. Some families manage to skirt the issue entirely, finding a glorious middle ground between hyper-intensity and inattention that makes for remarkably close, loving, and enviably educated parents and children. And I need to point out that HSW is not an altogether pejorative term! Some of my favorite people are HSW. I, myself, am branded many different types of weird and am secretly proud of most of them. The danger, for me, that forces this point into the second category rather than the first rests on the fact that I think my personality is exactly the kind of personality that could contribute to the most damaging kind of HSW, where the kid, my kid, feels that a parent's success or failure rests squarely upon his ability to spell really tricky words or to properly assess a logical fallacy. NO BODY needs that kind of pressure. (I am seriously doubting that I'll be invited to speak at any homeschool gatherings on this topic, but it has been a part of my own deliberation, so I thought I'd pass it along).

I'm going to have to abbreviate my public school comments as it is very late, but I'm going to give it a whirl.

Things I love about public school.

1. The pledge of allegiance. I have no explanation for this one. In fact, in a rigorous, ideological debate, I'd probably fall closer to the platform of the anti-pledgers. But I love it. I love the standing up, hand-over-the-heart solemnity of the whole thing. I love feeling like I'm a part of something as big and important as "liberty and justice for all." Throw in a little "My country 'tis of thee" before we are seated, and I'm so full of the untrammelled national pride of youth (before discontent makes you say that stuff with a sneer) that I'm ready to write a treatise or run for office or something. I think you only get the corporate resonance of the language and the broad range of its application in public school (which is why we never did it in homeschool.....our thin three voices couldn't drown out my sneer.....and we already had the whole opening song seemed like overkill).

2. THAT teacher. The one who notices and reaffirms the talents and aspirations that your parents have cultivated and encouraged since birth (or, in a couple of cases I can think of [not you, mom...parents of my friends] gifts that parents may have been completely blind to). Somehow, in the language of this teacher, this third party observer, your potential sounds true and you begin to chase it down. I love teachers who challenge and inspire individuals rather than categorically educating their students. There are tons of them! Ask your public school graduate friends, and most can name at least one.

3. School plays, field days, sports, dances (yes, dances....think of my 90s rap affinity, and you just about have the picture), academic teams, competitions, clubs (although, I never really did clubs....they didn't make sense to me without performances or competitions...I'm too much of an extra-curricular capitalist, I guess), choirs, bands, and ALL of their AWARDS days. I eat this stuff up.

4. Report cards and tests. (And right about now you're thinking I should elaborate on the phrase Public School Weird because what else would you call that?) I love knowing what's expected and then knowing where I stand. I love it.

5. The system. I love participating in a predictable system that, given time and attention, can serve your every inclination. Do you want to learn? There's a way. Do you want to do as little as possible? The system allows for that. Do you want to cross-list courses and achieve as much as possible with as little effort as you can manage? There's a system for you! The public school system is (or at least has historically been) pliable and a student with supportive parents has almost no greater ally than a predictable educational system.


Things I don't love about public school

1. The conspiratorial folder. You are 5 or 6 or 7. You believe that your teacher loves you, has taken you into her confidence as a partner in learning and fun. You have grafted her into the thin tree in your inner nursery of trust alongside your parents and favorite grandparents and a couple of aunts, and then, WHAM, in walks another teacher, and she whips out the conspiratorial folder behind which she is most certainly scoffing at you, maligning you, mocking the class, discussing your bad habits, or berating your parents. WHATEVER she is doing, she is making a dramatic gesture of excluding you by holding up a notebook or a folder that conceals her words but not her adult-ish, whisper-masked scornful tone....sometimes it's held so carelessly that it doesn't even hide her animated, almost assuredly snide eyebrows! You feel isolated, violated, and excluded. And here's a weird thing. Some teachers are so surfeited with kid-culture that they whip out the conspiratorial folder around parents. I've seen the thing used at PTA meetings, in conferences, at orientations, all of which involve only adults. On what planet is it deemed acceptable to overtly exclude other grown ups for the purposes of whatever teacher-speak cannot be accomplished outside of the context of that impermeable folder? It's not....ever! I hated it as a kid, and I hate it now....and I hate it for my kid.

2. Lunch, recess, and student elections. After a whole decade of movies devoted almost exclusively to disassembling the tenuous social strata of public education (think Goonies, Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club, Can't Buy Me Love, Sixteen Candles, Lucas.......etc.), the "youth of America" remains unphased. Lunch tables are unmistakably demarkated; hallways are minefields. It's a feudal state. I'm not sure I was a serf (look at me pulling out the medieval terminology I learned in 5th grade....there's nothing I learned in public school that I didn't learn in either 5th or 6th grade....ask my parents; they'll back me up on this one). In fact, I think the problem was that I wasn't sure where I belonged. I bounced from landowner to serf to sub-aristocracy with uncomfortable ease (that's the oxymoron that could caption my entire high school career)....I never really landed, but I'm not sure that anyone ever did. Maybe if we had tackled the Molly Ringwald movies a little sooner....

3. Checkmarks, punitive writing assignments, revoked recess privileges, names on the board. I hate crap like that. Give me a good old-fashioned trip to the principle. Or demerits. Or detentions, or something. AHHHHH, the system. The system, I can handle. It's the renegade dictatorial classroom strategies that wear me thin.

4. THAT teacher. If they can build, they can also destroy. For my husband, it was an elementary school choir teacher; for my Dad, it was, first elementary PE and then a long string of English teachers; my mom had several of them in grade school; and mine was a first grade teacher. The parts that these teachers break off never grow back. And so my husband won't sing in front of people, and my father won't dance, and my mom carries around innumerable scars, and I am earnestly self-conscious and mathematically awkward. And lots of teachers break lots of kids. Just ask any of your public school graduate friends; they can almost all name at least one.

5. The heavy girl in the sparkly sneakers. I hung out on an elementary school playground with my son the other day during a kindergarten recess in the early part of the second week of school. Three girls ran over chasing some boys in an ill-defined tag game. A few steps behind, an overweight little girl tried to find her way into the game. The most vocal of the tag-players was oblivious to her presence. In fact, it was tag-player number three that the hopeful little girl was addressing. "Hey, can I play with you?" Pause, "Hey, can I play?"......Again and again, until finally #3 turned to the little overweight girl with an irritated expression and some surreptitious muttering before looking for approval to Tag leader #1, conventionally cute and well dressed, and recommencing her ambiguous role in the game. The heavy girl looked down and shifted her weight back and forth in pink, sparkly sneakers. I didn't want to cry until I saw her shoes. I've bought sparkly shoes of all kinds. One year, I was given $20 or something for my birthday, and I went to the mall...the MALL, and stretched the $20 at a sale in some boutique-y store to buy 4 sweaters. You can imagine how cool I must have felt (and, with some perspective, you can probably imagine how "cool" my sweaters must have been at 4 for $20...they had short sleeves). I just knew that my time on the periphery was over, that with these sweaters, I could break through into the mystical ring of belonging that I kept bouncing off of. Of course it didn't work, for various reasons (not the least of which were the sweaters themselves, I'm sure.....4 for $20 at the mall....short sleeves....short sleeved sweaters), but it was worse than before. I kept looking down at my meal-ticket tops expecting the situation to change...expecting to feel important like in my dreams....and the rebuffing was more painful because of my uniform.....I stared at my sweaters the way this little girl looked at her pink sparkly sneakers. And they gave her courage; she tried again, "Can I play too?" This time she called out as the #3 girl began to run away, with a vaguely sympathetic but still annoyed look of disdain on her to more amorphous tag, I guess, increasingly aware of the threat that sparkly shoes posed to her own position in the tag game.....fearful, I guess, of her own not-belonging. But, wide-eyed, the heavy girl with the sparkly shoes followed, calling after her again and again the same, steady unrelenting question, "Can I play?......Can I play?".....Until finally, the teacher blew her whistle and the kids began to fall in line, the little girl shuffling to her spot, her eyes, confused, glued to her sparkly shoes. A few days later, my son and I were parked in the car line waiting to pick my daughter up from school, when I saw the little girl again, lined up with her kindergarten class on the way in from recess. They were lined up alongside a brick wall, and the little girl had both hands up in her hair, clutching strands on either side as she faced the wall, kicking it again and again with her sparkly pink shoes....fierce and bitter...while other children filed past her, until a teacher finally told her to get back in line. All of this during the second week of Kindergarten!

None of this analysis is designed to be even-handed. Not everyone experiences school, at home or elsewhere, the way I have. Not everyone listens to Pink Floyd's The Wall with their matriculating Kindergartener, assuring her that her teacher will certainly encourage and appreciate the unique and special person that God made her to be, but that the song illustrates the pull toward conformity - the insistence that children become the same, like bricks in a wall that ultimately keeps people apart - sometimes engendered by the social circumstances of school and validated by some teachers.......not her teacher of course because her teacher wants her to become the unique and special person that God created her to be......but some teachers. Our three year old danced around the house for days yelling out "How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?" We are, in some ways, unique. In other ways, we are not.

1 comment:

Kimberly said...

This is my first published comment ever...on the only blog I've ever read. I'm therefore certainly not worthy enough to choose the "google/blogger" identity below this comment box, so I'll settle for the one labeled "other". All of a sudden I find it ironic that I'm asked to click on a button and "choose an identity" before submitting a response to your post. If only it were that easy in life....for us and for our kids...

You're absolutely right...instead, we grow up in a world where we conform and then settle for an identity or status that we're never truly happy about...always wishing we were a part of that ever elusive popular crowd. Even after we grow up and presumably wise up, we still feel pressure to put ourselves back into those boxes. Remember the high school reunion? We all chose the same circles that we chose in the early 90's. I remember crossing the room with trepidation to say hello to Stephanie, my best friend in early childhood who found her way into the cool crowd in seventh grade and left me behind. How ridiculous. What is it that renders us powerless to rise above this absurdity? If only I knew...then I could help my daughter to navigate her way through the public school system and come out with her self esteem intact.

I just hope that I can raise a child who will notice the girl with the sparkly shoes and invite her join in. And that I become a teacher someday that makes students feel ten feet taller than they were when they entered my classroom.

Thanks for your posts, Amy. I truly enjoy each and every one!