Wednesday, April 27, 2005

How to educate your kids

Babble on.

Every once in a while, I wander off the beaten political path, and roam around in the rest of the blogosphere. The vast majority of it is junk - maybe that's unfair: most of it is uninteresting to me, and poorly written as well. Beth at Grand Mental Station is the standout exception to that rule.

Her political ideas, on the odd occasion she writes about them, aren't my cup of tea, but she's still in her twenties, and I fall back on Churchill's dictum that "Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains." Winnie didn't say it out loud, but I'm sure he felt this was equally true for women. Possibly even more true for women writers.

Back to the point of this post: this past weekend, Beth had an interesting e-mail discussion with Chris at O'Donnell Web about homeschooling. It involved some good, respectful questions, and some equally good, very personal answers. Here's a how the discussion got kicked off:

[Beth:] Your arguments for homeschooling and against public or "traditional" education are often at least reasonable if not persuasive. But they lose something because of the sequoia-sized chip on your shoulder.

Do you at least respect other people's choices not to homeschool as you expect them to respect yours?

[Chris] responded:

I really don't care if anybody respects my decision to homeschool. I do care if they respect my freedom to homeschool though. Way too many people in this country think they know better than us what is best for our kids. Unfortunately, some of those people are in positions of power to dramatically affect my freedom. I don't spend anytime worrying about what everybody thinks of me, and I really doubt there are public school parents out there worrying about what I think.

But if they are...I respect any parent who is doing what they truly believe to be in their children's best interest. Even if they turn out to be wrong. Intent matters a lot. However, for those parents that know their kids are getting beat up every day, or aren't academically challenged, or are labeled ADD and drugged without sufficient medical evidence, yet continue to drop the kids off at the local PS every day without doing anything to help their kid...

Those people I have no respect for.

I've been thinking about these issues a fair bit in recent months. My boy Boo is signed up for junior kindergarten at the local Catholic school (Litlbit is Catholic, I'm not) for autumn classes this year, and I've got a lump in the pit of my stomach about it.

I've had a love/hate relationship with school for as long as I can remember. I was very good at the academic stuff from Day One. I learned how to read at an early age, almost by accident: my mom was quite young when she had me, and when I started asking questions about letters and words, she naively answered them instead of deferring my curiosity with 'you'll learn all about that when you get to school'. So I had a good head start on most of my classmates right from the get-go. I enjoyed learning, and getting good grades was a big part of my self-esteem.

But with the exception of grades five and six, when I was in a full-stream enrichment program in Ottawa with kids who were a lot like me, the overall school experience - the social stuff especially - was awful. I moved around a lot - eight different schools from kindergarten to high school graduation. I was a sensitive kid, and my family situation was kind of messed up, so I was generally a little too eager to seek approval from my classmates. When it came to making friends, I was like the guy who runs into the middle of a flock of pigeons screaming "BIRDSEED!" I got teased - hell, bullied - a lot as a result.

As I got older, I also noticed how much academic success was tied to playing political games like appearing interested in class, even if you weren't, or tapping into a teacher's obvious biases, even if you didn't adhere to his views. At first, I revelled in this knowledge - I had discovered the secret back door to good marks, and I exploited every advantage I could. But after a while, I came to realize what an indictment of our school systems - and I've attended public, Catholic, and private - this susceptibility to manipulation truly was. Although I've never tired of learning, I got tired of playing the academic game, and once that joy was gone, school didn't hold much attraction for me. That's one of the reasons I didn't hang on for the one more year I needed at RMC to get my B.A.: I had stopped caring about school years earlier, and this atrophy finally caught up with me in my third year of post-secondary study.

I had hoped that this disillusionment with school would fade with time and emotional distance. This past fall, I signed up for the first of three courses offered through the University of Toronto required for a particular professional accreditation I'd like to have on my resume. But while I managed to eke out a bare-bones A grade, it took all the self-discipline I could muster to see the semester-long course to its conclusion. There was some really good information conveyed, but it was buried in layers of useless, mind-numbing padding designed to transform what should have been a three-day seminar into a term-length university-credit class. What a waste of my time and attention. It seems my distaste for formal education might well be a permanent condition.

How does this relate to the question of homeschooling? Simply put, I don't want my son - or my daughter who will follow him all too shortly - to tread in my academic footsteps. I don't want to see them teased or bullied. I don't want to see their spirits crushed - even temporarily - by a bitter, mean-spirited teacher who takes a dislike to them. I don't want to see them disciplined for acting bored in class because the curriculum moves at the pace of the weakest student. I don't want them to lose so much as an iota of enthusiasm for learning because they identify that with a troubled, troubling production-line education system.

Having said all that, I have profound concerns about homeschooling for my youngsters. While my wife and I are undoubtedly raising smart, well-adjusted kids, I don't know how well we would perform as teachers. Much as formal classroom education has its drawbacks, I'd have to be confident homeschooling would offer significant social and intellectual advantages to my kids in order to take that option, because homeschooling still carries such a stigma in our society. Besides, is sheltering my children from trials and obstacles that will be common to all their peers really doing them any favours?

My wife, bless her heart, doesn't share my fears. At least, she doesn't fully agree with the depth of my worries. She grew up with the same group of kids, progressing through the same couple of schools until she graduated from high school. Her mom still teaches in that system, and when we go back to visit, Litlbit always bumps into an old teacher or classmate in the shopping mall. Pleasant reminiscing invariably ensues. My wife experienced no significant teasing or bullying, no creeping ennui or frustration, and she went on to complete the degree I was unable to. When I express my concerns from time to time, she reminds me that she is living, breathing, credible evidence that Boo and Mini-Boo need not travel the path I did, just because they attend school.

My head knows she's right. It doesn't seem to help with the lead weight in my gut, though.

Babble off.

Update: From my Irish Embassy Correspondent:
...that quote is often incorrectly attributed to Churchill. The website you linked is wrong - trust me. I made this mistake for years, but if you do some web research you will see it pre-dates Churchill in various forms, including Disraeli. I liked the quote so much that I asked Sir Martin Gilbert to confirm that this was not a Churchill quote over a beer after he spoke at a Churchill Society dinner a few years ago. He had never come across it as being Churchillian - people just think it sounds like something he would have come up with. In fact, he said that several expressions are often attributed to Churchill, since he was known for such witty comment.

I lounge corrected. But the fact that it's not a Churchillism doesn't make it any less true.


At 5:54 p.m., Blogger gullchasedship said...

Great post, babbler.

At 6:55 p.m., Blogger Bruce Gottfred said...

I know what you mean. My experiences with school are pretty much the same. Not good at all. And what I see of schools today doesn't fill me with confidence. We had a friend's daughter (11) over the other day and I looked at what she had to do for 'homework'. She was putting a Spiderman comic that had had the panels mixed up back in order. With scissors and glue too -- just pointless busywork.

But my kids will be going through the same educational mill as I did. I've thought about homeschooling, but it's not going to happen. But I'm sure I'm going to be contributing more to their education than the schools will be. I'll be there to teach them how to factor a quadratic equation or how WW1 started before the professional teachers ever get around to it...

At 7:22 p.m., Blogger Kateland, aka TZH said...

In the end, I don't think it matters as much as what they observe your attitude to learning is. I haven't moved my children from school to school. I made the conscience decision not to move even though our neigborhood blows on a good day. I grew up very much like you - moving from school to school. If my husband had lived I might have tried home schooling but I am not sure that would have given them the self-confidence they have achieved by dealing with all the issues of changing teachers and learning environments. I think the next most important thing next to having parents who having a natural curiousity and take a personal joy from learning is consistency. That's where one school or at least an 8 year committment to homeschool comes in. It takes time to build up a relationship with the school. For the first 8 years of school I volunteered in the school's breakfast club. I got to know the other children very well that my children schooled with, and I built up respect credentials to take on the system effectively when the occassional unfit teacher crossed my children's path. Not all valuable lessons come from ideal environments. Learning to cope with a horrible teacher gives them valuable life experience too. Not all lessons are easy or learned without pain. Having 3 children worked well -two can keep a secret but never 3. Alliances change too quickly.

Good Luck!
There are no right or wrong answers but be prepared to be challenged either way by whatever you choose.

At 11:51 p.m., Blogger buckets said...

Are home schooling and school schooling really mutually exclusive? There is nothing preventing parents from becoming deeply involved with the education of their children who are going to ordinary grade schools--there are all kinds of ways to enrich the intellectual life of your kids. Why not work on that?

At 9:35 a.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

U&D, you're assuming six hours in a classroom is a benign influence requiring only a top-up of support and involvement from home.

In my experience, the classroom time is actively harmful, and the home influence is required to undo the damage. If that's the case, then why would you send your kids there at all?

If your school experience was a positive one, then we're probably working from different premises here.

At 9:47 a.m., Blogger Prolix said...

Kind of like a Nerds Anonymous meeting, eh? j/k.

God, it's still a bit raw isn't it?

I was one of those exceptional kids who disguised themselves to fit in. It worked and I got by.

I had the added challenges
(and benefits) of being a visible minority (in a very white and tough neighborhood), a teacher's kid, and being young for my grade (I skipped a grade).

But, I learned a few things during that period:

1 - Don't let the bastards get you down (no offense to any real bastards out there).

2 - If a gang approaches, take the leader down as hard and fast as you can. And, then, ask who else wants some. You'll soon find yourself walking through the smoker's pit with impunity.

3 - When a teacher asks you how you do it (i.e. ace an exam), dial it back a notch and be careful for the rest of the course.

And, that's what I had to do to survive...

Having said all this, I actually enjoyed my childhood. I had a good family who cared about me. I had an old dog, who stole the ball instead of playing fetch. I had friends who were loyal and fun. I had some outstanding teachers.

So, what was it that you liked about school?

At 6:51 p.m., Blogger buckets said...

BB. Yes, I suppose that I am assuming that school is (mostly) a positive experience for most of those involved. And I'm sorry to hear that your experience was not. I hope it is not overly familiar of me to point out that you seem to have turned out OK, or to ask whether you believe your parents would have done a better job. I'm not sure mine would have (despite being very smart in their own way), and I'm not sure whether I would have been a success with my own son, who is now in university and doing very well.

One of the things that was good about my own schooling as I look back on it was the fact that I had a lot of different teachers--some good, some bad, some average. That diversity itself was a good thing, but something that is lost with home-schooling.


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