So we’re trying to deschool in our home this year. It’s an experiment. The Kid has had a really rocky road with his schooling — not his education, necessarily, but his experience in schools. He started strong: a great preschool teacher who gave him wings to move forward as fast as he wanted to. He entered kindergarten able to read, do basic math and with an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs. We realized early on that he had if not a full, a close-to eidetic memory. He can remember virtually every detail he sees or reads. Most children have better memories than adults and so at first we couldn’t tell if it was just that we were old or if it was unusual. He can walk by jigsaw puzzles, eye a piece and place it perfectly where it’s supposed to go and keep walking. He can recall dialogue from a movie he saw once two or three years ago. So, we realized that we may have to supplement his education a bit. But we didn’t know how much.
He entered public school at kindergarten. But unfortunately, he went into a classroom of 30 kindergartners and was promptly ignored by the teachers who felt they needed to focus more on the children who had no background knowledge and needed basic skills (knowing letters, numbers and colors, etc.). He previously had been a vociferous learner, always wanting to know more, especially once he started reading. But suddenly, he stopped wanting to learn. He stopped drawing and coloring. He started chewing on his sleeve and wetting his bed. He stopped eating. I was so alarmed I was ready to take him to the doctor. In October, I went in to spend some time in his classroom as “parent helper” — but let’s be honest, I was spying. I’m probably the worst kind of teacher critic because I am a teacher. But seriously, this was not a helpful environment. When he and the three other kids who could read were left alone and bored at their table in the back, “sharing time” for other kids who had been learning what a “pattern” was consisted of one of the teachers pointing out how they got it wrong to the other kids. Really? You’re going to cut down a FIVE YEAR OLD’S work in public? There were other things, but that visit sealed it for me that it was not the place for the Kid or he was just going to spiral down.
We happened upon a small private school down the street from my parents’ home and they had a visiting policy where a kid could come and spend a day to see what it was like. It was incredibly affordable (we couldn’t have really afforded a regular private school, but this little one was only $300/mo). The Kid went and was immediately welcomed into a class of only 14 kids with a veteran teacher who had spent years in public schools and private. She also did a little “interview” with him to see where his skils were. She suggested we send him to get the Iowa test done and he concluded that in the 99th percentile. So in January of what would have been his kindergarten year, we withdrew him from the first school and enrolled him in the small school in first grade. Within a month, he was eating again, had lost the chewing and bad wetting, was working on his handwriting and taking on first grade level spelling and other subject assignments with gusto. It was a wonderful turn around.
He went there through 2nd grade. He got a different teacher for 2nd grade, who didn’t do as well challenging him and he fell into some bad habits that come when a kid gets bored in school. Then we got in our heads that perhaps he should take advantage of a new magnate school in our neighborhood what was for “science and technology.” So for third grade, he switched schools. It seemed cool at first. Then the class grew to 32 kids and once again, the Kid became the one at the back table left alone because he finished early and the teacher did not differentiate any of the work. It turned out that the “science and technology” part of the magnate school only really started for the kids at 6th grade. The other thing that was hard on him was how loud and crazy everything was. He doesn’t seem to adjust well to loud noises and chaos. I am not sure what that’s about, but it’s been his style his whole life. The one thing that he really did enjoy was music – he learned Garage Band and composed his own music. That was the year he taught himself to use iMovie and Garage Band to create his own stop action Lego films. He even created his own YouTube channel.
But it was a year of falling behind for him – a year of ditto sheets and barely any science, no history, reading way below his level and on and on. So back to the private school he went for 4th grade. And he stayed there two years and we were fairly happy with it, as long as we kept on top of working with the teacher to keep him with challenging material so he didn’t start goofing off because he was bored. He was doing spelling, reading and math with the 6th grade the next year, one of the nice things about a really small school. And the personal attention and more quiet atmosphere. Plus he got music and art. He taught himself basic piano playing from watching lessons on You Tube so he took piano at school. It worked fairly well. But then the Recession hit the school. They didn’t get enough enrollment to stay alive and this last May suddenly announced they were shutting down.
It was too late to enroll in any other smaller or private schools and we weren’t diving back into public school again. It sounds funny because I am a tried and true public school teacher – I’ve taught high school for eight years in one of the toughest public schools in our state and I truly believe in a free, universal education for every kid in America. I also believe that the public school system needs a lot of help (not the kind the “reformers” like the ones in Chicago want though – the Michelle Rhee disciples do not have the answer!). I also know that some kids just don’t fit in the institution. Ironically, my kid is one of them.
This year, I am out of work (laid off last year), and so the Kid is out of school. We are going to try un-schooling — de-schooling — home schooling. I have done and am doing a lot of reading about de-schooling. And we have happily found a Free School (based on the Albany Free School model) here in our town that supports kids like mine – who can do their independent studies there all week or go only a few days a week. So he’ll get to go on field trips and learn a democratic model of schooling with other kids, while adjusting to the new world of self-directed learning. I’m tempted to concoct all kinds of lessons and curriculum calendars and such – but I’m resisting. This is a new thing. It will take adjustment and we’ll have some ups and downs. I’m not fooling myself that it won’t be challenging. But he’s got a whole village ready to support his unschooling: his Dad, who is infinitely skilled with math, science and computer technology, his grandma and grandpa, both of whom were teachers (his grandpa is still a professor), and me. I’m not going to lie: there are probably going to be a lot more Doctor Who- and Star Trek-based lessons than most kids get.
The first things on his list to learn:
Getting better handwriting
“really big words”
School started last week for most of the kids in our city. The Kid has been going to the Free School this week to get to know the kids and teachers. Next week is our target for our new way of living without school. Taking every opportunity from life to learn, learning to recognize and respond to his own instincts for what he wants to know, practicing self-direction and self-discipline, these are going to be his challenges at first. The algebra and physics and German will come. But not from school. At least not for now.