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Category Archives: Education

Uppin’ my game

Ups and downs the last few days, possibly because of certain cycles that have been allowed to express themselves naturally again–I’m not used to it! Currently just tired, glad I will sleep even better than usual tonight, even without a soak. I am very grateful for a good sleep life, love the feeling of sinking away into that dark comfort, even as I sleepily marvel at how it just happens without effort. There are some things that self awareness, intelligence, and conscious mental effort just cannot do for our well-being, and so the more ancient circuitry is allowed, must be allowed, to take over each night.

I was feeling somewhat incompetent at the end of Wednesday, having felt I fumbled my way through my Chemistry and Geometry classes, unable to organize my thoughts well or provide activities sufficiently engaging. These students are very patient, however, and did not attempt to kick me while I was down. Then today some others said some very nice things to me, unsolicited, and I felt supported from several other quarters as well, at school and at home. As for the fumbling, I resolved to spend a season working the extra hours it takes to get a better handle on my Chemistry plans, to integrate some more simple labs, and on the Geometry curriculum–we’re getting bogged down in multiple-step coordinate proofs that I think in the big scheme are not so crucial; maybe just the grappling and exposure, and general approach is the thing for now and I should keep the ball rolling into the next unit. I have a handful of students who came in weeks or months after the year started and are somewhat in the swing of things, and now three more who came with learning under their belt from a different school, but in a different order. So I’m trying to address gaps and general struggles with the material, and inspire students who are not putting in much effort to use the resources they have on their non-campus days (or not, as long as they accept the results).

I also want to take some time to integrate some of the great trainings and shared resources I’ve received to enhance my professional practice, such as project based learning, collaboration protocols, and student empowerment and ownership in the learning process. For example, I have a 3D periodic table project mostly planned, and have been implementing a new process in Algebra 1 where students receive brief group instruction, practice at their “learning edge” (partly self-paced) and use answer keys to check their work, and are encouraged to teach and learn from each other, earning 100% on any skills they both demonstrate on paper and teach to someone through a tip sheet, video, or peer tutoring session. Each student has a “to do” list in their table team folder which they check daily for individualized tasks, including skills quizzes which they complete and return to the folders for grading. They are also learning to write me notes there, such as “Ms __, I really don’t get this yet and will come for help at tutoring.” I then go through each one before the next lesson and see what was accomplished, grade quizzes, write notes about any problem areas, and add new tasks or assign quiz corrections. The quizzes are graded as homework because they reflect the practice they’ve done, without me checking, except now and then for accountability, how much. Then when all 5 to 7 quizzes in a unit have been completed to the best of their ability, they do a practice test, a sheet or problems showing their work, and, if judged ready (or out of time due to being irresponsible), they do the final test on that unit. There are even students who, unable to keep up the pace despite lots of effort, are allowed to progress at their own pace, so that, even though they realize that they may not yet be able to pass the course, they are making progress and could start several units ahead of the crowd the next year as they continue. I’d like to figure out a way to apply the same principles to Geometry and Algebra 2, so that I can focus more on effective teaching and equipping, and less on grading every little thing.

So, weekend rest first, then I’ll do some extra lesson and unit planning. I know I’ll be tempted to avoid that part, so I’ll fill my mind with the exciting vision I just described. I really do get into the groove and love what I’m doing once I get started. I’ve tried to keep from bringing work home this year, and for the first time since I started contract teaching in 2015, I regularly leave all my work at school each evening and weekends. This will just be a bit of extra weekend work and an hour or so longer after classes to get me back in my game, then I’ll reclaim my margin again. Because hard work that produces results is what makes rest and personal time so enjoyable, and I do want to have a clear conscience as I read with my feel up on the hearth, write for hours at the coffee shop, or soak in the hot tub under a full moon.

 

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2019 in Education, Places & Experiences

 

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Another first day, in another first week, in another first year

The first week of school was mainly planning, with only one 5th grade class to teach. The second week started after Labor Day, then another first fifth grade class, my first all day of high school Wednesday, with three different classes without a break, one being my first year ever teaching chemistry and the other two having new curricula. Then came a different 5th grade class Thursday. This week, my third week, was the first full week, including the start of math tutoring all day Tuesday and Thursday, and the first Friday classes.

Mondays and Wednesdays are just as packed and challenging as ever, with this year featuring an extra large Algebra 1 class that has to meet in the dim, chilly foyer. So I have to get the tables and chairs set up beforehand, tote all my stuff down and then upstairs after, including laptop, cords, handouts, books and projector cart. I did get a helper in the form of the Social Studies teacher, with whom I’ve become good friends but have yet to figure out how we’ll work out our team teaching. He doesn’t really know the math, he says, but we’ll figure something out. The challenge is that all but a handful of students don’t remember much of their pre-algebra skills, so we have to do a few weeks of review, all with custom photocopied material because we can’t order the texts yet.

We are also short a full class set of Chemistry texts, so I have to decide which alternative I’ll base the course on–an open source text, my own hodgepodge, or something I can scan for those who opt for online text access. Apparently the approval process for the real online text is too expensive and costly. I do like a challenge, but I can’t seem to find the time to nail down a better plan now that things are in full swing, unless I put in extra days on the weekend. Which I’m sure I’ll do this weekend, as last.

But Fridays this year are easier to manage, less stressful and with more margin, thanks to the new principal with a new plan. She’s all about trusting us, being flexible and creative, and making things less stressful. So she changed four preps to two (one repeated class), plus a supporting/tutoring role for me in an Algebra 2 hour I don’t have to plan (much). Most classes are smaller than last year, and we are not obliged to put up with shenanigans from certain rascals only there because their parents wanted a break and they want drama.

I’m using a well-designed boxed curriculum for the two middle school classes, at the urging of my principal, to further simplify my life as I adjust and support my family after the death of my spouse. It teaches the basics of physics, the history of scientific discovery, and the scientific method.

But I couldn’t resist custom designing a fresh course. Environmental Leadership is a high school elective, and as I made the proposal for it, I found that I’ve become much more practical and efficient at laying out a year plan and blocking out the elements. It should, if things go well, culminate in a final public event where the students show their stuff and change the world a little for the better. Some of the rascals from last year have become freshman, though, and for some reason, they still like my classes.

So I’m back to full time. I had planned to take Fridays off for the first semester, but now I’m down to maybe trying to take more sick days so I have margin. Getting a sub is more work than teaching, so unless I have a good video…okay, so I get it now, with the videos for the subs. I used to complain as a sub that all I got to do was show videos. I’ll try to find the time to plan some easy days so I can vacate a little, with advance notice, because subs, let alone good subs, are almost impossible to find in our district without advance notice.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2018 in Education

 

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Testing, testing, testing, eight, nine, ten…

What do you think about standardized testing in the life of a homeschool family? Is it:

  • Necessary for the parent, and future teachers, to gain information about their children’s progress?
  • Unnecessary because homeschool parent know their students and have a higher investment in their success?
  • Useful if conducted in an alternative, personalized form?
  • Merely a waste of time and money?
  • Misleading and harmful to students?
  • A necessary evil, since the law requires it and kids will experience testing some day?
  • A travesty of the best educational principles and something to be resisted?

Washington State law says that:

a. Homeschooled students between the ages of 8 and 18 must be annually evaluated using an approved standardized achievement test or a written non-test assessment.
b. Standardized test scores and/or written evaluations are to be kept as part of your child’s permanent records.
c. If your child transfers to a public or private school, copies of tests results are to be provided if requested.

At first I thought nothing of this requirement, nor of the one that I register each child when eight years of age as a homeschooler. One piece of paper to the district, a few days to a week of testing per year, and wouldn’t I get some useful data after all? Personally, I enjoyed standardized tests as a kid. So on a friend’s advice, I ordered Iowa grade school SATs, which could be administered at home by a parent with an undergrad degree.

Over the years I’ve developed a more ambivalent attitude about standardized testing, leaning toward the negative.

Real homeschoolers are very aware of their children’s academic progress and motivated to do their best for and with them. The testing rules are there because some parents have not been responsible. At least I suppose that’s the reason. Or because someone assumed it was a good idea, do make everyone “equal.” Of course it would be relatively easy for a parent to avoid any sort of registration of their children as “school age” at all, and they could stay under the radar and not bother with the rules at all, unless someone ratted on them. But if they take the time to follow testing rules, here’s what can happen:

They can communicate the message to their children, that

  • the common curriculum, with its standardized and graded content, sequence, and omissions, is the proper curriculum
  • multiple choice tests are good for evaluating useful knowledge and skills
  • failure to achieve high test scores is cause for concern

Maybe another reason for tests is that they trick some parents into thinking, because their kids don’t do the state scope and sequence, that they’d better buy the What your –Grader Needs to Know series by E.D.Hirsch and get with the program or their kid will be left behind. No child left behind, right? Behind what? The bandwagon, I guess. So even though school people talk about individualized learning and unique potential, standards are the backbone of the system, because, after all, it’s a more efficient way to run, evaluate, fund, and tweak a machine.

I wanted to test my students at home rather than in a group session to lessen their stress levels and distractions, as well as set a flexible schedule. We set aside a week each spring for testing–some students take only a few days, others space their sessions out over a longer period. I try to set a comfortable pace for each student and one that works for the family. I now order only the test of basic skills, having found the other tests an unnecessary expense of money, time, and energy.

The first time I gave my oldest son his test at age eight, I stressed about it, he stressed about it, even though I knew, and told him, that his test results would not reflect on his intelligence or abilities. He was a late reader, so he struggled with most of the language arts questions, except those I could read aloud to test his vocabulary. He did poorly on reading comprehension until his reading skills took off around age eleven, and the tests before that age did nothing for him but undermine his self confidence. I had to talk him through it, reassuring him that he was plenty smart and the test makers just couldn’t account for differences. I just wanted a general idea of what he did and didn’t yet know. I probably should have let him skip certain sections entirely. I realize now I was being hypocritical telling him it was completely normal that his reading abilities were on a different schedule, yet forcing him to labor through each question as if it was important to get a score. I even checked for errors when he was done and took notes on what he “should” know before the year was out. I remember he had trouble on a social studies question that showed an illustration of a teacher writing on a blackboard and asked what was the job of that person. He had no idea, because he’d never seen a blackboard!

My daughter had an even harder time with testing, and I thought we’d never get through. Although she was an early reader and good speller, she absolutely hated being time tested, and became very upset despite my reassurances. I plied her with hot chocolate, encouraged her to breathe deeply, and hoped that the experience taking a test would help her in the future, in institutional settings where such things were an unfortunate necessity to sort the masses out onto the bell curve.

The math section can be useful, I think, as one can test arithmetic better than other skills. But the kids and I know that there’s not much correlation in the science and social studies questions with our own “scope and sequence.” I didn’t even do any formal US history for the first several years I taught my kids–we studied ancient world history, Asia and the Middle East (including living there for over two years), first. And our science was mainly outdoor observation and drawing, reading together, vegetable gardening, and field trips.

By this time my children know not to stress about the topics we haven’t covered (most of which can be covered in one minute or less for testing purposes, if we were into that), and chuckle at the questions that oversimplify concepts and have to be “dumbed down” to make sense. Or the “cross cultural” elements with which my children weren’t familiar such as the picture of a teacher erasing a blackboard, something my kids had never seen.

We took my kids overseas in the middle of our homeschooling years, and we stayed under the radar there, continuing to homeschool and partake of some of the public schooling there part time. So my younger two had no experience with testing until we got home, and I don’t remember any stress about it–maybe because being home at all was such a treat after those years of trying to figure things out, learning a new language, and being away from our homeschooling buddies and family.

My kids started their first public school at various ages–the oldest as a freshman in high school, the youngest in third grade. Testing in school was even worse. Several weeks long, complete secrecy asked about the test contents, a score printout mailed many weeks later. The teachers privately resented it, but making time and prepping beforehand was all part of one’s duty to make the principal look good. No one mentioned the option to opt out, but we did whenever my kids wanted to, so I probably became known to the local middle school principal mainly as one of those test refusers. Later when returned to teaching, I felt awkward about subbing there.

Then I came on as a longer term sub, and after that started a contract position part time, and later settled into the full time position I have now. I have zipped my lips to be a good employee, too, but I feel exactly the same as I did about the tests. I’m working with homeschoolers now, to many of them know not to take the numbers too seriously, but let things reveal themselves through working with their children and through conversations with us who work with them part time at school. I have to say, we do use our scores to alert us to students who need a closer look, and/or to our methods, materials, and levels of support in math and English language arts. And we watch in amusement as various administrations at various levels shift and swing on quantities, areas, frequencies and uses of standardized tests, trying to please everyone. We conform, but keep our own council about student progress, informed by working closely with them, using tailor-made assessments so we can turn our instruction and support on a dime, and recognize the wonderful variety in learning styles, expressions, and rhythms across each class and grade.

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2018 in Education, Parenting & Family

 

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Tenderly

I feel so privileged to be a teacher. This going through cancer in the family has made me feel that even more deeply. Yes, I wish I could quit and spend more time with my husband and children, have more quiet for my soul, more time to write and work in the garden. Especially since my husband is starting to get me better and wants to take more part in what he calls my special spirituality. Which is less about going up front to ask for prayer, and more about taking deep breaths as the sun rises, stopping at thickets full of chickadees, and growing seedlings. He said he’ll let me teach him how to start the different types of seeds in pots tomorrow. I loved being a house mom/wife. But what I do at work is very, very special in terms of what is possible, what might happen, how I and my colleagues might affect some young people. We get to find ways to communicate that they matter, that there’s hope, that if they want to, they can. All in the guise of teaching math and science.

One of my favorite times, as I have said before, is the twice-a-week morning homework help drop-in, two and a quarter hours long. More students are coming now, for the math, yes, but that is definitely not the whole deal. There’s something going on I can’t put my finger on, a dynamic that connects from person to person as one gets a problem, another gets stuck, someone jokingly teases another, another one brings up something unrelated to the math, but important to life.

One girl might, just might, be starting to see her self-defeating attitude for what it is. Another might, just might, believe that even though Geometry continues to be extremely difficult for her, all the extra work she puts in is making her mind stronger and more capable. Another might, just might, believe that there’s hope for a young farmer and a good life that builds up the soil, meets new market demands, and is sustainable, and that the most important quality about a man is not the power of his truck. That one is still a longer shot, but today I saw a certain openness in his eyes.

I think I might need to shift the tables around, though, There’s this one section where everyone sits together, and a few newer attendees sit apart and alone. I need to get a new zone going, a branch of the community. The two new girls will learn to ask for help, I hope, not just wait shyly until I come over to see how it’s going. I want them to connect with each other –both are still on the edge of that, for different reasons.

As I consider what the role of teachers is in preventing violence such as the recent Florida school shooting, I think that part of it, for sure, is to simply be kind–deeply kind, not just professionally courteous and friendly, but to communicate the “I see you” that can help heal those ragged edges. I think of two of our students–both obese, academically passive, socially awkward, and obsessed with guns. They are lucky–we are lucky, and who who knows who else will be lucky–that at our school, they will not fall between the cracks and end up bent out of shape by the system–not if we can help it. My lead teacher is a real inspiration there–as problems seem unsolvable, she just ups the commitment, ups the connection, ups the support, sometimes making up for what a dysfunctional family doesn’t even know is missing in terms of parenting.

I think about how nice it would be to have fewer preps and work closer to home, but today our whole staff came in to my room an hour and a half after quitting time just to say they were all rooting for me and my husband, that we’d be in their prayers, and to let them know if there was anything I needed. Gave me a card full of sweet words and several hefty grocery store gift cards so I could buy the special foods my husband can eat. I’m at the right place, that’s for sure.

 

 
 

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The long way, home, or not, I don’t know

I’ve been spouting off a lot about evolution by natural selection, and interpreting everything I can through that lens–social behavior, religion, crime, politics, everything. Sounds a bit fanatical to be always on about it, but I’m going to try to explain why, because I’m not done. But I want it to be known that even if I become satisfied that evolution does explain everything, including what Dawkins called the God Delusion, I still plan to try to build a bridge back to faith. It will have to be using completely different materials, though. Faith itself will also mean something different. And it will be a rough road. What’s hard is that I can’t, and don’t want, to take anyone with me. I know this blog is just a curiosity, a hobby, and any of my traditionally faithful friends and family won’t even be reading it, let alone be led astray. If they knew my path, they would pity me and lovingly pray for me. Like I did for my young professor at the graduate unseminary, when he admitted that the more he studied the Hebrew Scriptures and understood how the process of interpretation, canonization, and Bible politics works, the less faith he had in its divinity and so-called infallibility. He seemed melancholy, so I tried to comfort him–comfort him!–with some pablum of an assurance that I was sure he’d figure it out, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit! He must have begun to feel very lonely at that evangelical school, as he came and went on his motorcycle. Wanting to teach and be honest, but knowing what he had begun to know, and being around so many who he just couldn’t be honest with, for so many reasons. Such as getting asked to move on, after the leaders’ prayer meeting in which God led the admin on who was called to the school’s ministry and who not. Such as, in case he undermined that faith that, even though he was losing it, still seemed precious, in a fragile way, in others. Not to be challenged before its time. And a humble man wouldn’t assume he was in the right, enlightened and needing to disillusion everyone else, anyway.

My niece graduated from, and now works at, another Christian college, which is now trying to strike an impossible balance between loving and accepting all people while asking them not to engage in relations outside of heterosexual marriage. It’s tough to hold together a school like that. Half of your critics say you’re too liberal, and the other half, too conservative, she said. How can you even be honest with yourself? They’d got over some conservative hurdles–my niece said that they affirmed that gifted and called women should be teaching and preaching along with (gifted and called) men. I told her, that’s very liberal, because it’s reinterpreting Scripture, going against specific apostolic instructions because they don’t feel true today, and so you can’t then say that gay marriage is unbiblical in the next breath (which this college does). You have to be honest and admit that you are evolving due to adaptation to the current environment. Women are not expected to sign an agreement to cover their heads while at the school, men keep their hair short, and Americans cut out the part about obeying the King centuries ago. So why draw the line here? Was it really about Scriptures, or something else? Maybe just part of the gene pool, that part that has driven the population explosion so far and doesn’t yet acknowledge the population tipping point, that can’t abide a non-reproductive kind of love.

Today in our semi-weekly math study hall, someone brought up Elton John, his music being the focus, t first. Someone hadn’t heard of him. The first student was aghast. I pitched in the he was Sir Elton John, even. From another part of the room came a quiet, “I hate him. He’s gay.”

“Whoa, I said, you hate him, just like that?”

“Yup.” Another student, though also raised a conservative Christian, also took issue, saying you shouldn’t be so quick to judge, should give people a little room. The hater said a few other things, but because he his speech is impeded by a birth condition, I couldn’t understand it all.

“That’s a bit harsh. Maybe you should learn a bit more before you hate people,” I said. I asked, “Do you think he’s talented?”

“No. he can’t be.” He was looking scornful and shaking his head.

“Well, I guess that’s not the conversation we need to have right now,” I said, and went back to helping him with how to use the Distance Formula to prove lines congruent. People were quiet. I think that student’s openness showed something up in its rawness, partly by being so in contrast with his amiable nature, in a way that wouldn’t have happened if it had been uttered by someone already known to be redneck, and proud of it.

So some of the sweetest people are homophobes, that’s for sure, just due to their imprinting. Because this guy is incredibly sweet, funny, loved by all. And tough. The one who, when we were talking about aches and pains, said, briefly, ” I don’t even think about pain–I just suck it up.” I hadn’t even been aware, hadn’t thought, about all the pain he experiences daily, especially with the physio he has to have just to keep his muscles flexible and his spasticity under control.

I wouldn’t even start to try to persuade him. If at some point a real issue develops, say with a new gay student, that will be really difficult for us here, maybe. But maybe not–friendship and proximity has a way of melting hard hearts, doesn’t it?

 

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I feel it in my gut.

Tonight I welcome feelings of bloat and stomach ache, because it means that likely my husband, who’s had something like it for weeks, probably doesn’t have any serious condition after all. He’s getting checked out anyway, despite being told his suffering was probably due to fasting (the PA didn’t believe in it), or gluten, or sugar, and things being complicated by his starting a purchased herbal cleansing.

I’m not a worrier. At least, not about things like this–I was just waiting, trying to field with thought and objectivity my husband’s questions about what might be happening with him. I don’t pretend to be expert, but he still asked me, and I guess I felt it was just a particularly uncomfortable set of symptoms of a bug that was going around. He’s not a patient patient, and I rarely get sick these days, so I guess I have become less reactive to his complaints. My unfeelingness was even a concern to me. Do I feel no sympathy for any particular reason? Suppressed emotion? Resentment? I’m even less likely to want to pity someone if they complain, though intellectually I know everyone has a right to state their ills, and have people care and want to relieve them.

Maybe I can view my relief at, as I said, my own gut-ache, as a sign of a soft heart somewhere. I do know my feelings of compassion and concern exist, just about different things. I worry about people who suffer ignorance, injustice, purposelessness, confusion, apathy, inability, lack of vision.  Also about people who haven’t found a way to contribute to society, or worse, who injure society. Such as by ignorantly perpetuating the consumer economy that is so destructive, that will, must inevitably lead to so much suffering.

Here’s how I see it. Natural selection will have its way. If we live beyond the boundaries of the ecosystems that sustain us and cause their collapse, most of us will die–that’s the way it works. Unlike with minor disruptions of stability such as war, natural disaster, famine, and so on, the rich and privileged won’t be able to capitalize in any real way, insulating and enriching themselves–the “fittest” will be those who, like the “leavers” in Daniel Quinn’s books, melt off into the jungle with survival skills, seeing the hollowness of present ways, returning to their mammalian mostly hunter-gatherer roots. Even these will be rather randomly selected, I suppose from the peoples who happen to live farthest away from sinking, storm- and flood-drowned lowlands, baked deserts, collapsed ocean fisheries, highway-dependent food systems. It will be impersonal and somewhat random. That’s best case scenario. Worse would be some kind of engineered destruction, like in the movies–by germ warfare, engineered addiction, genetic chemical, or psychological, manipulation but smart but morally degenerate (but who’s to judge–just another means of natural selection?) players who see it coming and manage to come out on top. The could live to pick up the pieces.

Looks like I won’t get to teach environmental science next year. The state, and the colleges, don’t view it as an essential science. Biology, Physics, Chemistry are the core, they say. It’s such bullshit. Even if all my students wanted to be biochemists and engineers, I still think they need to make room to learn how the planet works and how to live here properly. Who are these decision makers, that they don’t see this as a priority, now at least? I want to find, found a consortium of teachers, leaders, scholars who fight to get environmental science in the top three. I’ve tried to argue for it to my principal and lead teacher, but their hands are tied. I can teach a lite version on Fridays, maybe, but in a religiously conservative community like this, the name Environmental Science is suspect. I might teach kids that owls are more important than jobs.

Still, I did get to teach one Environmental Science last year (their way of enticing me). And I’ve managed to work in some themes this year–in Food Science we looked at food production, water and food waste; in How not to Starve we’ve looked at the history of agriculture and the effects of industrialized production on the environment, health, and culture. Naturally, although this town is surrounded by farmland, not many families are farming, because of the past consolidation of small farms, so I’m trying to inspire them to become a new kid of farmer, even used the terms pasture raised, local, animal welfare, and organic. My upcoming class called Science Debates should be rich in opportunity, and Marine Biology will include ecological themes for sure. I feel the privilege of getting even to decide on these classes–who gets to do that? And maybe, after all, I can integrate what I care most about into Chemistry, the core class I’ll be teaching next year.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2018 in Beautiful Earth, Education, science

 

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School Managers Versus Visionaries – A Teacher’s Perspective

Two things that helped me get centered as a teacher-person this week. One was hearing a CBC radio piece about fidget toys–those little spinners kids are bringing into classrooms all over. On the one hand, the sellers were claiming they helped students focus and de-stress, even could mitigate the effects of hyperactivity, ADHD, even autism. But there wasn’t any science yet on that, it was noted. Most teachers disapproved of the gadgets, and were confiscating them right and left. One interviews said she thought they were “kind of ridiculous.” A school psychologist said, basically, that all items brought into the classroom for the purpose of supporting student learning ought to be part of a carefully crafted and documented plan created by the team of education professionals. That struck me as ridiculous, that a kid couldn’t even bring a cool little toy to class because was unauthorized. It spoke to me of a culture of micromanagement, especially promoted by those with a agenda crafted away from classrooms, away from daily contact with individual human personalities. Like teachers and others are in some kind of tug-of war for the students’ attention so all of their other interests must be snuffed, especially if they take the form of something that can’t be easily turned into a gradable essay, science activity, or math assessment.

Maybe I react so to that management frame of mind because I’m not really able to get my head around it, have always had difficulty with the “management” part in some ways. Not that students are out of control in my classroom, but they are definitely out of my control, and mostly in their own. I don’t “run a tight ship” in that sense, though I think that there’s a pretty good culture aboard, and a sense that we all need to make this group thing work while each individual makes their own choices. Despite the fact that a few students have chosen not to respond positively to being trusted, I want to continue to extend that trust. In planning lessons, I assume that, like me, every student will find some part at least of what we are covering fascinating. If not, if something else, such as a spinning toy, is more engaging, surely I shouldn’t be annoyed and offended. Surely I should show sympathy with his or her fascination and delight, and give space (and guidance if necessary) while he or she figures out the appropriate place of such an object in the flow of the lesson. I might make an effort to discern the student’s real purpose in using it; I might try to co-opt it to replace something I had planned, or I might ask myself, is there any way I can teach in a more interesting way?

The second thing was a conversation with a mom who has a few of her older kids in our school for the first time, seeing how it goes, so she can juggle the home education of her younger ones and some health problems too. I ran into her at the grocery store, and she shared how tough it as for her son and daughter to “catch up” after a trip, and in the midst of extracurricular activities. I asked her how the school experience as going so far, and she shared that one of the unpleasant surprises was the typical “schoolishness” of it all, despite the fact that we served homeschoolers, and the fact that the principal and several staff had homeschooled their own children. All the stress, rush, and testing and all. Why did it have to be that way, she asked? Why couldn’t people just pool their money and create a school that did things differently?

That’s what schools are, though, I admitted. The more established they get, the more standardized, the less flexible and integrated with the rest of life. This push and pull between freedom and accountability is especially pronounced when homeschoolers and public schools get together. We get money for each enrolled child, and they get classes, a resource library, and certain consumable materials (non-religious only).  We have to log progress (as measured in various ways, currently pretty flexible at our school), and train them to do their part of the paperwork for the auditor, so we get to stay in operation. They get to graduate their kids with a school diploma, but the kids have to make the grade, and we decide what that is. Schools will always tend that way, I told this mom. But you’re the boss, the person ultimately responsible, and you don’t have to buy the whole package. Even the diploma (I was tempted to lower my voice) was not the be-all for every family, whether college-bound or not.

She and her spouse are very pro-active and purpose-driven parents, and their kids are lovely human beings. Not all our parents are taking it as such a privilege and opportunity to manage their children’s education in partnership with us. Some are using our school as a shelter, because there’s a high percentage of conservative Christian families with shared values and good manners, and small class sizes. Some just need a break from the kids a few days a week. Others choose us for their teens over five-day-a-week school so that on “home” days, they have free labor–babysitting, farm work, or working in the family store. Every time that sort of thing comes up, usually in the form of our concern that these students aren’t keeping up in academics, I’m torn. Such job experience and training in practical skills are valuable and hard to come by for young people these days. We do give school credit when possible, but the balance is tough, and who’s to say that getting a C or above in Geometry or American Government isn’t up there with keeping the milk flowing into the tank for daily pickup, learning house framing or interior finishing, or experience in business and customer service?

Often I feel it’s us that are out of touch, that schools are trying to keep up with a culture that has no understanding of the skills that it really takes to survive and prosper long term on this planet. We’re “teaching the standards,” but have no vision of our own. It’s all about being “college & career ready,” and that’s not a vision, any more than I have to dress warm today because it’s cold outside, or I have to strip and hose down the prisoner because he’s next in line and I’m on a schedule and on camera.

People good at organizing schools are management types who want a smoothly running machine that has good photo ops, and of course keeping their asses covered is always a priority. They are not prone to sustaining the purity of a beautiful vision. Where are the visionaries? Inside classrooms, and allowed to create something beautiful, hone it, tweak it, give it their all and then let it go beyond them and start again? In moms and dads who dream of their kids coming home and, in answer to “what did you learn today?” begin with a sparkle in their eye, a tell a story, then break if off to take it deeper, broader at hone, on a weekend, even? Or is it only for multi-billionaires who can afford to start their own schools, with the vision of lifting kids up out of the cycle of poverty and class struggle while gaining loyal, skilled workers for their market share in the global economy?

 

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