• Attendance

    January 2015
    M T W T F S S
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    Avery, Naim, Aaron

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That Time I Sent My Kid to Public School So I Could Learn Something

I wrote this for another publication awhile back. Of course, it needed to be drastically edited and reworked. Here is the original which kind of sums it up as far as our public school experience this year (in DETAIL, of course.) I’m going to backdate it to the week I wrote it.

I had homeschooled my twin boys since they were born. It wasn’t for religious reasons or because I hated public schools, it just sort of organically happened. I used to have a teaching certificate in Special Education and I spent a lot of time in schools in the 90s, but since then I had let my credential lapse as my career turned toward university work and disability advocacy. And then, when the twins were born, I realized I would be working for less than the cost of their childcare, so I stayed home with them while working part-time in the evenings. I was bored; I started teaching them as all parents do in their babyhood and preschool years. I happened upon a unique place called Village Home Education Resource Center when I was looking for inexpensive preschool activities. Village Home was a place where homeschooled kids could select classes to take together, kind of like community college. I enrolled them in a preschool Waldorf inspired class and met homeschoolers of all ages there. I started doing research. I was intrigued. The Village Home kids were impressive. When I took my kids to Kindergarten round-up at our neighborhood school and found out there would be 58 5-year-olds in one double-sized classroom, I just never bothered to enroll them. It seemed natural.

They took classes at Village Home and I taught them at home. My son, Aaron, picked up everything I put in front of him really fast. Academically, he had no problems. Socially, he was outgoing. He showed such joy and enthusiasm for life. Yet, he could be a bit immature and had trouble managing his emotions when he was disappointed. His twin, Naim, was socially shy and struggled with reading. He never, ever sat still to do his schoolwork. He was always moving. I suspected if I put him in school, he would almost immediately have an ADHD or LD label. But at home it didn’t matter that much. Despite some of his academic challenges, he was good at sports and drama. He was always eager to try new things, hard working, and responsible for his age.

For years, we had a great time homeschooling. Along with Village Home we took classes at our local science center, zoo, and children’s museum. There were also frequent fieldtrips, camps and soccer and swimming. We got our schoolwork done by noon or shortly after, and the afternoon was open for adventure. I was more of an eclectic homeschooling mom. I could never quite shake my teaching background and become a full-fledged unschooler. I used curriculum for math and reading/writing and sometimes used curriculum for other subjects. Interestingly, though, they excelled in the other subjects that I never really formally taught. They could explain dark matter and string theory on a simple, yet articulate level, they could tell you about the Precambrian period or all about ancient Egypt or the works of Homer. Aaron could draw and build amazing things and Naim could do improvisational acting with a wit that cracked everyone up. As for the subjects that I formally taught them? They stayed exactly where I taught them. They never went any further than the lesson of that day. Naim was displaying signs of dyslexia similar to my father’s, and so developing reading was slow for him. We worked through it with lots of 1:1 instruction, but it continued to be a challenge. Although he enjoyed it when I read aloud and he became extremely efficient at using the adaptive technology his blind parents used to work with print material. He was hardly functionally illiterate.

Then, my husband suddenly lost his job. And due to several factors, we decided the best course of action was to start our own company, at least until another opportunity came along. I was running our very small corporation within 2 weeks of his job loss. I also eventually got two other part-time jobs. So, I was working four jobs plus homeschooling, and my husband was out hustling work all the time. (oh, and did I mention that we are also both blind, don’t drive, and have a five year old, two guide dogs and a cat?) We went month to month just trying to have enough to eat and pay bills. Homeschooling slowly slipped away from me, and the kids did not get to go as many places or work on as many things. There was a lot of screen time for them.

One day, in total exhaustion and frustration, I got fed up and told the kids that I was going to have to enroll them in public school. It was the last week of the school year in June, and so I had to act fast to get them set up for September. I went to the school with them and got the forms, intending to enroll them both into the 3rd grade. They were a bit old for third at 9, but that is the grade our educational service district had listed for them when we had to register them as homeschoolers. I figured with Naim’s reading issues and Aaron’s emotion regulation immaturity, and the fact that they had never gone to school before; it would be a good fit.

But when I brought back the paperwork the next day, I met the principal and I asked her about the age/grade issue and about perhaps referring Naim for an IEP assessment. She not only informed me that they would have to be in fourth grade, she gave me a timeline for an assessment for Naim that put February or March of the next year before he would likely get services. So, from September to March, he would just sit there in frustration and not be able to read anything? Thus getting behind not only in reading but also in math and everything else? OK. Not going to work. Naim would have to stay home with me. Maybe if I sent Aaron, I could use the extra time to work with Naim. I researched curriculum and purchased a specific reading program for kids with reading issues (Reading Horizons, based on the Orton-Gillingham Method.) Aaron, I thought, might have a rough go of it the first few weeks, but with a bit of help and some time, I thought he would do ok. I have never really had to “teach” Aaron anything. I just put things in front of him and he learns. I tried to prep him for what to expect over the summer, and off he went with high hopes in September.

I got called to the school on the second day. He was overwhelmed, not participating, not really doing any sort of academic work, having meltdowns, etc. I met with the teacher who I found to be caring and competent, but I was annoyed when she mentioned he needed to learn something for the standardized testing within minutes. Still, I cooperated as well as I could. I had told Aaron to give public a try until winter break and then we would see where we were. She asked me to take that off the table so he could really put in an effort instead of biding his time until December. I agreed to this. I also agreed to a point incentive plan for him to do work. This is something that I never had to do at home. He always did his work except for some minor grumbling from time to time. But I thought, maybe letting him work through this with them will be good for him. Maybe he will mature and not melt down so easily.

Things seemed to improve, but it was hard to really know what was going on. I got very little information from either him or the school. Every once in a while I would get an email about an assignment that was due the next day that I had never heard of and I had no idea how to advise Aaron on it had he even wanted me to. I had to just let things go. I knew he didn’t do any homework, but I was never really sure what the homework actually was or whether it was “required” or just optional if they wanted extra recess on Fridays. Besides, I put him in to save myself time and money. If I had to be afterschool teacher and homework police, there really was no advantage to public. I stepped back from it all, and no one seemed too concerned about that.

There were signs of things going amiss, though. At fall conferences the teacher really had nothing to show me. His six-page long “report card” was a bunch of “I can” statements rather than letter grades. It didn’t make much sense. Many of the statements he was marked as not being able to perform certain tasks that I knew he could do. Some of the statements were just ridiculously meaningless and subjective. I just shrugged in confusion.

I had also wanted him to eat better and get more exercise. He qualified for free breakfast and lunch at the school, which was convenient. But he was bussed there as well. This was also convenient, but we are public transit people and he did not walk nearly as much as he used to. He only got two ½ hour periods of P.E. a week. And when I went to eat lunch with him a couple of times, I found that he was eating total crap and had only seven to ten minutes to eat. A typical meal for him would be chocolate milk, a boxed apple juice, a plastic cup of a strawberry slushy substance, and maybe a breadstick or a slice of cheese pizza. He got 2 10-15 minute recess sessions a day, but it seemed like much of that time was taken in lining up in an appropriate enough manner to go out or come back in. Discreetly, I got him to step on a scale. He had gained 25 pounds in about four months.

He was irritable, grumpy, tired and never wanted to do anything or go anywhere with us. He wanted to sit around and watch YouTube or play Minecraft. It was like he just needed this time after school to decompress and we could not interrupt that time. When he had two weeks off at Winter Break, there were signs that the old, fun-loving Aaron was coming back, but he laid on my lap and wept uncontrollably when it was time to go back to school the next day. Still, I put him on the bus at 7:12am.

A few days later, his teacher sent me an email recommending that we all meet with the school’s Student Support Team. This consists of the school principal, the counselor and the special ed teacher. It is the first stop before an IEP assessment. What is going on? I thought. How bad can this be? He is like 85% of the time the easiest kid. The other 15%, he can be a total brat, but isn’t that kind of typical? I scheduled a visit to the school for the following week.

But before I was able to get there, I got alarming calls and emails from the school counselor. He had hit a kid with a ball for no reason, and then he went into a meltdown, which included the words “I want to kill myself.” And “I’m stupid.” The counselor put him through the “suicide protocol.” He said he was going to send home a “referral.” He recommended counseling. It was all very dramatic. It sounded pretty awful and I thought, well, I can’t brush this away, a referral to a counselor might help us all figure this out and bolster my case to get insurance to pay for it. But then when Aaron handed me the referral, I discovered in wasn’t a referral at all but basically a check marked incident report. Whatever, I thought. It was really apparent that the main interest here was not my kid’s well being, but that he not interrupt the procedures of the day.

Aaron was calm when he got home, he told me the story of why he threw a ball at another kid in an aggressive manner. It was most certainly not acceptable behavior, but it did have a typical kid reason that seemed within the realm of normal kid social development. We talked about his threat of suicide and he basically said he just didn’t know what to say because he felt so terrible. We talked about seeing a counselor and he was good with that. The following day, I asked him if he talked to the school counselor who had been so concerned about suicide the day before. He said, “Yeah, he said you need to sign the referral and return it to him.” I gaped; dumbfounded. One day it is a suicidal emergency, the next day it is all bureaucracy as usual and signed in triplicate. I didn’t even know I had to sign it. There was no place to sign.

The next day, Naim and I spent the day with Aaron at school. I have always liked Aaron’s teacher. She is caring and sincere and incredibly good at the challenging job she is supposed to do. She has to get 35 kids through the day and up to “common core” standards for the quarterly standardized tests. The problem was that my kid just didn’t care and he wasn’t having it. He saw no point. He didn’t understand what it meant or how to be part of an assembly line education. I watched only a shell of my child there. Except for lunch and recess, he was a zombie who did next to nothing. I saw that some of the work was over his head. I was not able to get through all of third grade math the previous year, nor had we concentrated much on writing. And we also used a different curriculum that did things in a different order. This is why I wanted him in third grade, or at least the third/fourth blended class they had. But I also thought there would be at least some room for differentiated instruction, and there would be some allowances for a kid who was not at the precise level as they were teaching at and some opportunities for him to catch up. But this class was the most teacher-directed class I have seen since…maybe since watching shows like “Leave It to Beaver.” All content was directed at the middle of the bell curve and the rest be damned. She spent hours standing up at the front of the classroom leading fairly scripted math lessons while asking for the class to repeat answers back in unison. It was like a throwback to another era. I thought back to my teaching days. How on earth would I EVER had integrated any of my special needs students into this entirely inflexible “one-size-fits-all” model? I guess I have been out of schools for a long time.

I realized then how much homeschooling had changed me as a teacher. I just couldn’t buy into this anymore. I saw her make verbal mistakes, mistakes we all make all the time, but that you can check and correct with more individualized instruction. For example, she cut “ONE WHOLE” piece of paper in half and then held up both pieces of paper. “What did I make?” she asked the class. “One half,” she stated. “Oooone Haaaalf” the class answers in unison. Naim leans over to me. “She made 2 halves,” he whispered. We watched as she continued to make confusing statements in what she was demonstrating. These are errors that are just natural and human to make. But if you don’t have the back and forth of your students to converse with, you can clarify nothing. I could see some of the kids slipping away when she got to holding up half the paper that was folded into fourths–the other half long forgotten and not divided–but she called the folded sections one-eighth. By this time, Naim was gone from following it. Aaron had been drawing pictures the whole time. This kid reads complex instructions for craft projects and origami that contain more complex fractions than this, and successfully follows those instructions to make beautiful and complex paper craft. He can follow and modify a recipe on his own. But he could not seem to keep attention enough to follow what she was saying about ½ and ¼. He turned in a paper with nothing on it but his name. She said that he doesn’t seem to be able to apply his knowledge. But these worksheets were not about applying knowledge in real life. He didn’t understand why you would just fill out random worksheets without a real-life reason, he said.

Another time, Aaron and his reading group were taking turns reading aloud. Instead of following along and counting ahead to find the paragraph that he would be called upon to read and preread it like we all did, he read ahead. Then, oblivious to when it was his turn, the teacher had to help him find his place. He LOOKS like a special ed kid, I thought, but he is actually reading ahead. He just does not have the public school strategies of survival that the other kids have. He doesn’t know he has to “perform” for the teacher. I thought back to the old John Holt book called “How Children Fail” where he devotes a whole chapter to how kids develop deceptive strategies to make it look like they know what they are doing when they may not. He has never developed these and he is in a room with kids that are masters at them.

Naim, who is the master of a creative metaphor, summed it up best. He said it is like the teacher treats all of the kids’ heads like they are food processors or juicers. She takes the lid off and crams the vegetables down their into their brains with a stick (plunger) for processing. The other kids get all the mush mixed together and think that it is good; missing out on all the different flavors and fiber. And it is okay enough. But then you have Aaron. He is used to running around the orchard and the garden and growing or at least maybe picking his own fruits and vegetables and studying them and then eating them. That is what he is used to, and he doesn’t want that thin, strained-out mush. He doesn’t let her open up his head like a food processor and shove stuff in because he doesn’t want it. Wow, I thought. That vividly reminded me of a parable in Grace Lewellyn’s “The Teenage Liberation Handbook” about a girl from a fictional planet who explored the forest and ate fruit on her own, until she was put in school because she had to learn how to eat fruit properly. She had to practice picking pretend fruit before they would allow her to pick actual fruit, and she lost her hunger and desire for it. (There is no way Naim has read that book, by the way. I was floored by this similarity.)

Later, after we watched Aaron get left out of a partner activity when Naim got a partner in gym class, shy Naim was amazed. He has always watched Aaron make instant friends while he has struggled. He said because Aaron doesn’t act like the other kids, he is in the “lowerarchy” which is Naim-speak for the low end of the hierarchy. They don’t understand him and he has never had that happen before. There is a constant stress and confusion there. I did not get this need by all for conformity above all else. Learning about homeschooling has always made my mind feel more open to life’s possibilities. Returning to public school with its common core standards and carrot stick rewards for compliance just felt constricting and small. I could see that Aaron, also was starting to have a new appreciation for the gifts of his old life.

I knew I had to take Aaron out of school. But while all this was happening, Naim was being totally embraced by the kids and was having a ball playing during recess and at gym. I could see that ironically, parts of homeschooling were not working for him. We had made great strides with his reading this year, but between having to always wait for Aaron to come home from school thus breaking up our afternoon and keeping us stuck at home, and my own failure this past year from keeping them from being isolated, I saw that Naim was lonely. And Aaron was lonely, too. If I was going to take them home, I had to do better. I had to change.

They have always had kids to play with several times a week. But they have not always had the same kids to play with. Homeschool activities can sometimes be a revolving door of kids enrolling in different classes and going different directions. They did not feel a part of any community. My activities at Village Home had dwindled a bit, we had gone to fewer classes to save money, and we had not traveled to visit relatives, also because of money. Our whole family had gotten really, really isolated. I was working too many jobs and was stretched too thin. Homeschooling can be difficult under the best circumstances. We had two working parents who did not drive due to disability, and who had money issues. I put my kid in public school to help take some of the pressure off of me, but it had only added more pressure. I put my kid in public school so my schedule would not hold him back, but he fell further behind. And I put my kid in public school so that he might work on his meltdown issues, and all I did was made a mild to moderate problem much more severe. In a way I am mad at public. I want all of those resources that my kid deserves and my tax dollars pay for. The $7000 per student price tag that is spent in public would sure be helpful to my family if we had those resources. But, in the end, public school was not going to solve my problems. I had to.

Around the holidays, I had gotten so exhausted that I plumb forgot to go to one of my jobs. Our business has a way to go, but it is slowly coming to life. I decided to quit two of my jobs. I now am working my one evening job that I always had and working for our business. It has cleared my mind up a lot. Then recently, I was invited to a screening of the new documentary “Class Dismissed: A Movie About Learning Outside the Classroom.” I was invited because Village Home was featured in it, and my kids are actually in it for a few brief seconds in the background. It was not any new information to me, but it did reinforce the idea that we all struggle to know what is best for our kids, and it is the journey that is important.

The journey is all about trusting your kids and yourself to become the best you can be by constantly taking responsibility for your own learning. It isn’t about whether my kid is at grade level or how he does on a standardized test. I really don’t care about that. It is that we all continue to strive to be our best and enjoy each moment of life. It is not, as the public school institution continually tells us, about preparing for a future that never comes. Preschools tell us how they prepare our child for Kindergarten. Kindergarten is to prepare for first, then middle, then high, then college, then jobs and promotions, then retirement, then…I guess wills and burials. That mindset never actually lets you live. I grew up with it, and it took me decades to see that while I was waiting for my life to actually start, it was passing me by. I don’t want that to happen to my kids. Life can change in a moment, and each day you get is precious. There is no time to waste for a system that doesn’t work.

I actually think that school reform is not going to come from within; it is going to be led by homeschoolers and perhaps alternative schools. I see dedicated and caring teachers that are handcuffed to a system they don’t even believe in, but they cannot change it from the inside. Homeschool advocate and columnist, Scott Noelle is featured in the Class Dismissed movie. And he was at the theater I went. I knew vaguely of him, but I never paid much attention to him because I thought he was too hippy, granola, unschool-y, free love, new age-y for me. But I decided that if I want to get some perspective and change, I should seek out someone I would never normally feel comfortable with. I contacted him and we met. He told me the stories we have all heard about unschoolers who do no math until age 15 and then go through 12 years of math curriculum in 4 months. And about kids who didn’t learn to read until age 12 and then never stopped. Imagine, he said, if there were state common core standards for learning to walk. We send our babies to school so that someone can force them up on their feet to walk and fall down all day for hours because walking HAS TO OCCUR at such-and-such age. Wouldn’t the babies be scared to death of walking? That is where my kid is. Yes, he needs guidance and to accept responsibility for his actions, but the only way that is going to happen is if he is given the chance to take responsibility. I took it all away from him by sending him to a really restrictive school like that when he had known the freedom of his own life before.

Between Scott’s pure unschooling and public’s strict adherence to some random age-of-manufacture standards, I am looking for a happy medium. I am working on a balanced plan that will work well for everyone. I resigned myself to the fact that I am not a total “unschooler,” but that I can certainly incorporate more trust and freedom for my kids into our day. I will be doing a bit of reading/writing and math curriculum each day, but also allowing them to plan the rest of their day with classes, science, history, arts, and other activities. I chose third grade curriculum because that is where my kid is, for all kinds of reasons, and there is nothing wrong with that. We will make our way forward and learn at our own speed. This will not only help them take ownership and responsibility for their own life and learning, but will soon help me have more free time for myself and for working. Also, Aaron’s 4th grade teacher, Ms. Page has very high standards and those rubbed off on me, too. I invested in a rigorous, yet fun and flexible writing program.

And we will continue to explore ways to help the kids not only hang out with other kids, but build real relationships and community that will strengthen them and enrich all of us as a family. As an introvert, that will probably be my biggest challenge. (Naim has an idea for a social club for introverts at Village Home, and since it is Village Home, he can actually write up a proposal and submit it to them.) Maybe I will enroll in the class! We are excited and boldly stepping into a future of our own making.

Aaron visited Village Home the other day; I will not be able to re-enroll him until next quarter. But just in the visit I saw some of the old Aaron again. He was smiling and talking to people and skipping down the hallway. When we finally made the decision together that he was not going back to public, he ran around the house screaming, “Yes!” and the relief was palpable. He still is going to have a bit of a bumpy road ahead, as we will be working hard in not only academics but on his emotional regulation problems, that were really brought front and center by the stress of public school. He needs to develop some strategies to better cop with future stressful situations. But I missed the joy that he brings to our family and to his friends. I am glad to have him back with us in the world again. Maybe public school did help us after all in some way. There is always value in anything that shakes up the apple cart.