A New Adventure…

August 18th, 2009 § 0

So much of our family’s life for the past 5 or 6 years has been intermingled with the world of education – and it’s as difficult for me to figure out where to begin this post as it is for me to isolate where the journey that we’re on with regards to education really began. The short version has to do with my life-long love of both learning and teaching, and having decided to do a complete 180 of my career path to embrace that love, intermingled with our daughter having come of school age a few years back… and having reached several personal points of frustration with the current state of education along those two paths (mine and hers).

I should first say that I’m a strong believer in public education – that is to say, I believe that access to education should be a right and not a privilege, and I believe generally that being in community with our neighbors and our world is what everything should be all about. Andrew and I struggled with this a great deal when we agonized about the elementary school choice for Alli 3 years ago, and with having fallen in love with a private school that seemed to embrace so many of the progressive, student-centered qualities that have lost favor in today’s overly standardized public education system. We knew our child, and knew that her engagement and joy for learning would suffer if that part of her spirit were quashed (much as I found my spirit for teaching and learning to be in a more rigid, top-down system that didn’t allow me to be responsive to the specific needs of students).

Unfortunately we have also come to see the tremendous challenges in building and maintaining a strong and consistent (and consistently and appropriately student-centered) educational environment at a school that continues to undergo significant transition in governance, administration and faculty. I think too that while private schools are exempt from the restrictions of the No Child Left Behind Act, the shifting of business-oriented philosophies and practices to our schools and the desire to “keep up with the Jones'” has caused a national shift in how our society thinks about education, and how we measure “success”, that has affected all schools. I have grave concerns about raising a nation of citizens who can pass tests and beat ‘the system’ but who lack creativity and the ability to think critically and work collaboratively. I also have grave concerns about an educational system and a society in which there must always be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Anyhow, suffice it to say that I don’t find private schooling to be immune from the infection of current trends in educational policy-making. Also, without going into more detail than is necessary, we watched our daughter experience one exquisitely wonderful year and two significantly less-so years in an environment whose volatility in really supporting Alli’s needs for both nurture and challenge ultimately took a toll on her self-confidence and joy for learning – an environment that we were paying no small amount on top of our tax dollars for. We’d decided midway through last school year, with a good deal of sadness and disappointment, that the cost-benefit equation wasn’t working for us or for Alli, and that we weren’t willing to risk any more effects on her waiting for that equation to change.

We spent much time looking into other options – including other private options as well as our local public school, which is by no means abominable, and probably one of the better options in our local district – but is still at its core significantly limited by the “one curriculum for all” philosophy brought about in large part by the standardization and NCLB testing movement. Personally, I don’t think any child is best served by that approach, and I also don’t think it really addresses the more socioeconomic root of the “achievement gap”. For Alli in particular, it just became harder and harder to envision that her unique needs for both support and challenge would be fully met. And while we felt like she’d be capable of coping with some academic boredom and that she has developed enough coping skills to manage her sensitivity/anxiety areas of challenge successfully, just knowing that she’d be “ok” isn’t what we want for her – we really want to see her happy, joyful about learning, and thriving.

All of this led us to begin to consider the option of home-schooling, which we started to discuss and investigate more seriously along with other school choices last spring. I must admit, this was not something I had ever entertained in a serious way, having alternately allowed my own mantra of “we’d kill each other” or a widespread societal notion that home schooled kids are “weird” to stop that thought in its tracks. Still, there was a part of me that was slowly beginning to re-think those self-imposed limitations, and I felt it was important to at least consider that as an option. Andrew was on board almost right away; I think his own elementary school experiences had a more profound (and generally negative) impact on him, and he has already recognized much of his own learning style in his child. As the one who would be tasked with doing the work, though, I was a bit slower to come around. I started looking into the area networks and community resources, I joined one of the larger local home schooling groups. I thought, I investigated, I discussed. I met other kids and other parents, and I started to entertain the notion that it might really be possible. That we live in probably one of the best areas in the country to home school, that doing so here was a far cry from the rural and solitary images invoked in many minds about the practice, that we might be able to meet so many more of Alli’s needs and engage her much more fully, that we might be able to achieve a better life balance overall, that I wouldn’t be doing this alone, that she wouldn’t need to be without peers, that there would be many avenues for social experiences, that I could really put my money where my mouth is in educating the whole child in a more holistic, child-directed, meaningful way… really most of all that this could be an amazing experience for us both.

So in addition to all of the thinking and investigating, we headed into this summer with the commitment to see what it might feel like. We’ve done all the normal summer things — vacation, classes and camps and the like, but we’ve done more. I find that I’ve had a new focus in being attentive to a lot of the learning opportunities we already were engaging in as part of our normal lives, and in really listening to Alli’s learning interests and encouraging her to pursue them more fully. We’ve explored together, we’ve read and written together, we’ve learned a lot more about outer space, we’ve challenged each other with math and logic problems, we’ve performed gardening experiments, we’ve spent days playing at the beach or riding bikes around town, and we even taught ourselves how to crochet together. We’ve both begun to develop some new friendships with other parents and kids who home school, and we’ve spent more time too nurturing the friendships that we already have in the “regular world”. Little stuff — dabbling, really, but along the path I started to see that not only were we not killing each other, but our relationships with each other, with others and with the outside world have all been enriched. Personally I have felt an improvement in my energy and engagement as a person and as a parent, and most importantly, I have watched a spark be rekindled within Alli that had really begun to fade.

So once we had begun to process things with part of the summer under our belts, all three of us reached the conclusion that we would really like to try home schooling for this next year. I know it’s not the traditional path, but I think Andrew and I are coming to terms with that not always being the right path just because “everyone is doing it”. I know it might freak some people out, including most of the members of our immediate families (you know who you are… :-), but I hope everyone can understand that we really believe this is the right thing to do for Alli for right now. I also know that everyone tends to freak out about “the social thing” when they hear about home schooling, but to that all that I can say is that Alli is a well-socialized (and very social!) child, and we don’t anticipate doing anything to change that. She will remain involved in extracurricular activities with her peers (in fact we’ll hopefully be able to pursue extracurriculars in a more thoughtful way and with more energy with the added flexibility of more control over our and her time), I’ve made a commitment to helping her maintain time with friends she’s already made, and I plan to aggressively pursue collaborative learning opportunities whenever possible. Home schooling isn’t what it used to be, and especially in this area, there is both tremendous support and much company. I anticipate that we will be out in the world much more than we will be holed up alone at home, as we have tremendous resources in this area for wonderful hands-on learning.

A tremendous thank you to the few folks we have shared this with thus far, most of whom have been incredibly supportive of a decision that, while we feel is the right one at this time, isn’t by any means the easy or well-worn path. Your support has fueled me when I’m feeling doubted and unsupported. I’m hopeful to be as honest as I can in sharing our experiences (both joys and challenges) reasonably frequently over the course of this year in this reasonably public forum, because I think it is an important journey to share, and one which I will one day want to have documented for myself and for Alli. I also think it’s incredibly important to contribute to what I think is a necessary national political discussion about the current state of education that should concern us all, so for now, this will be my contribution.

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