October 21, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Growing up, I didn't like school much. Which is too bad, I suppose, since I was so good at it. The academic part, I mean. (When I received a "B" in college, I believe the general response was, "Thank the Lord! She's human!") It was dull and slow most of the time; I read novels during spelling tests, I invented extra layers to projects to make them interesting and challenging, I demanded extreme levels of perfection of myself (a habit that's not serving me so well in the rest of life). I spent a lot of time hanging around my teachers. At home, I complained about the general immaturity of my peers. Fart jokes? In fifth grade? When will these people grow up?

Sending Caitlyn off to school was almost an exercise of faith. It's been 30 years; maybe we've updated how public schools teach children. She's her own person; maybe her experience will be different. But I had to trust that she and I would recognize when traditional schooling wasn't working and that we'd be able to act on that information when it arrived.

I suppose I needn't have worried. I think it was mid-March, at dinner, when Caitlyn announced that she'd like to homeschool. I'm paraphrasing her list of reasons here, but she had come up with more or less my old complaints:
  1. She didn't like the schedule, being constantly yanked off a project because the clock said it was time for something else. Nothing was ever finished the way she wanted it finished.
  2. Similarly, the proscribed order of topics meant that she wasn't free to explore something as deeply as she wanted or chase down an connection to an new topic.
  3. Everything moved so slowly. Material had to be explained and reexplained and then explained some more to be sure that every one of her 23 classmates understood it. This applied to everything, from facts and concepts to instructions.
  4. At least some of those classmates seemed to have a hard time respecting the school environment, preferring to disrupt the learning time of others out of their own boredom or immaturity.

We told her that she'd need to finish second grade, and finish like she cared about it, before she could "level up" to homeschooling for third grade.

Homeschooling has been part of our family culture from the beginning. Ian was a homeschooler. For years, we'd talked casually about homeschooling in the future, usually in context of middle school and the ridiculously early start times expected of eleven and twelve year olds. Time to walk the talk.

Fortunately, it isn't nearly the extreme fringe thing homeschooling used to be. Caitlyn already knew kids her age who were homeschooling. The school district has a resource department for homeschoolers. There are several part time programs around Seattle for "full time learners". There's a statewide advocacy organization, with a trade show. There are lots of resources online (the internet changes everything, again). Most days, I'm only mildly panicked about this project we've started.

The goal is to be sure that Caitlyn knows how to learn what she wants to learn. That's the critical skill. If you know how to learn, then you can pick up whatever you need to know when you need to know it. I'm insisting on building a strong foundation, which means Reading, Writing, Arithmetic. Everything else can come as interest and circumstance require. That's how it works IRL, anyway. I can't think of any time in my adult life, professional or otherwise, when I've needed to know the exact dates for William Wordsworth or Grover Cleveland.

So these days, it's all cats and dragons. Caitlyn's reading (and re-reading!) novels and, while the official biology may be somewhat off (eg, feral cats don't make clans), she's getting a nice dose of Narrative Structure and Story Arc, Drama, Politics, Sociology, Ecology, and Leadership.

Not bad for third grade.


  1. Wow, that'll be a great change in your lives!
    I have mixed feelings about homeschooling. On the one hand I can relate to Caitlyn's feelings about her regular school. Is it possible to skip a year in the US? That's what most bored children do in Germany. They can also do something like learning French and Latin at the same time (that's the second foreign language they learn. They attend the classes alternating since they're at the same time). If children seem to fit not into scheduled classes because they want to work on a free schedule they can go to private (not expensive) schools that work with weekly task sheets that the students have to finish by the end of the week. They are free to choose the time and order of their tasks. Are there schools like this near your place?
    If yes I would consider sending Caitlyn to one of this schools because it's very important that children socialize with other children of their age.
    I'm certain you will do a great job with homeschooling but not all parents do. It's important for children to meet people with other values and believes to form their own personality. For that reason homeschooling is not allowed in Germany. Parents tried to avoid sex education and evolution out of religious reasons. I'm certain that you won't do that but still Caitlyn wouldn't meet a lot of people with different backgrounds and attitudes towards life.

    1. I haven't checked with the public school system (which is where we were) about skipping grades, but I don't think it's very common. It's actually kind of hard to get into any advanced learning programs, not because of the competency required but because of the process (recommendation, evaluation, petition, etc) and because the advanced programs are only at certain schools in the district. I suppose we could have opted to try a different school in the district and asked Caitlyn to commute across town to take advantage of one of these programs. We probably also could have checked out a bunch of private (expensive) school options.

      But I think it came down to two things: I don't believe that the current education system in the US is particularly relevant anymore and I don't believe that anyone receives a lot of value from being required to spend all their time with their peers. Our education system is not fundamentally about education; it's about making good factory employees: quiet, obedient, capable of doing one thing on an assembly line over and over again. This may have been appropriate in the 1890s or 1920s, but it's not where we are now nor where we'll be in the future. Our education system, I think, is also being asked to be a sort of glorified day care. It's some place to send your kids while you are at the factory or office. It's actually possible to cover all the parts of a contemporary curriculum in about half the time (or less!) that it currently seems to take... and I think a large part of this is that school is viewed as "holding tank" for children and something "productive" needs to fill those 6 hours every day.

      Kids should be exposed to lots of people: different economic levels, different beliefs, different appearances, different skills, different ages, different experiences, different abilities. You don't generally get this in US schools. There, you are clustered by age (not by maturity level). While you might run into other kids with different economic or religious backgrounds, etc, you aren't encouraged to discuss or recognize differences. Also, nothing is done to counter the natural and normal human tendency to group oneself with people that are most like you. So even though Caitlyn was attending a highly diverse school, nothing was made of the diversity, except to say that "We're all different and that's wonderful!". Her friends all tended to be as much like herself as she could find.

      By stepping outside the official schooling system, we can talk freely about differences and explore where they came from and what they might or might not mean. We can acknowledge history (racism, slavery, genocide) and learn from it. We can discuss differences in economic class and how those differences might be addressed (and maybe equalized!). We can be sure that Caitlyn meets and interacts with lots of people: other homeschoolers of various ages; professional adults; neighbors with a different religious tradition or different language; young people for imaginative games; older people for experience; etc, etc.

      I can only speak from my experience with the US public school system, specifically the one I grew up in in California and the one we have experienced in Seattle. There are lots of schools and schooling methods I don't know anything about. But I'm grateful every day that we can explore different educational models, trying on bits of this and bits of that, so that we can find and build the best education we can.

      And maybe we'll make it to Germany someday and you can check on our progress. :)

  2. Good for you, good for Caitlyn! I think home-schooling is wonderful. Can I just say, if you aren't already aware, which you probably are because I think I remember telling you in person once, Saxon Math, Saxon Math, Saxon Math!

    We were lucky that many of the teachers our kids had in our public school system had adopted Saxon on their own (and at their own expense) but it must have been too successful and made the non-adopters look bad because the district adopted some other program with pretty graphics (yes, really, I had a fifth grade teacher show me the standard district math book and and say how much better it was than Saxon because of all the pretty pictures which somehow were supposed to make students want to learn their times tables). Then they made all the teachers who had adopted Saxon give it up. You should hear those teachers talk about how the math scores immediately dropped through the floor and student frustration with and inability to learn math concepts soared.

    Luckily for home-schoolers, you can adopt what works for you and jettison the rest.

    Happy learning to Caitlyn! Happy teaching to you and Ian!

    1. I remember you telling me about Saxon Math! We're starting with Singapore, which is the *other* math curriculum that gets a lot of local praise. I think there was a middle school in Seattle that bucked the district and used it with excellent results. If it doesn't work, we'll switch... 'cause we can do that now!