Thursday, December 22, 2011

On Schooling

My friend Melissa wrote a series recently about education that I thought was very well done.  She looks at her own childhood experiences with public school and homeschooling in Part I and Part II, then her experience as a teacher and her educational philosophy in her conclusion, Part III.  She's a wonderful expert to have around when discussing education and I really appreciated what she had to say about her experiences; as a student, as a teacher, and now as a parent.  In fact, her series inspired me to write about a few of my own thoughts on education, especially as it pertains to my children.  I like Melissa's approach, which is flexible and open to many possibilities, and above all puts the child's freedom at the centre of educational focus.  I have a soft spot in my heart for Montessori style education; my Aunt Lynne is a Montessori expert and has special training as a Montessori educator.  She doesn't teach at the moment because she's so busy being an expert adviser to the government on early childhood education.  =)  She rocks my socks.

Ayden went to a Montessori preschool.  Both my kids are in a multi aged classroom at their public school which is loosely based on the Montessori method.  If I had my 'druthers, my kids would go to the private Montessori school here in town but at $15,000 per year per student PFFFFFFFTTTTT that's not an option.  So, we have an appreciation for Dr Montessori's educational methods in common (though by far my Aunt Lynne and Melissa would be better experts on me in this area), and I appreciate Melissa's style.

With that segue I'd like to say that I think my fundamental educational philosophy is one of universal access.  I believe in education, period.  I've traveled a bit, and seen a great number of situations involving poverty and lack of access to education, which perpetuates poverty.  I am no expert on the affects of poverty nor its connection with education, but WHO research and experts like Greg Mortenson (from Three Cups of Tea) attest that the link is powerful.
I ascribe to Greg Mortenson's belief that education needs to involve the basics of literacy and mathematics.  In particular, educating girls has a huge impact on community quality of life, and WHO/UN research shows a minimum grade 5 educational level is the bottom line that makes the difference when it comes to changing poverty levels.

I think that some of that translates into a non poverty context as well.  The basic tenets of education is access to it, particularly educational basics~literacy and mathematics.  The reason I mention this in a first world context is because I have seen intense poverty in rural Canada that shocked me to my core.  Much of this was linked to a reduced access to education (amongst many multi layered cultural and social problems).  A good portion of the adults I came across in my work with BC Ambulance in rural areas were illiterate or had only very basic literacy skills.  If a child born into this community were to go to school, it was often with sporadic attendance.  Many of the children had major developmental, emotional, social, or learning difficulties and there were few specialized resources to deal with them.  Many families were broken or destablized with little enforcement of school attendance, homework completion, or modelling of literacy skills at home.  It was as though I could map out a child's entire future as I stood in her livingroom, mopping up a bleeding nose or soothing a croupy cough.  Or, alternately, caring for an adult in the house with bleeding kidneys, accidental stabbing with a water glass that tore open the skin down to point where I could see muscles working every time an arm moved, Delerious Tremins, or broken bones, while little ones watched.  Those kids had nothing to look forward to but more of the same; sporadic education, emotional and family chaos, early drop out, high teen pregnancy rates, abuse of all kinds, alcohol, drugs, babies, poverty, illness, tragedy, high suicide rate, and low life expectancy.  If that child got up in the morning, ate breakfast, and got to the bus stop on time, she would be delivered one of two local schools.  Both schools struggle with staffing.  Bullying runs rampant.  One of my coworkers' children was sexually abused in the school bathroom by another student.  Fetal alcohol syndrome is high and special education resources non existent.

I know that this is not unique to Canadian remote communities.  Inner city schools in the U.S. are frequently lacking in funding, staff, and specialized support to the point where children slip through the cracks or graduate illiterate every year.  I imagine there are similar social and financial problems in first world countries all over the world, since (in my opinion) poverty has very little to do with a lack of money. 

Suffice it to say, I believe children have a right to education.  There are many wonderful ways to deliver this education, and several poor ones.  Homeschool, unschool, private school, and public school are good, strong options in many cases. 
Both Brent and myself went to public school as children, and went to a private, religious university as young adults.  My brother was homeschooled for one year of his educational career, by my dad, who was a grade six teacher.  I should ask him what he thought of that experience, and whether he thought it was better or worse than public school.  Maybe I will over Christmas when I see him, and I will report back what he has to say!  He had a number of challenges in school, and I know that the educational system itself in the early years was very supportive of him, and in many ways failed him when he was older.  At least, that is my opinion on that topic.  A completely alternative school that was based in the outdoors and emphasized self sufficiency and attentiveness to detail, or apprenticeship for a skilled trade would have been better suited for him (he did do one year in grade eleven in a program much like this, through our city's public school system and did very well.  It was likely the only year of school that he enjoyed).  Hopefully he doesn't mind me sharing this part of his history here on ye olde blog.  I'd like to add that he is a very successful entrepreneur at present, and a loving dad to my niece.

my bro, with Amarys in April

I have mixed reviews of my own educational experience, but believe that overall I was one of those kids who are very internally motivated to learn and would have done well in any educational system.  Brent as well.  I like the idea of attending public school in the early years and developing an inclusive, balanced world view, and then attending private religious university during young adulthood when most people are forming the basis of their spiritual beliefs as separate from their family of origin.  But I believe kids have the right to input in their educational direction and style, and would never push a kid to attend this or that type of school.  I want them to attend school, but where that is or what it looks like is a collaborative thing.  We discussed at length the idea of a multi aged class with Ayden before he entered it, and have discussed this style with Matthew as he entered it also.  Both kids were involved in this decision, although at this age we had the final say.  This is given that we know a bit more about the world in general, and our kids' personal characteristics~not that either kid disagreed with us thus far.
I will say that I think we should have held Matthew in preschool for another year when he was five, because he matures more slowly than his peers of the same age. 

Another fundamentally important value for me is family togetherness, which is harder to create when your kids 'go' to school, as opposed to home or unschooling.  Given this value, we would never send our kids away to go to school until they leave home.  Boarding school is not an option we would entertain.  If we lived somewhere (like the town I started out my career in and described earlier in this post) with limited or no access to high quality school education, we would homeschool.  Since we live close to a number of quality public schools with specialized support systems for kids with learning challenges or unique qualities (like our Matthew)~admittedly not perfect by any means, but at this point better than I could provide at home, we are happy with our choice to send our kids to public school.  Particularly given the wonderful teachers and unique Montessori style class our older kids are in.

So if I'm willing to homeschool in some situations, why not homeschool now?  Hm.  Good question.  Brent does not think homeschooling is right for our family at this time; if I felt strongly otherwise we would discuss it and come to a consensus, but I don't.  Partly because public school is familiar to me and is working for us as far as establishing literacy and mathematics skills, and so much more.  And partly because I was not born to be a teacher.  Parenting involves a ton of teaching, but there is something distinct about teaching from parenting that is not my especial strength.  I'm willing if necessary, but do not feel compelled to choose to homeschool, and don't even really think I'm the best person for the job.  Particularly with a differently-wired kid like Matthew.  I'm not sure my life, my parenting, and my mental stability would be what I want it to be if I homeschooled at this point.  I love my kids, and I believe that if one of them came and asked me to homeschool them, I would consider it seriously, and that there would be benefits for all of us if I did.  But I also think that parenting is a knock em down, drag em out, woah nelly difficult job.  If there is an aspect of parenting I can outsource to an expert and still maintain that fundamental value of family togetherness, I'm getting on that gravy train.  We all have bottom lines, beyond which we are not entirely sure we could maintain a sense of healthy self, and this is mine.  It sounds selfish, but I contest that this would only be true if my kids lacked access to education, or if their fundamental learning style was so incompatible with traditional school as to be fairly unhealthy, like in my brother's case in high school.  I'm willing to give up my life for my kids, but not my self.  This is because (a) a healthy mom is a better mom, and (b) it's my life, too.  And a short one, at that.  And I want more out of it than a world mainly built around educating my children.

This is NOT to say that moms who homeschool have no life.  Or sacrifice their fundamental selves to do it.  Not at all.  This is more an evaluation of myself and my characteristics, my introvertedness, and my intellectual and self actualization needs, than an evaluation of homeschooling parents in general.
It does take a village to raise a child~not as a democratic left wing political statement, but because humans were made to function in community.  If that community is healthy and safe and offers access to public education, I am very happy sending my kids to public school.  For now.  And because they are happy there, and want to be there.  I did not go to school for five years specifically to learn how to educate young children.  Nor did I go to school for a period of time on top of that to learn specialized skills in educating kids with learning needs that are different from the norm, which my precious and intelligent second child needs.  This was on purpose, because for my career I didn't want to be a teacher.

I haven't addressed the private school idea yet, but this post is getting long.  I can see why Melissa divided up her post into three parts!  Suffice it to say that we cannot afford it, and if we could we would choose Montessori school and not religious private school.  We are very religious but within that umbrella, fairly liberal.  There are a few values which we hold that we believe are better taught by immersion in a diverse community rather than a homogenous one, and would choose private school if, say, we won the lottery or something, based on educational ideology and not religious ideology.

I would love to hear other peoples' (respectful) thoughts on this topic, because the whole concept of education is a fluid and developing one, and one that many people have intelligent opinions about.  Chime in!


Caryn Ouwehand said...

As Silas nears the School age I have NO idea what I am going to do. Neighbourhood public school? Private Christian school across town? Ack.

I loved this post. In many ways we stress over school because we HAVE so many options... and really all the schools we have in Red Deer are great options.

Sometimes I feel some stress about not having Silas in a preschool program, but withme working 3 days a week I feel like the dayhome is enough stimulation for him right now.

Just some thoughts...

literal mama said...

We talk constantly about our kid's educations, especially given the fact that I am a teacher. I seriously contemplated homeschooling. I worry about other people having so much influence on my kids, I worry about what other kids are saying and doing to my kids, and I worry about their safety. I worry. But in the end I knew that I wanted to (had to) work and that I had to have faith that our influence at home would be strong enough to carry them through.

It's such a big decision and it is fluid, just because this is what we are doing now doesn't mean this is forever. If I feel like it's necessary, I will pull my kids out and homeschool. Every year, every day, we reassess.


Louise Chapman said...

I wrote a whole response and of course my internet cut out and all was lost:) Here was the gist of it!

Obviously Gary and I are a bit biased towards Christian education as we love our community. Why else would we (him now) work somewhere where we make $14,000 LESS a year than the public school (after 10 years of working)?

I went to Christian school from K-12 and loved it. I would say the biggest and best thing about it, looking back is that every one of my sisters and I have a best friend from school who is so wonderful. We've had the same best friends since grade 8. I loved my teachers. AFter I graduated, I went back and visited them. When my students graduated, they came back and visited me. Maybe that's normal. I loved it so much, that when I got my teaching degree, I wanted to go back to my high school to teach there:) I have taught elsewhere but there is something really wonderful about that community.

Another huge thing about school was I was easily peer pressured and although I came from a great home, I liked trying out `bad' things. Fortunately, being where I was, I was definitely protected from this to some degree. Christian school kids still know how to party, maybe just not as hard:) For Gary, he would be fine anywhere as all he cared about were sports.

One major advantage of the Christian schools is the variety of courses that work for kids in so many different places in life. For example, one of the greatest things I have seen at the high school is the apprenticeship program. They can work in the trades, while in school, and get credit for it. There are a lot of other locally developed courses like Gary's `LEAD' class (outdoor leadership).

Also, when talking about the importance of education being available worldwide, the school does such a great job of this. The Christian school we are part of has built another school (and supported it since day one) in Kabala, Sierra Leonne. THe kids fund raise, have garage sales, and we can help support a child with their tuition for the year. Then, a select number of students each year, from the high school, get to go to Sierra Leonne to see the school and the joy the students have from their education.

I think that a mix of public and private education is great (like you had). I just did it the opposite way. I was so glad to go to UBC for 5 years and be out in the real world (living outside of my home too!). I have to say in regards to cost, a K-12 education in a Christian school is likely similar to 4 years on campus at a Christian university. Kai's part time kindergarten is just $2000.00 a year (and partially tax deductible). Also, there are huge sibling discounts etc.

Finally, I believe that Christian schools are not as homogenous as they used to be. Yes, most kids do believe in God. But, the variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds is quite diverse.

In regards to homeschooling, even though I'm a teacher, I wouldn't want to do it:) I know how I teach and I love having Kai exposed to various styles. If school was not working for him and he was miserable, I would totally homeschool him.

Anyway, hopefully some of this makes sense. My kids are yelling at me to get markers and papers and who knows what else. Must go:)

Louise Chapman said...

PS I'm not trying to say Christian schools are better, I'm just sticking up for them and saying they are a great option!

melissa said...

You already know how I feel about the subject, but I really enjoyed your take. The issue of education as a fundamental right is an important one, and I can really agree with you there, though like you I think it can be fulfilled in a number of different ways.

I had the pleasure of hearing Mortenson speak at a Montessori conference a few years back. Amazing, amazing, important work.

Anyway, I love that you have options you're so happy with for your children and that you have some time to meet your own needs, too. That balance is what I'm still trying to work out in my own head because what you say about giving your life, but not your self is huge!

Thank you, thank you for writing this!

Asheya said...

At this point, we're planning to put each of our kids in kindergarten as their only public school year. The reason for kindergarten is that it is very play based and teaches some structures (like how to line up, sit in a circle for storytime etc.) without putting too much pressure on kids. I have some fairly strong objections to how our society has structured the school system--as part of my education degree I studied how our school system came to be the way it is, and unfortunately while some efforts have been made to make schools, public or private, more child-centric, it's just putting a band-aid on a structure that is flawed to begin with.

That being said, I went to public school for 12 years, was homeschooled for 1. I am fortunate that I have natural academic intelligence and a family that was emotionally stable enough to allow me to succeed in school. I think there are some kids who will succeed in just about any system--the real measure is the kids who are failing, which means the system is failing them. And there are a lot of these kids.

Of course, these are my ideals speaking :) I have a vision for education that is very fluid, and that I think could transfer to public education, if only the powers that be were willing to completely shift the way we think about education.

My main concerns are:
1) Pushing reading too early. Most children are not developmentally ready to read until between ages 8-12. Children who learn to read earlier than this (and obviously it is possible) are not necessarily at an advantage in the long run. Reading early, while garnering a lot of praise for the child, can also be a stressful activity, which may not be readily apparent. The latest educational research is all about learning through play in the early years--but we don't translate this knowledge very well into the classroom. Kids should be doing hands on activities, life learning etc. until they are at least 8 years old, with exposure through these activities to literacy and numeracy concepts, without any requirements to read or represent thinking in an abstract way (writing).
2) Bullying. It happens all the time. I have taught in both public and private schools, and I know how difficult it is to look after 12-30 kids at a time, guide them emotionally, and help them care for each other. It's hard enough with only my 3 kids at home! And I was also on the receiving end of bullying as a child--sure, I gained some compassion, but do I really want my kids to go through that? Multi-age classes are a step in the right direction, as we are not designed to be in a room with 20-30 people who are all the same age as us. This promotes bullying.
3) Devaluing creativity. While some teachers do really promote creativity, it's hard to do that and still meet the bottom lines. School has to teach to the middle, which means kids who are ahead are bored, those who are behind struggle. Individualized learning is super hard to achieve.

So here I am, burnt out from almost 6 years of parenting, and wondering how I am going to homeschool my kids and literally not go crazy. Can I really offer something better than someone who is being paid to do this job?

For us, the solution comes as live in help. A mix between someone else educating our kids and homeschooling. We design the curriculum, and our helper will do most of the activities with the kids. That's the plan right now, anyway. We'll see how it all shapes up.

Right now we're learning about sea turtles--a trip to the library yields a wealth of knowledge. And we've actually swum with sea turtles! This is how I plan to educate my kids, through project based learning.