Sunday, October 17, 2010

Every Destination Needs A Starting Point: My Personal Evolution Series

Post 1 in my Series: My Personal Evolution

There is nothing extraordinary about me.  I am a mother, a teacher, and a wife.  What makes me different from most other women my age with children my age is that I do not send my children to school everyday for their learning.  I am not certainly not the only person who homeschools.  The numbers are increasing every day.  Nor can I say that I am doing a better job than the teachers my daughters had in school did.  I am just doing it differently.  Like many other mothers, I did not like many of the aspects of my daughter’s public education.  Like many mothers who tried to change a system, I experienced mostly failure.  Then I took matters into my own hands and decided to create the environment I wanted my girls to learn in.  No big deal right?
I taught elementary school for five years.  It was a second career for me, having spent years in the international relocation industry.  I loved my job but I did not like the values of the corporations I worked for.  I also loved teaching.  When I was a teacher, I had every opportunity I could hope for.  If I wanted to take a course in Junior Great Books, I just filled out the paperwork and it was approved.  I was mentored by published authors in the craft of writing and teaching artist writer’s workshop.  I had a budget for classroom supplies.  My students were not required to bring one thing with them on the first day of school other than their lunch.  Homework was minimal, ten minutes per grade level STARTING in third grade.  We had unit tests but more often the children had academic choice to show their learning in a way that fit their style best.  We were a Responsive Classroom school which meant:
  • the students took part in daily morning meetings
  • the students were guided in learning how to use materials appropriately
  • the students voices were heard when compiling classroom rules
  • there was very little punishment and a great deal of guidance
  • there were no mandatory textbooks.

Teachers had the ability to choose for themselves how they wanted to teach a topic.  It might be Marilyn Burns for Geometry and then a real life project for money.  The teachers were my colleagues and  my friends.  We met monthly to discuss current educational books and topics that were of interest to us.  It was an educational utopia but a change was looming.  
By the time I left my classroom in 2001:
  • homework was pushed down to start in second grade
  • Mastery test prep became part of our required teaching
  • budgets were cut
  • Chicago Math was introduced as the "approved" curriculum

I did not like what I saw and I remember clearly feeling that when Grace was old enough I would do everything in my power to help her avoid standardized testing.  I though Catholic School would be our choice but alas, they also use standardized testing in their measurement of student learning.  
When I went back to teaching as a long term substitute in the district we live in, I saw a completely different world than the utopian one I worked in as a teacher.  In our district a free breakfast program was installed because so many children were coming to school hungry.  Teachers were given boxed curriculum and it was changed without their consent or their input.  Kindergardeners were tested in SEPTEMBER on how well they knew basic shapes, letters, rhymes and sounds.  If they tested poorly they were immediately flagged for tutoring.  My children were subjected to an onslaught of tests, from DRP to writing prompts to practice mastery tests and fifteen page math assessments.  Not just once a year or once a semester but several a month!  A beautiful mural of Clifford the Big Red Dog is now covered under graphs depicting how students achieve on the mastery tests by grade level by year.  It is called The Wall of Data.  It would make me sick every time I walked by.  Our district approves of punitive punishment, singling out children who either forget or did not do their homework by sending them to the fence to do it while everyone else plays.  It was too much for me.  
I present both sides because I am not anti-school by nature.  I was a good teacher.  I know good teachers.  The professionals I know pour their heart and soul into teaching their children while working around the restrictions placed upon them by their administrators.  Public school is a necessity for many families.  But why is it failing so many children?  We can make sure the children are fed, place clinics in schools to help keep them healthy, encourage parent involvement through the PTA, but what are we doing to feed and nurture their spirits and their creative, curious nature?  Why are some children excelling and others completely failing?
Whole language or phonics, Chicago Math or Marilyn Burns, the philosophies are ever changing.  The curriculum changes with the philosophy du-jour.  While the great experiment of public education was not the place for my youngest daughter,  some children, like my oldest, adapt.  They grin and bear the testing.  They loathe the possibility of punishment.  They do their work, hand it in, memorize, recite and pass.  But how do we know what they have learned?
My decision as a teacher and a parent was to bring my girls home.  My life is changing right alongside my daughters.   There are so many aspects that I am grateful for.  School assumes that school comes first, before family.  Now my family comes before all.  Our learning is wrapped up in everything we do.  We have tried different philosophies such as classical education and modified it to a more relaxed Charlotte Mason method.   Now that both my girls are home our days may look a bit like an unschooling family as she is being given time to decompress from her school experiences and expectations.  We are ever-evolving.  But the evolution is ours and ours alone.  No one is dictating to us how to teach or how to assess learning.  Like when I was teaching, I keep abreast of the different styles of teaching, the different opportunities available to homeschooled children, the different support groups available, the best books written on topics like unschooling, Charlotte Mason and parenting. I am always seeking to further my own education and knowledge on the topics we are learning about at home.
Together we are learning what education truly is and how to live a life rich in learning. Learning occurs from the moment we wake up until the moment we close our eyes if we give value to our children’s interests.  Is blogging educational?  To me it is.  Will it improve their writing skills? Yes, if I offer mini-lessons in topics such as strong verbs, good topic sentences, and what constitutes a paragraph, while they are writing.  Is singing in the church choir educational?  Yes, because at their last practice they focused on singing in different keys.  It was a music lesson disguised as choir practice.  Is watching a video educational?  Certainly, now that most of the videos we have watched this month have been about weather, Greece,  or biographies of people we have read about.  

When we listen to music during art, it is the music of ancient Greece.  When we drive in the car to a playdate, we listen to books on tape.  When we go out we always carry our books in case we are delayed.  My purse is just like my teaching bag.  In it I have pens, pencils, writer's notebooks, a Nook, a few books, and perhaps an acorn, a bird feather and a few cool rocks.  Yes, we are immersing ourselves in learning.
This is not quite how I envisioned our homeschool day -- not back when I was reading The Well Trained Mind.  I will write about that in my second post of this series........


Theresa said...

I enjoy reading about your transformation.

The school you taught in, when you started sounds like the ideal school where I would have loved to have sent my girls. It's such a shame that the Department of Education doesn't see the benefits in motivated learning and is so wrapped up in test scores.

My girls ASKED to do history today! They asked me if we could do history! Then Piper, who hated math, ASKED if she could do Teaching Textbooks on my computer. Allie couldn't wait to read "Princess Diaries" when I brought it home from work--and she was a reluctant reader! It is amazing!!

Jessica said...

I am smiling for you right now..... :)

Laura Grace Weldon said...

Your "conversion" to homeschooling sounds a bit like mine and your homeschooling life sounds a LOT like ours. Thank you for this thoughtful post Jessica.

Jessica said...

Thanks Laura!

Marcie said...

I always enjoy your posts, they tend to be very inspirational for me. I tend to questions some of my "ways" after reading them, in a good way. Thank you so much for sharing your life here in the great big wide open.

Helena said...

This is a fascinating post, Jessica—because of the journey you've taken (and are taking) away from the "system," and how your and your kids learning styles are adapting, naturally responding to the daily, weekly, monthly discoveries being made. Reading it (and your whole blog!), I feel I'm looking at a garden, the plants all growing, responding, turning from seeds into… things both beautiful and unique.
Just lovely—thank you, Jessica.

Deb said...

This is a great post! I am looking forward to this series. It is always interesting and helpful to read about the paths of others - it helps me solidify my own thinking, too.

Jessica said...

Thanks Deb. Post #2 should be later this week......

Karen said...

I love this post Jessica. I really liked the way your school sounded at first. Why do they always think everything needs improving? I love the way you and your girls are growing and blossoming in this journey. It truly inspires ME.

I can't wait to read more!

Pamela said...

It's too bad there aren't more schools like the one you worked for USED to be. I still love so many aspects of homeschooling, but all the children who do go to school would surely blossom more in a responsive classroom environment. Sadly, the high stakes testing and labeling that stresses kids seems to be the wave of the future.
I'm glad to hear you are finding your path with your girls. Enjoy the journey!

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