Monday, October 21, 2013

A riff on education, privilege, my son Oliver and revolution


from How a Radical New Teaching Method
Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses by Joshua Davis

So I've written a lot about my twelve year old son's struggles with school, with learning, with dyslexia, with learning disabilities, including auditory and visual processing. None of that writing has been particularly substantial and only barely touches on the depth and breadth of the problem, of the level of hatred that he expresses for school, of the tears, the tantrums, the sturm und drang. I've also written extensively about Oliver's uncanny ability to perceive the world and the people around him, about his curiosity, his intelligence, his sense of humor and his hilarity. I know in my heart that he will be fine -- in the long run -- but just how arduous that run is remains a question, and not just how arduous but whether the arduousness is even warranted.

Right now, I believe on a deep, gut level that it shouldn't be this hard.

Today I spent a good part of the morning researching home-schooling and also looked into a number of alternative schools. Quite serendipitously, a dear friend of mine sent me the article from which I quoted above -- click here, and you can read the whole thing. 

I'm shaking things up, for real.

The other day, I got an alumni magazine from the private school that I attended in Atlanta, Georgia for middle through high school. While I value the education I received back then and know, particularly in English and writing, that it helped me to become the writer I am today, I was appalled by a letter included with the magazine that asked alumni help in the current capital campaign to raise $88 million by 2015. I believe they are close to $75 million and need only close that gap of $13 million in three more years. 

ADVISORY: Language from here on out could be offensive to some.

Here's my response: What the fuck?

I can hardly go into what all of this means to me -- the enormous and ever-growing disparity between the extremely wealthy and those who have less and then even nothing. What is my alma mater buying with this sort of endowment? Are these children better educated and more prepared to succeed when they're finished? What is the measure of success? Where does it end? 

Again, what the fuck?

I might be starting a mini-revolution here at chez Crazy where the disabled and the abled live side by side, where the Catholic school boy rubs elbows with the revolutionary and where the primary caregivers live forever. Stay tuned or tune in with your own riffs.


  1. Well, dear. If anyone could pull this off, you could.
    Yeah. And what the FUCK?

  2. I went to the kind of school you did. It also gave me a great education and taught me how to write but it also taught me how to be miserable and not think for myself. When I get the semi-annual newsletter, I throw it directly in the trash. I don't know what the answer is for the non-wealthy regarding anything -- education, healthcare, housing. FORGET it if you're mentally ill and poor. My daughter is 6th grade at a progressive elementary school where she's taken virtually no tests but she learned how to be responsible and she's well-adjusted. I'll take that over Harvard any day. Please send me an invitation to your revolution.

  3. I'll just say this about that, never sacrifice confidence, for competence.

  4. I've read your blog for years and just now have something to offer. It's quite a crummy exchange, especially provided that I have learned so much from you and the glimpse into your beautiful world.

    I homeschool mine for some of the very reasons you present. Education costs, yes; however, inequality in education costs much, much more. I have one gifted student, one with a rare genetic disorder who is delayed, and if we were in public ed settings, both would be left behind. That thought makes me shudder, yet I know it to be true. For our family, homeschool has allowed us to find balance, gifts, and interests. That very article was circulated in some of our groups today-I feel that kids need to be allowed to find their interests and, given the right instruction on softer skills like time management, research, and evaluating information, can learn a lot in exploration mode. You will feel what the next step is, and I am sure you will do so with the grace you have displayed in the past.

  5. zackly. my typical kids attend a great private school, very expensive, very well endowed (thank you State Dept., and all the corporate multinational proto-plutocrats who make it possible) but there are next to no schools or services, even in socialist France for my special needs son. disparity is glaring, galling (gauling). and in plain sight.

  6. did you see this (Changing Education Paradigms)?

  7. Have you read Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed? It's my teaching bible (and advocates a radical change in teaching strategy, away from the sit down and be quiet model, which he argues is a tool of oppressors, and advocates a kind of creative-thinking education as the only way the oppressed can be freed). I hated school as a kid. Tested super high on all those standardized tests; graduated high school with a 1.7 GPA. Once I got to college (a private, liberal arts school with super small classes and trimesters, so one only had to take 3 classes a term) I was fine. My alma mater has a huge capital campaign now, but the purpose of their endowment is to make the college accessible to everyone, not just the wealthy, a la Harvard, where for any family under the 60K level, a Harvard education is free. It would be nice if that was the point of the endowment, and not to widen the gap.

    I feel for Oliver. It took until I was 18 and in college to finally feel like I wasn't an idiot.

  8. You might want to look at unschooling too. Although we didn't do it as radically as Sandra Dodd, we tended in that direction on the spectrum. I think one of the worst things being in school does is teach us to put up with and even expect boredom. And time wasting. One of my daughters wrote a chapter in Grace Llewlyn's book "Real Lives" the second edition included a "what happened to us" section that is interesting. Don't know if the book is still around.

  9. I am frustrated nearly to tears with the state of the educational system, and you probably know that here in the south it is far less progressive than the options we had in Colorado. I recently was bitching to a co-worker (fellow librarian) about the ridiculous reading system that I feel actively discourages children from enjoying books and she defended it and mentioned they started they system when she was in elementary--about 25 years ago. 25 years without a change in system. I'm tearing my hair out, can you tell?

    What the fuck?

  10. I, too, enter this discussion as a long-time reader, rare (if ever) commenter. But I say, if you have the means (time, energy, emotional as well as money--you have lots of all that, right?) to get O out of the regular school system and into something more attuned to his needs, DO IT. My 16-year-old (bright, but w/receptive and expressive language issues, social awkwardness, anxiety, etc.) is so damaged by her years in the school system that I wonder if she'll ever be able to be an independent adult.

    This isn't about knowledge, grades, that sort of thing. She's on the honor roll, is definitely learning, we can see academic improvement each year. But her self-esteem is in the sub-basement, she is terrified of failure, and she believes so deeply in her helplessness that she is unwilling to try anything at all without an adult sitting right next to her, assuring her that she's doing it correctly. How can she be a grown-up at that rate? This is what the school system did to her. And I kick myself every day for not making a change years ago. Hindsight, yeah, yeah.

    The school system is screwed and getting screwier by the day, week, month. If you can bail, do so.

    End of rant. I love your blog, and am ever thankful for your willingness to share all this with the rest of us.

  11. As a retired teacher of both title 1 schools and overseas international schools I know the disparity well. As for Oliver, can you find a good tutor to help with his difficulties? And do not think he will hate wiriting and reading forever. I worked with a very dyslexic and disengaged student for awhile. After intervention and rehab he went on to major in English, is now a grad teaching assistant in English on a full ride--- and a published poet!

  12. The USA needs a little bit of revolution, IMHO. Disparities in education are only a tiny part of the reason! I don't have advice to offer about Oliver, but I've found that much of the learning I did in school I did on my own -- extracurricular reading and that kind of thing. Expectations were low in rural Florida back in the day!

  13. Years ago I read a book called Raising Cain: Protecting the Secret Life of Boys, and it said something to the effect that my job as a parent to my boy who struggled mightily to read at the pace of his peers and whose processing of information got especially wacky if he tried to go quickly, the way tests prescribe, or if he was tired, and whose spelling made me think he was dyslexic though he was not, his brain simply stored the words incompletely, and in a jumble, and who exerted ten times the effort of his classmates to just keep up, well, the book said my job as a parent was simply to keep this boy's sense of himself intact, to preserve his sense of confidence and worth, to get him through school, grades be damned, with his personhood unbroken and then he would find the thing that made his heart sing, he would no longer have to be an all-rounder, he could focus on the one thing, whatever it was, that he came here to do. I hung on to that piece of wisdom for dear life, to keep his sense of himself and his worth intact, and in time some magic happened. Certain skills came in. Certain compensations bore fruit. And he does seem to have zeroed in on the thing that sparks him up. Oliver will too, whether you homeschool him or not. Because either way, you will preserve his sense of himself and his worth. You will help him never to forget how extraordinary and smart and unique he is. He will grow beyond the limitations of school. And he will teach us all.

  14. *Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson (Ballantine)

  15. Homeschooling and alternative schools are great options. Looking back on my schooling, I was a good student, as in good grades, but did not learn much, and traditional school did not suit my learning style nor accommodate my then-undiagnosed ADHD and auditory processing issues. I wish I'd had access to education that emphasized creativity, offered a more holistic teaching approach, and also offered vocational education, rather than focus solely on lecture, memorization, and test taking. I somehow did very well grade-wise but learned almost nothing, which is quite sad that the two are possible in concert.

    I hope you will find something that suits him better. Life and youth are too short to waste being miserable and getting nowhere. The mainstream options are okay for the mainstream. Some people have different needs. Good luck!

  16. I have a son with OCD and anxiety issues. He made it through San Jose Unified School District and is now at a California State University. If I had to do it again, I'd probably home school him, because he was subjected to a lot of ridicule by students and TEACHERS. Last week one of his high school teachers was honored in the SJ Mercury News--the same one that called him a "weirdo." I said to myself, "What the Fuck?" By the time he was in high school, he'd have panic attacks and be throwing up in the morning before school. The stuff he really loves are things our family explored/learned together on trips and dinner conversation. Architecture, art, history, national parks! This semester he's taking art history for a general ed requirement, and it's wonderful to see him bursting with enthusiasm about the subject matter. Good luck, I feel for you. --Jen in San Jose

  17. Another homeschooling mom here wanting to wish you the best of luck as you investigate this option. It's not for everyone but can be a real blessing to those for whom it's a good fit. It can be your final solution or your 'Fits Us for Now' solution and both are valid and good. I would encourage an assessment of how self directed Oliver is - both generally and on specific themes/topics. My oldest is great at accomplishing things she likes and then we struggle a lot with those subjects and activities that she does not have an interest in. It can make for some horribly frustrating days.

  18. I can absolutely say that I have learned more in the last two decades since leaving formal education than I ever learned before, thanks to my own love of learning. That is what I hope my kids learn - to always keep their passion for learning, regardless of the manner in which they do it. I have one 'traditional' learner and another that is completely sideways and unconventional about it and, so long as I can help them both recognize that their methods are acceptable and find institutions that continue to fuel their passion for exploring and teach them that it's okay to screw up, I will feel pleased. The older I get, the more I realize that "school" has very little to do with actual knowledge. It is keeping one's eyes open and observing the world and interacting with it in your own way that teaches us more than anything else. I wish you all the luck in the world in finding something that works for Oliver. He is a true gem and I hope he knows it.

  19. This sounds like what The Teacher has been all excited about these days. I am sending him the article.

  20. As usual I walk with your every footstep.

    Weston shares the same school struggles as Oliver. His frustrations were so bad this year, he talked of suicide.

    Like you, I have been pouring over "new attitudes" regarding "school mentality". I have recently read "Wounded by School" written by Kirsten Olson. She also argues that typical classroom lecturing is more appropriate for educating a work force destined to become factory workers and not one designed to create critical thinkers and technological innovators.

    I also believe that the escalation of school shootings and violence is the end result of this destructive school culture that is breeding an increase in student feelings of isolation and worthlessness at an alarming rate.

    While I agree whole heartedly with the new approaches to teaching our children, I realize that the revamping of school culture will undoubtedly take a lot of time. I doubt either of my children will benefit from the outcome of this much needed revolution.

    Like some of your other commenters, I also see my job as just getting Weston through school with his self-esteem in tack until he graduates. This has not been easy and has required the assistance of "many hands" as you describe it.

    Hiring an advocate (a good one) has helped. It is still however, a long process and like you, I am frustrated.



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