Archive for May, 2013

Certainty

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Summer’s finally here in Colorado, with our occasional winter lookback days at long last behind us, and the traditional school experiment is drawing to a close for us. E attended the WATS rec0gnition ceremony last weekend, where three trips to the stage reminded of what we already know: there’s no point whatsoever in her attending middle school. H has thrived this year with more individualized time for math, and more time to stretch out her writing and critical thinking skills, so she’s coming home full-time in the fall, too. As for A, we’ve barely been able to coax him through the last few months of school. He’s done with it – the structure, the order of coursework, the tiny recesses and the shovel-it-in lunch period and the every-minute, every-day challenge of being an emotionally intense kid in a setting that was never designed for him. I couldn’t watch him go back in the fall if he was in love with traditional schooling, and he’s not.

Their classmates are having their own last hurrahs. Our elementary school feeds two traditional public middle schools in the area, plus a charter or two and a collegiate academy, so in the class H and E visit for part of the day, there are goodbyes going on, too. We’re having ours, too – seeing off parents we’ve fought the good fight with for the past several years. They’ve made their decisions, and some are comfortable with them, and some want to hear some validation comments. Then it comes to be our turn, and the conversation turns to homeschooling, and I just know they’re not quite sure what to say.

And sometimes, the question surfaces, in the midst of all of this discussion of choices and strategies and forks taken. It’s not spoken – not overtly, at least. But it’s there, in a hundred raised eyebrows and sidelong comments: “how do you know you’re doing the right thing?”

We don’t.

Not really, anyway; no more than anyone ever knows that what they’re doing is the right choice. Can I look twenty years into their futures and tell whether this is the right move? Absolutely not. I couldn’t have predicted ten percent of what’s happened in my own life, from college graduation to today, and I was fully in charge of that; I certainly can’t predict how life’s fortunes and chance crossings and transformational events and global trends are going to impact the lives of my kids.

Here’s what I do know. I do know that there’s a chance that the economy gets significantly better, at some point, but even if it does, the globalization of the middle class is here to stay. My college-educated kids won’t be competing just with kids from Modesto and Miami and Moline; they’ll be competing with kids from Munich and Madurai and Malang, too. Will a traditional schooling path prepare them for that kind of competition? It might. But based on what I’ve seen, it’s questionable. The reality is this: there are more college graduates, worldwide, than can possibly be employed in comfortable air-conditioned knowledge-worker positions. We just don’t need that many of those jobs. Mine will need to find their own route, and I’m not sure that route is the same one everyone else is taking.

I do know that creativity and critical thinking and technological savvy and ad hoc collaboration are a part of the future for them. They’re a part of my existence, now, and I have what could be convincingly argued to be a Millennial-style job. Those factors are only going to become more important as my kids enter the workforce. It’s not that these concepts aren’t being taught in school, but they’re not being taught and nourished and encouraged nearly enough. Right now, they’re adjunct goals. I’d argue they’re the main goals.

I do know that their lives are going to be led by passion. That cartoon with the on-off switch? The one labeled COMPLETELY OBSESSED in the ON position, and UTTERLY DISINTERESTED in the OFF position? That’s my kids. And I’m not planning to parent them entirely by that on-off switch. What I need to do is to keep their intellects active while introducing the idea, over time, that everyone’s got less-than-thrilling things to do, floors to mop, dishwashers to unload, DMV lines to sit in. But the more time they spend in one long DMV line during traditional schooling, the less time they have to keep their passions burning. I’ve watched the fires dwindle to diminished flames, then mere flickers, then cooling embers, before Kathy and I jumped into the process and started frantically fanning those embers. I’d rather not go through that again.

I do know that there is more to a child’s life than standardized tests, and there is more to a child’s life than cinderblock walls and cut-rate food and hurry-up-and-wait. I’ve run across cool spring grass with my daughter as a hot air balloon descended in the field near our house, tiny faces pressed enviously to the windows of the neighborhood elementary school close by. I’ve decided that the aquarium is simply a more fun place to learn about marine ecosystems than a classroom – or even our home – might be, and off we’ve gone. I’ve talked with them at length over lunches that they could relax and eat, rather than try and scarf down their food within a twenty-minute window (minus lining-up time, of course).

These things might be enough for me.

In the end, it’s a world of uncertainty. Our generation was famously reminded that it’s an imperfect world, and that screws fall out. So I have no perfect response for the raised eyebrows and the veiled questions, other than to say that I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do.

But I’m not sure what they’re doing is the right thing, either.

Resolute

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I spent yesterday morning holding the hand of Resiliency in a darkened auditorium. There were tough moments – many of them, in fact – but Resiliency got through them with quiet grace, as she always does. She broke down later, in the car, and got up again; broke down again later, in the restaurant, and got up again. Resiliency knows that these moments are coming, and she’s gotten better about them over the years, and I love her for doing so.

It’s not easy, I’ve learned by watching from afar, to be a twin. Even when the word itself is meaningless, as it is in our family – they’re fraternal, not identical – it’s impossible to shake. They have been described as twins since birth, given the label over and over again, and been acknowledged as such on every sports team, in the getting-to-know-you round of every first day of school, ever. They have been fed this concept of sameness, of mirrored existence, since they left the hospital.

They are not twins to me. They never have been. They are two children born on the same day that share loving parents and a two-story suburban home. They both like black olives, and they both like pedicures, and they both like Doctor Who and Muse and sea salt-caramel gelato and pandas and footrubs. But they are not twins and never will be, and I know that, and they know that. They are as different as night as day, and they each have their own challenges and burdens to bear. Yesterday, I spent the day celebrating the triumphs of one, and supporting the emotions of the other.

H is our 2e daughter. She is our empath, and our joy fountain, and the canary in the emotional coalmine of day-to-day existence. She struggles with dyscalculia and task sequencing every day. Things we take for granted, like glancing at an analog clock, are work for her. Some days numbers don’t come easily for her, and other days they don’t come at all. She must contend every day with this concept of being a ‘twin’ to someone who does not share her challenges. So when she takes her seat next to me in the auditorium, and E walks tentatively to the stage, still learning to navigate open-toed heels, to accept her high-score certificate for the Colorado state EXPLORE test in science, I squeeze her hand.

She squeezes back. It’s not the iron grip of civility under tension. It’s a reassuring squeeze; Dad, I’m OK. 

For many gifted kids, resiliency is bouncing back from a bad game in chess club, or a robotics assignment that refuses to compile, or a crushing snub for the school poetry annual. H’s is a different type of resiliency. She rises every day knowing that math will be no easier today than it was for her yesterday, that it might make sense but probably will not, but that she must try anyway. Dyscalculia never goes away. Superhuman effort grinds it down to the status of an impediment rather than a disability. It is not a condition that rewards such effort, but merely offers a grudging nod of oppositional approval before retreating to its cave for the night. A level of exertion that, for most of us, would produce growth and confidence merely means a day without tears and frustration. As a society, we tend to view resiliency in terms of its role in enabling forward progress in our lives. The narrative of resiliency in our country is that of rising above our challenges, enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune only to surmount them in the olive wreaths of victory. For H, resiliency is fighting numbers and clocks and money – inexhaustible and omnipresent – to a draw, every day, only to rise and try again tomorrow.

I don’t know what that’s like. What I do know is that I have watched her fall over and over again, and I have watched with hope and pride and love as she has risen each time. It is not a resiliency that many gifted parents know, but for those with 2e children, it is every bit as vital and inspirational as any other flavor.

As she stared resolutely forward, genuinely happy for E, I squeezed back – because I love her for her calm resolve, and because she is the bravest person I know.

Water and Time

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Concepts and ideas tend to bang around inside my head once they gain traction on a synapse, and more often they not, they collide in big explosions – sometimes of clarity, sometimes of concern, and sometimes of both. That was the case this past week, when a Monday blog hop on stealth schooling generated a kind comment from a parent who said, “glad your kids have such great resources for learning!” I thanked her, responded to her request for more game ideas, and went about my day, little knowing that the word resources was just waiting to bounce into another synapse.

There wasn’t long to wait. The next night, I was reading and idly listening while Kath watched the TED Talks on education. Presenters from Bill Gates to Ken Robinson discussed the need to provide teachers with feedback, to maintain a conversation surrounding national education policy, to provide every student with an individualized education. Sir Ken was stellar as always, but it was his Death Valley anecdote that brought two disparate synapses together for me. In short, he discussed a rare moment in which it rained in Death Valley, after which the valley bloomed into floral radiance. Death Valley, he explained, was not dead. It was dormant. What it needed were two key resources: water and time. The educational system, and the students within it, he argued, are in the same situation.

And I realized something: these are the most important resources – and I have plenty of the one, but none of the other, to spare in providing my kids with a good education. So, unfortunately, there’s no time to wait.

Water and time make up a sound recipe for plant growth, so long as you’re not concerned with serving a salad tonight. Tonight’s salad needed rain months ago – not rain today, or rain tomorrow, or rain next week. What I began to internalize, as I listened to the TED Talks, was that, collectively, we’re discussing the educational system that’s going to be available for my grandchildren. For my own kids – fourth-graders by age, but enrolled in fifth and doing sixth-grade work – there’s little chance that the system will change in time to do them any good. Today’s children needed rain a decade ago – not a ‘partly cloudy’ forecast for the decade to come.

Although we can discuss our requirements as a society in the abstract, those abstractions come down to very definite and concrete circumstances and ramifications for each of us – and we’ve been hearing all the same conversations since our girls were in preschool. We can’t hope for rain in the desert. We need to carry the water out there ourselves. We’ve got all the water required – from our structured homeschool work to project-based learning and stealth schooling – but no time. We homeschool because we need a workable system right now.

My kids don’t get a do-over on this standardized test-centric boatrace; the philosophy of learning they develop now must carry them through their entire lives. If they learn to live on their heels, waiting for the next snow-shovelful of facts to be served up in anticipation of another Scantron form, if that conceptual set becomes their framework, that’s how they will approach their adult professional development. If they learn to live on their toes…well, let’s just say that K and I both exist in professional worlds where you’d better at least be on your toes, if not in a full-on leap, to stay competitive.

What the TED presenters are talking about is nothing short of a terraforming process. It won’t be livable in my kids’ educational ‘lifetimes,’ and may not be livable in the next. What we’re hoping for, collectively, is a public education system that is a real option for my children’s’ children. But that begins with clarity of educational mission, efficiency of educational funding, and commitment to preparing students for the world outside the school’s doors. At the moment, we have none of these.

Honestly, we don’t even know what we want to be yet. Gates’ talk, on providing a structured system of feedback and professional development for teachers, lined up statistics on which countries currently do so and how they perform on the world stage. The usual suspects were mostly present in the rankings, and the data seemed to correlate nicely, until you take into account that Finland – the oft-cited paragon for alternative schooling success – is one of the countries that does not provide such a system . So who do we want to be when we grow up? Finland, land of empowered individualization? South Korea, land of the ‘goose family?’ China? Iceland, our closest statistical cousin? Without a sense of where we’re going, there’s little sense in reforming anything. Reformation needs direction, and structure – and once again, we have neither. Put simply, if we had charted a viable national course for educational excellence – and we haven’t – it would take at least the better part of a decade for the results to appear. We haven’t so much as begun to sketch a map – in fact, we still seem to believe, at some level, that the existing course is working. (It isn’t.)

Discussing educational policy while my kids are in school is like discussing the finer points of breadmaking while the bread is in the oven. I’m sure there are going to be all kinds of wonderful outputs from the process, but they’re not going to change the finished product in our time. Our choice was a very simple one: wait, and hope, and fund, and promote, a sprinkler system for the desert…or fill watering cans and get to work on our own gardens.

The Gentle Way

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Over the last decade of parenting, I’ve learned at least two truisms about children: they are always hungry, and they are always curious. Those realizations have led to two parallel family decisions for us. Namely, if they’re always going to want to eat (and they do), we should have snacks in the house that we’re OK with, when we don’t have time to prepare something; and if they’re always going to be asking questions, we should make sure they have resources in the house to answer those questions when we don’t have time to have a Socratic conversation on the subject. In the case of the former, we started leaving out bowls of vegetables and fruits, and in the case of the latter, we’ve made a conscious decision to fill our house with interesting ways to learn.

Not interesting ways to teach, mind you, and that’s where our flavor of stealth schooling might be a bit different from others’. I know parents who sneak carrot shreds into meatballs and cauliflower into mac and cheese – but we’ve always shied away from such covert ops with our kids, and when it comes to education, we’re no different. I’m not trying to sneak anything in on them; I’m trying to satisfy their own natural curiosity by letting them use their own energy of inquiry during moments when homeschool isn’t in session. We’re a little less subterfuge, a little more straightforward, not striking from the shadows with concepts and content, but making educational overtures in plain sight. In short, it’s not ninjitsu, but judo – thus the title of this post. (Judo, 柔道, literally translates as ‘the gentle way.’)

One of our favorite tools in this endeavor is the floor book. I don’t know what their technical term is – large format photoessays? – since I know them only from hours spent in my own childhood with books simply too large and unwieldy to peruse on the couch. They were best consumed sprawled out on the floor, turning big, bright page after page as I unconsciously shifted to keep a gridded rectangle of afternoon sunlight on my back. Black holes and deep-sea creatures, tank battles and African biomes, platyhelminthes and Hecatoncheires – I read about them all, mostly to keep myself company during my latchkey evenings waiting for my parents to come home. When our kids were born, we made sure to stock up on plenty of floor books for our home, too – and I’m delighted to report that the kids love them, too. Some of our favorites include From Lucy to Language, The Hammond Atlas of World History, Reef and Rainforest, The Past From Above, The Royal Tombs of Egypt, and Infrastructure. (That last one, by the way, is a huge help in answering the inevitable ‘what is that thing?’ questions on road trips.)

Magazines are another favorite of ours. We subscribe to a ton of them – Mental Floss, The Week, Focus, BBC History, World Archaeology, Pacific Standard, Gramophone – and just leave them around, everywhere. There’s a stack on the coffee table, a handful by the fireplace, a heap in every bathroom in a basket. For moments when they’re not feeling the full floor-book experience, magazines like these (and many others) provide snippets of interesting information, conversation-starting content, and jumping-off points for passion projects, wikis and research works. As a side benefit, a few – like The Week – also provide a solid, bite-sized awareness of current events and the world at large.

It might seem odd, in our era of high technology, that low-tech tools make up such a significant part of our ‘stealth schooling.’ That trend continues with boardgames, a third favorite of ours. I’m a huge fan of learning through games, and games have a great deal to teach – whether it’s world geography (Ticket to Ride) or balancing goals (King of Tokyo) or working together (Forbidden Island). Games engage our kids on all kinds of channels and intensities, and from what I’ve seen, lessons ‘stick’ quite a bit better when they’re delivered while having fun. They’ve even begun to take the initiative to design their own games about subjects they’re interested in; H is building a boardgame based on the evolution of fashion, while E’s going decidedly in the other direction with a game about infectious diseases.

Finally, technophiles can exhale; the iPad is certainly our fourth favorite for ubiquitous learning. App developers are doing some amazing work in the ‘gamification’ of learning content; some apps, like DragonBox, scarcely mention the fact that they’re going to teach you something – they just let you get started, and before you know it, you’re doing algebra. We’ve filled one iPad in our house with nothing but edtech – apps for everything from social studies (Stack the States, GeoBee)  to science (Bobo & Light, G, Exploratorium) to math (DragonBox – as mentioned, the original stealth learning app!), art (Art Authority), and music (Karajan and Noteplex). Yes, there are games, too – the iOS version of Ticket to Ride, Hundreds, Wurdle, and more – but even those are guaranteed to get some sort of substantive content into a gaming session.

However you choose to ‘stealth school,’ we think it’s important to make learning opportunities available everywhere and all the time – because you just never know when a particular idea or fact is going to cross up with a ready, waiting synapse and produce something beautiful. Plus, we’ve got enough ninjas to fight off in our everyday lives, as home renovation bills and career challenges leap out of the shadows. We’re happy to keep learning ninja-free – the gentle way.

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This post is part of the Gifted Homeschoolers’ Forum blog hop series. Visit GHF online here and on Facebook here.

GHFBlogHopMay2013

Here’s the permalink that will include a complete list of all the blog articles that are part of this blog hop on Stealth Schooling:

http://giftedhomeschoolers.org/blogs/blog-hop/

Here are direct links to some of the other articles:

Homeschool Tips: Simple Stealth School – How to Work and Homeschool

Stealth Schooling – Building Wingspan

My Experience with Stealth Schooling – Cedar Life Academy

http://giftedunschooling.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/stealthschooling-and-strewing.html – A Voracious Mind

http://littlestarslearning.blogspot.com/2013/05/stealth-schooling-bait-hook-reel-release.html – Little Stars Learning

http://mommytg.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/stealth-schooling-one-of-reasons-i-love.html – Mommy Bares All

http://theasullivan.com/stealth-schooling-just-dont-call-it-educational/ –  Thea Sullivan

http://wendasheard.wordpress.com/2013/05/05/stealth-schooling-a-tale-of-two-teachers/