Friday, March 18, 2011

What school teaches?

I've been homeschooling some or all of my three children for the last seven years.  Next year at least two of them will be in school again.  Recently I had an unexpected moment to do a very intense brief assessment.  This yielded some expected results, and some deeper memories of my own school experience popping up.  So here it is...
My children have not had a perfect, stress free experience with me as their teacher.  They have not read all of the classics, know all mathematical concepts, completed amazing science experiments weekly in our kitchen, become amazing musicians because they practice for hours and hours.  None of them ever showed great interest in preparing for the big Spelling Bee that often showcase homeschoolers.  Although our family has traveled quite a bit I have never made that cross country or round the world trip that some families make.  My children do not organize everything perfectly, do not always raise their hands in groups with well-thought out questions.  And, my experience as their teacher has often been far from ideal.  So, logically, you should ask at this point...why have you done this?

It's a collection of specific memories, and then the big picture they present.  It's the moment they walked up the stairs of the house Martha Washington stayed in at Valley Forge, pushed open the door to her bedroom and happily exclaimed, "this is her room, just like in the book (they were reading at the time.)  And, it was just the three of them standing there with their mouths open in a kind of awe as they soaked up the moment; not with 20 kids pushing behind them.  It was the many discussions we've shared about something that was happening in the world at the moment, because we have the freedom to learn about it while it is happening.  It was Emma's confidence while being a docent for an archeological dig she had participated in, when she was about 10.  It was the moment that Michael and his teammates won the NYC level of History Day for their Woody Guthrie documentary.  The experience of doing the documentary was one of the more challenging for them and me  (their "teacher") that I've had in my career, but the outcome was wonderful.  It is Margaret's love of Spanish has she works with her tutor, and then goes out and deciphers the conversations on the subway, and her taking on the tech person role during Country Day.  All of this plus much of the same.  And all tied together with who they are in the world.  Things may not always go smoothly in our home school, but how they communicate when they leave my door, what they know about, the fact they have opinions and want to contribute, and don't make fun of others who look, or think, or act differently; that is why I do this.  I don't have to have an assembly to talk about diversity or sensitivity.  I don't need to have a lesson on current events to make sure they know what is going on.  They know who the President is (I've met him).

Go back to my own school days.  Yesterday I made a list in my head about what I learned from my teachers.  Not the facts, although some of them will always be connected to certain subjects.  The question is what did I learn.  This is what I came up with:
K Mrs. Peterhans:  don't do work before you are told to or you will stand in the corner.
1 Mrs. McCollum:  follow the rules
2 Miss Knoblet:  not much of an impression but I remember I wanted my mom to be more involved
3 Can't remember her name, but I remember the wonderful lady down the hall with the exuberant personality and huge love of baseball.
4 Mr. Babich:  he screamed a lot, spanked and belittled Bobby Dorman almost daily and I learned my multiplication table.
5 Mrs. Hiser:   sentence diagramming
6 Can't remember her name but she was the best teacher I had ever had.  She had regular lessons plus taught us some French, and told stories of when she was our age.  She had a large, complicated class and somehow that was ok.  She always spoke loudly and with much energy.  The only time she got upset was when a student stole her wallet with very important photos inside.
7 - 8  Junior High  History class guy loved German (guess what language I studied in college?)  Civics teacher was large, loud, funny and used a game in class to make it more interesting (did I mention my advisor in grad school was a game designer?)  Math teacher was creepy.  Science teachers were young women.  I spoke with one of them last year and she told me she always knew I was an intelligent young woman -- I thought I was invisible.
High School  In general, painful but Mrs. Harbin was tough, charming and her reading list was pretty deep for that little school.  Mr. Macklovic made algebra and trig seem fun; and he discovered that Bobby Dorman was a math genius (remember 4th grade?).  Unfortunately I don't think he graduated from high school.  Mr. Anderson (speech) was creepy and manipulative.  Guess what?  He became the Superintendent and the financials have never been the same.  Mr. Nelson for Chemistry and Physics:  announced that women wouldn't make good scientists (but he did teach me to drive during drivers' training).  Biology teacher, he stared out the window while giving lectures that he had written word-for-word in his notebook.  Turns out his wife was dying and he was deeply depressed.  I really love Biology despite this.  And, Mr. Dillabough who was just beginning his teaching career.  He was tough, cynical and asked everyone questions so there was no hiding.  I call him now to go through kids' names before I give my scholarships.  Thank goodness he finally got married and hasn't changed much from that first year.  Still cynical, tough and absolutely loves asking everyone in the class questions.

During my school years there were teachers who did and didn't teach me things that were valuable.  Sometimes it wasn't what they were setting out to do.  I think of why I took Michael and Emma out of elementary school, and some of the classroom experiences Michael has had since he went back to high school.  I wonder what their list will look like?  Or if it will be important enough for them to make one.

It's not just about what's in the books.

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