I started teaching by doing art classes for kids in college. After grad school I taught in Philadelphia, then in Turkey, Iowa, Indiana and Massachusetts. I’ve taught everything from art to science and a million things in-between. Until recently, (and except for teaching for the Turkish mafia at that one school…) I’ve always been in progressive education. I believe in progressive education because it’s hands-on, experiential, project based and above all else, student led. There is nothing like sitting with a class and asking them what they want to learn then boiling it down to a curriculum. For close to 25 years I have passionately followed my students on crazy academic adventures while touting the importance of making learners not memorizers. I’ve been watching light-bulb moments from surprising sources for my entire career and it has fed me.
Twice in my life I’ve ventured into public education, never lasting more than a couple years at best because public education is so very different than those places I’ve taught and it’s frustrating. Public education in the US is broken but tradition is strong and we’re all scared to change it. I was scared to change it. My own kids went through public education and we did ok for a while but this year, even before the world exploded and sent us all into our foxholes for home learning, I sensed my boys losing their light.
Nugget is in special education. Between being Hard of Hearing, ADHD (as hell!) and in need of occupational and speech therapies, he’s also very young for his grade so he needed that nudge that comes from special education. He wasn’t a huge fan of school but he did well for a few years, until first grade stole his light. When he couldn’t stay focused or keep up with the math, he was left to falter. He sunk into a hole whose sides were made of self-loathing, low confidence and a hatred of school. Thankfully, that’s about when Covid hit and I got a front seat to his situation.
Likewise, my 6th grader was miserable. “Mom, it’s just so boring. Why do they just talk about things but never let us do it?” If I were not literally in his classes for my own job I would assume he was exaggerating but he wasn’t. I saw it every day myself. He was earning High Honors without doing homework or needing any help at home. Now, he’s no dummy but he’s also no boy genius. He simply wasn’t challenged, and it was killing him. He was bored and resentful.
I knew these things but like most of society, I wasn’t sure what to do. I’d always dreamed of homeschooling Nugget but finances didn’t allow for it. I knew his learning style wasn’t conductive to standard public-school methodology but what could I do until we could find a way for me to stay home? Plus, my view of homeschooling was very tainted by the anti-Darwin, militant Christian homeschoolers I’d met in Indiana. I didn’t want to be lumped into that.
We got Number 1 into a new charter school for the following year but in my gut I wasn’t sure that was the right move either. I waited anxiously all summer as the public turned on teachers, calling us everything from lazy union hacks to ungrateful slackers. (Hey? Weren’t you all just calling us heroes a few months ago when you got stuck teaching your own children and realized what buttheads they are? Whatevs.) I Zoomed into school committee and union negotiation meetings (while sucking back medicinal boxed wine) hoping, as the Quakers say, a way forward would open. But it didn’t and the union is still fighting valiantly.
Early on in this whole Covid mess, the Massachusetts head of education gave an empowering address about how this is the time to look at how we do things. This was the time for us to get progressive and make changes. My heart leapt as I screamed, “Hell yes!” startling my kids and cat. This was what I had been preaching for 20+ years. But now this is the same man who demands teachers sit in their classrooms to remotely address students because teachers should not be trusted to work from home. (Though we did it successfully for months prior.) It seemed that even in times as unprecedented as this and in a state as progressive as mine, the comfort of tradition paralyzes.
About a month ago, my husband, the Turk, and I were sipping cocktails in the treehouse and it all hit. “I can’t do this.” I said.
“I can’t put the kids through this school mess. Nugget reads lips. He can’t read lips if everyone’s in a mask so it will be worse than last year and Number 1 is miserable. There is a better way to educate kids than this. I don’t want to do it like this for them.”
My dear husband simply said, “Don’t.”
“But what about money?”
“Honey, we have no money in Turkey and we make it. We have no money in Philadelphia and we make it. We always figure out. Now is for kids. We make it.”
Within days I devoured a million articles and books about homeschooling and soon found that there were very limited anti-Darwin militant Christian homeschoolers here in New England, but lots of hippies(and former teachers) like me that didn’t believe in the system anymore. I cheered along to podcasts about creating learners instead of memorizers as I went on my walks (I looked like a nutjob but I was moved.) and was empowered to rewrite my children’s education path and homeschool for the next year.
So Mrs. O is trading in her title. The boys helped create our curriculum and we managed to find a way to spend most of the first month at the beach doing everything from reading currents to analyzing bryozoans. (When mom taught science and dad is a water engineer, we go hard in the science zone.) We’re all excited about this new page and I’m proud of myself for putting my money where my mouth is and taking this philosophical plunge. The Quakers were right, a way forward did appear, just not where I was watching.
As is always the case with us, we never know what’s next so stay tuned because it’s bound to be interesting!