Archive for February 20th, 2014

Book Learning


When we first got married there was little to argue or think about: the children were going to be homeschooled. That homeschooling was superior to the other options was just self-evident. Public schools were toxic, Catholic ones not much better, and after all, weren’t my friends’ homeschooled children impressive? Articulate, comfortable with adults, as well as with children outside their immediate peer group, precocious and well-read.

The older ones, anyway. It eventually began to occur to me that the younger ones, at least in larger families, while also at ease around adults and children of various ages, were not nearly such prodigies; that some indeed were semi-literate at ten and eleven.

Then, of course, we tried it.

Our children never liked it, always envied their friends who went to school (and their friends, of course, envied them, staying home), and were reluctant learners, lazy even.

Maybe this was rooted in the fact that most of my homeschooling friends either lived in the country or surrounded by other homeschoolers. Or maybe that most of them had more resources, could afford private music and dance lessons and the like, and we were limited to what was offered at the public library. Or maybe we are just unsuited to the task, I don’t know.

So we eventually sent our kids, some of them anyway, to the local Catholic school. While the kindergarten was always pretty wonderful, and the teacher gifted, later grades were not such good experiences. The principal was great, but even when our kids had good teachers, the atmosphere left a lot to be desired. Catholic schools have changed a lot since I was a child. In those days tuition was so cheap that any working class family could afford it, and while I was aware of a couple kids who were “rich” it was not a big deal; there weren’t enough of them to form a clique.

Today, of course, teaching sisters are few, and lay teachers require more than room and board. Even though their salaries are low, this drives the cost of tuition up enough that only working class parents who receive financial help from the parish can afford it. So you end up with a Catholic school located in a working class neighborhood, like ours, with few children from that neighborhood in the school: most of the students come from the more affluent area to the north.

And this results in a harsh social environment for less affluent children, with lots of snobbishness and bullying.

So one by one our children have been sent to the local public schools. With Michael, our ornery but gifted eight year old, this has been wonderful: his teacher in the Catholic school did not get him at all and he absolutely hated going to school. It was sad: every morning he would hang his head and drag his feet as he set off around the corner to school. In his small public school his teacher, while strict, delights in him, and as a result he looks forward to school every day, loves his teacher and wants to please her. He is doing well, and often reads to his little brothers in the evenings.

The Middle School, on the other hand, is a disaster, and Maria, who is eleven going on sixteen, is being homeschooled rather than being sent to that wasteland. Her older brother Joseph started at home this year but was so uncooperative that we ended up sending him there, only because there is no alternative.

Patric, who is sixteen, has been attending the local high school, which is slightly better academically, but he has never been happy there. He is a bright lad with an inquisitive mind, and there is little there to nurture him intellectually. His grades are fine, but he has been asking us for some time to let him drop out and finish in the district-approved online school. We have been reluctant to do this, favoring human interaction to staring at a screen, but recently the human interaction he has been in fact encountering has convinced us otherwise.

To whit: one of the disappointments in the school system here is a lack of written assignments. I don’t remember a single composition being assigned in the two and a half years he has been at the high school.

Until a few months ago.

He was assigned, in an English class, to write a narrative composition. He showed it to me when it was finished, and though the kid has hardly any experience writing it was very impressive, a tale of a suspenseful hunt with an unforeseen twist at the end. I was pretty excited about it, and assumed that his teacher would praise it for the fine piece of writing that it is, and encourage him to write more.

Wrong. Months went by with no feedback. Finally, at the end of the semester he received his composition back. He got a good grade, but there was not much commentary at all, and no personal conversation.

I can hardly fathom this; when I was in high school I never wrote anything without a quick response, with criticism and praise, as the piece warranted. And if I wrote something that was at all good my teachers’ excitement was palpable.

I began to see that independent study could be the best thing for my son.

With this caveat: I am going to assign him additional readings, as well as written assignments.

Which led to some soul-searching about just what I thought important for him to learn that he was not likely to encounter on his own. After some thought, I ordered the following books, which have been pivotal for me, and which offer an understanding of the world that is not readily available in conventional school:

Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel, about the forces that led to European colonialism, which is essential for understanding the world we in which we live.

Wendell Berry: The Unsettling of America,  which analyzes the collapse of small town and rural America.

Neil Postman: Technopoly, the best book on technological dominance in the modern world.

I have not read these books myself for a good while, and hope to read them with my son. It is far from an exhaustive list, but a good start. I am open to suggestions for further reading, especially on science, where I am weak.

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