Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Six-Week Recovery Plan.

When I was a kid in elementary school back east in the early 70s, we were part of an educational experiment that was testing innovative design in the classroom setting. The physical space of the school consisted of a large square, with a so-called "pod" in every corner. Each pod was a very large, square room without interior walls, with four "classrooms," one in each corner of the pod. You could look over across the way and see what any other teacher was doing with his or her kids at any time. The open design was supposed to encourage the free-flow of information and imagination, was supposed to be a way to ensure that interactive learning occurred. Each of the four open pods was named after an area in Disneyland (although I didn't realize this at the time, having never been to Disney). The little kids had Fantasyland; the next grades were in the Frontierland pod; the third-fourth graders in Adventureland; the fourth-fifth graders in Tomorrowland.

I remember that it was very loud.

That's about the extent of innovation in my early learning experience. By seventh grade, I was attending a post-war-era middle school, with traditional classrooms whose heavy, wooden doors lined up along maze-like corridors. All very civilized, if predictable. But, then again, I'm the type of person who prefers her windows open and her doors shut.

When I became an educator myself, I was trained in and sought out all sorts of alternative classroom practices, based mainly on student-centered learning philosophies, where my role as professor was understood as "coach" or "facilitator," rather than the egghead autocrat permanently ensconced at the podium. Some of those pedagogies worked better than others, but the days when the student passively notated while the professor droned on at the front of the room were well over. Student evaluations, if nothing else, saw to that.

My daughter is now a preschooler at a Montessori school. I'm familiar enough with several of the alternative European models of early-childhood educational philosophies--Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia--that emphasize child-centered learning, but I am no expert in the practice of early childhood education. And, although I'm probably going to inflame someone's ire for saying it, I'm not sure I'm the definitive expert on All Things Daughter. I know it's popular to claim that no one else knows your kid like you do, as Her Mother, but, ya know, I don't diagnose my daughter's health conditions. A medical professional does. I don't teach her to walk across a high beam or play the piano; I pay experts who can help her do these things. So, why would I think I can teach her (despite the evidence that I am, in fact, a trained teacher)?

I guess I'm just wary of the ways we've devalued education in our culture, partly by refusing to recognize it as a very specialized area of study. Which is, of course, why women are by and large the elementary educators in this country. We don't pay much to those whom we think of as as qualified as the next guy.

Yet, my daughter has been out of school for a month now, recovering from a major surgery, and she misses her "work." So, despite my long-standing reservations on this subject, I decided we should undertake a period of homeschoo---, uh, no. Not that. Let's call it something--anything--else. Homelearning. Homeworking. Homeclass. You get the idea. In point of fact, it's only six weeks, so I am thankfully off the hook about having to justify, or even identify, what it is to anyone else.

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So, she and I have been working at home. We have a workbook that teaches letters and numbers and concepts such as "less" and "more" and covers some other abstract thinking. She adores her workbook, begs me to do more and more pages with her. I also converted an area of our living room into an "art center" where she can have easy access to her paints and papers and easel and fabric and thread. We've been learning embroidery with a large dull needle and a square of burlap and a large hoop. We are sewing a little bit, drawing with fabric markers on muslin and then sewing the edges round and stuffing it to make a pillow critter. We joined a "young musicians" class at the local conservatory and have incorporated music and rhythm and movement into our days working at the table in the art center. We have been taking family field trips--to the aquarium; to the low desert; to Disneyland; to Dodger Stadium; to see A Midsummer Night's Dream at the local Shakespeare in the Park event (that's tomorrow night, actually). She's been making ice cream in the new machine (which we gave Daddy for Father's Day) every night.

It feels good to be able to offer her some sort of alternative to what she's missing at school, although I can't simulate her friends for her. But I have to say I'm exhausted. And that bothersome muse keeps knocking at my door, without receiving any satisfaction.


  1. Ha! At least the muse is still knocking. Maybe you should invite her in for ice cream.

  2. One: I think I had one of those pod classrooms once! In third and fourth grade. I'd forgotten.

    Two: Teaching is definitely a skill, and not everyone is good at it, although I bet you are.

    Three: Based on your curriculum: Home Ec?

  3. Margaret, My Home Ec teacher--whose name was Mary Christmas, by the way--would be rolling over in her grave. We've definitely been heavy on the ice cream making around here, lately.

  4. Once again, your photographs are lovely.

    For a few years, I was part of an experimental program where some grade school kids were taken out of regular class, given all sorts of cool tools, and basically left to teach themselves. I loved it, though being a lazy sort, I didn't become the creative genius they had hoped.

  5. I was in one of those experimental classrooms in 3rd grade. That's why I ended up in Lutheran prep school. I'm not sure which was worse.

    I hear ya on the homeschool, er homelearning. Little Bit isn't in preschool yet and I'm starting to feel overwhelmed.

  6. If you can grab 18 minutes, here's a video that may make you feel better about that muse. It's Elizabeth Gilbert doing one of the TED talks.

    I went to a laboratory school from kindergarten through ninth grade. Every experimental method was thrown at us and by the time we joined the "regular" kids in high school we were years ahead of them. By the time high school was over we were all at the same level again.

    But it's interesting to see how many in this group (read: all, so far) had some kind of non-traditional schooling.

    Oh, my WV is "biddlyroo." I like it very much, thanks.

  7. P is right; isn't that weird?

  8. Do you know, we even got to grade ourselves? And being lazy BUT dishonest, you can imagine what I always ended up with.

  9. I have the same thoughts. I believe in public education, and I do believe the professionals can do a better job than I can. But I have a child who learns differently, and I don't quite know what to do about that.

    I went to an open-concept high school. You can imagine how loud that was. We all fell behind. I had to catch up when I went to college.

  10. The first semester of my seventh grade year they divided us into three groups: one all boys, one all girls, one mixed. Guess which group's grades were the lowest because they were hardest to control. The girls. And oh, I was so mad I was in the mixed group. Those girls were having a blast.

  11. Major surgery? how scary. Glad to hear she's on the mend and getting crafty.

    Experimental Education?

    They always put me in the idiot classes with all the other losers. Spent my remaining high school years in a basement under a sewing factory somewhere on upper Lake. We punched in with time cards. Afterwards, we'd be given "out of date" text books from our instructor through a window made of bullet proof glass. It was an education of sorts.

  12. Personally, I think you're doing a heck of a job. But that's just me...

    As a quondam teacher, I think we have a "problem" with teaching and learning. When you really think about it, for something like 99.6% of human history, we learned from our parents, our grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, the farmer guy in the next field...and we did that mostly by observing and doing. So the child-centered learning models are a pretty good idea; they go a long way towards re-creating how lots of humans learn, by imitation, by trial-and-error and guided experimentation.

    So when you think of it, a good model for a teacher isn't a "professional" like a doctor or lawyer but a "craftsperson", a glassblower, carpenter or blacksmith. Each child is a different metal, a different finished-object-in-waiting; some curvy, some straight, some malleable, some brittle, some all of the above. And the good teacher, like the good crafter, looks, listens and feels for the true metal, the carving within the raw timber, and helps him or her learn where the sound spots are, where is the rust, how to grow over the burn scars...

    But in our industrial and professional society the idea that teaching is a craft, something that you learn by watching and doing, something that requires an inner gift and a long apprenticeship...well, that just can't BE! Nope, it's a Profession, and all you have to do is go to the Right School and pass the Right Courses and do the right Student Teaching.

    Any wonder so many "teachers" throw in the towel before their third or fourth year?