Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why Hack-Schooling Isn't The Answer For Us

I spent my morning at a knee-high table with first-graders decked out in gold chains and rainbow loom ephemera, silver teeth and brand new high tops. I spend most Monday mornings this way, helping them sort laminated picture cards according to letter sound.

Learning the difference between long A and short A is tricky enough on its own merit, but add to the mix the fact that for most of your life, the letter A actually makes the sound of short O. I = long E. Etc... Imagine that you, a first-grader, know more English than anyone else in your home. Now what?

I'm baffled by the way they piece together an entirely new language when they still need help tying their shoes. I don't really understand why a gifted teacher would shoulder this additional challenge when a room-full of kids like my first-grader, steadily learning their letter sounds since forever, would be challenging enough.

Eduardo holds a picture of a skirt, "What is this?" I press him to guess, and he comes up with "dress". So I point to the girl sitting beside him, fortuitously wearing a glittered skirt, and we talk about why it's different than a dress. He totally gets it. Except, "I only know that word in Spanish." 

These kids are bright and rascally and shy and determined. They're the full-spectrum of the characteristics of any first-grade class in America.

This is Ruby's first-grade class.
It's making me weepy right now just thinking about it.

Back when my concept of a low-income school was based solely on the fear-laced narrative of the media and others, like me, knowing next to nothing about this sort of thing, the idea of sending my kids to a school where over half their class did not speak English as their first language sank a stone in my stomach.

It's not as though I spent much time at all contemplating this scenario, and it was always theoretical and hazy, but when it did come to mind, I simply knew my kids deserved more. I believed their potential would be short-changed. I wanted the best for them - the best facilities, the best test scores, the best programming. I wanted them to learn in a classroom with kids who were right on track with them, in every possible way. It seemed only logical that kids trying to learn English while they also learned everything else would be a distraction at best, a handicap at worst. But bless their hearts all the same.

Just so you know, I'm ashamed to admit these things.

I'm a woman with so much cultural love. I've never been close to being prejudiced, or that's what I used to think. I wanted all the kids to get a fair and sturdy education, but my priority was my kids and it seemed their best shot would be at a whole-wheat, Sunday-best, middle-class, front-page, thriving elementary school.

I told myself it wasn't my fault that not everyone had access to what we have. It would be a waste to not take advantage of what was offered. Simply put, I saw absolutely no responsibility to try to fix anything, or even to be involved. In fact, I ran from the problem and pretended it wasn't mine.

The past 18 months have been an invitation to move out of our comfort zone, into a new environment that used to scare me. Way down to the wire, I was second-guessing our decision, digging for an out beneath everything I was finally starting to see. With every arched eyebrow and every slow shaking head around us, I defaulted to retreat. It seemed so much safer to stick with what we knew.

It's stunning and humbling to realize how wrong I was.
The backwardness of my rationale is embarrassing.

In truth, the unique fabric of our public school creates a dynamic that could, at times, pose what some might consider a distraction to a portion of the population. But regardless of the socio-economic or cultural breakdown of any school, there are necessary adjustments and inevitable modifications. No matter how homogeneous a learning environment, kids are not cranked out of a copy machine, pre-stapled and collated.

Not only are my kids receiving a quality education by adults who care for and push them, they're gaining a cultural awareness that I never knew we needed. They're recognizing their place in the world and discovering what they have to contribute. It's a beautiful thing.

Saturday night I watched the now-famous TED Talk, given by an intelligent and engaging 13-year old, Logan LaPlante, who is "hack-schooled" (think home-school with a de-emphasis on "home"). The picture he painted of entire days spent learning to survive in the wild and tweaking, or "hacking" all other facets of his education to suit his interests, was idyllic and inspiring. I went to bed that night feeling a bit blue at the edges, like maybe my kids are missing out on something, something I'm probably even equipped to provide.

The problem is, I'm starting to wonder if we're not missing the boat when we place such high premiums on educational success, or even creativity. I don't doubt for a minute that Calvin would rather be traipsing through the woods, whittling spears and tracking imaginary predators than memorizing math facts. But I know he was created for community and this is it. I know he was made for ministry. We all were. Right now, his ministry includes being picked last on the soccer team but continuing to turn out every day in spite of it. It's struggling through math while his peers whiz past. It's noticing the humor of his friend and thinking nothing of the fact that this friend is repeating 3rd grade. His ministry, today, is being his own little person, offering all that he is to the community around him, adding value to this haphazard body of students by simply being a part of it.

Our end-game is no longer high test scores, and eventual attendance at "top" Universities where they'll funnel into profitable or at least noble professions. Of course I want my brainy kids to realize their potential. I suffered a real sort of agony when Calvin struggled through math last year. I paid for tutors and made it my job in life to help him figure it out. I value the education of my kids and everyone else's, including the ones whose parents show up at a school program in April having no idea who their child's teacher is. I'm learning the simple explanations for educational achievement and parental involvement don't really exist, and to pretend otherwise is plainly wrong.

It can be tempting to elevate things that are only available or attainable for a select few. We need to do our part to advocate for accessible, quality education for all the kids. Sometimes, we may even need to hop into the trenches.

I'm all for instilling a love of learning, but which kind of learning do we value most? Is our child's "happiness" more important than anyone else's?  What do we really gain by sectioning ourselves off and closing ranks? More importantly, what stands to be lost?

Our family happens to be on a steep and rocky path of learning to place prime value on different things, things like humanity, community, being compassionate and supportive citizens of the world. These values are simply easier to learn and practice by throwing ourselves into opportunity. We're not trying to out-sacrifice anyone and we're not even close to being martyrs. To our surprise, this shift in the education of the Wee Martins has been a true bright spot, a point of clarity in a year filled with questions. We're learning to love being proven wrong.

As Nicole Baker Fulgham states in her slam-dunk treatise on public education, Educating All God's Children*, "As Christians, we are called to fix broken systems and restore what has been lost or been allowed to decay." We can all agree that there's work to be done and plenty of fixing on deck when it comes to achieving quality education for everyone. Whether we public-school, home-school, or hack-school, no matter our preference or calling, we aren't afforded the opportunity to sit this one out.

Meet me back here tomorrow and we'll talk more about that call to fix and restore, and what we can actually do along the way.

*This is an Amazon link. But seriously, you need to read the book.