“An elephant sat on you…”

by Yule Heibel on October 4, 2003

Because of BloggerCon (which I’m not attending), I found AKMA’s link to Jeneane Sessum‘s post about school blues. I wrote this long comment, only to find out that her comment box has a size limit — which I exceeded times 3. Oh well, my verbose bad. I posted an abbreviated version on her site, but here’s the full version. This is such an important topic for me — it’s literally changed my life and everything I thought it would be, too. For any parents dealing with bright kids whose needs aren’t being met by the “system,” this is a snapshot of our journey thus far, via the untruncated comment I would have posted on Jeneane’s site:

Hi Jeneane, I just found your post through AKMA, who’s blogging the conference in Cambridge where they just had a panel on education. I really feel for you. I can’t tell you how “down” I am on the factory school, not least for all the reasons that you describe in your exchanges with the administrators. My experience was this: before children, gung-ho leftwing support of public schools; then I had a kid. Checked out the public school Kindergarten that was available to us when he was in preschool — and nearly dropped dead. Opted for a very funky private school that had ditched the factory school model. It was a 1-room schoolhouse, 70 kids, K-8, working in groups according to ability, not age cut-offs. This worked well for a while, except that we didn’t realize that the headmistress was unbalanced and literally abusing the children. When child #2 (a daughter) came along, she too went through Montessori preschool, then went to Kindergarten at said private school. By this time, #1 (son) was entering 3rd grade. At the end of that schoolyear, however, it was clear that even this school was not working for us — primarily because of the headmistresses’ problems — and we pulled both kids out and began homeschooling. We had the kids professionally tested, just to get a baseline on what we were dealing with, too. Both of them are way out there in terms of ability, but every private and public school we turned to in that year of crisis thought of them in terms of age. But testing showed that when my daughter was 7, her mental age was 27, for example. The fact is that you could be up against teachers and administrators who simply are dumber than your kid ever was, regardless of her physical age. That’s a fact, and that’s something to consider. A child with exceptional abilities comes along at a rate of 1:100,000, for eg. Profound abilities happen 1:1,000,000. How many years does a teacher have to teach, if s/he has 30-40 kids in her elementary class each year, to hit 100K and maybe run across your daughter? The point is, your daughter isn’t the only one who is forgetting. Say the teacher started out exceptionally bright, endowed with a wonderful ability to teach. After kid #3,000 — not to mention 30,000 — she is just going to forget how to teach to the exception. The entire structure, the entire bureaucracy of schooling, will have seen to that. There is no room in the system for teaching to exception, which is why there is such a thing as dumbing down and teaching to the lowest common denominator. She also doesn’t have time to teach to the exception, because there are too many “typical” kids demanding her attention. And she’s overburdened because parents use the system for custodial purposes while they go earn a living, and the teacher has to deal with all the social problems that get dumped in her homeroom. Private schools aren’t much better, except that the parents have more money. Anyway, I rant. I really don’t know how to fix the system — except maybe by moving to smaller schools, pop. under 100 — but I can’t tell parents to keep sacrificing their kids to this moloch, just because it was once an important social glue. After 2 years of homeschooling in Massachusetts, we moved back to Canada, to Victoria, BC, in June 2002. Last year we basically continued in our muddled ad hoc manner of homeschooling, but we made a start in getting to know about distance ed in BC. Our province has 9 Ministry of Education approved distance ed schools, and Victoria happens ot have one of the best (called “South Island Distance Education School”) — it’s administered by two very bright individuals who can see beyond the stupid, useless “age cut off” crap. My 12 year old son is now doing a 12th grade social studies course and 8th grade math, and will be doing 10th grade English & 10th grade German by November. My 9 year old daughter is doing 7th grade math & 8th grade socials, and will start on her 10th gr. English & German in November. Both of them also have an 8th grade science course to do. It feels odd, as homeschoolers, to be doing more “school at home,” but unlike your 6 year old, they are at a physical level of maturity where formal courses and independent work for longer periods of time are getting really easy for them. The distance model has graders, teachers, and feedback, and it’s taking some of the heat off me. Interestingly, it’s also officially a public school. My “career” is still a ruin — and will never again be that of an academic, ’cause I’m so far out of the loop now — but I do see more time opening up for me. Ask me again in a few years how I feel about having “sacrificed” quite a bit of self-realization to making sure that my kids didn’t get destroyed by a system that couldn’t meet their needs. Maybe I’ll be really burned out or bitter, or maybe it will have forced me to find some kind of creative alternative to living my life/ figuring out how to generate an income, and will have been a fruitful experience for all concerned. Maybe it’s teaching me how to live, even as I let go of striving to be (as in “be an academic,” “be a professor,” “be a success”). I’d love to learn how to live, off the hamster wheel, that is. So ask me again later, but for now — as someone in their 4th year of homeschooling — I can say that it mostly feels ok not to have them in school. It feels ok that they can have conversations with adults and with children; it feels ok that they know what’s going on in the world; it feels ok that they’re not concerned about having the right fashion-of-the-moment, or feel crummy about being too fat or too skinny or too this or too that; it feels good that they can talk to a range of people of all ages during their day, not just to kids their own age, and the limitations that implies; and it feels good that they like their “school work” and that it challenges them. I have absolutely no solutions for the parents who need the custodial aspect of school so that they can go to work. That’s the biggest problem. But it sounds like you have an exceptionally bright kid, and even if you get the system to move her to grade one (it’s so infuriating that they would even hesitate a moment to move her — who do they think they are??), grade one work is also going to bore her to tears. Here’s the elephant analogy: if you feed an elephant one leaf at a time, the elephant will starve to death before it even realizes that it’s being fed. That’s what you’re dealing with when it comes to your child (the elephant) and the education system (feeding her one leaf at a time).

A few years ago, I thought of it this way. No one in any kind of “advanced” work still labours according to Fordist or Taylorist rules, but our schools still work that way: cut the kids up according to age, teach them according to subject, just like a conveyor belt in a factory. Math teacher works on the math part of the kid, English teacher works on the English part of the kid, and so on and so forth. It’s absurd. We need 21st century schools, not a continuation of crummy late 19th/ early 20th century assembly line education. Another thing: there is nothing quite like having a kid who doesn’t fit to make you remember all the things you conveniently forgot about your own school experiences. PS: title is a nod to Canadian songwriter Raffi. 😉


Jeneane October 5, 2003 at 11:10 am

Hello and THANK YOU! You have given me much food for thought. Also, I didn’t know my comment box had a size limit–i think someone told me that once, but I have no idea how to fix that. I am so glad you salvaged your informative comment and posted it. I truly admire home schoolers–every home school child I’ve met has this era of calm and security around them that I’m beginning to think formal school drums out of them. I hope I’m wrong. Tomorrow is our meeting with the principal. arrrrgh!

Yule Heibel October 5, 2003 at 2:41 pm

Good luck with your meeting — and I hope it works out. I’m glad we’ve got the distance ed. option now, w/ support. It helps! I just posted another comment on your blog, partly in response to Trevor. (I would have posted it last night, but it took me a while to whittle it down to the allowed 2500 characters!) Personally, I still look on homeschooling as this changeling that suddenly dropped into my life — whaa!, where did that come from?, help! — but the factory school isn’t an option. I’m not dissing individual teachers who are knocking themselves out to help kids. I think it’s a systemic problem, and I don’t think that solutions worked out at the university level within education departments or at the state or provincial adminstrative level necessarily help, either. Seriously, if education were a progressive business corporation, it would be bringing its workers to the table to get their input. Within education, that would mean bringing the students on board, at every age. …Revolution now!, again.

Betsy Burke October 6, 2003 at 2:51 pm

I’ve got to continue this topic on my blog. My daughter’s 4 and is desperate not to go to school, which starts at 3 here in Italy. To my knowledge, there’s no homeschooling alternative, but I could be wrong.

Yule Heibel October 7, 2003 at 12:41 am

Betsy, I want to follow up with a comment on your blog, but will have to do so tomorrow. (Despite going on in Jeneane’s comment box about how pathologically lazy I am, I actually haven’t had a minute’s respite today…. blah, what a day, again.) Anyway, from the brief checking I did, I got the impression that school isn’t compulsory until age 6 in Italy, so you could keep her home. But then you wouldn’t have time to work…. It’s ironic, at any rate, that the country that produced Maria Montessori — and the Reggio Emilia model — should let you down so badly in pre-school education. But then Germany produced Kindergarten, and it’s as factory-schooled as any place now.

Hey, come to live in Victoria again, for about 8 months of the year (for winter you can go to Florence), and have Sara do S.I.D.E.S. here — Uncle David & Auntie Katie could make themselves useful as ad hoc teachers maybe? Your mom could come out of retirement? 😉 Heh-heh, just a thought!

Stu Savory October 7, 2003 at 7:05 am

I would be interested in hearing your feedback on her Montessori experiences, Yule.


Yule Heibel October 9, 2003 at 12:26 am

Hi Stu, do you mean my daughter’s Montessori experience? It was mixed. First, let me say that our first-born, our son, went to preschool for as little as possible, in part because I was still teaching a lot — visiting, adjunct, etc. — at MIT & Brown, and we employed au pairs (from Germany, because we wanted Adam to be bilingual). He didn’t do Montessori, which in our towns always seemed to demand quite a lot of attendance by the child (3 full days minimum at age 3, and 5 days thereafter). Kindergarten at the funky school was 8a.m.-3p.m. daily, plus homework, which was draconian, actually, particularly after preschool that was a maximum of 9 hours per week. Emma’s experience was different. She went to Montessori because we weren’t using au pairs much anymore by the time she was old enough to attend preschool. Having her in preschool for longer periods than Adam ever went seemed necessary, primarily so I could get some work done. (There’s that custodial aspect again.) The first year (she was 3) was ok; by the 2nd year it was clear that it wasn’t working. Montessori (in our town) had a regimentation that just didn’t work for her. She was cowed by the injunctions relating to the stages, to when she would be allowed to touch the “work” of the kindergarten classes vs. the work she was “allowed” to explore as a 4-year-old. She got the impression that a whole library was out of bounds for her. (We spoke to her teacher, and it turned out that she could use those books, but it was her impression that they “belonged” to the Kindergarten group. That is, she was fully internalizing these odd rules that didn’t work for her….) Montessori (at least on the North Shore of Boston) had a “slot” mentality that didn’t work for Emma at all. By the time she finished her 2nd year there (she had just turned 5) we were glad that she could move on to the bigger Kindergarten at the funky school. Which turned into a disaster, though, because of the headmistress and because their only way of dealing with an “able” youngster was to pile on more work. That’s one of the worst things that the able learn, by the way: you’re highly capable, so you’ll get twice as much work to do, lucky you!! Not.

Overall opinion? Two kids, very different from one another; one didn’t and one did go to Montessori. One wasn’t harmed in any way by not going; one was starting to be harmed by the rules developed in the Montessori system.

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