Sunday, November 18, 2007

An Unschooler in School - Part III

"Isn't the important thing that I enjoy the material and am interested in it? Isn't that more important than being able to write out the information on a test?"

This is the question that got uttered in frustration, after getting a not-so-good grade on a history test. History happens to be Brady's favorite class. He enjoys history, always has. He read lots of historical fiction as an unschooler, took an interest in genealogy, and enjoyed his National Geographic Kids magazine for many years. But now, he's expected to regurgitate what he learns onto a 5-page test, in the form of multiple-choice, matching, short answer, essays, and map labels.

He feared algebra with a vengeance. How much did he fear it? So much that this always-radically-unschooled child asked to do it during the run-up to school days. He's getting an A.

He feared Biology. He doesn't enjoy biology. "It's not interesting," he'll say. He does very well in biology. He's getting an A in biology.

So how could it be that the class he enjoys most, in which he engages in discussions, asks questions afterward, and comes home with stories to share, is the one he gets the worst grade in? I wondered if I came across as antagonistic when I said as much in the first 13 seconds of the parent-teacher conference with the history instructor. I spoke of the irony, which for a co-dependent soul could be misread as a veiled criticism. It honestly wasn't meant to be.

"That's an unschooling perspective," I replied to his lament. "You're in school now. It's different there."

It's not about what he likes, is good at, desires or seeks out. It's about what the school deems as necessary to meet their criteria, which is in turn deemed necessary to meet the criteria for acceptance to college. I guess.

During a particularly bad weekend, when he was feeling particularly low, I had to remind him that he is far - FAR - more than his history test grade. He is SO much more. That is one tiny little inconsequential thing and by no means does it define him. But I was angry that one tiny little inconsequential thing has that sort of power, to make him feel so badly about himself.

There are so many amazing things that his school may never know about him.

He builds computers from scratch, but they don't have a class for that. He plays guitar, but they don't have any opportunities for guitar players. He can fix all sorts of things, but they don't have shop class. He knows how to design video games, but online gaming is forbidden on their school-required laptops. He can create computer-programmed robots from legos, but no one plays with toys in school. He knows how to program computers, but that doesn't count toward his grade.

I could go on. It's a bit frustrating.

However, he did come home quite chipper with some news on Friday. His history teacher has his own website and uses it to create study games and tool his students can access from home. One tool was a Jeopardy-like game, a template he used from a website. Brady saw how it could be better, could be programmed from scratch so it would play music and tally the scores and be adapted to the teacher's needs. So he offered to create it for him.

He said the teacher seemed a little skeptical at first, skeptical as in, "Well, it's not necessary, but if you really want to...." and Brady came home and had it almost completely finished within a couple hours. He was excited about it. He was focused. He worked steadily, sought support when needed, worked by trial-and-error and networked with online friends who share similar abilities. He smiled a lot. He called me in again and again to view his progress. He asked his best friend's opinion, his best friend who sat by his side and watched him program for a long time, just happy to offer input and be together.

And when he was finished, Brady said, "I'm hoping he likes it so much, the other teachers let me do programming projects for them, too!" and I got to see that spark of joy that has been so markedly absent lately. I miss it, desperately.

I support him in his choice to be at school. I support him in his choice to do anything he wants to do. I just hope he continues to find ways to incorporate who-he-is into this school journey so it can be the best possible experience. And I hope the teachers get to see this enthusiastic, engaged, 'whole' side of him. So they see what's been missing.


Anonymous said...

L~I get physically sick in my stomach to hear a story like that. It smacks of a poke in a childs spirit...something I vehemently oppose. I applaud Brady for hanging in there and making the experience his own. And you for supporting him. I can taste the "so just come back home and be my happy and successful unschooling boy" hanging off the lips. Man, do the trials of Motherhood never end? Ohm, my sister.

Rachel said...

I just wanted to say I can completely relate. My son, Andrew, is an unschooler in school. He wanted to try it out when he was
14, so he went freshman year. He is now a senior. He has always done well, but so much of it has been complete and utter BS. He is really into film though and fencing, highschool had a full studio and a team (he's now captain). But it IS hard to watch them have to jump through such ridiculous hoops and remain true to who they are. Best wishes to you and your "unschooler in school". *Peace*

K. said...

I find this so inspiring! I mean, yes, it IS disgusting that such an incredible boy with so much to offer was made to feel so low, don't get me wrong. But sad as it is, we all kind of know that that's what's happening every day in the public school system, which is why so many of us are pursuing alternate paths for our children.

So as much as I hurt for Brady and the knocks he's suffering - and you know that you have my full sympathy, Laura - to me this is a success story. This reads as complete validation that Brady has such a solid base to work from that there is nothing in this world that will conquer him for long. He's shined through this, and he'll shine through the next challenge, too.

I think you've created this safe, accepting place for him so that he's been allowed to really discover himself on his own terms, and he's so very well equipped now to be out testing himself in the world, difficult as it is sometimes to watch. And his safe place isn't gone. It's like - it's still back home with you AND he's learned to carry it within him, too.

Sorry to be so gushy, I didn't get much sleep. :P But I think you have a lot to be proud of, and I'm proud to be on a similar path with my own children. (Fingers crossed.)

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is surprising that it is the subject he enjoys the most that he is doing poorly in. I suspect that that is the hardest one for him to look at in terms of what is required by the system; the hardest one to do what the teacher wants instead of what he wants. And I think you are right to focus on not letting it damage his view of himself. I hope he gets more programming opportunities, too.

piscesgrrl said...

peacegoddess - ohm back, sistah (and you've been busy on your blog!). You are an intuitive one, as those words are just 'right there' - but I swallow them back down

rachel - as I visit your blog I am inspired by how your son has been able to find what feeds him, within the framework of school!

k. - gush on, it is good stuff and I need to hear it! thx for seeing the good in this, and you make a good point that there are some things we learn of ourselves even when we don't expect it. I get to see his maturity and his knowing-of-himself in action. And it amazes me!

jove - hello and welcome! you make a good point as well. When I was teaching, I found it easier to teach the things I too struggled with, and when I had to teach what came easily to me, I was more easily frustrated when they didn't 'get' it. The other classes he knows he's jumping through hoops and does so half-heartedly. History, he enjoys and is therefore encumbered by the hoops; they are true obstacles. Ha - thx for the insight! (And I tried to visit your profile and/or blog, but no luck, says private. So, glad you're here!)

this vignette said...

I'm impressed to hear that he's so eager to help his teachers. My husband made a deal with the computer teacher (who was also the gym teacher) in junior high, where he maintained the computers to get out of gym class. For some reason I find that hilarious, maybe because now he designs video games for a living.

I was always a great test-taker in school. Soon, it became more about getting by and getting a B at worst. I knew how to figure out what they were going to ask on the test and just study that. As a result, I get the suspicion that there are a lot of things I should know that I don't, and my propensity to be defiant when forced into anything by an authoritative figure (such as an employer) has flourished.

It seems important that he is encouraged to do his own projects like the website programming. At his age, most kids think it's uncool to help the teachers... they're the ones you are supposed to outsmart and scorn.

Both my husband and I had issues with authority growing up, and even now I think. It's his best argument for NOT unschooling our future children, because "that's not how the real world is" but looking back, I wonder if school is what made me harbor disdain for authority and the way the "real world" runs it in the first place.

Linda said...

"Isn't the important thing that I enjoy the material and am interested in it?"

Just think of the poor kids who don't know that and think the grade actually means something. :(

whimsigal said...

I can well imagine the frustration with this experience but you seem to have really laid out an amazing support system for him and he comes to you and talks to you about it. when I was in high school, I would have hidden my bad grades and changed the grade on my report cards before my parents caught wind of it.

He is an incredible guy and you're an incredible mom. What a great thing he's doing with the teacher's website, too.

I actually felt inspired by the time I got to the end of this post, by both of you!

piscesgrrl said...

this vignette - thx for commenting! That's curious about your husband's not wanting to unschool, when it sounds like an unschooling approach (as much as possible in school) was not only his saving grace but was important to his current career and (hopefully) passion. I too was a good test taker, but have HUGE gaps in my 'schoolish' knowledge.

linda - I know kids like that. The ones who get hung up on it and who would make amazing unschoolers. This is one of the greatest benefits of unschooling before school - perspective.

whimsigal - another thing I'm sooo grateful for, our open communication. I liked to keep my feelings hidden from my parents too, and I think it's because the whole nature of school makes one have to get sneaky for any individuality. And because everyone's in the same boat, it seemed like "just how it is." Now I see it doesn't have to be like that. I'm in awe of all that my son will share with me. Once, I asked if he was dating a grrl again, and he said, "No. Mom, I'd have told you if I was." That really made my day!

Thanks to everyone for the comments - I learn so much just from these mini-dialogues!