Friday, June 6, 2008

How we know

This is baptisia, sometimes called false indigo. In my garden, it takes the place of delphiniums, which I just can't seem to keep going. I'm the sort of gardener who makes plans, reads up, tries, and then at a certain point admits defeat and just moves on. Fancy pants roses have been replaced, as another example, with hearty shrub roses:

There's only so much I am willing to fuss. I'm pragmatic, and I don't like to fight if I don't have to.

As Dean and I were walking in to school yesterday morning, I noticed some odd, organic little brown balls on the ground and wondered to myself what they were. Dean noticed them a moment later and exclaimed, "oak tree galls!" and then proceeded to explain to me about how certain insects -- commonly a small wasp, or rather its larvae -- cause the tree to react to their presence by forming this casing around them. His class has been studying plants and trees this year, and he has already taught me so much.

I had a parent in my office yesterday morning, just after I'd learned about oak tree galls, and she came in to vent about how she is never given all the information she needs to know about exactly what her daughter is learning. Her daughter is 7. This mom, I realized, ultimately wants to see the text books every year. She wants to know in advance what her daughter will be "learning," she wants to be able to drill her daughter to ensure that she is retaining the appropriate facts, and she wants to always be one step ahead (at least) of what's coming up in the classroom. I shared with her my oak tree gall story, and about how in many ways that is the essence of progressive education. Dean's teacher has not been following a 4th grade level science text; she has invited in experts, taken the kids to a wildflower garden, gone on almost daily nature walks. She has shared her knowledge, brought in others to share their own knowledge, done research with the kids along the way as they've had questions or made discoveries. As a parent, there is simply no way that I can know in advance what Dean is going to do in school on any given day. And honestly on most days I glean very few details from him about his day. I know that he loves going to school, that he is curious and eager to learn, that he is completely engaged and that he is known and loved as an individual by his teacher. I also know that his learning is genuine and meaningful, because he teaches me all the time -- and he teaches me in the moment, when teaching and learning are authentic.

This mom was having none of it, which means she has her daughter enrolled in the wrong school. I feel sad for her and for her daughter because of the opportunities they are missing, and yet I know that no one misses what she does not value. The mom, at least, will be happier elsewhere. It makes me wonder what she was (or was not) hearing when she looked at our school before enrolling, but certainly people hear what they want to hear. They also sometimes mistakenly think that they can make us change, show us the 'error' of our ways -- that they just need to say loudly enough that the math program needs to focus more on memorization and written equations and less on manipulatives and conceptual thinking -- and then reap the benefits of a small school with individual attention on their child. No, sorry. We know what we're doing and why we do it.

As low a point in my week as that meeting was, a meeting with another mom went completely the other way. This woman is looking at our school for her 11-year-old daughter. She asked me what it is like for children to transition from a public school to our school. I have a long list of answers to that question -- it's everything from getting comfortable calling teachers by their first names, believing that you really can just get up and say you're going to the bathroom and leave the room, understanding that you'll be trusted and assumed innocent in an environment with very few rules and an assumption that you'll apply common sense, to being asked to think critically, make guesses,to try and fail (and that's quite all right). And, I told her, children here can tell the teacher that they think she's wrong -- that they think she's made a mistake, or that they have another way of doing something, or that they wonder if she's considered all the possibilities. At this, the mom started to weep. She said she couldn't imagine how different, how wonderful her daughter's school experience might have been if she had ever had that kind of a relationship with a teacher. I hope she enrolls.

Well, I didn't start this post thinking that I'd head in this direction, but there you go. We're poised for a somewhat less insane weekend and that feels great. What's growing in your garden? What have you learned this week?


Cocoa said...

If there were school like yours anywhere near where we live I'd love to send my children there. That's one of the main reasons we homeschool. The only other option is the standard public school, including the junior high where the counselors have been caught selling drugs to the students.Sometimes living in a small, hick town has its disadvantages.

On a lighter note I think it's wonderful that Dean was able to tell you what the brown balls were. It's amazing how sponge-like their minds are.

Natalie said...

I've learned that I really, really wish we could go to Your school.

Lesley said...

I enjoyed reading this on the morning of my youngest child's last ever day at school.
I remember all those worries through all three of the kids' times at school, and hoping for a gentle learning environment where the kids were appreciated and understood as individuals.
And this was almost always our experience, so I feel very fortunate.
They've all three come out the other end unscathed, and happy and whole people, so that's a huge plus!
Your school sounds wonderful, and you, Ken and Dean are very lucky. What happens at the high school stage? Does your school go on?

Lil D said...

I love how having a child show an interest in things brings up the spark to open books and learn something new. I didn't imagine that a 3 year old would feel the need to learn all sorts of obscure dinosaur names. Nowadays his studies of the butterfly life cycle have led to all sorts of questions about the human life cycle. Luckily the G-rated version seems to have kept him happy for now...

Diana said...

It's unfortunate that many see education as a measurable commodity, like gasoline or soy beans. They are the ones who want their children "filled up" with that particular year's curriculum. And they want to see the "results" based on their child's performance on standardized tests. We've headed that way with NCLB.

Anyone who works with children knows that this is absurd. Children, especially younger ones, learn through exploration and experimentation, when they are given a chance. Some of the things they learn can't be measured on a typical multiple choice test, but it's learning nonetheless.

Lesley said...

I agree with Diana, wholeheartedly. And having raised two sons, now 31 and 18, and a daughter, 20, I hasten to add that I also agree with those radical education experts who say (some) boys should not start formal schooling until they are about 10, so they have more of those early years for the very exploration and experimentation Diana mentions.
Both my sons would have done better, and enjoyed their schooling much more, if they'd not been pushed into reading, writing and 'rithmetic before their thinking was organised enough to do so.
Let them play, let them build things and get dirty and explore things so that they develop the desire to learn, and then hit them with the book stuff. Not all kids are created equal by any stretch!

Kate said...

I would love my children to go to a school like yours and maybe that is why I am really apprehensive about teaching again as that is the only type of school I want to teach in.