A Tale of Two Educations: The Motivated Learner

Yesterday I told you about my oldest daughter Mazzy and her educational story.  Today I would like to talk about my second daughter Lydia.  When Lydia was three years old her brother Tristram was a newborn. Remembering how much Mazzy had loved her play based headstart and preschool we decided it would be nice to send her to the same school giving me a break during the middle of the day.  I was crushed when at orientation I discovered that they had lost much of their private funding and had to fall back on public funding to keep the school open.  Now that the school was financed by government funds they had to restructure their program to fit into the No Child Left Behind standards and the differences were jarring.  We quickly decided that we would keep her home instead, not wanting academics pushed on her too early.  This reasoning would prove ironic with what would later happen.

Lydia, at 3 years old.

At this time I was still working hard at teaching Mazzy how to read and had bought the book Teach Your Child To Read in 100 Easy Lessons.  Lydia showed interest in me working with her sister and so I decided to give her a try with it and see how she did.  I knew in the back of my mind that too much focus on academics at an early age was not good for children but didn’t see any harm in it as long as she was interested and I wasn’t forcing it.  I was amazed at how quickly she picked up on the lessons and the next thing I knew she was reading.  I bought some more materials, booklets aimed at kindergarteners, and she flew through them in just a few short weeks.  I had been so frustrated with the difficulty in teaching Mazzy that I grasped on to Lydia’s success like a drowning man grabs a life-preserver.  Everything I attempted to teach her she would instantly learn and apply to the world around her.  Complex scientific terms for middle schoolers, got it.  Math several grades ahead of her age, no problem.  She was reading at college level by the time she was eight years old and doing highschool level history and science.  Sounds great, right?  Sounds like a homeschool mom’s dream.  There was a problem though, Lydia didn’t know how to play and what was worse she started showing signs of deep depression.

It was the summer she was nine years old when our cat Elinor had kittens that I first truly started realizing that maybe I had done something wrong.  While the other children cuddled with them and rubbed their soft fur against their cheek Lydia sat in front of them with a clipboard and pen.  She had decided she wanted to chart their growth and behavior in association with time spent with their mom and original birth weight.  There was a part of me that was very proud of my little budding scientist, but there was this other part of me that whispered that I needed to watch her closer.   The more I observed the more concerned I became.  She no longer laughed and rarely played, there was never any real joy in her eyes and she avoided conversation.  Slowly she began to open up to me and finally she confessed to me she had thought of suicide.  My world stopped and my heart broke for her.   I immediately made her an appointment with a child psychologist.

The appointment was severely disappointing as the woman clearly had no idea what to make of my precocious child that asked questions like “But how do we know we are really here? Rene Descartes’s philosophy “I think therefore I am” seems weak to me.”  The only advice the psychologist offered was that we should put her in public school, not only that but in the grade deemed by her age so that she could be around “normal” kids.   When I asked her if she felt like it would be even harder on her there with the differences and boredom with the material all she did in response was shrug.

After this I turned to the internet for help.  I found our states Association for Gifted Children website and started asking questions and looking for help for our daughter.  Through this I was able to get in contact with a doctor that is frequently used by association members for evaluation and psychological counseling.  Unable to make it upstate for a direct visit we had a lengthy phone consultation where he explained that depression is a common problem with children like my daughter and he gave me some ideas on how to help her.  That with some other data I researched led me to a plan on how to get the spark back in our little girl.  We stopped all studies for a year with her and focused on learning to play and have fun.  We planted a flower garden, we read fairy tales, we played with dolls and spent nights under the stars making up new  constellations with funny names, rolled down hills and got dirty in mud puddles.  Slowly she began to laugh again, she began to heal.

Now several years later she has complete control over her education and delights in it.  Some things she kept on with, she still loves classic literature.  Some things she cast to the side, turns out she hated Latin.  Most important she is happy and enjoys life.  It was a hard lesson for me, but one well learned, that education is so much more than just how much knowledge you can acquire.  It is just as important, no, more important to have your child stop and smell the flowers than to teach them how to diagram one.

This girl of mine. Smart, beautiful, strong and most importantly happy.

A Tale of Two Educations: The Reluctant Learner

My oldest daughter, Mazzy, went to headstart and preschool at this really wonderful independent school in our community.   The focus was on social skills and learning through play and we loved the teachers and volunteers.  Every day Mazzy was so excited to get on that little bus and head off to play with her friends.  I was still working at the time and so was relieved that she loved her school so much.

The following year when she started kindergarten we saw a dramatic change in her behavior.  Our once happy daughter quickly became sullen and prone to tantrums.  It was around this time that we started receiving letters from her school telling us that they had issue with our daughter about… well about everything.  She was too dependent on adult interaction, she wasn’t consistent with her letters, she talked during class, didn’t listen during instruction time.  What was worse she was having problems with the other children teasing her.  She was much larger than the rest of the kids standing a good foot taller than most and because of this several of the kids decided she must have been held back and took to calling her names for this as well as her larger size in general.   Rather than try to fit her into their program (which we found incredibly restrictive) or continue subjecting her to childish cruelty we chose instead to withdraw her from school and begin home instruction.

Mazzy age 5

Not being very familiar with homeschooling I made the mistake of trying to imitate school, at home.  Over the course of the next couple of years we spent several thousand dollars on reading programs alone.  I would work and work with her and we made no progress.  We made puppets, sang songs, watched videos and tried program after program and though she knew the individual letter sounds could not blend them together to do any actual reading.  It was during this frustrating time that I started researching the works of Raymond and Dorothy Moore as well as other styles of home learning.  Once I understood that the ability to blend was a developmental milestone that you can not force I laid off on the instruction and focused on lots and lots of reading aloud and fun lessons in science and history that including lots of dressing up, messy projects and just good ol’ fashioned learning through play.  From time to time I would feel discouraged and wondering if I was making some great mistake and then finally when she was nine years old she found some books at the library that she liked, a manga series, and wonder of wonders she read.  At first it was still slow and I worried that maybe I needed to do something more with her but thankfully I held my peace and let her continue at her own pace now knowing my daughter better and understanding that if she was to master a new skill it would have to be under conditions of her own choosing.

Her love of manga led her to anime.  It didn’t take long before she discovered that the story lines were often different, and the plot more interesting, in the original language and so took to watching anime in the original Japanese with English subtitles.   If you have never watched a subtitled Japanese anime let me tell you those words fly by fast!  Before I knew it Mazzy could speed read with the best of them.  She has now moved on, at her own choice, to learning Japanese (thank you Rosetta Stone) so that she can watch the movies/shows without any complications with the language barrier.

The next great concern was with Mazzy’s spelling.  Not knowing any other way I had started her instruction the same way I had been taught.  Here is a list, study it, in a week we will have a test.  Also like me she did not do well with this type of instruction and often her inability to spell well was a cause of massive mama guilt and embarrassment.   It was during this time that her older cousin introduced her to on-line gaming.  It didn’t take long for her to realize that in order to be able to effectively communicate with her group she would have to dramatically improve her spelling and learn to type.  At this point you can probably guess what happened, she learned both of those skills.  At her own pace and through her own force of will she greatly improved her spelling and can type as fast as me and I worked in data entry.

Recently I was curious how she stood compared to her peers, which I think is a common concern/worry for all homeschoolers from time to time.  I asked her how she felt about it and she agreed that she too would like to know so I ordered her a test preparation booklet for admission into private catholic highschool and was not sorry to have done so. For the most part she found the majority of the material easy and flew through it.  She was a little behind in math, but not terribly so.  Interesting thing that math, she recently has taken an interest in it as she would like someday to run a homeless shelter and recognized that she would need to know how to do her own accounting.  I have no doubt, now that the fire has been ignited, that in no time she will be soaring through her math studies as well.

Every now and again I wonder how things might have turned out had I not pulled Mazzy out of school.  There is of course no way for me to know for sure, but I truly believe we made one of the best decisions of our lives by homeschooling.  I think of the confidence my daughter has.  I ponder her impeccable moral character and her genuine love for the people around her and those that she will some day meet.  I reflect on her creativity and the way she has been able to practice self-expression through her appearance over the years.  Then I realize that all of that could have been squashed and replaced by a broken being, not just by the school but also by my own insistence to fit her into a mold that she was too grand and complex to fit into.

This is Mazzy now, I don’t remember knowing anyone this calm, focused and well rounded at 15 years old.

Tomorrow I will talk about my second daughter Lydia and the very different path we went down with her, the mistakes and the triumphs.  There was still so much I needed to learn about not trying to fit education, or people, into the boxes we create for them.

Our Journey from Public School to Unschooling (Vol. 1)

I often reflect upon our schooling journey. When I started this parenting gig I was quite young and thought that you did things a certain way. When your child turned 5 you shipped them off to Kindergarten and that was that. I can remember Kyle’s first day of Kindy like it was yesterday. We had just got back from a family vacation to Wyoming the day before. I was feeling quite frantic about sending him to school, not because I thought he wouldn’t do well but because it was such a change for us. I knew I’d miss him. I had no idea which classroom or teacher he was supposed to have and that was not helping the feelings of panic at all. We pulled into the parking lot of the Early Education Center and I just had this pit in my stomach.  Kyle came to stand beside me as I was getting the baby out of the car seat all of a sudden seeming unbelievably BIG. I reached down to grab his hand and he turned his little face up to mine and said, “I’m a big kid now, Mommy. I don’t NEED to hold your hand anymore.” and that’s when my eyes filled with tears.

I was really trying to keep it together in front of the boy, lol. I didn’t want him to pick up on my sadness, he was excited. We walked into the office and the receptionist asked if I was okay. Never ask a near crying woman if they are okay, they are probably barely keeping it together, lol. The tears started to flow. I found out where he was supposed to be and dropped him off. I cried for a solid week. I really did miss my boy but he was having a blast at school. It was about the second quarter when things started to go slightly awry. Apparently Kyle was having some difficulty with letter sounds and recognition, not terribly so but enough that he was flagged for additional help. He was placed in a reduction class for part of the day. I honestly didn’t feel he needed it, that he would grow into what they were teaching but they felt it necessary to push it. It was an awful distraction for him during the day. He was in class for 2.5 hours and part of that he was taken for a reduction class which he did NOT enjoy.

The next quarters conferences came up and I decided to tell his teacher that I did not want him to participate in the reduction class anymore. He really didn’t like it and I wasn’t seeing any difference. His kindergarten teacher always had wonderful things to say about him. He was eager to learn, loved to participate, had excellent social skills, and was a pleasure to have in class. Imagine my surprise when he got into first grade and his teacher said the exact opposite about him.

In all fairness, Kyle did have a lot of upheaval the summer BEFORE entering the first grade. I was pregnant and ready to pop pretty much as soon as school started AND his biological father had died suddenly and unexpectedly that May. I think, though, Kyle was so young (he’s a June baby) he really lacked the maturity needed for full day school. They weren’t allowed to talk at lunch or run at recess and I had a very difficult time finding a voice to express my concerns and complaints. He was wiggly, talkative, and distracted in class (who wouldn’t be?!) and his teacher really held it against him. I think he spent the bulk majority of first grade drawing during the day and then doing ALL of the day’s work at night. To say the least it was stressful on both of us.

It was around this time that I felt it would be better to homeschool him, I mean I was already essentially… right? My family was very discouraging during these discussions. I was told I didn’t have the patience and that it wasn’t a good idea, he’d be lacking socially… and on and on. I placed those thoughts on the back burner… and as I reflect back now I wish I had just gone with it. Alas, it takes time to grow into your courage to stand up to people in your life… and I had a path to follow.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our schooling journey!