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.

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!