Tuesday, January 30, 2007

ej oo KEY shuh n

I'm struggling to put my thoughts into coherent phrasing. What is in my head are things like:


lots of "NO"s

"This can't be happening"


What has produced such a strong reaction and the paralyization of my ability to use language to express thoughts? I visited my daughter's new classroom for the first time today. It wasn't good. I'm still in shock to tell you the truth.

One of the reasons I had such a hard time agreeing to move here and leave our old town is because the school that OC attended is fantastic. The curriculum is comprehensive, rigorous, and each year was integrated with the previous in order to create cohesion and context for the material. The atmosphere is disciplined but always positive. The kids know the rules and the rules are always - or at worst, nearly always - enforced, which created a calm place for kids to *gasp!* learn things. Parents are encouraged to be a part of the classroom or other activities. The kids are respectful. Even the highschool boys were polite. It is a great place to send your kid to school, and I did NOT want to take that away from OC.

Now I know why.

She now attends the local public elementary school which is within walking distance of our home. You don't get to choose the public school your child attends, it is solely based on your address. I thought we'd move here, check it out and see how things went, and maybe choose a private school if things were terrible. Or something.

To be fair, maybe today was an off day for the teacher. Maybe. But if it wasn't, then I shudder to think how those kids not lucky enough to already have a strong love of learning and ability to pay attention amidst loud non-pay-attentioners are going to find it in that kind of atmosphere. Let me elaborate.

If you asked me to describe in a word my impression of the classroom I would say, bordering on chaos. That is more than a word. It was not complete chaos, but it lived very near the border to it. It got close enough to Chaos to swap spit, but not close enough to procreate.

I purposefully haven't gone to spend a day at her school because of that whole difficult leaving process. I knew that anything else just wasn't going to measure up to what we had. Was this a preconceived judgment on my part? Yes. I think it is also a fair one, and one that turned out to be proven true. It has taken me all this time to be ready to face the truth of What Is Now. I know that's quite childish, but it's true.

I went to the school today in order to lend a hand, but my intention also included seeing the class in action and finding out what a typical day was like. I had questions in mind like, What was the curriculum? What were the other kids like? What was the atmosphere like?

The teacher did not speak to me at all before class started to give me an idea about what we'd be doing or what I could do to help. I sat in the back of the room and waited. She began the day by going over the date, the months of the year, singing and signing the alphabet and singing a cute song, reading a couple of quick books, and counting by 10's. All this took 15 minutes, and during this time about 3 or 4 kids sitting in the back talked, hit, and pushed each other, ignoring the teacher's repeated request to participate. One girl kept moving around to sit by different people, over and over again after being asked not to move around.

The first project of the day was for the kids to each create a pattern by cutting out photocopied images of quarters, dimes, and pennies and arranging them in a line on a sheet of paper. Next, they were to write the value of each coin above the correct image, and to write the letter that forms the sound of the word for each coin beneath each image.

It was crazy. Many kids needed help. They didn't know what the coins were, didn't know how to write numbers, didn't know how to write the letters. One girl in particular had a terrible time with it all, asking me for help. I helped her, and quickly realized she needed to be in a smaller group setting. The big group thing was freaking her right out. She couldn't pay attention to me. Here is what it was like:

Girl: Would you help me?

Me: Sure. Okay, cut out the coins and arrange them in a repeating pattern, like this.

Girl: Would you help me?

Me: Um, okay. Which coins would you like to use? Okay, good. Cut those out. No need to cut a circle, just cut them out and paste them on. Any that you'd like. Cut them out. Make a pattern. See the example? Do something like that. No, cut them out. Keep cutting...

Girl: Would you help me?

Meanwhile, other kids are asking for help.

Me: *ahhhhh!* Yes, sure. Keep cutting. I'll be right back.

(a few minutes later, after I've made my way back to her table...)

Girl: Would you help me? I can't do it.

Me: Sure. Now let's see, look up on the board. The teacher has an example of a quarter, dime and penny. She has written the value of each above it, like you are to do. Copy that down. See? A quarter is worth 25 cents, so that's a "2" a "5" and a cents symbol, which is a little "c" with a line through it. It's on the board, just copy it above every quarter you have in your pattern.

Girl: Can you help me? I can't do it.

Me: *what else can I say to help her?* Okay, I'll write it for you to copy, then you can do it over again for every quarter you have.

Sidebar: That girl obviously couldn't identify a quarter to save her life. She was totally guessing. It was apparent to me by the way she was helpless and by her anxiety that she needed a different kind of help. She wasn't doing well in the classroom such as it was. I could tell she was anxious, as she looked around at what the other kids were doing and immediately abandoned her unfinished coin pattern to do what the other kids had moved on to do, which was their journals. Only, the other kids had finished their work. At that time she immediately asked me for help again. I felt sorry for her. She needed somebody who could help her, which was not me, and needed out of that classroom full of kids which made her nervous. She was totally overwhelmed and not learning anything.

And then there's the kid who is the teacher's son. Ooooooh yeah, you can just smell all the opportunities for nuttiness in that sentence, can't you? Well, he is a little nut, allright. He went back to his mom's desk repeatedly to get things he wasn't supposed to be into. He liked to get under her desk and just hang out. He also liked to sit at his desk with his coat over his head.

I watched a girl put glue on her chair and then sit down on it. I watched a girl talk - be warned not to - then talk again - be warned not to - again and again and again with no real consequences.

The math lesson was a disaster. The project was for them to write their name at the top of an odd-dimensioned piece of paper. It was a long strip about four inches wide by 12 inches long or so. Half of them wrote it on the wrong side and so missed the instructions of what to do while they erased their names, talked to their neighbors, goofed around, and rewrote their names.

The idea was to copy the math problems, simple addition, onto the paper. Then the candy was passed out. Yes, the math was done with the visual aid assistance provided by little candies, and after doing nothing of value and learning nothing at all, the kids got to eat the candy! After it had spent time being rolled in their hands, having been handled by their neighbor, dropped on the floor and maybe stepped on, into their mouths it went. The tables nearest the teacher got some of the instruction. The tables farthest away, where I was, saw kids not getting it AT ALL, and no one except for me was there to try to get them through it. The teacher was distracted with each individual kid, and at no point did she have them all quiet at once and listening to her instructions.

Kids were up and all over the place, all day long. I applauded - in my head - each and every attempt by the teacher to have order, and there were times when I thought she would prevail but then she would give up. She would get their attention, get distracted, and then by the time she came back to say what she needed to say she only had the attention of three or four kids.

I know that Kindergarteners are squirmy, attention-deficit by nature of their age. I didn't expect to see a tomb-like classroom with robotic, silent children taking in every word. What I would have liked to see is a room full of children who may have tried to goof off but were quickly put back in line. I wanted to see a teacher who had the attention of every child before she spoke, especially when it was important like teaching math or the like. That teacher needs an assistant, and she also needs to follow through to get the kids to act more appropriately. If she had that then I think it would improve things immensely. I know it can be done, because that is exactly what it was like at OC's old school. The teacher was always, ALWAYS polite and positive, but she could get them to listen and do what they were told. It wasn't perfect, but it was way more ordered than what I saw today and way more quiet.

I know what you're thinking. I'm thinking it, too. Get your ass in there, girl! Be her assistant, talk to her about what I saw (in some tactful way) and work with her to get the kids' attention and discipline those little turkeys so they know what is expected of them. Kids will exhibit good behavior if you prove to them that you're serious about expecting it, especially at this age.

I'm not a teacher. I am not good working with large groups of children. I'm much better at small groups, or better yet, one-on-one. I can see quite plainly that there is a need, but what exactly can I do about it? I can get involved but it's really up to the teacher to set the tone. We've come here mid-year. Can I really expect her to be open to my suggestions? What if she takes it badly and thinks I'm just a jerk looking in from the outside with a lot of criticism, and so does nothing to change the kids' behavior and is then pissed off at me? And, who am I? What do I know, anyway?

A lot of what-ifs there. I think there has to be a better way. I know I can't fix it alone, or maybe at all. I'm quite clear that I'm the amateur here.

It sounds like I'm a public school hater. I'm not. I am a product of it.

(And look at the result! I end sentences with prepositions. Then you might say, at least you know what a preposition is, and that the rules for English say Thou Shant Do That. I know.)

I don't think all public schools are bad and all private schools are good. Or vice versa. Or anything close to that. I believe that each school is unique depending on the philosophy and ideas of the people running it. There are plenty of examples of great schools of either genre, which is why I wanted to wait until we moved here to really check them out because I knew it would take personally visiting the school to get to know that particular school.

OC's old school was based on the classical education style. That is, things were taught based on the trivium model of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The first stage is grammar, done from Kindergarten through about fourth grade. Grammar in this case doesn't mean that the only thing taught is the grammar of language, what it means is that the facts - the grammar - of all subjects are taught at this stage. Children absorb them even before they can put them into context. It is building the foundation upon which they will put their knowledge into a bigger context and relate it to other subjects. Logic is the stage (fifth to eighth grade or so) where the facts make sense in part due to the child's stage of development where they can understand abstract thoughts, and in part that this is the time where it is shown how the facts interrelate to one another. After the logic stage comes the rhetoric stage, high school, where the student is taught to effectively communicate their ideas to others. This includes asking questions and much debate.

Emphasis is placed on learning things in chronological order as well, beginning with the ancients at the grammar stage and working up through to modern times in the rhetoric stage.

Language is considered the basis of all learning, because you can't learn math if you can't read. You can't understand history if you can't read, etc. Phonics instruction is practically the first thing taught.

A better outline of this style of education is here.

So many things about it make sense to me: the way learning is structured, how it is comprehensive, how one subject is shown to correspond to another. Learning about art is one thing, but learning about art in the context of what was going on at the time with regard to science, astronomy, religion makes for a much richer experience! It makes much more sense to learn about Copernicus' discoveries when you know what the Church was doing, where society was at while all this was going on. It seems to me such a solid foundation in order to foster a love of learning for a lifetime. That is an incredible gift to give a child. I want OC to have all those benefits.

That being said, I know what I'm looking for for my daughter and that I can't rely on this public school to provide that for her because that is not the way it is set up. I'm grateful for the choice and the resources to find what I am looking for, but still kinda pissed that we had to leave the old place and that there is no place like that here.

Now all I need to figure out is, how am I going to provide this? There are no classically-based private schools in this area. Not even in Bend. Homeschool has always seemed like an odd route to me. As though the only reason to homeschool is that you don't like society at large and your religion restricts girls to the home and the only product of homeschooling would be a socially-inept megalobrainiac who will never experience a prom or play in a basketball game. Sure, they're smart, but they can't put a cute outfit together! Obviously, this is not accurate but this route scares me a little.

Luckily I live in the day and age of the internet, which allows me to have access to plenty of resources. At this point, I know I want to supplement OC's school day with instruction in phonics, math, reading aloud, writing, history, audio books, and easy readers. Just this week we have begun to have "lessons" in the morning before she goes to school - or to what I now will think of as "Rum Amok Time" in the afternoon, and she has so far been excited about them.

But what about next year? That is the big question.


Terry said...

Hi I read your blog with interest. I just wanted you to know that there are quite a few homeschoolers who use the classical education style. And it's not as hard as you think to homeschool. Homeschoolers also experience proms, basketball, graduation, etc. I should know, because I homeschool. I have already graduated one child and am working on another. My son not only does activities with other homeschoolers but he bowls with kids of all backgrounds in a city league. And he's not one of those "megalobrainiac's" that you mentioned. :-) In fact, he was more socially inept when he was in public school than he is now. My reason for homeschooling him and my daughter was because of the disorder in the classroom and the lack of attention the teacher was able to give to the students that needed the help. I didn't want my son falling through the crack that the teacher and school had made because my son was unable to become the toy soldier that the school was looking for. You can read my account of what we went through with the old public schools my kids went to here http://terryschaos.tripod.com/MainHomeschool/Homeschool.html then I think you'll understand our reasons for homeschooling. Nothing religious or a dislike for society, just a concern that my children were not receiving the education they were entitled to at supposedly one of the best school districts in Texas. You have already begun to homeschool just by having "lessons" before school and the after school times, now you just have to work on doing it full time. May I suggest that you locate a local homeschool group and meet with some of the members who homeschool in the classical education style. Talk with them about homeschooling. They can help you to find out more about homeschooling if that is an avenue you wish to pursue and they can also dispel some of your concerns about the social aspects of homeschooling. Not all of us homeschoolers are weirdos! ;-) There are some normal ones out there (hopefully I'm one of them). Check out my own blog at - http://ourhomeschooladventures.blogspot.com/ Whatever to decide to do, I wish you luck. I hope things work out for you and your child. It's hard to have faith in our public educational system when you have teachers, classrooms, and/or schools where you run into problems such as you and I have encountered. Good luck!

Wendy said...

Check with your school administration offices about open enrollment at another school for next year. For example, my neighborhood is in the Bend High district, yet there are also kids here who go to Summit and Mountain View, although they have to have their own transportation to school, because the bus runs to Bend High. The girl across the street from me goes to a different elementary school than my boys, because her parents chose open enrollment at a school that was more convenient to their jobs.

I know what you mean about the changes. Before we moved here, my kids went to a school that we loved, and I'd been volunteering there for nearly 10 years. I knew the teachers, and I was familiar with their style. All of a sudden we were in a different system with different methods, and it was strange. I also haven't volunteered here yet, although the main reason for that was just being burned out after so many years of volunteering in the old school.

marnie said...

I've given a link to this post to my best pal. She is struggling with kindergarten and her son right now too.

Tiggerlane said...

Found you today, thanks to Marnie.

I could feel your panic - I think I would have felt the same.

I tried volunteering some at our local public school, and it was soooo tough. It mad me sad for the kids who aren't as blessed as mine. What's heartbreaking is how many of the parents don't even show up for conferences, etc. Some kids get "left behind," even at home.

Great writing. I forwarded your post to a teacher friend of mine - maybe she will have some perspective that will comfort you.

Anonymous said...

I have a lot of reservations with the school my kids are in now too. We volunteered on Friday and it was such total chaos I was amazed that anyone could learn anything.

Our son went to school on the military base my husband is stationed at from K-3. The teachers were amazing and the parents were super-involved...and then we moved.

I'm just so disappointed. My son is in GATE, so he's having a bit of a better time of it this year, but my daughter - yikes. She's a pretty proficient reader already, and she comes home so very bored with her day. The teacher tries - she gives her more advanced work - but she spends so much time trying to keep the kids in line and working with kids who are still working on learning their letters and numbers, I just feel like my daughter is losing out.

Well anyway, longest comment ever. ;) I hope the school situation improves for you guys. :)

Occidental Girl said...

I appreciate all your comments! This is hard.

I don't think Redmond allows open enrollment, but I will check into that. A funny thing is that one of the kids in OC's old school has an aunt who teaches here in Redmond. At the new grade school, which we couldn't go to because we live in this school's district. I will check, because it couldn't hurt to check.

It's going to be a question every year, I think, because the teacher will change each year. I am at a disadvantage here because I don't know anyone, don't know the teachers for next grade. I'm sure many people know what that feels like!

Thank you, again.