Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Firstborn and the Trouble with School

I used to joke that you get an easy baby the first time around to trick you into having more.

Not that M was that easy––for instance, he didn't sleep in his own bed all night until a week before his brothers were born (they were born three days before his fourth birthday). But he was a fairly mellow baby, adaptable, easy-going. He talked early, which made communication easier, although it gave him an early start on negotiating and arguing. He's been smarter than me since he was about three, so he only lost arguments when I pulled the "Because I'm the mom, that's why," card.

After two years of hating preschool (too many rambunctious boys making too much chaos and noise; Miss N "Makes me color pictures that are already drawn,"; twin baby brother anxiety), he took to kindergarten like a dragonfly takes wing, and has never looked back.

Until now.

This year––sixth grade––he's on his third language arts teacher of the year. He was fine with the first one, adored the second one, and has decided that the third, permanent, one is out to get him. He's one of those rare, lucky people for whom all subjects––math, science, art, language, PE, music, sports, socialization––come easy to him. He loves dodge ball and takes algebra two years early. He plays baseball, soccer and electric guitar. He's friends with all the kids in his class. He is, in short, the exact opposite of me in middle school.

Yet, we have some things in common. He has a bit (ahem) of an anti-authoritarian streak. He bristles under what he perceives as busy work. He is also extremely disorganized (can I blame his father for that one?) and prefers to work according to his own schedule. His new teacher is very structured and has regular and weekly deadlines and assignments. He has hated reading log since second grade. He has never needed a reading log to get him to read––our main problem is to get him to stop reading and do what he needs to do. He's never been impressed by my half-hearted attempts to convince him of the value of learning to keep track of things––"Some day you'll need to fill in a time-sheet (and be a miserable wage-slave like the rest of us)."

Now this boy who took to reading the way moss soaks in snowmelt in the spring has an astonishingly low grade in that very subject. And I'm very conflicted about what to do about it. We've withheld some privileges (garage band practice) until the grade improves. We're going to do some helicopter parenting for the first time ever––keeping our eyes on assignments and that evil PowerSchool. I remember being in middle school and having to do word-finds and cross-word puzzles to learn vocabulary words and thinking it was stupid because I already knew the words. I hate enforcing the same regime on my child––a kid who has a more extensive vocabulary than most adults I know––but I'd also hate for him to end up in the dumb-ass English class in high school like I did because I couldn't be bothered with eighth-grade busy work (thank goodness for Mrs. Gibson who recognized something in me and made sure I got moved to honor's English after sophomore year––although maybe dumb-ass English is where I belonged; it just took me three attempts to spell "sophomore").

I would love for M to be in an environment where he could work on his novel––and write more novels––in the context of learning vocabulary and writing skills. But public school is our only option financially and geographically, and I am committed to public school on principle. Also, in another environment (home school––perish the thought), he would miss out on the dodge ball and algebra and socialization. And then there's the thing of learning to deal with people who you do not necessarily get along with (I should mention here that at both parent-teacher conferences and during a phone call, his teacher seemed both perfectly nice and reasonable and did not show any signs of personal dislike of M). It's an important life skill, right?

So what am I dealing with here? Typical preteen boy stuff? A smart kid too smart for his own good? And what do I do about it? Discuss.


  1. I've been in similar circumstances with my daughter, in regards to the busy work and the lack of organization skills. Now that she is in high school and it all "counts," she has figured out her own system that, though it's not the way I would do it, appears to work for her. She still gets frustrated with some of her teachers, but recognizes that she has to do some things she doesn't want to do in order to reach her goals.
    Maybe if he understands that the busy work and such will only be compounded if he does not set himself up for the higher level classes in high school, that would serve as motivation?
    Good luck! Hey, at least the school year is almost over!

  2. I got nothing, except that I sympathize with him. It sucks to be doing busywork that's too easy for you when your brain is firing-up for so much more. But, as you say, learning to follow directions and jump through hoops is as much of a life lesson as learning how to read.

  3. I remind myself when one of my twins struggles with middle school that this is a good place to make mistakes.

    In large part, my husband and I have tried to let our son own his problems. He checks his school online account to track his grades, missing homework, etc. He decides when he needs to stay after school for tutoring.

    Occasionally, we'll ask how he's doing, and either with pride or shame, he will log on and show us his grades. High marks get congratulated. We respond to low one's with a question: What are you going to do about it? Sometimes our response is patient and caring, sometimes it's angry and frustrated, but this isn't our problem -- it's his.

    At the same time, we've communicated with his two teachers our concerns about his academic progress, and our intent that he is responsible for it. We've let them know what pressure/support (or the lack of it) is coming from home in order that they tailor their response.

    We've talked to our son about the consequences of failing. It could mean dropping out of advanced math and repeating the year again. How did he feel about that? How did we feel about that? This conversation ended with a knowledge of where we all stood. Ultimately, school success or failure is only one mirrored image of a child. Sometimes it's unflattering.

    My job as a parent is to expect and support my kid's best effort, whether it brings about the desired letter grade is irrelevant.

  4. I sympathize with him and you and agree with Rachael that middle school is the right place for academic "mistakes". I tried to take a middle road with my eldest who was always learning but also rather unwilling to jump through hoops. I insisted on B's and grounded for C's (one in elementary, one in middle school). She was perfectly capable of getting A's with no real effort through middle school, but I did understand about the hoops - her basic philosophy was "grades and other numbers are just establishment illusions, Mom". Other than the grounding, I tried not to linger on the C's. I kept tabs, because she was not that honest about schoolwork during those years. Once she hit high school and her grades counted for her transcript, she became a whole different student. She is 7th in her (huge) class while taking an IB curriculum - the most rigorous in the world and her GPA is well over 100 and I would never, ever remotely suggest that she do anywhere near the amount of work that she does. She wants to go to med. school, though, so she does it, hoops and all.


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