Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The School Volcano Goes off Again

Sandras Tsing Loh has a new book out, which I haven’t read yet, but am very much looking forward to, based on this interview. I’ve become something of a public school fanatic, to the point where I “erupt” at town meetings when people suggest that eliminating a teacher, or returning to half-day kindergarten would be acceptable options for our school.

When M started preschool at a small Montessori school, a co-worker asked if I was going to send him there for elementary school and I said, “No. I believe in public school.” Which is true—I believe that one of the most populist things we can do is provide all of our children (and by that I mean everyone’s children, even the poor ones and the immigrant ones and by “we” I mean all of us, even if we don’t have children or our own kids have already finished school) with a sound education and that any school is only going to be as good as the kids and families involved in it. Which is why I get really irritated when the people who have the most to offer in terms of time, energy and creativity end up homeschooling or sending their kids to private school…when instead of just benefiting their one or two kids, they can put forth half the effort and benefit 20 or 30 or 180 kids.

Only here’s why I’m the biggest hypocrite—I secretly hoped we would really love that Montessori school and that we’d fall into a big fat pot of money so we could send M there right up through 8th grade. As it turned out, neither M nor I loved it as much as I wanted us to and the pot of money never materialized (actually it shrank immensely when his two brothers were born), so he started kindergarten at the local public school. And guess what? He loved it! And so did I. Not in the way I imagined loving the perfect combination Woldorf/Montessori/Nature Camp school in my head, with its wooly-wooden materials, hands-on math and frog-catching, but I love it because M has had really caring, committed teachers, because when we miss the bus and I walk him into the school, the big, tall 7th and 8th-graders say, “Hi M!” as we pass them in the hall, with genuine enthusiasm. I love the PE and music teachers and the art teacher I want to take home and eat for dessert, she’s so sweet (and the things she teaches these kids are forking amazing!)

I don’t love that the cafeteria serves deep-fried processed chicken three days out of five, alternating with some ground beef nightmare or frozen, pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I don’t love that it took us most of last year to get him into a math program that met his needs. I don’t love that M told me one day last week that B pummeled him all recess because he wanted to “wrestle” when they were playing cops & robbers and that both he and C looked at me horror-stricken when I suggested he play with the girls instead. Sure I wish he was learning a foreign language and went on more field trips. I wish music and art and PE were every day, not twice a week. I wish they spent more time outside at recess and studying nature.

But these are all things we can work around—I can do a better job communicating with M’s teachers to make sure he stays challenged, I can figure out a sack lunch he’ll eat and let him choose which hot lunches he wants to partake of, he can work on problem-solving and interpersonal skills. We can do our own field trips and make the most of our at-home time to go outside. I can volunteer in his classroom and join the PTA.

We have the advantage that ours is a small school and probably a lot more flexible and easy to work with than a big city school. And while M’s smart, he’s not a super-genius so I only have to push to get him into third grade math, not pre-calculus. And as big as I talk, there’s nothing to say that if the Magical Waldossori Nature School opened up down the street I wouldn’t jump the ship of my ideals and swim to their wooly, wooden, froggy shore.

I raised some hackles with my recent post about kindergarten. My point was not to say that parents who hold their kids back a year are bad, but that school (and state and federal) policies that dial up the academic and social rigor of kindergarten while at the same time dialing back the start age are doing a disservice to society...especially to kids whose parents don't have a choice. Apparently I didn't make that point very well. I probably didn't make my point in today's post very well...whatever it is...you'll have to read Sandra's book to find out.

P.S. New post today at Capital Walks.

Edited: I can't get the book link to work for some reason...go to Amazon and search "Mother on Fire."


  1. Aaah! Your link isn't working? What book?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I get this. I totally get this. I know that without that job offer, my fellows would be in public school right now, and I would feel really good about the fact that they were in public school and just what it represents. Heck, I was a Teach For America teacher in just the second corps batch and really heard and believe the philosophy about all kids deserving a quality education. And yes, I still remember and admire Jimmy Carter for making the move of sending daughter Amy to public school in DC while he was president.

    I like to believe I am not anti-public school but having taught in both public and independent schools, I totally see the benefits and limitations of both. Right now though, I am totally down on what NCLB has done to our public school system and the kids. It's certainly not the individual teacher's faults-- not at all. But damn, I know far too many stories from too many public schools (both in economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools) that take away recess from young kids to do test prep. Many say they don't, but it is happening.

    I like to believe I am somewhat noble, but faced with the choice-- and I had one here in New Haven, would not have in Maine where we were living-- I am not noble enough to put ideals about public school ahead of my kids' best opportunities. (And those opportunities are not just academically-achievement driven in case anyone might be wondering:)).

  4. By the way, can't wait to read this book!


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