Monday, March 17, 2008

In which I become one of those people

First, let me apologize to the 4.2 people who read this space regularly. Sorry to have been silent for so long. I'm not dead, though I certainly haven't been just resting. Nor have I, despite the indignation and frustration of my last post, been fired after telling the VP of academic affairs just what I thought about his policies. No, I've been a good boy; I've just been occupied with other things, foremost among which is the massive amount of grading that accompanies midterms for a CC English teacher. As long as I've been teaching here, you'd think that I'd be able to predict the effects of five classes all turning in papers or exams within a week of each other and plan accordingly. But no, every semester it takes me by surprise, and I spend a couple of weeks in midterm grading jail. I can see daylight now, not because I'm done with all the grading but because it's Spring Break and I'm telling myself that I now have plenty of time to catch up. We'll see.

I've also been occupied with personal matters, and though I think of this space mainly as a professional outlet, it seems disingenuous not to mention the things in my personal life that affect my professional and bloggish output. So here's the deal (and sorry for the length of what follows):

Before Older Monkey turned five last year, Miss Goddess and I wrestled with the decision of whether and where to send her to school. First of all, OM's birthday is in the summer, which means that we didn't have to send her to school at all last Fall. We had no worries about her academic abilities; she is, as would only be expected from one of my progeny, brilliant. But we worried about her emotional and social maturity. She's always been a little young for her age, if you know what I mean, and now she'd be among the youngest kids in her kindergarten class. And there was also the question of school choice. We weren't at all happy with the local public elementary school, but we couldn't really afford private school (though we thought long and hard about the possibility of Catholic school, which was less outrageously unaffordable). We were relatively excited when we found out about two "schools of choice" affiliated with the local ISD. These are public schools that are open to anyone in the district, and which offer alternative approaches to education. In this case, one of the two schools (our favorite) followed the Applied Learning philosophy, and the other (which we still liked) was a Montessori school. Students at both schools are chosen by lottery. We applied to both and were accepted at our second choice. We were fairly happy with the turn of events, but we still wondered whether we should wait a year before sending her off. In the end, it was Older Monkey's enthusiasm for kindergarten that made up our minds. Near the end of August, we drove her to the school that we assumed she would attend for the next several years.

Things didn't work out that way. OM really liked kindergarten at first, but trouble signs appeared by the third week. She became very anxious about various aspects of school, ranging from trouble relating to some of the other kids to worries about schoolwork. Because she'd never really been an anxious kid, we were surprised, but we chalked it up to the transition to full-day, five-days-per-week school. Things didn't improve with time, however. By Thanksgiving, she was having full-blown panic attacks at school and we were spending lots of time with her teacher, the school counselor, and the district psychologist. To make a long story only slightly shorter, we decided to pull her out of kindergarten the first week of December. We really didn't know what our next move was, but we knew that a five-year-old with panic attacks was not part of our long-term plan.

Three months and two play therapists later, we still didn't fully understand where OM's anxiety had come from, but at least she appeared to have gotten over the worst of it. Now we faced a different problem: what to do next year. We were, in other words, back where we had started, except that now we had a legal obligation to send her to school (well, sort of, as we shall see) as well as the knowledge of her trouble last fall hanging over our heads. We applied again at the "school of choice" that we hadn't gotten into the previous year, and though we hoped for the best, we knew that it was a longshot.

What else could we do? Since removing her from kindergarten, we had started to research homeschooling options. Before the objections start, let me say: I know, I know. As both a professional educator and a good liberal supporter of public education, I had been opposed to homeschooling for years and had raised most of the usual arguments against it. Now, faced with dwindling options for my own child, I had to confront my own philosophies. For a time, I remained very suspicious. There are actually a very large number of homeschooling families in this area, but most of them (my sister's family included) have made this decision for religious reasons. To say that we don't fit in with this crowd is an unbelievable understatement. I had encountered quite a few of these kids in my own classes (in fact, I had become a favorite instructor of the the homeschool crowd), and though they were generally strong and serious students, their philosophies and approach to learning were...well, let's say not very academic.

As I learned more about the possibilities that existed, and as we met homeschooling families who were more like ours (yes, they do exist, even in Hawtch-Hawtch), my own resistance to the idea began to soften. In fact, I became rather excited about the prospect of giving my daughter the education that I wish I had received when I was her age. We would study Latin...hell, we would study Old English! She would be reading Beowulf in the original by the time she was seven, and from there, who knows? College at eleven? The tenure-track position I always wanted by the time she was sixteen? Luckily, I'm married to a woman who knows how to pull me back in when I leave on these flights of idealism. Nevertheless, by the time we received the letter telling us that Older Monkey had not made the lottery at our school of choice, we had already essentially decided to give homeschooling a try. For the past few weeks, we've gone from casual research into the varieties of approaches to homeschooling (and there are many) to serious consideration of what we'll be doing in a few months. And I've gone from reading academic blogs to reading homeschool blogs (but don't worry friends, I still read the academic ones as well).

My concerns haven't evaporated entirely. I still worry about the social aspects of Older Monkey's education. I still worry about how this decision will affect Miss Goddess, who has put her own interests largely on hold while the kids are small but who, I know, has had her eye on the day when those interests could be pursued again in earnest. And mostly I still worry about Older Monkey. We may have solved her immediate problem by removing the cause of her anxiety, i.e., school, from the equation. But we still don't know why the anxiety appeared in the first place, and we're still trying to figure out how to help her deal with it. We realize, after all, that she can't go through life simply avoiding the situations that cause her anxiety. I'm not entirely sure, in other words, that the path we've chosen is the right path for any of us, especially in the long run. But here's the truth about parenting: all you can do is the best you can do.

So I hope you understand why I haven't posted much recently. I'll be returning to regularly scheduled programming now, and I'll do my best not to change from Community College Man (a role I never wanted) to Homeschool Man (a role that scared the hell out of me). But don't be surprised if, a few years from now, you read an article in the Chronicle about a remarkably precocious sixteen-year-old medievalist joining the faculty at Penn. Or, you know, Chapel Hill. I'm not picky.


servetus said...

I am not "one of those people," nor hyperreligious, but I honestly think that for certain children homeschooling is best, especially for younger children who somehow don't quite fit the mold. You may find you want to continue this or you may find that after a few years she is ok to go into a public or private school. I think the socialization argument is totally overrated for most children. What public school teaches kids is to socialize primarily with others in their age cohort. Public school educated kids tend to be bad, however, at cross age socializations, where in my experience homeschooled children are better. As long as she has some sort of outside activity where she meets kids her age (music lessons, Scouts, church, sports, art classes, whatever) there should be no problem.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

I don't know if it helps to hear this or not, but my son likewise developed a case of crippling anxiety in kindergarten. It was heartbreaking, and severe. We worked with an excellent, excellent therapist who specializes in childhood issues like this one (you'd be surprised how many children are like ours). Through a combination of play therapy and talk and the creation of successful narratives via books and tapes, she really helped my son to come up with strategies to deal with the anxiety he felt in these situations. He's now in 5th grade -- not anxiety free by any means, but certainly much better having worked with a professional who could assist him longterm.