Why your kids will be fine without “schooling” for a few months; 4 myths we should toss now

We’re spiking with unnecessary anxiety that our kids are going to fall behind because of our current school mess. But as a public school teacher for the past three years, and a homeschooling mom of six kids before that, I promise that these March-June months will NOT delay your child’s learning.

Unless we push too hard.
Then we’re ruining everything.

So let’s not. Too many educators and parents are steered by myths that should be tossed out the window (and leave that window open–we need the fresh air).

Myth #1children and teenagers learn at a steady and constant rate of progression.

Reality: Kids learn just as they grow—they shoot up rapidly, then plateau, then they burst again, then rest again, and with no predictability. Growth is exhausting work—physically, mentally, and emotionally. No student is ever “on task” every single day, all the time. Even my most ambitious AP Literature students will have days where they say, “Do I have to ‘poem’ today?”

One of my daughters struggled to read, weeping daily from age five until age eight, trying to sound out even simple words. Then one day it all “clicked,” and two months later she was reading Harry Potter, finishing the entire series before she was ten. She’s now a successful college student.

Every insightful parent and teacher will tell you that they see peaks and plateaus in their kids, and even in themselves. The “steady progress” we try to impose on students has never worked across the entire gamut of students, but only for a handful of children, which makes us think that if we just push hard enough, all of the students will fall into line.

No. That’s never, ever worked. Let’s abandon that faulty premise right now. Kids need routines, yes–but don’t expect methodical progress from creatures who are fundamentally irrational and still developing. (And when hormones kick in? Oh, heavens help us all.)

Myth #2If we don’t consistently teach children, they’ll suffer. Skipping even one day will set them back.

Reality: If kids miss a day, or a week, or even a month or three, the long-term effects are negligible. Since children are learning in unpredictable stages of peaks and plateaus, nothing we as educators or parents do can change that.

When my adult children were teenagers and younger, we had a period of a couple of years where we moved four times around the country and added an eighth baby. Sometimes schooling was set aside for weeks, and even months. My kids still read books, created art, or explored the nature and history of new towns, and—with no interference from me—still learned.

Not formally, but naturally.

They chose what to discover, and that’s what they remember even years later: exploring new places and learning what they wanted to.

When we got back to “formal” learning, they were on track within a couple of weeks. How do I know? Because later these kids all entered school. Those attending public school for the first time in junior high were straight A students. Those who went to college (three skipped their senior years) all succeeded and graduated, or are on track to graduate.

Missing school, even skipping an entire year in some of my children’s cases, made no significant change to their ability to succeed.

Consider the missed time as a natural plateau, and allow kids to explore and learn naturally.

When they return in the fall, I predict most kids will be more than ready to run to the top of the peak, eager to see which of their friends are already there.

Myth #3We have to make sure they finish the curriculum for this year.

RealityCurricula are created by governmental or private entities who know nothing about your child, or, I would assert, even how children naturally develop. “Standards” are a collection of “that sounds effective” ideas that are quite often unrealistic, unnecessary, and/or just plain boring.

Kids should never be bored of education.
Learning is a natural part of their development—it’s hard-wired into their progression.
If kids are bored by “education,” we’re doing something seriously wrong.

Aristotle once said, “All [children] by nature desire knowledge.” We don’t have to force it, just allow it.

Governments and school boards set standards and teach incrementally for diagnostic and testing efforts, in an to attempt to educate large masses of students. But that’s never reflected the needs of kids, only of the evaluators.

(Blessedly, some of us get to teach in schools where the curriculum is left up to us; I’m extremely fortunate to teach at a school that says, “Do what you think would be most engaging for the students.”)

But ask any other teacher: Do you like the structured and scripted curriculum you’re directed to follow?

They will respond with, “No! I know what these kids need, because I’m with them every day. If only I could teach them what I see they really need!”

Parents concur. In fact, many parents roll their eyes at how and what their children are being taught and the homework they bring home, and wish all of that could change.

It can! Here’s our chance!

There’s no reason why the current curriculum MUST be completed. Most schools aren’t bothering with standardized testing, and many universities are waiving SAT/ACT requirements. The big testing monsters have been locked in a closet for the year.
(Here’s hoping they never get back out.)

In some regions, schools are no longer requiring grades, or aren’t penalizing students for struggling in classes, or are moving to a simple pass/fail assessment.

So while these testing and grading “monsters” have been removed from the equation, let’s truly experiment with education!

Parents, let kids learn what they want! If they want to do the homework pages, let them. If they don’t, forcing them to graph linear equations while holding their phones as hostage won’t actually teach them anything about math, but will teach them a great deal about your relationship with them.

Plato once wrote, “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds.” And “Nothing forced into a mind will be induced to stay there.”

In other words, we can’t force learning. We never have been able to, in thousands of years.

So let’s just accept that reality and let kids explore and learn what they want to, just for a few weeks.

Myth #4—But without constant homework and assignments, students will be unproductive and lose academic ground with their peers!

RealityRemember that learning is a natural part of children’s growth. And I agree with Mark Twain that schooling often interferes with education.  Our current form of mass education has never been the best for kids.

It’s like throwing a gallon of paint in a room. It’ll cover everything, but sloppily. Some walls may feel pretty good about themselves, but the couch is wondering what just happened to it, and the lamp will want to limp off to another room to cry.

Maddeningly, our education system still believes children are simple computers which function with the right data input, although every parent and educator in the country knows otherwise. Every decade we have reforms, and every result is still more factory-line education.

Here’s the hard truth: formal education is already unproductive, and has been for a hundred years. Kids filling out worksheets at home isn’t accomplishing much, if anything. Some parents are expressing extreme frustration, and so are their kids. We’re spinning wheels in the mud, making no progress but creating huge messes.

All that some families are learning is that they hate doing homework sheets together.

(And I’m sorry, but I’m teaching my 2nd grader how to carry the one and borrow the one.)

For the past month, the tenuously-structured education system has collapsed like a poorly-played game of Giant Jenga. Some people are still frantically trying to build back up that tower into some semblance of what they knew, and as the weeks drag on, their efforts seem even sadder.

But many others are quietly taking away planks and letting their kids use the boards as see-saws or catapults or bird houses.

Conscientious administrators are stepping back and noticing that now is not the time for a heavy hand and observations, but to let teachers and parents do what they’ve always wanted to do: nurture children.

Brave teachers are setting aside formal curricula and creating projects and activities that make sense in these times, and not money for curriculum developers. Some of us have reduced by 75% what we try to teach, distilling lessons and activities to the most essential parts, and discovering just how much fluff we can carve away.

Smart parents are taking what parts of the homework sent home makes sense for their families, and are watching their children with love and open minds to perceive what they need, and what they want to learn.

Parents are sharing videos of their children joyfully doing science experiments at home, or learning to change a tire on a car, or discover what all the tools in the shed can be used for, or how to run grandma’s sewing machine, or creep around in forests looking for signs of spring.

And children—if the adults in their lives are paying attention to them—will discover that the world, while closed off in many ways, is now suddenly opened in brand new ones.

This is a huge opportunity to change everything—for us and our kids and our country.
Let’s not blow it.

(My AP Lit class of 2019, happy students on the last day of class. My 2020 class never got to take a similar picture.)

Image may contain: 15 people, including Trish Strebel Mercer, Matyas Nachtigall, Bára Bajgarová and Uyen Nguyen, people smiling, people standing and indoor

 

Thank a mentor today–they probably don’t realize how they’ve inspired you!

Today I sent an email to my old AP Biology teacher, Doyle Norton, who I found again four years ago. I graduated from high school in the 1980s, but Mr. Norton has influenced me as a teacher, even now. He was creative, hilarious, yet so intent about us learning the content. I was thrilled to pass the AP Biology test! Four years ago I wrote him and told him how much he meant to me. He wrote back the greatest, most enthusiastic email–typical for Mr. Norton!

Today, as I started planning for my third year of teaching AP English in a few weeks, I thought of Doyle Norton again and sent him a follow-up email. I realized I’d never told him I was an AP teacher now, too, and I thanked him profusely for his teaching style which I try to emulate (even though biology and English aren’t exactly interchangeable). I’m awaiting his response (I sure hope he’s still kicking around–he’d be in his seventies) but it felt great to say, “I’m now getting to pretend to be you!”

PICT0007

Doyle Norton, circa 1986, on a biology trip to southern California

It’s an immense responsibility to share your vision of the world with the rising generation. That vision needs to be shared carefully, honestly, fairly, and beautifully. I’m still working on that, and will for the rest of my life.

Today with the Light the World initiative is the suggestion to thank a mentor for their influence. Try it. You’ll make everyone’s day–especially your own!

control world students see

My philosophy for teaching–don’t think about it too much

This sums up my approach to teaching, especially my first year.

Now that I’m in my third year . . . no, this still rings true.

(I do think about it, really, but it’s impossible to judge just how a lesson plan is going to go. Every single day . . . impossible.)

pgoing just fine

Get the prequel The Walls in the Middle of Idumea here!

On Greece, Rome, leaning against ancient temple columns, and . . . oh yeah, a new book coming soon!

To my horror I realized today that it’s been over two months since I’ve posted here. The past couple months of teaching high school–with my students taking the AP English Literature exam (scores are released this weekend–biting my knuckles), helping with Junior Prom (I got to be the MC announcing students, but I held back from using my full <announcer voice, voice . . .voice>), getting the school’s literature and arts book published (thank you, Amazon), helping students write graduation speeches (“Why aren’t you mentioning me?”), and grading finals (did they answer all the questions? Just slap a 90 on that.)–well, all that took every last minute of my days.

Then, the last day of school on June 14, my husband and I took off for sheer indulgence to celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary, since we’ve never really celebrated any of our past anniversaries beyond eating a piece of cake. We left our family, flew to Rome–just the two of us–and took a cruise to the Greek isles. It was my first passport, our first cruise, our first major trip anywhere. (People on our ship asked us if we took “practice” cruises before, and I just stared at them, not realizing that’s a thing. Matching t-shirts on cruises are also, sadly, a thing.)

Some of my students, after hearing where I was going and responding to my pictures on Facebook, said, “Man, you must be RICH to go on this trip!” (Forgetting that we’re school teachers in America.)

I replied with, “Not by any stretch. I’m working a second job for two summers to pay for it, we planned our port excursions on our own to save money, loaded up on the breakfast buffet before we left the ship so we didn’t have to eat until we got back for dinner, and for souvenirs we collected sand in test tubes and rocks off of beaches. In Rome we found a grocery store and bought local food for meals, paid only for two guided tours (Delos and the Vatican) and otherwise purchased guide books or just sidled up to other tour groups to listen in on what we were seeing in Athens, the Colosseum, Olympia, etc. We didn’t purchase the drinks package on the ship (picked up our own soda off-ship), walked for miles every day or took local buses and trains instead of taxis, and THAT’S how you afford a Mediterranean vacation!”

I never imagined I’d actually write a paragraph as I did above. Such a trip never was a possibility, only a dream. Yet it happened (after a GREAT deal of planning and saving). I’m still surprised we went through it, and that nothing horrible happened as a result. (I’m guilty of believing that if I try to do something fun, the cosmos will come back and bite me later. It still may . . .)

If you’ve read my books, it’s no secret that I borrow from ancient Greece and Rome: architecture and ruins, leadership and armies, “bread and circuses.” I’ve researched a great deal of their societies to create my own in the Forest at the Edge series.

In Book 6, Flight of the Wounded Falcon,  I gave Perrin and Mahrree experiences I’d never had (ok a little wish fulfillment in my books). I also gave them a way to remember it:

 . . . Mahrree gazed again at the large painting that nearly covered the wall in their little gathering room. For their anniversary a few weeks ago, Perrin had asked a landscape artist to create for them a painting of the ancient temple ruin where they had trekked so often.

The Shins had expected a small picture, but the artist, knowing how much they loved the site, created an immense painting of breathtaking realism of the entire area, with details and colors that left both Perrin and Mahrree speechless.

But the best part was that she had included both of them in the painting, smiling and leaning on either side of a pillar at the top of the stairs of the crumbling temple. They were only a few inches high, but even then the detail was astonishing.

They discovered later that the artist had been surreptitiously following them. Their grandchildren, in on the surprise, had found occasion to ask them to lean against things so that the artist could quickly sketch them at the correct heights. . . .

On nights like this, Mahrree stared at the painting and wished she and Perrin were at the ancient site again, as they had been dozens of times, all alone. . . .

The last time they did it was just a few weeks ago, for their 44th anniversary, just before they’d been presented with the glorious painting.

When Dave and I paid off the trip and realized we were actually going (although I kept thinking, Some disaster will strike and we won’t go; Greece will slip into the ocean, Rome will erupt in a giant volcano, I’ll get a horrible stomach flu . . .) I told my husband that all I wanted were a couple of pictures of us leaning against an old pillar. He hasn’t read the books (although I’ve used him on several covers) so he was a little confused by my request, but he was willing. (I wish you could see his, “Are you serious?” expression. After 31 years, I’ve seen it MANY times. He’s learned it’s just best to go along with things to keep me happy. That’s why we’ve been married for 31 years.)

On the island of Delos, we asked a man with a camera like mine to take our picture. (Here’s a travel hint: always find someone with a nicer camera than yours to take your picture; people with only phones have no idea what they’re doing.) The wind wasn’t too helpful, but the excitement–for me, at least–wasn’t blown away as we posed at the Temple of Isis (not the current ISIS, but an ancient one, fortunately):

Two days later we were in Olympia where the ancient Olympics were held for a thousand years, and whoa–more columns to lean against! So again I recruited a photographer, and my husband gave me that same puzzled look, then gamely leaned against another column:

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I see these photos from just a couple weeks ago and I still can’t believe that I was allowed to visit some amazing places. I still marvel that I’ve been allowed to have nine children, to teach high school students, to write an entire books series, to meet so many marvelous people . . . sometimes life is just too good.

No, I amend that: very frequently life is just too good. When you stop and analyze it, and realize what opportunities it gives you, it’s overwhelming. We have to sit in the grass and just whisper, “Thank you.”

Even if the cosmos does decide to come back one day and bite me in the rear because it’s my turn for a new trial, I’ll still have had all of this. Too much, and too good.

Oh, and did you notice what I put in the title about a new book? IT’S TRUE! I’ve written a prequel about the first High General Pere Shin and the servants of King Querul, and it’s nearly ready to be published! (Ok, so I had a few minutes here and there the past three months, and surprisingly I produced a new book with that time.)

I plan to release it this summer, now that my life has slowed down a little, so watch for updates and a LOT more posts about The Walls in the Middle of Idumea, a Forest at the Edge Prequel.

And no, you do NOT have needed to read the series to read the prequel. In fact, I think it’ll be a good lead-in to the rest of the series, especially since it’s only about 180 pages (not as daunting as some of my other books). So if you have any friends that have been interested in reading, tell them they can begin here!

The Walls in the Middle of Idumea–coming very, very soon!

When’s Book 7 coming? Umm . . .

This is what I published on my “When’s the next book being released” page:

When’s the next book being released?!

How about OCTOBER 2017? I’ve been tinkering with this one (and Book 8) for about five years now, and they’re rarin’ to go! I’ll keep you updated with teasers and the book cover soon, but until then . . . hey, it’s not too far out!

So, the above didn’t happen, obviously. Book 7 is ready–fully edited and rarin’ to go. But since this is a one-woman production, this “one woman” is responsible for formatting and cover creation, then review of the printed product, then revisions . . . all of that takes about 24-36 hours of work.

Hours I don’t have.

Because I’m teaching high school full-time, I find myself doing 3-4 hours of homework each night to be prepared for the next day. (More homework than my students will ever do; something’s unbalanced here.) That leaves me just enough time to feed my family and give them a hug goodnight before I fall asleep at 9pm. (I used to do my best work from 10pm–11:30pm.)

I’m hoping Christmas vacation may offer me the time I need to polish up Soldier in the Middle of the World. In the meantime, other priorities are keeping me from sharing Young Pere and Perrin and Mahrree with you. We all feel badly about that.

By the way, book 8, the final in the series, is also very close to completion, but it will likely come out during summer vacation.

Thanks for your patience. I’m still thinking about you . . .

Who decides what your children are taught?

Question: Who should be in charge of your child’s education—the school board, or the federal government?

While you chew on that, allow me to introduce you to a concept from classical rhetoric, called the “logical fallacy.” There are dozens of ways in which information is presented to an audience that screws up the logic—either accidentally or purposefully, in order to manipulate—leaving no one the better informed.

The question I posed at the beginning? We call that a “false dilemma.” There are only two options provided, so it’s a trick question.

The answer should be, NEITHER.

school board visit

When was the last time you heard of a school board visiting an actual classroom?

Who’s responsible for being in charge of your child’s education? It should be YOU!
Years ago, it was. Ever read the “Little House on the Prairie” series? Remember how the school boards came to be?

They were parents of the students, usually over a very limited region, such as a neighborhood or small town, and that board selected the teachers. Not only that, they told the teachers what they wanted their children to learn. If the parents didn’t approve of what the teacher was doing for their children, the teacher was booted out, leaving the parents and the school board to choose someone else more apt to meeting the individual needs of their unique children.

Tragically, we lost that system less than 150 years ago.

Why is that tragic? Because what’s replaced it is so massive and bloated that it cares nothing about your individual child’s needs, but is focused entirely on achieving goals to ensure that this country is producing workers to keep it competitive. Yes, that sounds dismal and even callous, but it’s the truth. No longer are we worried about developing the thought and knowledge of individuals, but in getting those individuals to conform to a group that we can more easily place in order to improve our economic standing. It’s all about money now, not about developing people. (I’ve ranted previously about that here and here.)

And it’s no coincidence that Common Core Curriculum, funded a great deal by Bill Gates, relies the old tried-and-failed assembly line system of education. (We’ve known for over a hundred years that all children can’t be successfully “produced” like a tool, but someone failed to let Gates—the creator of Windows 8—know that.)

Just getting the teenagers to pass the Final Administrative Competency Test—which over the years had been so simplified and leading in its questions that Mahrree often thought a sheep had a fair shot at passing it if only it could hold a quill to mark the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ boxes—was the purpose of education now.
~ Book 4, Falcon in the Barn

I bring all of this up because, once again, Common Core is in the news. As I write this (July 2014) a few states have abandoned it, reclaiming the right to educate their students according to the children’s needs (although state and even local school boards are still too big to be effectual). However, I live in a state notorious for spending very little per child (as if funding=educational excellence, another fallacy no one wants to address) and lately there’s been a spate of letters to the editors, and newspaper articles trying to defend it.

Just today I read one from a new school teacher eager for her first year of teaching, and enthralled with the idea of Common Core. She insisted all children surely can achieve at the same rates and levels, and I shook my head in sympathy. All of her naïve and optimistic enthusiasm would be drained by, I’m guessing, October.

However, I couldn’t help but notice, based on her letter, that she’d been very well indoctrinated by the educational department of her university, and I suspected that a variety of logical fallacies were likely employed to do so.

Mahrree realized some time ago that she was now the only teacher not enamored with the government’s control of education, likely because all of the teachers around her had gone through the Department of Instruction’s very thorough instruction, and were wholly converted to the notion that government knows best.
~Book 4, Falcon in the Barn

Does this come across as harsh?

Not any harsher than what I overheard a few weeks ago. I signed up my grade school children for some afternoon summer camps at the local elementary, and while waiting for them to finish their projects, I overheard one new teacher talking to another, slightly more seasoned. The new teacher said something like this:

“I’m really struggling to get some of these kids into the rubrics. I feel like I’m not representing them correctly. For example, last year I had a handful of kids easily complete tasks, earning them a score of ‘1.’ But then I had others that I had to cajole, bring back on task, then have them correct their work over and over until they finally got it right. [sigh of exasperation from the teacher] Yet on the matrices, they also earned a ‘1.’ But that’s just not fair, in my eyes. They shouldn’t receive that score because of how much work went behind it. [And in my mind I’m thinking, ‘Hey, sounds like they earned that grade more than those who achieved it easily.’ But wait—here comes the kicker:] So how do I force these kids into the right places on the district rubrics?”

Yes, that’s right; where do I shove them on the form? It was clear by his tone and gesturing that he really didn’t want to have to deal with children that didn’t easily complete the tasks, because they were skewing his rubrics, matrices, or whatevers.

But worse than that, his worry was not on meeting the needs of the students, but on meeting the needs of the school district administrators.

Stunned by the rather formulaic and cold manner in which the teachers proceeded to discuss the categorization of children, I didn’t say a word and pretended I didn’t overhear their conversation. (Besides, I’ve learned the hard way when to shut my mouth.) But that discussion hasn’t left my mind.

Why wasn’t the new teacher asking about why some of the kids struggled?
Why wasn’t he worried that many had to be cajoled, and brought back to task over and over?
Doesn’t that signal levels of boredom? Frustration? Is no one worried about that?
And since when did achieving something easily become the benchmark we embrace? There’s a great deal more learned in the struggle, in the revision, in overcoming an obstacle to finally get it right. We’re not celebrating that anymore? Apparently there’s no space on the form for, “Breakthrough Achievement: mastered the 3 times tables, after two long, difficult months. Celebrating all around.”
Oh, but there should be!

Over the years I’ve met several teachers who, having started their careers back in the early 1980s, have abandoned teaching before retirement age because, they told me, “It wasn’t fun anymore.” By that they meant, the joy was gone; they couldn’t read to their students (I remember listening to my teachers reading us novels up to an hour a day; yes, Little House on the Prairie), or develop crafty projects to reinforce lessons, or do messy but interesting science experiments. Greater demands from those furthest away from the actual children have siphoned off the elements of happiness—and learning CAN be a happy thing!—leaving these teachers depressed and worried for their students.

Most of these bright-eyed and optimistic teachers felt certain every student could be coerced into learning, but in a few years they, too, would slump into the same dreariness Mahrree witnessed in older teachers who knew the system didn’t work, but whose only power against it was to leave it. Maybe they, too, at some point remembered the time when parents directed learning, when students asked the questions, and when ideas were discussed, not forced.
~ Book 4, Falcon in the Barn

The worst part is, even after years and years of reforms, our educational system has NOT improved, and we are outpaced by dozens of countries. There are far too many studies to prove it. Google them, and join in the depression.

Then again, that was a generation ago now, and the only class Mahrree knew of that broke all of the lecture-regurgitation rules was her own group full of “special cases:” the students no one wanted because no one could handle them.

Occasionally Mahrree speculated that if she had additional “difficult” students to educate in her own way, that she just might have enough to foment a full rebellion.
~ Book 4, Falcon in the Barn

More and more I’m thinking, that’s not such a bad idea . . . In fact, it may eventually become the only option. And I’m making sure my kids are ready for it.