Rough Story

So yes, PK and I are going to start homeschooling next month. Officially. (I’m already sneakily showing him the occasional documentary and of course his entire life he’s had tons of books, etc., so.) I’m kind of apprehensive about it because, you know, I haven’t done this before; moreso because PK is not in a great place right now where “school” things are concerned. Mostly he wants to avoid all talk of “school.”

How’d we get here? A brief, truncated explanation: kindergarten was great; he loved his teacher, had a couple of good friends, teacher loved him. For first grade we’d moved back to the US and he was enrolled in a “good” (read: high test scores) school. Suddenly we had tons of homework, his being occasionally a couple minutes late meant we got letters from the district about his “habitual truancy,” the teacher was rigid and not real patient with PK’s social difficulties (“if he’s going to have long hair, he’s going to have to expect that,” when I told her his classmates were hassling him for using the boy’s bathroom). By the end of the year he was regularly crying himself to sleep at night with worry over “being behind” and hiding homework in his desk.

So the next year we switched him to a different school, still public, that was run very much like a coop. Parents were expected to volunteer several hours each week, they helped teach small groups in class, the classes had mixed grades, there were lots of campouts and handson artsy craftsy stuff. Kind of a hippie school. Socially, he was much better off; academically, he was bored, but his 2/3 teacher was a fabulously empathetic young man who pretty much allowed PK to read whatever he wanted and opt out of “centers” (small group). The 4th grade teacher was far more rigid again (he left the school after one year, actually; it wasn’t his bag) and put PK on a “behavior contract” because by that point PK had gotten pretty used to being allowed to do whatever he wanted. Also, to be honest, PK has always been extremely comfortable arguing with adults and has had a temper–so when he was frustrated with adults or his peers, he would often end up yelling. I spent most of that year backing the teacher and giving PK incentives/punishments for adhering to the behavior contract. He did get much better about restraining his temper, but I think he also got more frustrated because he perceived that even when he restrained himself, the adults around him didn’t change the behavior that was frustrating him or insist that his peers do so (minor bullying, etc.).

In 5th grade he had a sympathetic teacher again, who was particularly appreciative of his math skills. He enjoyed her class but continued to be frustrated with the academic pace of the school. There were also one or two kids he disliked intensely and, as the year wore on, it became clear to me that the teacher who would have him for middle school (the school went K-8) was apprehensive about PK’s “behavior”. I was also growing frustrated with the school for different reasons. So PK visited the “regular” middle school, was excited by seeing that they had a “real science lab!” and opted to go there for 6-8th grade. I made a point of having him tested for GATE over the summer in the hopes that that would help get him more interesting academic content, which is what he really wanted.

Only it turned out that GATE only applied to Language Arts and Social Studies, that 6th graders didn’t have a separate science class, and that his math teacher was again, very traditional and rigid. She wouldn’t hear about PK’s frustration with doing pages and pages of math homework that covered things he already knew, or his refusal to “show his work” on problems he could do in his head, and we started having the screaming crying anxious fights over homework every night, like we’d done in first grade. By the end of the first semester PK hated school, talked about suicide, and was generally incredibly angry and hostile. Amazingly, neither teachers nor administrators observed this–he was keeping it in during the school day–but that meant that they didn’t believe me when I said there was a problem. He was also getting some bullying for his long hair and unconventional attitude, and felt as he had in fourth grade that the adults weren’t responding to his complaints about bullies with any kind of real action.

By the end of that semester, the school had called the “crisis team” out; two social workers from the county showed up at the house along with two policemen.

PK did not go back to school after that. I put him on what our state calls “home hospital”–our pediatrician was very sympathetic and willing to provide an anxiety diagnosis and a note saying that PK should not go back to school–and he had a tutor come out for five hours a week to make sure he “kept up.” The first tutor was not a good fit and walked off the job after the second meeting, so the district called his former fifth grade teacher (who I had talked to, and been telling them wanted to be his assigned tutor, and had been asking for) in and she helped him finish the year.

But even so, he had to use the sixth grade textbooks, which he loathes (“Mama, these are SO STUPID and BADLY WRITTEN”), and because his teacher had to “provide documentation,” he still had to do a certain amount of homework. During this time we also had him tested for all sorts of things: pscyhological problems, learning disabilities, IQ, academic achievement (what does he actually know), etc.

It turned out that academically, he’s working 3-8 years ahead of his grade. His reading and math reasoning abilities are at about the college level. His IQ is very high. But the speed with which he writes? Is that of a third grader.

No wonder the kid didn’t want to show his work or do all that damn homework.

So, as I said, we will be homeschooling starting this fall. In addition to figuring out how to “teach” him I’m having to figure out how to treat his anxiety and possible depression, his current hatred of all things school, his distrust of and hostility towards most adults, and his mild (and I think situational) agoraphobia. We’ve come a long way just over the summer in learning how to have reasonable discussions about things we disagree on rather than screaming fights, and he’s becoming much better at listening to me tell him things he doesn’t want to hear. I’m collecting tons of possible learning resources, reading all sorts of shit about “gifted” children (I have a problem with that word, hence the scare quotes–but it’s the one that everyone uses) and home schooling (which, like “gifted” education, is often associated with things I dislike: hostility towards public education, religious-based education). I’m having, obviously, to tackle some of my own prejudices and preconceptions, including the preconception that PK would manage to get through middle school the same way I did, by keeping his nose in a book and ignoring the crap that bored or bothered him. PK, it turns out, is not the type to keep his head down when something offends him. I’m learning to listen to him, to see him for who he is, and to figure out how to differentiate between “changing” him and teaching him how to get along in the world.

Luckily, I have a good, mutually-supportive marriage; the husband has a well-paying job that he loves (today, as it happens, is our 20th anniversary and he’s on a road trip vacation with some work buddies); we have good insurance that covers lots of therapy; the husband has a strong science and math background and I have a PhD in English and mad research skills.

Most luckily of all, I like hanging out with my kid, and always have. Hopefully that will see us through.


13 responses to “Rough Story

  • Dr. Confused

    PK sounds a lot like who I was at that age, in a lot of ways. I also had (& have!) a really hard time handwriting, never did my homework, and was way ahead in math and English. And I did attempt suicide at age 15, so good on you for actually paying attention to those signs and doing what you can. If you ever do decide to send him back to school, see if you can get a proper diagnosis of “dysgraphia” and that should let you get some supports that might, e.g., let him use a computer for most assignments or otherwise limit the amount of handwriting required.

    My daughter is only 4 at this stage, but I’m already seeing so much of myself in her. She doesn’t have a dominant hand long past the age her peers do, she’s uninterested in writing or drawing, she’s showing signs of perfectionism (for which in myself I had always blamed my mom’s constant criticism of me, but maybe it’s actually a personality trait), she’s at least 4 years ahead on reading and a couple on math, and she struggles with her social skills. I’m moving countries at this point in part because, while everyone tells me the schools here are “great”, what they mean by that is that they do well in standardized tests. They are very focused on tests and homework. I do NOT want to fight with my kid about homework, especially when homework in the earlier grades has not been found to help academic achievement at all. So I’m moving to a bigger city in a more liberal country, and sending her to a “free school.” I really hope that the freedom to attend or not attend classes and the age mixing will help her to enjoy learning, rather than have her current love of learning “beat out of her” by a rigid school system. I’m hoping she can read with the older kids and socialize with the younger ones.

    But if this doesn’t work out, I am always open to a new educational path. And I think that’s the best thing we can do for our kids.

  • jo(e)

    I suspect that this will be a great move for both of you. I used to have all kinds of reservations about homeschooling, but then my sister decided to homeschool her two kids, and I got a chance to see how well it could work. Her oldest is seventeen now (the same age as my youngest), and this year he’s taking a few community college courses to get himself ready for college.

    My sister’s approach is very relaxed. Her kids read a lot, go to lots of museums, and do projects on their own. They have very busy social lives because they are always doing activities with a bunch of other homeschooled kids. It’s worked out great.

  • Aaron Potter (@TwoBodyProblem)

    When you say “writing” at a 3rd grade level, do you mean physical handwriting or the mental act of constructing sentences, grammar etc?

  • g2-90243340170ae13ad68231d60411b63a

    I think you’re doing an amazing job of handling something that would make me want to curl up into a little ball in the corner of the room. :-)

    Personally, I find the idea of “unschooling” very compelling from a philosophical standpoint, and if I were less lazy or temperamentally better situated for it, I’d strongly consider it for my kids. Along those lines, have you considered doing an eastern philosophies topic with PK? I’m asking because I wonder if meditation would be useful for him, and I’m betting a meditation practice would be a lot more attractive to him if couched in a socio-cultural historical context. I know lots of public schools have been adopting meditation techniques, and there’s research to show that they’re particularly effective in combatting anxiety and stress in the middle school and high school ages. As someone who suffers from a lot of the same issues (anxiety, tendency towards depression, being too [academically] smart for my own damn good, etc.), I’ve found zazen enormously helpful, and I’m trying to figure out how introduce it in my 3 and 6 year-old kids’ lives.

    I can’t wait to read more about how you’re doing this. Yay for blogging again!

  • Elise

    Er … that was me. Sorry for the weird name string.

  • tedra

    Aaron: Oh, I mean the speed with which he writes (and therefore, the kind of stuff he gets on the page). If you let him talk his ideas out, he comes up with amazingly complicated arguments. He tends to speak in full paragraphs, has lots of parenthetical asides, actually will go back and ‘edit’ what he’s just said to phrase it better, etc. He writes long sentences on paper, too, and is prone to run-ons. But he only puts a tiny fraction of what he wants to say down, and he gets frustrated and angry about the whole process.

  • tedra

    Jo(e): That’s pretty much the approach I’m hoping to take. I think, in fact, that the biggest challenge may be just getting both of us off our butts and out of the house…

  • tedra

    Elise: That’s a good idea, “studying” eastern philosophies to introduce meditation. I’ve been thinking the same thing, re. meditation, and am hoping to figure out how to afford signing us both up for a yoga class (as both PE and possibly an intro to mindfulness/stress release). He’s slowly coming to realize on his own that staying focused on what he’s doing rather than thinking ahead sometimes helps when he’s stressed, and yeah, I’m hoping to capitalize on that.

  • Dave W.

    Hi, Tedra. PK sounds a lot like my own son a few years back, though there are some differences. Best of luck with the homeschooling. Having you in his corner makes a big difference.

    I also put up a few more book recommendations up at Unfogged.

  • Anne

    Wow. Take out the police intervention and put in the fact that I WAS my son’s 6th grade English teacher (small private school), I could have written much of that story. Neither of us are at the school any more, and I’m going to do my best to help my son not hate school. (The show your work thing almost killed all of us last year–same deal for my son. Math & Reading way above grade level, writing way below. ). Our first unschooling task is going to help him become a proficient keyboarder. If that’s all we accomplish in the next few months, I can live with it. I think it will help a lot. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • ladydianastarr

    Excellent. This would be my eldest if he stayed in until 6th grade. Good job getting him out of that, mama. And yes, he is Gifted, with a capital G and no quotes!!

  • tedra

    Heh–the scare quotes and lowercase g are about my problems with the term, not my doubts about PK’s intellectual talent. :-)

  • max

    Ooo. Late to the party. (Lost all links and RSS feeds.)

    It turned out that academically, he’s working 3-8 years ahead of his grade. His reading and math reasoning abilities are at about the college level. His IQ is very high. But the speed with which he writes? Is that of a third grader.

    Oh, hai, PK! You’re me. And I do mean, almost exactly. I would say that I had the same writing problem and that, in fact, I never fixed it. They couldn’t make me fix it. But you’ve seen my handwriting so you know that.

    And my honest opinion and thus best advice is, don’t force it, it doesn’t help. What the kid needs is a keyboard, and if we’re critiquing grading papers, a printer. (Boys traditionally lag in fine motor skills anyways, yes, even the high IQ boys, so it’s just faster and less painful to go to the keyboard.) Main problem there is keeping the games out of it, lest he get distracted, which he will.

    Save the necessity for writing for math.

    [‘OK, now I’m going to go read the rest of this stuff.’]

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