Category Archives: critical thinking

Unschooling the Intensely Gifted: A Cautionary Tale

So you’re supposed to “follow your child’s interests.” Which for gifted kids can include “overexcitabilities” (aka “intensities,” which is a better descriptor imo) like “intellectual intensity” (the need to explore an idea RIGHT NOW) and “psychomotor intensity” (the need to do something physical) and “emotional intensity.”

Here is what that looked like today.

I took PK out for a walk on the beach, because he and I have both observed that if he gets some fairly strenuous exercise every day, he is less anxious and argumentative. But because of his Intellectual and Emotional Intensities, he refuses to just, say, take a martial arts class; he has no patience for formal instruction or putting up with other people and is especially stressed and shy about doing anything in a group right now. We are still dealing with the fallout from middle school. So because I am a 45-year old woman, the compromise position is long nature walks rather than, say, sparring or footraces or some other shit like that that I am not going to do. Mostly this works pretty well.

After our exercise/p.e. regimen, we sat down to do a little bit of math. PK is working on finishing the Portfolio Assignment for the first chapter of IMP book one, which is as far as we have gotten this year; by way of Not Letting Him Off The Hook I am insisting that he finish the portfolio before we can call the un/homeschool year “over.” It asks him to collect some written work, write a cover letter showing that he gets the point of the first chapter (i.e., math is largely about figuring out patterns in things) and describe his own “learning” over the course of the unit, which mostly so far means him saying things like “math itself does not suck but schools make it suck and I used to love math but now I hate it.”

Needless to say, working on this triggered some of his Emotional Oversensitivites and he became pretty upset and angry, and we had a loooong talk about why I make him do math even though he now hates it. (The answer I gave him: because I am hoping to help him rediscover his enjoyment of it, because I want him to learn not to give up, and frankly because being able to do basic algebra is kind of a requirement for high school and college and although I cannot make him go to college or even finish high school I am still hoping that he will at least have those options available to him.)

This discussion, by the way, triggered my own Emotional Overexcitabilities, but luckily once he’d written a bit for the portfolio–which actually means he dictated it and I typed it up because he has some Motor Difficulties which make writing difficult for him (he is seeing an Occupational Therapist for this but for the time being I act as his scribe)–we were done with “school stuff” for the day. We were also done with his “non-computer-based free time” because it took us about an hour to process the ensuing discussion about why he hates school, how unhappy he is, etc., while I took the laundry off the line outside and he paced about, venting.

Since in addition to refusing formal classes of any type, he also refuses to do talk therapy for the time being (we have an appointment with his psychiatrist on Wednesday to talk about adjusting his meds, by the way), I am more or less also serving as his therapist. I am perhaps slightly less unqualified for this than one might expect, given that I’ve been in therapy myself for years (yeah, yeah, that might also make me even more unqualified, hardehar) and that I have been basically drinking this gifted/child psychology stuff from a firehose for the past year. At least I hope I am slightly less unqualified than one might expect, since it’s the only kind of semi-therapy the kid is getting these days other than the medication. In any case, I am pleased that he is starting to talk about not only how much he resents his middle school experience but also about his hopes to overcome and get past it–including, in this case, his hopes that some day he will enjoy math again. I am calling this progress.

In any case. So after p.e., math, and an informal nonofficial “therapy” session, kid was allowed to get on his laptop with the caveat that he would get off it and clean the kitchen when it was time for me to make dinner. I went out for a well-deserved beer on the porch, and did some more reading about Gifted Adolescents and their Overintensities for about half an hour, until he came to me with a request.

“Mama, I have two questions for you. The first is, will you give me permission to do something? The second is, will you supervise me so that it will be safe?”

“What is it you want to do?”

“Make and throw a Molotov cocktail.”

Now, before you think DUH THE ANSWER IS NO, you also need to know that because of his Psychomotor Intensities he has been getting in a lot of trouble lately for destroying things–breaking up terra cotta pots that held plants in the back yard, smashing pieces of scrap wood that his father had designs on, etc–and that I made him a deal that if he feels the need to destroy something, would he PLEASE come tell me and I will do what I can to accommodate that need in a way that is safe and will not get him in trouble. So instead of just saying HELL NO, I put down my book.

“Well, that could be pretty dangerous. Where do you want to do it?”

“I thought the driveway seemed the safest place. I don’t intend to really throw it hard, more like just a gentle toss.”

“The problem with the driveway is we’re going to end up with a lot of broken glass and possibly some fire. What if we went somewhere like a big empty parking lot? We could put the push broom and a dust pan into the back of the car…”

“No, I don’t want to have to go anywhere. I want to just do it in the driveway. I promise I’ll clean up.”

“Okay, well, if you do it on our half of the driveway,” (we share part of the drive with the neighbor, who you will not be surprised to find thinks PK is an absolute spoiled brat and therefore I try really hard to rein him in when it comes to our shared space), and you don’t throw it near anything flammable, I suppose it might be okay. I will have to move the car, and we’ll have to make sure we have the cleanup stuff and safety gear ready to go.” Yes I realize that I am not being, perhaps, as firm as I might be about Safety, but a parent only has so much energy. So either hang on to your judgment and fuck off now, or suspend it and keep reading.

“Great!” he says, and starts to run off.

“Hang on!” He stops as I stand up. “We need to do this carefully, which means that we need to talk our way through each step. You can’t just go off and get started until I know exactly what you’re doing and we’ve prepared. How do you intend to make this thing?”

“I’m going to put some rum into a bottle and light it on fire.”

“Okay, first of all, you are not allowed to use the expensive rum. Let’s see if we can find some cheap alcohol.” We dig around in the bar and I come up with some Captain Morgan coconut rum that someone must have left after a party. “We can use this. Let me go get the shop vac out of the closet. You will have to help me carry it down stairs and into the back yard, but first let me move the car.”

When I’ve finished moving the car and return to the house, he is holding an empty ginger beer bottle filled with coconut rum, with a dishtowel stuffed into the neck.

“PK. I do not want you lighting one of my good dish towels. We will have to use paper for that,” I say, taking the bottle away from him and pulling the towel out. It is soaked with rum, of course, so I set it in the sink. “Now let’s get the shop vac.”

PK, meanwhile, is grabbing some printer paper. “HANG ON,” I say. “I’m not sure printer paper is going to work; if you twist it up it won’t have that much oxygen in the neck, and it’ll probably go out. Though it’ll be soaked with alcohol so maybe not. We can give it a try, I guess. BUT FIRST,” I raise my voice as he starts twisting the paper into the bottle’s neck, “you need to help me get this vacuum cleaner outside. We need to get everything set up beforehand.”

He sets the bottle and paper down and helps me with the vacuum cleaner. We get it back to the driveway and I instruct him to pull the cord towards the house to see if it will reach. It doesn’t, of course.

“Okay, now we need an extension cord.”

“There’s one right here!” he exclaims, and reaches down, unplugging the back yard freezer and starting to pull the extension cord it’s attached to–which the husband carefully ran up and over the door frame to reach between the freezer and the outlet–off its hooks.

“No, STOP. You just unplugged the freezer. We need a different extension cord.”

“Oh, shit! I’m sorry.” He plugs it back in.

“Let’s go see if we can find the blue outdoor cord,” I say. We look around in the house and fail to find it. “It’s probably in the garage. Let me find my keys,” I say. The garage, you see, is now locked in order to keep PK from getting into the tools unsupervised and smashing up more things like potted plants or, god forbid, windows.

I can’t find my keys in the house, so I tell PK I am going to go see if I left them in the car when I moved it out of the driveway. I’ve locked the car, since it’s now on the street, so I am peering through the windows trying to make sure the keys aren’t in it when I hear PK shouting for me from the house. Once I’ve figured out that the keys aren’t in the car, I walk up to the front door.

“WHAT, Pseudonymous Kid?” I probably sound a little exasperated.

“Mama, never mind. This is turning into way too much work,” he says.

So it’s true: unschooling will eventually teach your kid the lessons you want him to learn. Lessons that no matter how many times I have explained to him–“No, that will be way too much work,” I have said–he has never really internalized.

That said? I’m really not sure it was worth it.


Educational Practice vs. Parental Sanity

Teachers need to “assess students’ work,” which basically means just finding out if (what) the kid is learning.

Parents need to “keep their sanity,” which basically means getting the kid(s) out of your hair.

I get how these two goals are met with traditional education: the parents send the kid the hell off to school, breathing a sign of relief; the teachers send the kids home at the end of the day, doing likewise; and both sets of adults collaborate to force the kid to “do their work” during the school day and afterwards in the form of “homework,” which the teacher looks at in her “off hours” WITHOUT THE KIDS HASSLING HER EVERY FIVE MINUTES, marks, and sends back home where diligent parents hopefully “check it” and thereby know more or less how the kid is doing. And so on.

This whole process was a big problem for us when PK was in school. He loathed homework, there were lots of fights about making him do it, and lots of passive-aggressive notes between me and his teacher about making him “show his work” in math. The enormity of this struggle was a major part of the anxiety and stress that eventually led to us homeschooling.

Which means that now I have to figure out a better way ALL ON MY OWN.

The pieces of the puzzle are as follows.

  1. PK’s writing is very slow for his age.
  2. However, he freely draws diagrams and such of ideas he has, so he can/will write if he wants to. Not essay-style stuff, generally, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for him to write a paragraph on his own if he has an idea. He’s been known to make little books, etc.
  3. That said, he “doesn’t like writing,” by which I mean if you tell him to write something he will complain, dawdle and avoid. (As indeed will I, and most writers I know.)
  4. He’s done powerpoints in the past, and generally preferred them as school-based assessment methods. But there’s still, of course, the “you have to do this” issue and the complaining/dawdling/avoiding.
  5. What he DOES like is talking. A lot. He will ask questions and then interrupt your answers to answer them himself, or to argue with what he thinks you are (going to) say(ing). He is CONSTANTLY coming to me and saying “Mama, can I tell you [about my idea for a new video game/what I think the worst possible movie-theater food is/about this cool thing I built in Minecraft/why Superman is such an annoying cartoon character/etc.?”]
  6. It DRIVES ME CRAZY when he does that.

So basically, it’s like the homework problem that most parents deal with. The preferred assessment method (yammering about whatever pops into his mind) requires Mama to drop everything and focus her attention on the kid. The up side is that I don’t have to “make” him do it and it doesn’t end in tears; the down side is that it requires me to grit my teeth, feign interest (I truly can’t actually get myself interested–not least because if I am interested, then I try to contribute to the “discussion,” which ironically ends in raised voices, if not shouting, as he tries to talk over me), and Be Very Patient about setting aside my own thoughts and activities.

When he was in school, this same talking preference, of course, was a major problem in the classroom. I usually told his teachers they had all my sympathy and I would not, myself, want him for a student. And yet HERE I AM. Most of his good teachers would establish with him, early on, some kind of ground rule whereby there was an agreed-upon signal that meant “not now,” which he would obey, and then he could come to them later (at recess, during a break in activity, etc) to ask his question/share his idea. He and I have a similar system–but whereas at school, there were all sorts of other people (friends, other adults, etc) to share the burden of listening to his non-stop thought stream, now there is JUST ME.

And as is surely clear by now, it drives me batshit. And honestly, I don’t listen all that much; I do a fair bit of nodding and saying “hmm,” and a fair bit of just flat-out saying NOT NOW or THAT’S ENOUGH or YOU TOLD ME THAT YESTERDAY. In my defense, I am not just being an asshole parent; I write (and use online social media a lot) for a number of reasons, one of which is that too much talking or noise overwhelms me. I like social events just fine, but if I’m trying to think, I prefer to do it in silence. (Though come to think of it, I am quite happy to “think out loud,” too, if I have an audience.)

Even so, shutting the kid up because he’s driving me nuts is, of course, Terrible. Doubtless I am making him feel rejected and adding to his anxiety and squelching his love of learning. But I am only human, and seriously, this kid is one of those classic geek types that will go on and on about something while those around listen politely and try to slowly edge away….

(I also want to teach him some damn social skills so that he doesn’t do that to people.)

We’ve tried the dictation software on the Apple OS; learning to work with it will be a long process of slowing down, checking its transcription, adjusting his enunciation, learning to punctuate as he goes along, etc. A good tool, eventually, but not yet–and of course YET ANOTHER THING he “has” to learn (thereby putting me in the taskmasker role and him in the dawdle/avoid/argue role).

He knows that typing software exists; it too is in that category of things I’d need to “make” him do. (I will, because typing is an invaluable skill.)

I’ve suggested to him that perhaps he would like to write a blog (no)? Make YouTube videos about his various interests (maybe)? I could have him simply record himself talking, I suppose, as well (would I have to later listen to it??).

It’s clear that one of the major things we need as “gifted homeschoolers” is to figure out how to balance the flood of information both ways. I have stuff I want to share with him (teach him, make sure he learns); he has stuff he wants to share with me (things he’s learning). Frankly we both kind of suck at listening to each other, because we each value our own thoughts over the other person’s.

I feel certain that I am not alone in needing to figure all of this out. If anyone knows the answer, please tell me. (As I type this, PK is interrupting me–for the third time!–to tell me about some kind of Minecraft shit. HELP. Bonus incentive: if he’d stop interrupting, I’d blog more often…)

“Deschooling myself”

Interesting series of articles I happened across today:

1. What is Unschooling? Peter Gray, Psychology Today, 9/15/2011

Academic researchers have steered clear of any serious study of unschooling, just as they have steered clear of Sudbury model schools and all other innovations in education that deny the value of an imposed curriculum.

2. The Benefits of Unschooling, Peter Gray, PT 2/28/2012

It should be clear to anyone reading this report that this is not a random sample of all unschoolers. Rather, the respondents are those who in one way or another found the survey form and took the trouble to fill it out and email it to me. One might expect that, as a whole, these are among the most enthusiastic unschoolers, the ones who are most eager to share their experiences. The general claims I make here apply only to the group who responded, not necessarily to the whole population of unschoolers.

3. What Leads Families to “Unschool” Their Children?, Peter Gray, PT 3/26/2012

“School was awful for the whole family. Homework. Hours. Social issues. Lack of physical exercise. Lack of family time. Discipline problems…. I was literally dragging my kids to school they hated it so much.”

By the way, this particular article has a useful section on “influental authors” that led to some respondents’ decision to unschool; a good starting place for unschool philosophy/intellectual origins, I hope.

4. The Challenges of Unschooling, Peter Gray, PT 4/11/2012

“Coming from academia, probably the biggest hurdle was my own schooling or more accurately, deschooling myself and letting go of the belief that a ‘good mom’ provides endless ‘educational’ opportunities, without which a child is doomed to mediocrity. Learning to see learning everywhere, and understanding that learning has no connection to teaching.”

I don’t think I agree that learning has no connection to teaching–but maybe that’s because I’m not adequately “deschooled” myself yet….


Critical Thinking

One of the things that kind of weirds me out about homeschooling is that, unlike teaching, there seems to be little to no internal critique of it in homeschooling circles (at least, from what I’ve seen so far). Like, on one of the FB pages I follow, someone asked yesterday if “the dads” were involved in other people’s homeschooling. A couple of people said no, a few said that they help on weekends, and after about a dozen comments I said that, because men still have much greater earning potential than women, I too was the primary homeschool parent and that this was one of the things that bothered me about homeschooling. (I then went on to say that the husband does x, y, and z with PK and that although I’ve historically seen this as just part of “being a dad,” surely now that we homeschool it’s also part of PK’s “education.”)

No one responded to what I said, unless this–“I know a couple of families where the dad is the primary care-giver and the mom is the primary money-earner. I know a few more families where the parents are both involved in both. My husband does some things with my son, but I do most of the schooling”–was intended as a response (if so, it’s extremely indirect). Eventually one father commented, very briefly, to say that he was the primary homeschool teacher, but that his wife did all the research and organization.

I wasn’t trying to troll, but it’s odd, to me, that homeschool forums seem to be so unselfconscious about homeschooling itself. They also tend to be very “positive” and upbeat–even when someone is asking about a problem they’re having, most of the responses seem to be, in effect, “everything will be fine!” There’s one exception to both the lack of critical discourse about education itself and positive thinking: public education, which is “okay for some but not for us” at best, though more often it’s irredemable–a whole other topic that I need to think/write about.

My guess is that the upbeat tone and lack of critical self-awareness are both artefacts of the fact that “homeschoolers” are a broad group with a fair bit of potential for strong disagreement lurking right under the surface: there are those who prefer “christian” curricula, athiests, and those who see education and religion as distinct arenas, anti-public-schoolers and former public school teachers, etc. So obviously if discussions are to be had about curricular approaches or shared resources, it’s going to be important to shelve what could be potentially devastating arguments about those kinds of differences. There’s also the (not at all unrelated) social imperative that women who don’t know each other well avoid conflict, and having seen plenty of online forums self-destruct when differences of opinion got too personal for folks to tolerate, I can certainly see why this happens. (It’s interesting, btw, that I have yet to see overt monitoring of comments or messages–people seem to police themselves pretty carefully. Though I have no doubt that if someone were openly critical of someone else’s opinion/approach, there would be a moderator from somewhere who would step in.)

So I get why it happens. But it’s kind of discomforting, especially in an educational context. It bothers me because it feels weirdly anti-intellectual not to have open discussion of the cultural context in which homeschooling is happening, or the goals of the movement (and it is very much a movement), or its social/political effects.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t homeschoolers who are politically active as homeschoolers–there are–but so far that seems to be simply around ensuring that home schooling is legally protected, and again, those discussions seem to studiously avoid questions about the potential for “homeschooling” to be a cover for indifference towards and neglect of education. (I assume that homeschool activists would say that public schools are perfectly capable of being indifferent towards and neglecting education, which is true, but doesn’t address the problem.)

It’s an odd little subculture that I’m finding my way into. And I worry about the indirect and possibly (but not entirely) unintentional lessons it’s teaching us about the relationships between the individual, the nuclear family, and the broader societies we are part of–even while acknowledging that it is itself the result of broader social difficulties we have with those relationships, difficulties that obviously many parents think are being taken out on our kids.