Sunday, July 15, 2012

Summertime Success or Summertime Slump?

Photo courtesy Flickr, under Creative Commons
This was going to be the summer that made a difference.

I was wholly unimpressed with fourth grade. I tried really hard to like or at least tolerate his main teacher, but by the end of the school year that became utterly impossible.

My appreciation of his language arts teacher waned far earlier when I realized she wasn't being sweet; she was being condescending.

Together, they were bullies. Bullies to Dylan and bullies to me and RockStar. 

I tried to share with them as much information as I could. Information about what worked with Dylan and what didn't. Information about ADHD and executive function deficits. Feedback on how homework went during the evening and how I had hired a tutor to help. 

I even asked them for advice. But their bottom line was that Dylan was not trying, he was on par with his peers and certainly not as motivated as they were.  He was not even interested in doing things on his own. The unsaid undercurrent was that our parenting was highly deficient and we didn't hold him up to a high enough standard. The impression was that Dylan was not keeping up and, possibly, never would. It seemed like he was just not worth their time.

Although Dylan managed to not only pass fourth grade but also that year's high-stakes testing, I didn't feel he had really gained the education he should have. Where were the hands-on science experiments? Where was the handwriting practice he desperately needed (as opposed to demands for handwritten answers)? Did he really "get" the math he had learned? Was he reading for enjoyment, or because he had to? (I knew the answer to that!)

So I started the summer anticipating a whole learning environment, kind of an "afterschooling" rather than "homeschooling."

It hasn't gone quite that way.

We have done some science experiments, which Dylan absolutely loved plus he had science at one of the camps he attended. He also had a couple of days of math at camp, too.  We are about halfway through Hugo, which we have co-read (he reads a page; I read a page). And we have had several handwriting sessions based on something I read about "handwriting clubs." 

Is that enough? The answer is, I don't know.
Photo Courtesy Flickr, under Creative Commons

The science was easy. He has a genuine love of science and he'll eagerly do anything hands-on related to it, although I did have to watch for his low tolerance for frustration. One night we did balloon rockets. He got easily frustrated when it was difficult to get the string to go through the straw and nearly melted down when our first go at it had disappointing results. I tried to point out that that was what science was all about - trial and error.

I really thought we would've been through more books by now, but so many other things seem to be getting in the way of reading, the most infuriating being the television. Our family rule used to be no TV on a weeknight. But RockStar started relaxing that on his nights with Dylan even before school got out. Since school's been out it has been a very alluring temptress. I've tried to maintain a no-TV policy on "my" nights with Dylan, but have relented from time to time for a variety of (good and bad) reasons.

I'm most disappointed by the lack of handwriting progress. At first, Dylan was excited by the format of our, very exclusive, "club." This was the general outline:
  1. Large-motor exercises such as running, jumping jacks, or faux balance beam walking for about 5 or 10 minutes.
  2. Small-motor exercises like squeezing a stress ball or stretching our fingers for another 5 minutes.
  3. Letter play.  This took a variety of forms, including writing letters on each other's backs with our fingers and having the other person guess what they were. Probably 10 minutes.
  4. And finally, writing on paper, with a goal of at least 5 minutes. 
Photo Courtesy Flickr, under Creative Commons
Although I kept the methods for number four very easy, it was still a challenge. The first time, I asked him to write about his day. The goal was to keep writing, not worry about spelling or grammar and to not get stuck on getting down just the "right" things. He still stalled, thinking about what to write, so I tried to just get him to write what I said, but he balked at that. One night he agreed to write in the Handwriting Without Tears book we have, but another night he wouldn't do it. In fact, he's gotten to where he just won't write for me.

I thought it would be easier to get him to "write" on the computer, but short of typing games, he has been resistant to typing, too. When I try to ask him "why?" he doesn't want to write or type, he doesn't know. It's like the very idea puts up a wall of frustration and fear in him. The idea that he might do it "wrong" does seem to be part of it, but I also can't help feeling that there is a disconnect between his brain and his writing that he just doesn't know how to get past.

School is now three and a half weeks away. I can feel the tension creeping into my shoulders over the very idea of it. I don't know who his teacher is and there is a very good chance it will be a teacher new to the U.S. I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing. I've yet to get the results of his psychoeducational testing and I fear that it won't give me something to use and point to in getting him more help. If that's the case, it will almost seem to validate his fourth grade teachers' opinion that he's just not interested in trying, when I know that's not true.

Today I read an article on the Great Schools website about "Why Boys Fail." It's a somewhat depressing but all-too-real view into one writer's experience with her son. Author Christina Tyner-Wood says, " I hoped as he got older, this bright boy would be more willing to speak up and demonstrate that his inattention is not incomprehension." But their experience showed that things had to get a lot worse before they could get a little better.

Her son does ultimately get his act together, although not without needing to repeat a class. They hopscotch through schools and teachers, always trying to find a place that will value his strengths, rather than highlighting the ways that he doesn't conform.  To me, this experience sums up public school in America right now:
In the fourth grade, for example, his language arts teacher warned me he was failing so I called a meeting. She handed me proof: a test where he’d been asked to write a response to a prompt. She had given it an F.
It was good — and not just the grammar and spelling: he could write a lead, build suspense, and tell a joke. “What’s wrong with this?” I asked. “This is good writing — even for an adult.”
She handed me the rubric she had been teaching from. It stated a sentence had to be six words long. “He used a two-word sentence. I am not trying to teach good writing,” she informed me, the irony apparently lost on her. “I have to teach him to write to that rubric so he can pass the EOGs (end-of-grade tests).” I pulled him out of this school shortly after.

Isn't that just crazy? He wrote something (I would be singing!) but it didn't follow the rubric, so it was deemed "not good enough." How, tell me how, have we gotten so far off track that this makes sense in any school? 

Like the author of the article, I have to work and we can't just jump up and move to find a more suitable school. She does have her mother come oversee homework (her son is now in high school) and limits homework to just an hour (per the advice of The Homework Trap's Kenneth Goldberg). She tries to find solutions that make sense for their family and her son's skills and abilities. But the article ends with somewhat of an unknown. It sounds like her son has more high school to go and they don't know if his overall grades will be good enough to get him into college. To me, he sounds like a bright kid (he takes honors chemistry) and the idea that we would squash the dreams of a kid like that are horrific.

Tyner-Wood's article is not the first I've read that talks about how we are pushing down the curriculum. Pre-school is the new first grade. First grade is the new third grade, and so forth. Dylan's class covered algebra this past year.  I wasn't introduced to "X" until some time in junior high! At one time, in a much more sexist era, boys outnumbered girls in colleges. The reverse is true now. We just are not valuing the way that boys learn.

I certainly do not want to go back to the days when girls only went to college for the MRS. degree, but we need to find a way to balance education. Bright, interesting, and interested boys - like Dylan - need to be valued! They cannot have teachers giving up on them in fourth grade! 

If nothing else, I'm not giving up on him. 


  1. My daughter is entering 5th grade this year also. We were lucky to have a fabulous 4th grade teacher but it was still a struggle as it was the 1st year any of the kids were really challenged. I'm hoping this yr will be better.

    What I have noticed is that our public school does not seem able (or willing, I'm not sure which) to do anything other than teach in a 'one size fits all' manner. I wish there was a way to teach to each child's strengths. I'm sure there is, I just wish they'd do it!

    I hope your son has a better 5th grade year. He deserves a good teacher.

  2. Hi, Debra! I so agree about the "one size fits all" model. The expectation is that all these kids should be at exactly the same place in their learning and should all learn the same way. The reality is that there can be more than a year's difference in their physical ages and even more in their emotional ages. The more I read and learn about education, the more I think the model that we follow is outdated and ill-equipped to deal with such a diverse population of children.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. My appreciation of his language arts teacher waned far earlier when I realized she wasn't being sweet; she was being condescending. sell structured settlements