Monday, June 28, 2021

Progress is a spiral, but it does happen

I'm a math nerd, in case that wasn't clear before. So when someone said that progress was like a spiral that felt like a circle and showed me a picture, I squinted and said, oh hey, that actually looks like a "screw", which is one of the Simple Machines that makes work easier (you move up not in a straight line but at a more gradual incline; it's slower but it makes it more doable). A fantastic poetic insight, if I do say so myself, but it still doesn't always make it possible to recognize when you're moving up and not just around.

Fortunately, even spirals sometimes have milestone markers.


It only looks like you're going around in a circle

I homeschool my sons. That feels like a confession every time I say it, because I grew up believing in institutional education (even if I always felt like an alien in those environments). I was so earnest, it took me years to realize something was off. Actually, it took the suffering of one of my children, and then the incredible boredom of another. Schools failed my children in one way, but they fail other children in other ways. Not all children, perhaps, but enough that my conscience doesn't ping me as much as it used to about my decision to pull my children out.

I tried very hard to replicate "school" for my younger children, but it took me less than two years to realize that wasn't what they needed. We prioritized play, and I tried to focus on what they did well rather than what they didn't, with the theory that when they were older everything would basically even out. I wanted them to enjoy their childhoods as much as possible, even when I could feel other adults glaring at me because I was doing it wrong, and even when I could hear in their voices the concern that I was somehow ruining my children. Sometimes that made me dig in deeper, sometimes that filled me with anxiety that maybe I was using my kids as a social experiment and not being their mother. But every time I thought of changing course, the cues I got from my kids indicated that they wouldn't do better with more of a regimen.

Mind you: this did not mean that they loved homeschooling with me every step of the way. They rolled their eyes at me so many times they must have pulled some ligaments, and every mistake I made I was called out on. There's a rightful concern that parents can be the harshest teachers of all and make their kids feel stupid; not too many people talk about the ways in which our kids make us feel stupid (but, you know, maybe they should).

It had always been the plan to send them to community college at about this time. "About this time" because I would have ideally done it last year, but that wasn't much of an option given the pandemic. So we plugged along, with the normal attendant dramas along the way. Finally, we got to the point where they were ready to register for classes at one of the community colleges in Boston, but first they needed to take a math assessment test.

Long story short: they both did really well, in spite of the fact that they had never taken a standardized test before and one of them has significant anxiety around math. That one tested into Pre-Calculus, and the one who likes math better tested into Calculus.

I was overjoyed -- one of them will never have to take math again, and the other *might* be able to get out of a Statistics requirement, but if not, that's the only math class he'll ever need. More importantly, they both know that 1) they can handle standardized tests, and 2) that they can handle math. And we did it without "drilling", year after year, something they didn't like into their minds in a way that would make them dislike it even more.

There was no guarantee this approach would "work" if working means performing intelligence for anyone. But that was never what I wanted for them. I wanted -- and still want -- for them to explore the topics that they are interested in and find the things subjects that thrill their minds. Letting them "play" in different ways with what they liked helped foster that, I'm convinced.

It only looked like we were faltering in place...right?

Deb in the City

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