For the Love of Learning

On Monday of this week, my husband Ben and I visited our son’s school to meet with the principal about some concerns we have.  Along the glass wall of the office ran a long backless wooden bench.  When we sat down to wait for our meeting, Ben’s body stiffened.  I turned to him.  “I spent a lot of time on benches like these when I was in school,” he said, “and I thought my time on them was over.”

Ben was labelled a “problem” child, a “bad” child.  And often his behaviour was, well, bad.  He smashed a wooden block on the head of a mean child, bit his kindergarten teacher on the hand when she was dragging him somewhere, and threw a snowball across a field where it struck his principal in the face.

The behaviour needed to be addressed, obviously.  But rather than consider why he acted so outrageously and use that information to inform a response, the assumption was that he was just “bad”, and the response simply to control him.  No one questioned the requirement that he be still for extended periods of time when his body ached to run, that he sit cross-legged on the carpet when it hurt his legs and for periods during which he couldn’t focus anyway.  No one cared about an irrelevant curriculum.

Like many boys, and some girls, Ben needed to move.  But he was restrained from moving, and that energy got pushed out sideways.

Oh, and yes, he was plied with Ritalin.  Which had all manner of predictable and long-term adverse consequences and about which it would be better if I did not get started.

I have an appreciation of the many wonderful teachers working for and with children against some very difficult odds.  I loved school, and remember clearly a few teachers who had a really meaningful impact on me.  But even the best teachers have an easier time if their class is fairly cohesive as a group, because there is such limited time for individual students.  And, of course, there exists the other kind of teacher too, the one who doesn’t like to teach and doesn’t even really like kids.  During a recent shop for art supplies for the children, my heart sank as I overheard two teachers loudly laughing about the artwork of their Grade 8 students and the teachers’ feigned interest and encouragement at the children’s efforts.

I agree with Beth-Anne’s comments yesterday that our public education system would benefit by allowing active boys to be active boys.  There are a host of ways to release and express those physical energies so that they can be better harnessed later on.  There is more to a boy or girl child than the academic mind, just as there is more to being smart than knowing how to memorize, write sentences, and do sums.  There are other intelligences to discover and build upon, including the intelligence of the body, of emotion, of the spirit.  I did well at school, and it served me well in securing a higher education and employment.  But it didn’t prepare me especially well for life generally, and both our schools and our society will be better served when our definition of intelligence is broadened, and our appreciation of divergent student strengths honoured.

When I became the mother of a son, and then the mother of two sons, I made a commitment to ensure that their education would be a better experience than what my husband had endured.  How do I plan to do that given the limits of some aspects of current public education?  By keeping close watch and participating in what’s going on at school.  And if it’s not satisfactory, being prepared to take them out and learn with them ourselves.

I was so pleased to recently see that homeschooling options had moved sufficiently away the educational fringe to be respectfully portrayed in the mainstream parenting magazine Today’s Parent. There is something compelling and undeniable about the unschooling movement when it asserts that “the world is your classroom”.  Math can be learned from taking the measurements to build a birdhouse, follow a recipe, or plant a garden.  Biology can be learned through sports, drawing, and playing with animals.  Reading and writing can be learned by reading and writing with the people who love you the most.  And unless you live in remote lands, there are opportunities to make new friends and be a team player everywhere.

Homeschooling may seem radical to some, but to me it’s more radical to allow someone or some system dumb down the strengths of children.  Learning comes so naturally to them (did you “teach” your children to walk? run? talk?) that there really is something wrong when that natural impulse is quelled by the very institution that purports to foster it.  Is there anything sadder than an 8 year old so jaded with school and learning that he (or she) doesn’t want much to do with either anymore?

For me, the highest goal of education is to instill a love of learning itself, for life.  It might just be that the people best placed to do that for my children are the people, nestled comfortably within a supportive learning community, who love them the most.

As for my husband, he became a squash professional when he grew up.  Although he has shifted from full-time to part-time work in order to spend more time with our boys, he loves being on the court, where he easily connects with people, especially little people, as a squash coach.  He continues to live largely in his body; he can no more sit for hours on end now than he could when he was a child, nor does he have any desire to try.  The difference is that now no one is punishing him for being who he is.

We’ve also noticed that his body has stayed pretty much the same for the last 20 years, which can’t be said for many men inching their way to 40.  There’s a health and vitality that surrounds Ben when he comes back from moving his body, doing work that he is designed to do, and that can’t be said for most of us either.  What exactly did he lose and what did he gain by not being able to conform to the mould of school?

Ben is with our kids most days, and I notice he makes a point of taking them outside everyday, running them around for hours, biking, gardening, going to the swimming pool in the summer and the dead of winter too.  By two, both kids knew how to hold a racquet.  I notice that familiar health and vitality that surrounds the kids when they come home, where I do most (but not all) of the reading, writing, drawing, crafting, and cooking with them.

Ben’s school history stays alive with me as I watch my boys grow.  We’re hoping for the best with public school, and will strive to make a positive contribution of time and energy there.  We would love the assistance of a school that is supportive of our values and our children’s needs to help us educate them.  But if there’s an impasse, I’m not afraid to try something else.  Deep down, there’s a part of me that believes that taking the education road less travelled might not just make all the difference, but be a truly enriching route for all four of us.

Whatever happens, no one is going to tell me or my boys that they are “problems” or “bad” or “can’t learn”.  It’s just not an option.