I should love this photo. Just a quick snapshot of brothers. Of math homework. Of team work. I see that in their faces and in their postures. But it’s also a photo of frustration, of disappointment, of indifference. It’s the portrait of homework in our home.
I was reading an article today from a teacher who had fostered self choice when kid’s selected books in her classroom. Her guidance and courage in allowing them to choose their own adventures fostered a love of reading, it created readers and lovers of learning! It was lovely, well written (you can read it here)
and full of excitement and passion for kids, for reading, for education. As much as I loved her words, her love of her craft, I felt sad. I felt a bit ripped off.
We have had some teachers with true passion, a flare and a fire in their bellies they willingly shared in hopes of igniting that same fire for learning in my boys. We have had others who came, did their job and went home, offering an organized, constructive work environment. We have had some who came, did not do their jobs well and went home, presenting the opportunity to learn that not everyone will be easy to deal with, not everyone will do as they are expected. All have offered unique education experiences and lifelong lessons.
Despite the wealth of excellent teachers my boys were exposed to, one thing that did not happen for my children in their educational experience is the fostering of a love of learning or reading in the traditional sense. If you know me, you know that reading is a part of my daily appetite. I spent every night — and still do often — reading to my babies before they slept, and during the day, and at nap time, and at odd times in between. I read to them as elementary school students and I read to them more than was expected or recommended to me. We read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Charlottte’s Web and Treasure Island. We visited Aslan and the Magic Treehouse. We cried together over Wonder and read about dinosaurs and football and dinosaurs and … football. So much did I want them to enjoy reading, to want to learn. I did it all right, by the book. And yet …
The boys liked to read, and were mildly enchanted with traditional learning when they were younger. As they have aged reading has become a burden, a yolk placed across their shoulders. Learning, in the school setting, has become something to endure, a storm to weather. They treat homework as if it is the plague. The stress of school and homework in this family is one of the largest stressors in our lives. I hate that. It makes me angry.
The shift came about subtly, as they aged and were given less freedom of choice, less movement of their ever vibrating bodies, they became less engaged, less concerned, less excited. The more tests they were given, the more energy they spent to sit still, the more it drained their education tank. Eventually, waking them up in the morning became a true chore. Eventually, we came to the place where we are now … where school, reading, learning have become something to get through. A task that must be done. A means to an end.
Don’t get me wrong, my kids have never been the ones standing on the street corner an hour before the bus was due to arrive, in fact about a week after first grade started Cooper walked in from school and announced, “I don’t know about this school thing.” I said, “What do you mean you don’t know about it?” He replied, “It’s really cutting into my play time. I decided I’m not going anymore.” Yeah.
As I read the article my mind raced, I let them pick their own books, we had outings to libraries and book stores. We read chapter books and novels and Golden books and homemade books. I did my part. So why, why even with all the exceptional teachers we have had and my hours and hours of reading to them — do my boys continue to hate school? To be burdened by reading?
It’s not a lack of lust for knowledge that they have. Cooper designed and built a snow board rail, making a material list, drawing up his own prints and building it with his own two hands. It worked! Jackson wanted hermit crabs — when I challenged him that we didn’t know anything about hermit crabs he responded with 3 pages hand written notes on how to take care of them, where the best place to buy them was and a list (with prices and tax) of items he would need. We got two hermit crabs. Aiden, wanting to give a special gift to our family for Christmas wrote a book and illustrated it. Printed and collated it and wrapped them up — all as a surpise. He was 7. They have fostered a love of learning outside the classroom that can not be quenched. . But inside those four classroom walls — comes the death of that thirst.
In this photo Aiden had asked Cooper to help him with his homework. The senior, a lifetime advanced math student, sat down to help his 7th grade brother who is struggling in math. It took Cooper 15 minutes of working and thinking to come to the conclusion that he had no idea how to solve this math problem. This came after Aiden had already invested 120 minutes of his evening doing math. It came after I had attempted to help him for 30 of those minutes and it came after his brother Jackson added, “Math is stupid. Why is Aiden doing math for 2 hours at night?” This picture is the epitome of teaching to the test — in theory Cooper (and Jackson for that matter but he wouldn’t even look at it his confidence that he would not know how to do it was so certain) should easily be able to answer the question.
I have no answer. I have no reconcilliation. I don’t know why after “doing everything right” my boys still don’t have the outcome of education I would have desired and that by and large their teachers fostered. Sure, I have a theory — that over testing has kidnapped free instructional time. That stressed teachers with no planning and too many students and no aides create classrooms that speak to that. That there are teachers that should be given raises and given awards, and there are teachers that should be fired. That there is a race to nowhere going on and we have stopped teaching children and started to teach testing and outcomes and results. That we have forgotten that children are inately inquistive and that if we foster that desire to learn, learning will come. That there are under funded schools and over funded administrations. That there are also under funded teachers and administrations who are fighting every day to change these things without community support or help. That we have decided education is the single most important factor in a child’s success over kindness, empathy and curiosity.
I have no grand point to make in all of this. Just that I’m sad my kids hate to read. I’m sad that somewhere in the last 18 years a lesson I didn’t want instilled was hard wired into their brains. I’m angry that school is equivalent to torture and that the passion and skill of the lifetime of good teachers (well, mostly amazing, sometimes awful) they have had has fallen on ears with hands cupped firmly over them. I am angry that standardized testing and standardized testing and more standardized testing has hand cuffed our teachers and kidnapped our kid’s time. I am pissed that state legislators are using my boys and their brains and their time to collect data and are killing their instinct to want to learn by testing them to death. I am frustrated that our school board and superintendant are discussing a balanced calendar because “kids need more time in school” when the time they are there is not used as wisely as it could be (standardized testing, anyone?).
Please don’t misunderstand that I am placing blame anywhere but squarely where it should … which is an educational system that over tests kids and creates an atmosphere where teachers are not free to teach, to advocate for learning and to create curiosity and critical thinking. For now, I will stay up late with Aiden, rub his back and make him peanut butter toast while he trudges through another night of math homework while I remind him we have 22 early wake ups left before summer.