Teachers, leave them kids alone

Jumbled thoughts about homeschooling, conversation politics, and Claude Monet

Hi friends,

This week I want to write about nature, the environment, and homeschooling. Wait - keep reading!

If, in February of 2020, you told me I would be writing about those topics, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was not raised as a particularly outdoorsy person. The fact that buying a house in Lincoln came with a lawn that needed to be regularly minded was a powerful incentive to job hunt on the east coast, where the glimmer of concrete never needed to be mowed. I also never imagined myself homeschooling, certainly not for any length of time. I’m not religious, I come from a long line of outstanding educators, and I have always had big plans for my career. But, as COVID has taught us, life comes at you fast.

In the past few weeks I’ve noticed a shift in my thinking about homeschooling, and I thought I’d write about it here. As with other parts of my life, at least lately, I felt in between multiple worlds. Not quite a COVID homeschooler who was just counting the moments until schools were safe to go back, but also not committed to shouldering the entirety of their education for the foreseeable future

From my way of thinking, there are major downsides to homeschooling. Your kids are with you quite a bit, and you’re in charge of mediating most of what they learn about the world. Also, if your kids are like my kids, it means that people are talking at you all.the.time. For a (chatty) introvert like me, that’s super hard to manage. Last year, my kids were also so starved for human interaction that I had major concerns about the impact of homeschooling on the mental wellbeing. Also – and this might be obvious to those of you who are smarter than me – your kids don’t…go to school when you homeschool. They’re just there. In your home. Where you are too. All the time. There’s no absence making your heart grow any further.

Although last year wasn’t exactly a failure, I’m not sure anyone would have used it as a model of success for homeschooling in my house. We were stressed, a lot. I was teaching and chairing a department and trying to teach Cyrus in the cracks. Jim was finishing his dissertation and job hunting like crazy and teaching. Alma and Maisie were busy being people as we also tried to teach. It was…chaotic. And stressful. And loud.

And this week came exciting news – the Pfizer data for a vaccine for kids 5-12 is good, and is being presented to the FDA, and so soon Cyrus will be able to be vaccinated. He knew about the vaccine being approved, and is really strongly in favor of getting it, but we hadn’t connected the dots for him in terms of it being potentially safe for him to return to school after he was fully vaccinated.

But, somewhat surprisingly, the potential of sending Cyrus back to school gave me pause. What’s different this year? First, we’ve gotten a few big things to go right. Alma is in outdoor preschool three days a week, which she LOVES. That gives time to focus on Cyrus one-on-one. Second, Cyrus goes to a nature/art preschool run by a friend of mine from high school once a week, where he learns about biomes and plays outside all day, and it’s fantastic. On Mondays, Cyrus and Alma go together to a nature-based outdoor homeschooling co-op that meets at local parks in the area. And they’re just so happy. They’re building community, making friends, spending tons of time in the outdoors.

Second, I’ve gotten some time to think about my theory of the world, childhood education edition. Right now, Cyrus’s “curriculum” is 25% science, environment, and nature, 30% history, geography, and culture, 15% math (including math games and number sense as well as 2nd grade math), and 15% writing/language mechanics, and 15% whatever he wants (sometimes typing, a lot of art, a lot of legos, a lot of piano, swimming, basketball).

If he was in second grade in Lincoln right now, those numbers would be inverted: about 80% of his day would be drilling reading/writing/math, with 20% left over for rotating electives and occasional science and social studies. Now, there’s no doubt that there are amazing teachers delivering that kind of curriculum, who can make it fun and exciting for them. I loved his kindergarten teacher.

And I like the fact we don’t have tests. We don’t have homework to continue to drill and kill in the name of “reinforcing skills.” We’re listening to the instruments of the orchestra and learning about all of the different sounds they make. We can go down tangents and rabbit holes. My kid builds caliphates out of legos. We don’t walk in lines and we sit on the floor and we fidget a lot.  

--

COVID has given me space to re-think how I want my kids to experience the world – in terms of quality and skills and content. Jim and Cyrus spent today building a timeline of how Islam spread across the globe in the Middle Ages. On Monday, Cyrus and Alma dug for fossils and learned how to identify different kinds of fossils in creek beds. On Tuesday, they went to the San Marcos wetlands and went on a glass bottom boat tour. Tomorrow, we’re going to explore the Lonestar Caverns and Inks Lake.

Last week, we went to the beach for a week (highly recommend mid-September on the Texas coast for empty beaches, warm oceans, and inexpensive airbnbs!). The kids had a blast building in sand and chasing the waves. But we also had conversations about conservation. There was so much trash at the Padre National Seashore that we couldn’t swim there – just bleach bottles and plastics that washed up on the shore. Fifteen miles down the road, at Mustang Island State Park, the beaches are pristine.

I’ve never found the “don’t litter” message particularly compelling because so much of environmental issues are caused on such a massive scale individual action only matters if corporations and governments care too – otherwise it’s just a lot of scapegoating of individuals and letting big polluters off the hook for killing our planet (Texas energy companies are being forced to “weatherize” the grid, but they can pay – wait for it - $150 not to, based on a law the joke of a legislature passed after the horrible power outages this winter).

We went to a ranger-led class about sand and shells at Mustang Island, and asked the ranger why there was so much less trash on their stretch of the beach. I expected an answer about currents and tides, but instead we got a really nuanced human response.

First, there are the same number of employees at the state and national park, but the state park occupies only a few miles of coast. Because Mustang Island is considered to be part of the community, groups will come adopt the beach and clean it up, and it’s harder to get those groups to go out to the national park – and harder for them to make a dent because the shore was so vast. He also talked about how the plastic was ingested by wildlife, which wound up in our food chain – so the hunters and fisherfolk of Texas needed to be conscious conservation advocates. And then he talked about differences in conservation mindsets in the United States and Mexico, and how Mexicans were more likely to wait for a hurricane to wash away the trash out to sea than to clean up their own beaches.

Ugh. SO. We processed all of this with the kids later.

But we were able to talk about how community connections are leveraged to keep the beach clean, how decisions about park boundaries and hiring help determine how many resources are left over for conservation.

AND we were able to push back against the racist stereotypes of “Mexicans,” talk about how there are environmentalists everywhere, and anecdotes are often not data.

AND then we were able to talk about how we aren’t a family that hunts or fishes (though Cy desperately wants to fish), but sometimes people come from opposite political or cultural orientations with shared goals and can build coalitions.

Not a bad set of talking points over sandcastle building and shell collecting.

I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have had these conversations without homeschool. But I am saying that homeschooling has made me shift how I think of education, and now I think everything “counts” – we can go to the beach and it can be as enriching as any week spent in a classroom.

--

It’s not all perfect – I made Cyrus write 5 sentences about why growling in people’s faces isn’t a good way to build community, and today I sent Alma to one room with a tablet and Cyrus to another room with a computer just so I could think straight for five minutes. Yesterday I didn’t have a minute to clear my head without them talking, and I accidentally put a casserole dish in the oven with the lid on. The lovely smell of burning plastic accompanied our meal, and was a nice reminder I think of how important it is for me to have time away from the kids everyday.

But I do think we’re building a set of knowledge and way of understanding the world that I am proud of – one that looks like the world I want him to build. He came home from coop last week with a gorgeous piece of art. I complimented him on it, and he said “yeah! And it’s in the style of Claude Monet!” my heart was happy.

I asked him, over our millionth game of Go Fish, if he’d given any thought as to whether he wanted to return to school once he was vaccinated. “…No.” He shook his head. I reminded him he would have different teachers, maybe better ones, and friends. I asked him if he felt like he saw enough people, got to spend time with enough kids his own age. “Too many,” he smirked. “I like what we learn. I like it here.”

I think about Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” a lot –

“I am trying to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful."

And my way of selling them the world, right now, is by creating a little cubbyhole where we read about knights and caliphs, where we listen to beautiful music and build sandcastles and play cards all day. And it’s not perfect, but it’s ours.

(Alma picked up a frog! With her fingers!)

What we’re reading:

We started reading the Nevermoor series by Jessica Townsend to Cyrus at bedtime, and the book is fantastic – so fun, creative, and exciting. I think I mentioned this last week, but we’re still meandering through Ingraine the Brave, which is also a lot of fun.

Alma has finally started asking for a chapter book to read at night like her big brother, so we’re reading the first Zoey and Sassafras book to her – Dragons and Marshmallows. A cute, creative main character exploring the world with her best friend kitty. Magic, ingenuity, and a little girl of color as the main character. We love it.

I just feel like kid’s books are so much better than they were in the 1980s.

I also just finished two great books - Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and Beautiful World Where Are You by (my best friend though she doesn’t know it yet) Sally Rooney. Hamnet is the imagined story of Shakespeare’s son who died in childhood, and whom the play Hamlet is named for. The storytelling is really lovely, told through the perspective of Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife. I would recommend it.

Beautiful World Where Are You is Sally Rooney’s third novel (I loved her first two, especially Normal People). It’s the third book I’ve read that was blatantly written during the pandemic. The first two I hated, and this one I loved - I was jealous of my time with it. I don’t think it’s a perfect book, but I do think it’s an imperfect pandemic book. I am not sure if I would like it as much out of space and time, but it was the right book for me to read right now. And one day, when Sally and I become BFFs, I’ll tell her that.

Thanks for reading this week. Next up from the newsletter– Indigenous People’s Day, Gratitude Week, and how to decolonize your fall holidays. And I just might have some special guest posts in store for you.

As always, thanks for reading, invite your friends to read, and if you need a writer, editor, book coach, or zoom buddy, I’m your gal. xoxo