The Best Intentions and a Five Year Old

And now for something completely different

I began two long term projects here with the best of intentions, then parenting interrupted those intentions. Well, it is not fair to blame my extended pause exclusively on my son--I am also to blame. I failed to make the time to continue the discussion. I played turtle and hid in my shell.

My son is now five. I looked at the schools in my area and decided, I think I'll keep him in my hands as long as possible. So, I began homeschooling him, which is a tremendous amount of fun, and a tremendous amount of work.

A parent who engages in homeschooling their child must put a lot of thought into questions many parents do not ask. What do I think an education should be? What knowledge, skills, and types of engagement are important? What do I expect from my child? Are my expectations fair? Do I have the patience and commitment to do this? Am I willing to make the necessary sacrifices to make this work? Am I willing to learn as well as to teach?

I am perilously methodical. I do not rush into things. I research, plan, and weigh possibilities and probabilities. I look for weaknesses where I am sure of my strengths. I put a lot of thought and research into this decision to homeschool my son. After all, it is a decision that requires a lot not just from me, but also from my wife and my son. If any of us resist, the effort will fail. Fortunately, my wife is very supportive and involved in the process. Where she has expertise I do not have, or an alternative view, she presents it and allows our son the benefit of that expertise.

So, I had to decide what education was, and what it was not. Education is more than learning to sit still and be quiet. Of that I was sure. Although conformity is among the goals of public education, often stated as a drive to create a citizen capable of contributing society and exhibited in our nation's growing reliance and faith in the standardized test, conformity is not the best goal for education. It is not a goal with which I am completely comfortable. Conformity, then, was out as a goal.

My son is only five so any education must focus on the fundamentals: reading, writing, and arithmetic. But these fundamentals are actually a wide open door to the entire world, even at his age. He loves Batman. Why not use his love of Batman to work on his reading skills and to discuss issues of loyalty, friendship, logic, and moral behavior? He didn't give a damn about phonics and mastering reading on his own until that skill was connected to Batman. Then, a necessary skill became, at the same time, interesting to him, useful to him, and thus he began to work at it. If he wants to investigate, to know, I have shown him that reading is one of the best ways to do so, and I have shown him this not only by leading him through the process of reading for information as well as entertainment, but by doing so in my own life regarding subjects in which he is uninterested.

One of the problems with the conformist goal of education is the degree to which it is connected to a retention of the monocultural myths of the past. The truth is that the modern world did not suddenly become multicutural, but that the number of involved cultures and peoples in the world, even in the small world of America, was granted recognition, and, in some places, rather awkwardly and stutteringly, respect. In retreat from that recognition and respect, some forces that identify themselves as conservative, although my conservative wife disagrees with them vehemently, are attempting to "hold the line" against the enemies of "real America", and they are doing so through public and official positions of influence on schoolboards and publishing committees. We live in Texas. We know how real, and strange, the threat of such "real American" values can be, when they find Thurgood Marshall too unimportant for inclusion in the required history curriculum. This question of the monocultural/multicultural debate is especially relevant now, when my son and I read and talk about the first Thanksgiving, the Puritans and the Native Americans and their respective futures in this country.

Mathematics was not my best subject in school. I never really liked it. When I was very young I found it dull, and later, in high school, a few inadequate teachers confused me and made me feel stupid. I can handle kindergarten math, of course, but my wife will be on tap for the more complex, later questions and processes. My favorite part of my son's work in math right now is the way in which he works, the problem-solving skills I can see developing, and the pride he feels in his mastery of tasks and principles. If I was not teaching him, it is the small acts that illustrate, not perfection, but a capacity for adaptation, adjustment, and reason I would miss out on. For example, when he noticed that he was straying beyond the bar he intended to color in a bar graph, he did not get frustrated. He lay the index finger of his left hand as a bumper that would prevent it from continuing. It was not a moment of genius, but it was an independent discovery of a workable, simple solution to a recognized problem. It was, in its own way, an amazing moment.

Our biggest problem right now is writing. He is impatient when he writes. He does not focus on shaping the letters correctly. He would be satisfied if the world would learn to read his private code of squiggles and loops, but it will not. He gets bored by the repetitive nature of writing letters, so he begins to sing to himself and then the connection between his brain and his hand is disrupted. An "X" becomes a strange, Hebrew character.

That is why my projects in this medium ended suddenly and my return was so long delayed. I don't know if I will return to those I abandoned. In fact, the next posting will have nothing to do with my son or my previous efforts. I will be discussing Ian Kershaw's new book on the last months of the Third Reich.


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