Tuesday, December 7, 2010

We'd Like That With a Side of Geography and a Textbook Garnish, Please

Education.  It has been on my mind, lately.  I won't lie, going through the college application process has been tiresome and difficult - although I can see how so much of it will be easier for me the next time around - now that I have templates for transcripts worked out, and I know what goes into an academic portfolio, etc.  It will also be easier the next time around because I probably won't have another kid applying to music school, which has meant double the work (although Ellie and her piano teacher took care of the music resumes, etc....but we also had to send in copies of publicity pieces, recital and festival programs, etc, not to mention the pre-screening cd's).

So what does it mean to be educated?  It seems that it means you get a little piece of paper claiming that you're educated, despite the fact that it is well known that schools are spitting out illiterate kids at alarming rates.  They are also graduating completely literate kids, too, so don't think I'm totally trashing schools - I'm just pointing out that graduating from an accredited high school, in and of itself, isn't necessarily a huge academic accomplishment for most of us. 

One of the highly esteemed music schools where Ellie has applied, only asks for a high school transcript - not even an SAT score - for consideration.  Of course, there are also auditions and music resumes etc...but basically - if you graduated from an accredited high school that is all they need as academic proof that you're good to go, so to speak, for college life.  UNLESS...you're homeschooled.  Now I don't agree with this, but I kind of get it, because, you know, I put her transcript together, and I'm her mommy, so technically I could have lied about all of it because well....hmmm....still thinking about why I would want to say she could read and write if she couldn't...but anyway. 

If you're homeschooled, in addition to the highly suspicious homeschool transcript, this music school requires you to take an SAT test.  Even though the other kids don't have to take one.  And that's okay, too.  Really.  Taking the SAT is no big deal and most schools require that or the ACT for admittance.  So - homeschoolers have to take the SAT...got it....did it....scored well.  But then?  They also have to take two SAT II Subject tests.  Just the homeschoolers.  Nobody else even had to take the SAT.  So...did it...smoked it, in fact, with a nearly perfect score on Literature and super-dee-duperty high on the US History. But that wasn't enough, either.  Even though scoring really high should have proven that she could read and write at least as well as the schooled kids.  ACADEMIC PORTFOLIO, folks.  Torturesome, burdensome piece of business, unless you have been compiling one all along - something organized people do, I'm told - it is a big old pain in the rear.  Every course in every subject, complete with textbook titles, authors, publishers, and editions, DESCRIPTIONS of the course, what was covered, when, where, and by whom.  Four years of this.  And let's face it, with the exception of her community college courses she's been taking since the 8th grade - everything was done rather unconventionally - but had to be fit within conventional parameters in order to be considered credible or legitimate.

Ellie is mostly self, community, and family educated, in that order.  When you throw it all together, she ends up with more than enough credits, and way more "courses" than the average high school graduate.  But how do you say a kid "took" British Literature from this date to this date (and please keep it within one year or semester) when she has devoured British literature since 6th grade?  If you didn't actually say, "Today we're starting British literature, and we will finish British literature in 9 months," then did you actually take British literature?  And what about the textbook?  What if you didn't use a textbook?  Well, you could say that you didn't use a textbook - and up the suspicious nature of your portfolio by a bazillion percent...or you can order an Honors British Literature Textbook for a Lot of Money and you can give it to your kid and she can flip through it casually and say, "I've read most of these in their entirety, is it necessary for me to read the excerpts out of this book?"  That's right.  Small excerpts. 

The amount of actual literature in the literature book is minuscule in comparison to the amount of Total Bullshit in the literature book.  "Before You Read..." blabbedy blab..."Pre-Reading Ideas..." blabbedy blab... "Integrating Language Skills...including word analysis, spelling strategy, and a grammar lesson...let's talk about compound predicates here..and Style" blabbedy blag..."Writing Application, Extension Activities, Listening and Speaking..." AND "Analysis of a Literary Theme." NO WONDER KIDS HATE TO READ.

At the time I threw the textbook at Ellie, she was reading four books for pleasure. One was a George Eliot book, "George Eliot is SO FREAKING AMAZING, Mom!!" and a Kurt Vonnegut book, "Oh my god, mom, he is such a fabulous writer!" Anthony Trollope...one of the Oxford Classics...and a tattered and worn copy of Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer - she has read it countless times. On her nightstand rests Oscar Wilde and Sylvia Plath.  But, she didn't do any of the "work" mentioned in the textbook.  The only work she did was to absorb, enjoy, love, and assimilate the words into her soul.  But still, we chose a specific year, put it on a transcript and gave her a grade, as if British and American Literature were items on a to-do list instead of part of a rich and colorful life. 

She did memorize a bunch of terms, such as alliteration and personification, to spit out on her SAT Subject Test, and it took minimal time and effort but time and effort all the same, and she resented it.  It was time she could have been using to read a good book. 

Civics?  When did she take civics, they wanted to know.  Well, in 8th grade she formed her first humanitarian organization, appearing on television, organizing demonstrations, giving interviews to newspapers, and raising money to buy solar stoves and send medical aid to refugee camps in Chad. 

Later, she merged the organization into the first homeschooled STAND chapter in the US.  She marched in Washington, assisted in the Tents of Hope demonstration at the National Mall, lobbied legislators, and more.  She recently voted for the first time, and she volunteered for Obama's Campaign.  But when did she take Civics?  That is what they want to know.  And what textbook did she use and what were her scores?  Luckily, she has taken US Government and US History at the community college.  Luckily, we just so happen to have a Civics textbook on our coffee table, called Activists and Rebels.

I guess the frustrating thing is that the bigger part of my kids' educations, their lives and their interests, will always be just a mention here and there on the back burner of institutionalized education.  The very small percentage of their educations that involve textbooks and chapter summaries, will always have to be in the forefront, even though they are the least effective tools to administer and measure what constitutes an education, at least as it pertains to attaining a secondary education, and Ellie intends to earn a doctorate.

This brings me to Joel and his geography class. He might want to attend college in a couple of years, so we're trying to conventionalize his education. He's taking a distance learning geography class.  Geography should come easy to him.  He's an incredibly curious kid, and he loves reading non-fiction, particularly in relation to cultures and history.  He likes the textbook, and was quite happy to take it to his room and read it on his own the very day it came in. But then the Actual School Work started.  As in, read this, answer these questions (most of which are not answered in the reading assignment) and most importantly...draw and color pictures.  That's right.  He's 16, a head taller than me, and he's being required to draw and color pictures of things like boots, hats, and raincoats (what would you wear in a climate where it rains? draw and color a picture!).  There is lots of copying out of the book, lots of tracing pictures out of the book, and well, you get the idea.  Finding answers in the book is sometimes confusing because his teacher will often come close, but not quite hit the mark, to asking things in the same language as they're described in the book.  For example, she will often use words interchangeably, that are not really meant to be interchangeable.  Like, maybe they both start with the same letter or something, or they sound similar, but they're not the same. 

"Draw pictures of the Earth's Systems found on Page 141."  When you go to page 141, it says, "The Earths Structures." Structures? Systems? Are they the same?  Are we to assume they are the same?  And Joel's answer to everything is, "Why can't I just google it?"  Because Joel is a modern kid and when he wants to know something quickly, he googles it.  It makes sense.  That is the world he lives in.  Flipping through textbook pages to look up ambivalent words seems time-consuming and silly.  Of course, there are always those who argue that you need to be able to look things up!  But mostly?  People use the Internet to do it.  Why on earth wouldn't they? "Looking up things" is no longer a life skill.  Finding information IS a life skill, and today's kids know how to do it better than my generation did.  Hell, there's an app for that, right?

Luckily for Joel, he is extremely artistic and nothing makes him happier than drawing and coloring, even though drawing and coloring were Alarming Areas of Deficit according to his pre-school and kindergarten teachers.  Alarming!  In fact, I'm quite certain I should still be hysterical about it.  I have to keep an eye on him, (no - Joel - please don't say that desert attire consists of a speedo in your back pocket in case you happen upon an oasis - she wants you to draw a picture of a hat and you know it.) I have to explain directions and instructions to him because he has severe language processing issues (how many questions did she ask here, Joel?  Two?  How many did you answer?  One?  Do you see a problem with that? No? The other answer is obvious and you say you shouldn't have to write it down?  But you do.  Because you're not really learning geography, dude, you're learning how to follow instructions....).

Mostly?  This work is way beneath him.  It's way beneath what he normally does on his own regarding finding information about things that interest him.  He is finding it silly, for the most part.  And we're paying big bucks in order for him to do it, so that I can someday put it in a stinking academic portfolio....as opposed to admitting he's learned geography from his humanitarian work with his sister, his own reading (Joel never reads history or other works of non-fiction without looking at a globe - he just naturally wants to know where places are), and quite frankly, watching television.  You want to know about the earth's structures in relation to coal and diamonds?  Joel is a freaking expert and it is because he was completely enamoured with the Americus Diamond infomercial when he was 7.  The kid knows his diamonds, how they were formed, and how they're rated.  He has soaked up a lot of other mindless, yet interesting, information from similar sources.  He's learned very little from textbooks, and his current actual use of a textbook has done nothing to change that.

Now last week, I had become very stressed out from the college application process (UT Austin said they didn't get our transcript and we had to overnight one to them and overnight other things to other schools), and the boys were sleeping until noon and playing video games until 2:00 a.m....I was feeling as if I had failed my children.  I wasn't providing the education that they needed to jump through the college hoops - and here they were sleeping until noon and refusing to do the very few academic tasks I had suddenly asked of them.  I lost it.  I yelled.  And I threatened them with SCHOOL.  Camille started crying, Joel ignored me because I've done this before, Jules pulled the big Backfire Plug by saying he'd always wanted to ride in a school bus, and Jasper screamed, "What?  You want to send me to school?  But I'm not EDUCATED!!"  That was my point, but he was missing it. 

I calmed down.  Honestly, what were the odds I was even going to be awake when that school bus came by?  The mere thought of getting them ready for school was enough to put everything in perspective.  We'll jump through the hoops.  We'll look up words in the book, even though we could find them faster, and with better explanations and possibly videos, on the Internet.  I'll try to fit in interests on a transcript within a specific semester, and label them as courses.  The boys are getting up earlier, we've made a schedule, they're currently sticking close to it...and you know why?  Not because they think it is enhancing their educations, but because they think it is making my life easier and relieving some of my anxiety.  Because they're sweet boys, that's why.

The two little ones are doing whatever they want - I refuse to make them do otherwise because, so far, no college has asked for a first grade transcript. 

At this moment, I have a 16-year-old who is building an impressive pirate/whaling ship out of Popsicle sticks.  This is for Odyssey of the Mind, and their skit is based on Moby Dick, so he's read Moby Dick and watched an old movie from Netflix.  He can now say dick without laughing, but he still can't keep a straight face.  He's probably on hour four with the ship building.  I have a 12-year-old making a seagull...started with a dirty sock and some plastic grocery bags and I didn't think it was going to amount to anything but guess what?  I think once he gets the feathers on, it is going to be a rocking awesome seagull...something else to do with Odyssey.  I have an 8-year-old who just made a patchwork coat using scraps of fabric, and then she and her little brother finished working on a log cabin they began making several months ago.  Ellie, as she so often is these days, is out and about doing her own thing. In between all of this, there is guitar playing, menu-making (Camille is into playing restaurant), clothes folding, Dickens reading (we're reading A Christmas Carol out loud because I freaking love to do that), recipe searches (Joel's making vegetarian lasagna while I'm at ballet tonight with Camille), script-writing (more Odyssey), video watching, and yes, alien-shooting via the XBox.  There have been religious discussions this morning, and philosophical discussions, as well.  There has been a lot of joking and at the moment, someone is singing while someone else laughs hysterically.  And I just heard a bad word. 

All in all?  It's education.  That's what we're serving up over here.  And the textbooks?  Not even a side dish.  More like a useless garnish to make us look better. Because making us look better is what it's all about, folks.


  1. to me you look absolutely fabulous as far as I can make up from your brilliant posts - I'd say: keep up the good work! warm wishes for the upcoming end of the year, jade from Jamioulx in Belgium (to be found on Google Maps!)

  2. So glad you wrote this. Timing couldn't have been better. I am up to here (pointing to the sky..can you see?) with the nonsense we have had to generate for transcripts.

    I mean really..working with refugees from..everywhere.. co-ordinating mission trips, traveling in other countries..and giving endless speeches doesn't count for speech or geography?

    Hmm..do you know a good textbook?

  3. "You're learning how to follow instructions" - so sad, but so true.

    Thanks for sharing this - finally :) Just think, if you had homeschooled in another state you would have had to do this EVERY year!

    Hopefully Joel will find a place where they recognize his creativity, and he won't have to jump through all those hoops for no reason.

  4. If I let Fred read this, he will never, in a billion years, homeschool our kids. The least that you could do is to lie to me and make it sound like a piece of cake. You know, the good kind of cake with like Chocolate icing. Or maybe even peanut butter!
    Anyway, maybe by the time that your two youngest get to college age, Homeschooling Applications may be more easily accepted. I would suggest that Homeschooling becomes more popular every year. I would have loved to be homeschooled as a child. Although my Mom refused to cook Tater Tots. So maybe not.
    Your Friend, m.