Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Personal responsibility" doesn't apply to kids

Today the boys and I found ourselves at the Tadpole Playground.  We frequently do, as I've written about before.  We were there for two hours because the boys kept finding new kids to play with and new things to play.

For the last half of our visit, I had a conversation with another mother.  I swear, she was the one who initiated it, because people might think that I go about instigating these things.

This was my companion's story: For most of her life, she hadn't lived with her mother, who was currently in a detox program.  She had a stepfather who lived in Boston but she lived with her grandmother in Lawrence.  When she was in middle school she had received an IEP because she was a "slow learner" who has difficulty remembering things.  (I asked her if there was a specific diagnosis but she didn't know.  I also asked her if anyone had ever tested her IQ and she didn't know what that was.)  Math is an extreme challenge for her and she only knows some of her multiplication tables.  Division is difficult, and anything beyond that she can't do.  When she was in high school they put her into "old Lawrence high school" where they put the kids with behavioral problems.  The issue with that was that she had a learning problem, not a behavioral problem.  She hated it there, and not surprisingly ended up repeating 9th grade twice.

When she was sixteen she became pregnant.  At about month seven, she started experiencing excruciating lower back pain.  She went to the doctor and they sent her home, telling her it was part of her pregnancy.  She came back when it didn't go away and was turned back again.  Finally, after a third time, she was sent to one of the hospitals in Boston who diagnosed her with pneumonia.  (This happens.  When I was in my twenties, I had a series of low-grade upper respiratory infections and later got a secondary infection in my spine.  This is how I came to learn what my sacroiliac joint is.)  She was treated for that as well as swine flu, but they later discovered she didn't have swine flu after all.

Because she was so sick and the treatment was so aggressive, the doctors took her daughter two months early. Shortly after, because she was trying to remove her throat tube, they put her into a medically induced coma for 45 days.  When she finally saw her daughter, she was two months old.

Her memory problems became worse after the coma.  Miraculously, she did manage to take the GED and passed four out of the five tests.  She did not, however, pass the math test and would need to take it again.  She doesn't see the point.  She enrolled after in a Certified Nursing Assistant program.  She enjoyed the program, but she didn't do well on the test.  It's an understatement to say that she doesn't test well.

She is worried about her daughter who, like many preemies, is underweight.  Although three years old, she easily fits into 24 Months-size clothing.  Also like many underweight children, her daughter doesn't like to eat a lot and has trouble putting on weight despite supplements of Pediasure.  The child also has memory problems and is receiving early intervention services.  While she received SSDI benefits, her daughter was deemed ineligible.

Oh. My. God.

You have to understand, the young woman was not bitter or depressed or downtrodden.  As young as she was, with as many challenges as she had, she knew enough to be concerned about her child and to note parallels.  She was just another mom at the playground.  There was no pathos.

But her story still outrages me.

I get that most people are going to react to her mother having a drug problem and her pregnancy before they react to anything else and that all other reactions will be colored by those.  Some people are going to feel she proved she was stupid because she got pregnant and/or didn't have an abortion; some people are going to assume that her mother's drug habit caused her learning disabilities in utero; others will say this is what happens when you don't have a two-parent family and/or one parent who can advocate for you in the schools.  Regardless, there's going to be a loud chorus to the tune of "personal responsibility".  If only there'd been a little more of that, this tragedy could have been avoided.


Let's assume the worst and attribute this woman's learning problems to her mother's drug use.  If that's true, how does this excuse the rest of the story?  I have a serious question: do we not believe that it's possible for someone in that situation to be helped?  I do, but if the larger "we" doesn't, why make these kids go to school?  If the reaction is a sad shake of the head, why did we waste this child's time in the first place?

Yes, a seventeen year old gave birth to a baby.  That's not the preferred course of action because, well, the mother was seventeen and it's difficult for a seventeen year old to support herself much less a child.  It also interferes with her education and most of the time ends it.  And it's so easy to judge because, after all, pregnancies and births are preventable.  Just one thing: given that Lawrence's public schools were put into receivership, how confident are we that when she was a young student she received a competent sex and health education?  I'm sorry, did you just say that's her parents' job?  Please see above.

But you know what, maybe critics who would tsk that this is what we can expect when we don't have parents who will go to the wall for us are right.  In fact, I'm sure of it.  And there is my outrage.

No child, regardless of how much she could have depended on her parents, should have been treated the way she was.  If there were therapies and protocols that could have been employed to help her become a better learner or strategies that she could have been taught to get around her disabilities, they should have been and as soon as possible.  I'm not asking for an angelic super teacher to have swooped in and saved the day; I'm saying that if someone noticed they should have gotten her the help she needed.  At the very least, she should not have been put into a group with behavioral problems when that wasn't her disability.  I'm not surprised at all that she hated school.  Who wouldn't?  Why would you then expect that she would thrive in such an environment?  Or had she already been written off by the time she was in the 9th grade?

Why do we require a child to have a parent to be treated decently in our schools?  Why are our baseline standards so low that we accept poor outcomes unless someone says they're not acceptable?

In a way, the answer doesn't matter.  As Bill Belichick said, it is what it is.  While I know plenty of dedicated teachers and administrators, when I hear stories like this, it's just not enough.  Maybe I'll change my mind tomorrow or as soon as I hear a(nother) success story.  But if said story includes a lot about pulling one's self up by the bootstraps, making sacrifices or the strength of a dedicated family, don't bother passing that to me for review; I've already heard it before.

Deb in the City

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Dreaming of Alexandria

When I pulled my children out of school a few years ago, it quickly became evident that the boys needed play time and Jazmyn needed some decompression time.  You might call that "unschooling".  It wasn't a philosophy as much as it was a recognition that if I insisted on structure I wasn't going to get it unless I wanted to fight with them all the time.  Besides, one of the things "experts" bemoan about schools all the time is that the younger children don't get as much unstructured playtime as they need.  My boys could have it... for a while.  It was always my plan that by the time they were eight they would start "doing" a little bit more.

Well, the boys turn eight in August and after keenly feeling the need for more structure in my life, I decided it was time to start sneaking some structure into theirs.  Thus, Jazmyn now has a Geometry workbook (and boy is she loving it, much more so than Algebra) and the boys have started doing... worksheets.  (And with that, I have just been drummed out of the Unschooling families' club.)

Here's the thing: my sons have very different skill sets.  Simon started reading when he was four and now reads really, really well: Scientific American-well.  (Yes, I appreciate that this isn't as much of an achievement as it would have been two decades ago, but he is only seven.)  But he dreads math.  I'm not a child psychologist or an expert in education, but my guess is it's because he needs to concentrate just a little harder on numbers, and he doesn't speak that language yet.  He has a short attention span, and he's easily frustrated when something doesn't come easily to him.  So he doesn't want to do it.

Jacob, on the other hand, was much slower to read and does so only reluctantly, which is a nice way of describing the tears and screaming Michael and I get when we asked him to read, oh, a sentence in the past.  On the other hand, he is very good at both math and languages.  Because Simon liked to poke at him for being slower at reading, he returns the favor whenever Simon is struggling with a math problem.  There should be a lesson in here about karma, except I'm the one that always has to break them up when they start shoving each other.  (Hmm, maybe it's a different lesson than the one I think it should be?)

Through persistence, cajoling, bribes and possibly a little bit of trickery, we've managed this year to get Jacob to read literally hundreds of sight words in one sitting and Simon to sit through grade-level math worksheets.  And you know what?  Said tasks were completed in under five minutes.

You might sneer and tell me it's because we used really good bribes, but it's not that.  We have tried that tactic before, and it hasn't worked.  Some might say that it's the age- seven does seem to be a magic number in many cultures, and even these two are starting to lose their wild monkey affect.  I think there is definitely something to that, but I think it's also something else.

The grade-level work is easy for them.  The sight words Jacob read so quickly?  They're for third-graders, not second-graders.  The math worksheets I gave them, the first they've had in years, were from the middle of the second-grade math curriculum.  Even Jazmyn, who cried in frustration when she was working on Algebra this year, tests at an 8th-grade math level, one or two grades above where she would be in school (depending on when you want to start counting).

Sam just finished her second semester of college.  She's younger than many of the freshman, but she's technically a Junior.  She's doing very well.  I won't publish her GPA, but she's got me and her dad beat so far, and we didn't do too badly.  (Oh, and the reason I won't publish it is because she thinks it's too low, never mind that in my day it would have qualified as summa cum laude.)  

My point is not that my children are brilliant; my point is that the standards are really, really low.  This is why I decided when I pulled them out that I wasn't going to buy a curriculum or get too bent out of shape over what educators think my children should know.

I get that being able to be home with my children is a luxury.  A privilege, if you will.  I'm humbly grateful.  I think about my friends who wish that they could have the same arrangement but can't and I'm sad.  Public education is a necessity for many and I'll fight tooth and nail to help preserve funding for it.  But it makes me feel a little queasy that for so many children in public school, as Mel King said, algebra is the ceiling when calculus should be the floor.  No, not queasy.  Upset.

I'll be the first to applaud when the schools raise their standards and make me feel like my kids are actually missing something.  Until then, we'll be playing games, doing worksheets, drilling alphabets, reading science dictionaries and dreaming of the Library of Alexandria.

Deb in the City

Monday, June 11, 2012

I've been working on something

This is my soft launch for the homeschooling blog I started. (You know you thought I needed to start another blog.) There isn't a ton of content there yet, but I am really psyched about one feature I've started to fill up.

I embedded a calendar in a page called Free in Boston (or just about). Half of my excitement is that this is a cool feature, period, and I'm restraining myself from coming up with different calendars to embed. But those of you who like to see things with a purpose might also think it's cool that after about two hours of finding information it's already so full.

There's A LOT you can do in Boston with your children for free or very nearly free. (I included the $1 Friday nights at the Children's Museum, but otherwise I've kept it free.) There's a lot of stuff I didn't put on because I wanted to keep it to events either located in Boston or easily accessible via public transportation.

I will note that as of now I haven't found a ton of things for Monday or Tuesday. I'll keep looking, but I don't see this as a tragedy. Because, when in doubt, there's always the library.

More to come,

Deb in the City

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Yesterday's Haymarket Haul

As I said a few days ago, I do the bulk of my food shopping on Fridays at Haymarket.  While I believe less and less that there are rules everyone should follow about food, I do believe that eating more produce is a good thing for most people in this country.  I am very fortunate that I live in Boston and can buy that inexpensively.

Prices vary, but yesterday I found Fuji apples at 7 for $2, large oranges at $4 for 1 and cauliflower for $1.50.  Bananas are frequently 3 lbs for $1.50, and yesterday collards were available for 2 (very large) bunches for $3.  Big wins: pineapples and thai coconuts for $1.50 each.  If you're in the market for scallions, cilantro or limes, you could probably buy a month's supply for less than $10.

2 large bags of produce plus $10 worth of cheese- "3 for 5, 5 for 10"- cost $37 yesterday.  The same produce would have cost much more at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods or the Farmers' Market.

Here is part of what I got today; the rest wouldn't fit in a picture.

Happy eating,

Deb in the City