Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Story of Ty (or Why Homeschooling Isn't Always Best and Why Legislators Need to Change Their Focus)

So some separate trains of thoughts have been flowing through my mind lately. I wrote in my last post about the comment-conversation I had with some home-schoolers through a home-schooling blog. And it is always on my mind how as a public education system we can do the best for our students. I attended an amazing conference this summer in Swartz Creek, Michigan. This conference was conceived and born through the collaborative efforts of teachers and administrators who care about kids and care about learning. The conference came about from a weekly twitter chat: #COLchat. The COL stands for Culture of Learning, and the day at Swartz Creek was all about just that, a culture of learning versus a culture of compliance. How do we get kids excited about learning and meet their individual needs when, as educators, we ourselves are in a culture of compliance? So that leads to me to thinking about all the things I would like to tell our Michigan legislators...knowing they would never really listen anyway, since I don't have the big money of the Koch brothers behind me.

These two trains of thoughts (what I want to tell homeschoolers and what I want to tell legislators) converge in the story of one boy. Those of you who know me well or are my facebook friends (yes, I know, I should belong to Over-sharers Anonymous....Hello, I'm LeeAnn and I overshare...) know about the friend of my youngest daughter. But as I share the story here, I want you to keep two questions in mind: 1) would homeschooling be the best option for this child, and 2) will the cookie-cutter, testing-minded culture that the legislature wants to push best serve this student...does he need the same education that my two-parent, middle-class daughters need? Beyond that even, I'd really like legislators to think about the break down in society that has caused stories like this. It isn't the fault of teachers or schools that a boy is basically left to fend for himself when his mother chooses to amass enough DUIs to get herself put away for 3 years.

I met Ty about 8 months ago when my daughter (dd2 from here on) asked if a new friend could come to visit. He was living with a friend, had been living there for a couple of weeks having been kicked first out of an aunt's house and then his sister's house. He came to be living at that aunt's house when his mother was sent to prison and his step dad said he didn't want him. A couple of weeks after I met him, Ty was kicked out of the friend's house. He went to another aunt. She had him for a week before she called CPS while he was at school to say she couldn't keep him anymore. At that point, Ty was in a couple of different shelters and dd2 and I could not go to visit him in either of them. 

I tried everything I could to get a caseworker to talk to me, to get someone from the shelters to talk to me. To no avail. And believe me, I also questioned whether this sweet, polite, mild-mannered boy was pulling the wool over my eyes. How could he be getting kicked out of so many places? He has never been anything but respectful in my home. The conclusion I have come to is this: raising teenagers is hard. In the best of times, when they are your own flesh and blood and you know them well, they can be frustrating and trying and they need so much love but at the same time they often push that love away. When that teen boy you now have in your house is one you don't know well, it must be even harder. But if you are going to agree to that challenge, you have to find a way to make it work for the sake of the child.

Finally, Ty's dad agreed to take him. I won't go into the childish behavior that occurred before it finally happened. But I will tell you that if you have a child in this world and that child is living in a shelter, you don't say you'll only take him if he wants to come...not when the last time he was at your house, things didn't go well. You say, "This is my son, my responsibility, bring him to me." It frustrates me that even now, when they get into fights, Ty's dad threatens to kick him out, ridicules him, and calls him names. And there are many kids who live the same kind of life.

Ty wasn't at his dad's house for long before he enrolled back in school and then got a job. (Getting the job was a whole other story. Suffice it to say when you are a kid who has been shuffled from home to home, you might not have the paperwork necessary to get a job. Thankfully the proper paperwork was found.) Ty rides his bike to work and we work out his visits to our house around his work schedule. Although he is 17, he doesn't have a driver's license, so when he does come over, I drive 40 minutes one way to get him.

I worry what's going to happen when Ty turns 18. Will his dad kick him out? If he does, where will Ty go? With these thoughts on my mind, I've been talking to Ty about becoming more independent. He needs to learn to budget and save some money. When he told me his dad wouldn't help him get a bank account, I decided I would help. 

So today when I picked him up we went to the local credit union. This is where the world gets sticky again for kids in Ty's situation. He now has his SS card and his birth certificate but he has no picture ID. The credit union wouldn't let him open an account without a picture ID. 

Next stop, Secretary of State's Office...but they didn't open for another hour. So we came back to my house with a plan to head back later in the day. I checked the SOS website to make sure we would have everything we need when we get there. SS card--check. Birth certificate=-check. Proof of residency--no. So, our next step is stopping back to his house to check his pay stubs for his address. If it's not there, I don't know what to do next. From the SOS website, it looks like his dad can provide proof of residency...BUT only if "the family relationship can be established by other forms of documented proof."   Well here's the wrench in that: Ty's dad isn't on his birth certificate! 

So, you can see that this story is not yet over. But I think you have enough information to think about the questions I posed above, and agree with me that homeschooling would not be an option for Ty. And that Ty's educational needs are different from other kids'. (Although, sadly, Ty's story is not unique and it is far from the worst of the stories I know about the lives of other children who have been in my classroom over the last 21 years.) When you don't know where you will be living tomorrow, when you can't trust the adults in your life to be there for you and to do everything they can to give you the best life possible, you don't come to school on equal footing. These kids need extra help and attention to become the adults we know they are capable of becoming.

And legislators, you need to understand that problems like the ones Ty faces can't be solved by increasing the amount of tests he takes or even by requiring higher standards. We have so many problems you need to be working on...poverty, neglect, parents in prison. How about you start tackling some of those and allow teachers and administrators (the experts) to work on the problems of education?

*Update: I consider myself a pretty smart woman. I read the SOS website very carefully and had really what anyone would consider the proper documentation for Ty to get his state ID. But no, according to them, there is one more piece. Can you see how frustrating a process like this would be for someone (especially a kid) who has no idea how to navigate the system? 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Public Education is for ALL

The education of children is of utmost importance to me. We are fortunate and blessed to live in a country that provides education to ALL its children, but that also allows for choice in the path of education. Those choices are growing...there are traditional public schools, private schools, charter schools, online schools, homeschoolers, unschoolers...and you can put many of these together into a recipe of your own choosing. I firmly believe, even as a public school teacher, that every family needs to weigh all factors and make the best choice for their children when creating that path. Sometimes that even means each child in a family follows a different path to becoming educated.

Over the last couple of days, I've been commenting back and forth with a blogger who homeschools. She wrote a post about wanting to tell other parents about the joys of homeschooling, especially at this back-to-school time of year. I am not bothered by that at all. What bothered me was this statement:

“Even if teachers are good, most of their time is spent on crowd control and test prep and creating lesson plans for the entire class.”

I don't like blanket statements. (And I have to admit that I take umbrage to the language in the dependent clause and what it implies!) I'm pretty sure this author hasn't spent time in enough schools and classrooms to make such a generalization. And when I called her to task on it and she felt like her time as a student, a parent of students, and some reading were enough background to make the statement. I've been a student, parent of students, a middle school teacher, a teacher of grad students, done significant reading on education, and work with teachers across my state. My anecdotal evidence gives me a different picture. The conversation ensued with other commentors chiming in, people feeling judged and people making judgments.

I've decided to stop commenting there. It isn't worth my time to try and have an educated, civil discussion with people who think their way is the RIGHT way. The ONLY way. Homeschooling parents with this attitude (and yes, I know that is NOT all homeschooling parents...probably not even most of them!) that their way is the right and only way ARE passing judgment on other parents. They are modeling that kind of judgmental thinking for their children.

And I realized what my problem with the whole homeschool/public school debate is...

For many parents the choice to homeschool has a lot to do with the state of education today. Other commentors said things like: 

"I taught for ten years, and my husband was on the local school board. I feel like I get to do more actual teaching now as the youth services librarian." (This was a mom who has chosen homeschooling at various times.)

"If ever there was a good time to realize that teachers (much as they may love their jobs) are not getting to do the part of the job that they love due to these tests, it’s now. This is a dark time in our school systems." (From a mom currently homeschooling)

These parents should still have a vested interest in the public school system. I am not going to argue with the commentors above. I experience frustration about the state of public education daily. But I want those parents to remember that there are still LOTS of kids living in that growing culture of testing and accountability. There are still LOTS of teachers doing what they can to combat that culture. But you know what? ALL parents--heck, all ADULTS--in our communities should be doing SOMETHING about that....something more than pulling kids out of the school system. Something like writing letters to legislators. Or supporting teachers with words of positive support rather than assuming we teach for summers off (HA!).

Your homeschooled kids may not be going to school with public schooled kids, but they are all growing up in the same world. What happens in schools should make a difference to you whether your kids are there or not. Whether you have kids or not.