The Big Decision

As you may or may not know, Sissy has had a pretty rough year in kindergarten.  She has always been academically gifted, hitting her milestones early, learning to read proficiently by the age of 4, and a pretty solid understanding of numbers and addition before the age of 5.  She is also incredibly imaginative and artistic.  The downside to giftedness is that it is often accompanied by extreme anxiety, and she has unfortunately also developed this as well.  I posted a few weeks ago that she was experiencing panic attacks in school and had begun vomiting at times when she was feeling overwhelmed and that she had even started to vomit at times of relative calm.  Her pediatrician expressed concern that this type of reaction could lead to an eating disorder at a young age as a way to exert control over her life and emotions and she suggested that we have her evaluated by the school psychologist.  We followed this suggestion and for the past few weeks Sissy has been observed in various settings, has had a SST review (an analysis of the need for special services), weekly meetings with the school counselor, and finally a sit down with the psychologist.  Earlier this week I sat down with the school principals, the counselor, the psychologist, and Sissy’s teacher to go over their observations and recommendations.  And the overall findings are:

Sissy is too academically advanced to function properly in her class.

Her teacher has been wonderful this year in creating a truly differentiated curriculum for her, but she can only do so much with 18 other kindergarteners to contend with.  In addition, part of Sissy’s anxiety comes from a self-imposed need for perfection and a desire to please those in authority, so she has actually digressed in many areas because she tries to mimic the work of her “peers” when the teacher compliments their work.  She doesn’t understand that “great” for them at a kindergarten level isn’t the same as “great” for her at a more advanced level.  So she gets worked up and overwhelmed and…vomits.  In her mouth.  And then doesn’t tell anyone about it until she gets into the car to go home where she will erupt into a sobbing mess, often for several hours.  She is making social connections in class, but is having trouble relating to her “peers” because they are not yet in the same place as she is intellectually.  She does much better with older children and adults who can relate to her in a more mature way.

All this to say that public school just doesn’t seem to be the place for Sissy.  She has qualified for the GT program, but it only for one hour each week and there is only one other kindergartener that qualified.  And we could try to skip her ahead a grade level, but even that would not really put her into the right academic group in several areas.  She is a self-motivated learner and the public school system is built on a mass-feed mentality where it is difficult to allow for students to pursue learning in their own unique ways.  So we are about 99.8% sure that for at least the remainder of elementary school that Sissy will be attending school in our own home.  That way we can create a curriculum that is suited especially to her and allow her to learn in the ways that are best for her unique gifts and temperament.  She will socialize through group activities, some local non-religious home school leagues, and through our church community.  We will utilize the amazing educational resources that technology provides (and that the public schools are unwilling and/or unable to commit to) to help her expand her learning in meaningful ways and also to make connections with other students and experts.  We will begin with an independent academic evaluation to assess her grade-level proficiency in the various academic areas and will then build our curriculum from there, using a mix of rote and project-based learning (PBL) as dictated by her learning style.  We will document and portfolio her work and will have her assessed annually to measure her progress.

I say we are 99.8% sure because this is a huge decision and commitment and we are taking the rest of this school year and summer to pull together resources, network, and evaluate ALL the pros and cons, and until we finish that we are not going to make the final decision.  But based on several months of discussion and research, this seems like the best option for her.  So, keep us in your thoughts as we start on this journey, and we would appreciate any help or feedback that you would like to share!

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A New Model of American Education

Today the students were out of school, but the teachers were busy learning how to be better teachers (supposedly) in a full day of professional development.  This is nearly always an incredibly dull experience, though it is occasionally infuriating just to mix things up.  Our district is in the process of implementing a new model of teaching called Assessment for Learning, and to be fair it is an interesting program. 

 Essentially, Assessment for Learning is about shifting the mindset away from giving assignments, quizzes, and tests for the purpose of assigning a grade and using them instead as a way to assess students’ level of mastery in whatever area is being evaluated.  The results are then used to guide further instruction, whether that be re-teaching unmastered concepts, reinforcing the material, or moving forward to additional goals.  This may seem like a common sense practice, but I assure you it is a monumental shift in how classrooms operate.  Consider your own educational experience.  How often were you assigned tasks that just seemed to be busy work?  How often did you take quizzes over assigned reading with questions so obscure that it was clear the only purpose was to make sure you actually did the assignment?  How often did you fail a test or assignment and then just move on to new material without addressing the reasons you failed?  This was probably the norm in most of your classes.  While many would argue that this model of teaching requires students to be responsible for their own learning and to work hard in order to get the grade (worthy lessons, without a doubt), the truth is that it leaves many capable students behind.  What is the purpose of school if not to educate our children?  And if those children are not learning the material, aren’t the schools failing in their mission?  Obviously, students have an important responsibility to do their best and complete their assigned work, but the work that is assigned should be focused on teaching or reinforcing actually important concepts.  Why waste time focusing on what happened on page 210, paragraph 3, line 6 in The Grapes of Wrath if what happens in that line isn’t mood, symbolism, metaphor, or main idea?  Education should be streamlined to the essentials in each area, and these essentials should be taught until they are mastered by the majority of students.

The program differentiates between academic and non-academic skills.  The academic skills are obvious: the content of the class.  The non-academic skills are the other areas that teachers teach in their classroom: behavior, social skills, participation, time management.  Often these are assessed at the same time.  For example, you are assigned some math problems to complete for homework.  The assignment is due the following period.  If you do not turn in the assignment on time, no matter how well you demonstrated mastery of the academics, the highest grade that you can receive is a 70% because you did not demonstrate the proper non-academic skill of adhering to a deadline.  This isn’t really a motivator for students to try their best.  And if you fail to turn in the assignment after the second day, you receive no credit, or a 0.  This means that your work will not be assessed for understanding or that you will not even complete the assignment at all and may not fully learn the material.  You may then do poorly on the quiz that follows, resulting in a poor grade on your report card and a failure to master the concept.  And the school failed in its purpose to teach you.

Obviously there must be a balance between the academic and non-academic.  In the “real world” everyone has deadlines they must meet, and if you never learn the importance of completing tasks in a timely manner, then you will be fired from countless jobs in adulthood.  But you will also be a failure if you cannot demonstrate mastery of essential academic skills.  So both must be addressed.

What do you think?  Where should the balance lie?  Do you see think that public schools have a responsibility to teach these non-academic skills?  Is it primarily the job of the parents to teach these skills?  What about the students that just slack off for no good reason?  Do schools have an obligation to do whatever it takes to reach these kids as well?

Let’s get a discussion going my friends!  Comment below!