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amy_welborn

What’s your history of classroom tech?

The racket of IBM Selectrics in typing class? The square holes of data cards? (I can’t even type phrase that without hearing it in my Indian college professor’s voice.) Did you – or if you’re old enough, your parents – collect grocery receipts for Apple IIe computers? Mario Typing? Channel One?

It’s a history of promises and utopia, isn’t it? Promises of:

  • Individualized, self-paced learning
  • Global connections and awareness
  • Classroom and system efficiency
  • Parent-school cooperation
  • Financial savings
  • Preparedness for the workplace and the modern world in general.

How much has been written on these issues? Millions of words. I don’t want to add too much to that. What I have to say is particularly directed at Catholic education, which, in this country, has – not surprisingly – jumped right on the Tech Train, seeking, as it does it so much else, to do nothing more than ape public education.

The lack of critical, counter-cultural thinking in Catholic education is not surprising, but still continually disappointing nonetheless.

What I have to say today is pretty simple, and I’m going to say it mostly by quoting from others. I’d encourage you to follow the links and read more.

Bottom line:

The push for screens and internet-based learning to replace books and paper is sold to us as an inevitability that is, of course, best for students.

I invite you to never, ever, accept that premise, and to question it, from top to bottom every time it’s presented to you. 

Because the push for screens and internet-based learning is not about students. It’s about profit and data. 

Let’s go back to the dark ages – the 1990’s, when Channel One entered classrooms. It’s an instructive example because it was so controversial at the time, and what’s happening now with computer-based learning, particularly Google Classroom, raises similar issues, but does not seem to be raising the same kinds of questions.

The deal was this: Whittle Communications provided classroom televisions and satellite receivers to schools in exchange for schools having their students watch a daily news show provided by the company – called Channel One.  I taught in a school that took this deal, and yes, every day after opening prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, we had to watch this – what, maybe 10-15 minute news show with advertisements (that was the controversial part).

As I said – it was controversial – accusations of schools selling out students, forcing them to watch advertisements and whatever editorial slant Channel One offered in its programming.

And those are questions that should have been raised. It was certainly problematic – not to speak of being a pain and an intrusion. But hey! We got free televisions!

What’s happening now is no different – well, it is different – because it’s worse. What’s happening now in so many systems is an unquestioning, eager acceptance of faulty premises about what’s best for students, allowing tech companies to simply take over education, set the standards, and dominate every aspect of the process from pre-assessment, to instruction, to testing to information infrastructure.

And all the while scraping your kids’ lives for data.

Tomorrow I’m going to take the issue on from a more personal perspective, ranting about sharing various experiences my own kids have had with this in their classrooms – amy-welbornsince I haven’t taught myself since the advent of intensive, intrusive classroom tech – in my day  – it was a big deal to get one classroom computer, period.

Today, I’m just going to leave you with some citations from other writers. I don’t agree with everything every one of these writers have to say about every issue – some of them tend to tilt definitely more leftward than I do, and many are hard-core opposed to charter and private schools – but on these matters, I’m indebted to their passion.

Here’s where I stand – before I get to the links:

  • Education – even up through high school – should be as screen-free as possible. I really don’t see any reason at all for elementary students to use computers or screens. Their brains need the holistic connection between mental and physical activity that comes with reading real books and writing on paper and using concrete manipulatives.
  • Everything I have read indicates that reading retention is stronger from reading from printed paper pages than it is reading from a screen. There is an aspect to spatial awareness that assists in retention. I know this is true for me because I can often, when trying to remember something I read, can retrieve it by thinking about where I read it on the page – top, bottom, middle. I don’t have that with a screen, which is why the only books I read on an e-reader are out-of-print books I can’t find anywhere else, for the most part. For sure, if I am reading non-fiction – serious history or theology – I must read a book – I must be able to have that experience of holding something physical in my hands, flipping back and forth, physically highlighting.
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests that students tend to prefer printed material, as well: “real books.” There are serious questions, as well, about the physical impact of all-day screen immersion, not only on brain chemistry and attention, but on other aspects of our physical health.
  • As the links below will emphasize, this is mostly about perceived financial savings (by schools and systems) and financial gain (by corporations). It is disappointing, as I said, to see Catholic schools buy into this.
  • Classroom tech does not improve efficiency. At all. It takes time to learn, there are bugs and disruptions, the Internet goes out, the power goes out, it presents distractions.
  • While there are great teachers out there, teachers as a group are not noble saints immune from human weakness. As I said, great teachers still work out there – my children are sitting in the classrooms of some excellent teachers as I write this. But – again – teachers are not saints or superhuman or uniformly excellent. There are lazy, inefficient, ignorant teachers whose worst habits are encouraged by classroom tech. I mean – who among us hasn’t encountered the teacher who does nothing more than hand out worksheets? Now he/she has a classroom full of kids who can be told to work in their Chromebooks and call it a day.

So yeah – basically, for me, it comes down to : The tech needed in a classroom is going to vary: kids studying AP Physics might need to use it more than they do in English class (or maybe not – I sort of have my doubts on that score, too). But the presumption should be: less tech is better. 

Now for the links:

Dear teachers: Don’t be good soldiers for the tech industry

There is an entire parasitic industry making billions of dollars selling us things we don’t need – standardized testsCommon Core workbook drivel, software test prep THIS, and computer test crap THAT.

We didn’t decide to use it. We didn’t buy it. But who is it who actually introduces most of this garbage in the classroom?

That’s right. US.

We do it. Often willingly.

We need to stop.

And before someone calls me a luddite, let me explain. I’m not saying technology is bad. It’s a tool like anything else. There are plenty of ways to use it to advance student learning. But the things we’re being asked to do… You know in your heart that they aren’t in the best interests of children.

I know. Some of you have no choice. You live in a state or district where teacher autonomy is a pathetic joke. There are ways to fight that, but they’re probably not in the classroom.

It’s not you who I’m talking to. I’m addressing everyone else. I’m talking to all the teachers out there who DO have some modicum of control over their own classrooms and who are told by their administrators to do things that they honestly disagree with – but they do it anyway.

We’ve got to stop doing it.

Corporations want to replace us with software packages. They want to create a world where kids sit in front of computers or iPads or some other devices for hours at a time doing endless test prep. You know it’s true because your administrator probably is telling you to proctor such rubbish in your own classroom so many hours a week. I know MINE is.

….

The EdTech shell game is not about improving student learning. It’s a commercial coup, not a progressive renaissance.

Think about it.

They call this trash “personalized learning.” How can it really be personalized if kids do the same exercises just at different rates? How is it personalized if it’s standardized? How is it personalized if it omits the presence of actual people in the education process?

It’s teach-by-numbers, correspondence school guano with graphics and a high speed Internet connection.

Personalized Learning Without People – An Education Scam from the 1980s Returns

This is seen as a way to save money by teaching without teachers. Sure, you still need a certified educator in the class room (for now) but you can stuff even more children into the seats when the teacher is only a proctor and not responsible for actually presenting the material.

The teacher becomes more of a policeman. It’s his job to make sure students are dutifully pressing buttons, paying attention and not falling asleep.

Moreover, this is sold as a way to boost test scores and meet the requirements of the Common Core. You can easily point to exactly which standards are being assessed on a given day and then extrapolate to how much that will increase struggling students’ scores on the federally mandated standardized test when they take it later in the year.

In fact, students’ answers on these programs are kept and recorded. They are, in effect, stealth assessments that can be used to judge and sort students into remediation classes or academic tracks.

Co-opting the Language of Authentic Education: The Competency Based Education Cuckoo

That’s what the whole program consists of – forcing children to sit in front of computers all day at school to take unending high stakes mini-tests. And somehow this is being sold as a reduction in testing when it’s exactly the opposite.

This new initiative is seen by many corporate school reformers as the brave new world of education policy. The public has soundly rejected standardized tests and Common Core. So this is the corporate response, a scheme they privately call stealth assessments. Students will take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’ll be asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers will make it look like a game. The results will still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.

On “Competency-Based Education” ….and B.F. Skinner:

Parents, here’s the moral of the story: if you want your child “constantly interacting” with whatever corporate testing company your state has contracted with, and if you trust that company to be your child’s teacher, then by all means, CBE is for you.

And then a general rant from a couple of years ago – with good links. 

Dr. Kentaro Toyama, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, once believed that technology in the classroom could solve the problems of modern urban education. No Luddite, he had received his Ph.D. in computer science from Yale and had moved to India in 2004 to help found a new research lab for Microsoft; while there, he became interested in how computers, mobile phones and other technologies could help educate India’s billion-plus population.

Rather than finding a digital educational cure, he came to understand what he calls technology’s “Law of Amplification”: technology could help education where it’s already doing well, but it does little for mediocre educational systems. Worse, in dysfunctional schools, it “can cause outright harm.” He added: “Unfortunately, there is no technological fix…more technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is non-technological.”

From Ed Week:

What this discussion boils down to is a concern about student learning and a skepticism regarding the idea that technology is always necessary or appropriate. New tech tools might promote engagement, but students might also enjoy colorful pens and giant pieces of chart paper as a change of pace in environments that are proudly, and rigidly, paperless. Virtual discussion boards might be crucial for drawing out introverted students; they might also give students permission to sit back and type canned responses.

In his 2003 book The Flickering Mind, author Todd Oppenheimer argued that education technology had failed in its promise to transform education and that it may paradoxically impede learning. Oppenheimer, a journalist who visited a range of schools and institutions in the United States to examine how technology was shaping education, found that educators often conflated sleek but content-thin presentations with evidence of deep learning.

Educators also erroneously assumed that the use of tools like PowerPoint counted as relevant skill-building for the workplace. Oppenheimer suggests in the book that students are more likely to prosper if they develop “strong values and work habits,” and master “the art of discussion.”

 

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First day, last day, another day.

The first day of school: one a senior, the other in eighth grade.

Keep in mind that there are three others out there, doing their own thing. One film editing in New York City, the other analyzing data, writing, being married and caring for his own schoolboy in South Carolina, and another getting ready to begin her third year of law school. Having them out there impacts a parent’s perspective.

Every day is a first day, a last day, another day.

Here in this place, the senior drove off around seven in his Miata, the car he bought last spring with his own money that he’d earned at his own job bagging groceries. It’s been a nerve-wracking few months for me, because the Miata is a manual transmission. I first had to teach him how to drive it, and then I had to wait every time he drove off in it, praying that he would be able to navigate the dreaded hills without stalling and causing havoc. Waiting until the time I’d estimate it would take him to reach his destination, assuming that if the phone had not rung yet, it was fine, and just to be sure, checking online traffic maps for red spots and other signs of crashes.

After some months of this, I was not as nervous as I was this time last year, when he drove off to school (in another car) for the very first time – in a driving rain, as I recall. But I still couldn’t relax for those first twenty minutes or so and I still checked the online maps.

And here it is, 10:24 am – I think it’s okay to let down my guard now. Until, of course, from about 3:15-4.

But there he is, I’m assuming, beginning that senior year of high school. There have been big changes in his Catholic high school this year, and I am hoping they are for the better. It’s been an okay experience – not great, by any means, but the faculty line-up for his senior year classes looks good, and is, surprisingly, mostly male. Which is good for a kid who’s basically grown up without a dad on this earth.

(And for college? We’re not uptight about it. He’s got a path mapped out and is ready to take it. It’s his, and not for me writing about.)

The eighth grader was mostly ready to return to the school in which he attended 6th grade. (To quickly review for newcomers: Catholic school, PK-1st grade. Homeschool 2nd-5th grade. Different Catholic school 6th grade. Homeschool 7th grade. Reasons? Discussed in many places on this blog before but essentially: a smart kid who has been capable of so much more than the typical worksheet (and now Chromebook) routine of most schools, and a mom with the means and freedom to facilitate that. For the latest iteration, starting in 6th grade? Sort of the same. A desire to go to school, but a disappointing experience. We’re confident, or at least very hopeful, that things have turned around, discipline issues have been resolved and holistic, undistracted learning is going to be the focus.)

I’m sitting here – relieved. For the moment, relieved to have the burden of anyone’s learning on my shoulders.

As I have written before, the discernment framework that helped me make the decision to homeschool a few years ago was this: Every choice entails some type of aggravation and stress. What aggravation do you choose?

It’s probably backwards from the process others employ, which undoubtedly focuses on the positive: What’s best? What’s going to bring the most happiness? What’s going to be the least stressful?

If that’s your angle, go for it. I’ve just found it to be more helpful and realistic to admit the reality of difficulty and challenges. Basically: every element of life involves some pain – which can you accept? Which kind of stress, pain and aggravation is going to stand in the way of growth less than other limitations?

So, in deciding to homeschool, I basically decided that the stress of guiding my kids’ learning and feeling more or less constantly inadequate to the task was more acceptable – at that moment – than being constantly enraged and frustrated about what was going on – or not going on – in the classroom.

So now, where are we? This wasn’t a problematic decision. High school has been fine, and just what that kid needed on a number of levels. He doesn’t need high-stress super accelerated learning. He needs mostly what he’s experienced. And there’s no reason to change that, not least because…it’s good to have someone else teach you calculus.

The eighth grader is ready to return to school for a year. (At this point, we are planning on road/homeschooling high school) He’s maintained friendships with the boys in the class (thanks, Fortnite!) and I do think the administration of this school is focused and realistic about what middle school kids need now in a way that wasn’t the case before. We’ll see. Between that and his music – three types of keyboard lessons (regular piano, jazz and pipe organ) – he’ll be busy.

And me?

I’m mostly sitting here kind of in shock. I’m already regretting some of the daytrips we’ve not been able to work in, even after years of me saying, this month, we’re going to…., I’m irritated that the senior English curriculum doesn’t seem to have a Shakespeare play in it (yet – I hope that will change), I’m looking at the clock wondering when to start worrying about the drive back from school, I’m waiting for the dryer to stop, waiting for Law School daughter to drop by, and mostly looking at a very, very, very blank page.

A first day, a last day, another day.

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By far the dumbest thing in my life this past year – in a life full of fairly dumb things – has been my aggravation about  stupid Trini Salgado and her stupid camiseta. 

(Waits for readers to do a search….and return, scratching heads.)

As you might remember, I have a 13-year old who homeschools off and on, and if we were going to pin him down to a grade, we’d say he’s in 7th grade. He’s very interested in Central and South American history and culture, so this year, we’ve gotten more intentional about Spanish.

I spent some time last summer searching for a curriculum. I knew he would probably be going back to brick and mortar school for 8th grade, and I knew that the school he’d be going to teaches high school Spanish 1 over the course of 7th and 8th grade – so if we got through half of a Spanish I curriculum, we’d be good.

But what to pick? I do not, for the life of me, know why I didn’t just wait for the Spanish avencemos4teacher to tell me what she would be doing for the year (I knew they were changing) and then track with that. But I didn’t. I went ahead and splurged for a curriculum that is school-oriented, but used by homeschoolers as well. It’s called Avencamos! (Let’s keep going!) and it’s published by Holt.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting  about the curriculum itself and thoughts prompted by it as well as some other recent curriculum adventures, but even without that, this post will make some sense.

One of the many, many many elements of this curriculum are videos. Each unit is centered on a particular Spanish-speaking area – it begins with Miami, then moves to Puerto Rico, Mexico (Puebla! – where we just were!), Spain (Madrid! Where we’ve been!) , Ecuador, etc.

Each video features a different teenaged boy and girl, going about their community, using the unit’s vocabulary and grammar lessons. They are what you expect – mostly wooden acting and a little weirdness that can be, at times, highly entertaining. Mi mochila! And ¿DONDE ESTA MI CUADERNO? have already become standard elements of household conversation.  Oh, as well as a harsh, “No. Gracias,” uttered through gritted teeth which the very rude girl in the Madrid saga says repeatedly to a shopkeeper who’s only trying to show her las ropas, for pete’s sake! That’s my favorite. Maribel = me.

avencemos2

Some verge on the surreal. Come to think of it, wouldn’t that be a good idea? To produce totally surreal, bizarre language instructional videos?

avencemos

Okay. So here’s the dumb, ingenious thread that runs through all of these videos that has obsessed me these past months – for some reason, all of these kids in these different countries around the globe are trying to see or get an autograph from a female soccer player named Trini Salgado. Some of them are connected – I think they’re trying to get Trini’s autograph for Alicia, who lives in Miami. I think. But they’re always thwarted in the quest – they get the wrong time that Trini’s appearing, they lose the jersey they want autographed, they get the autograph and Papa throws it in the laundry and it washes off.

The weirdest thing about it to me is that each little unit of videos ends in a absolutely unresolved way. In the Mexican set, the boy and girl go to his cousin’s house to retrieve the damn jersey and they’re scared off by a perro grande. They run off – and let’s go to Puerto Rico now!

What? Are you kidding me? You’re really going to leave me hanging like this?

You’d think – you’d think – that the whole situation would eventually get resolved. I thought they’d have some big global gathering feting Trini, everyone speaking Spanish in their various dialects and eating their varied foods.

But no.

Spoiler alert (I checked) – the last unit ends in just as unsatisfying a way as the others.

No one ever gets Trini’s autograph!

Those are some dark-hearted textbook writers there.

If you poke around, you find that kids have had some fun with this – there are a couple of Trini Salgado Twitter accounts, an Avencemos Memes account,  many mentions of are you kidding me, do they ever meet Trini – wait is Trini Salgado not a real person? and some class-made videos that play with eternally-frustrated yearning to get Trini’s autograph.

But here’s why I’m writing about this:

Once more, we run into the power of the story. Each set of videos runs about 6 minutes total, the acting is mostly terrible, and they’re mostly silly, but dang it if they didn’t leave me mad as heck that I wasn’t going to see what happened??

What is it? Isn’t it one of the most fascinating aspects of human life – that we can get so caught up in the the travails of imaginary characters, of situations that aren’t really happening in the real world? We can be wrecked by Lost, so content to settle into the world of Mad Men once a week, root for someone in the world of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad to follow the moral compass we know is buried deep inside there.

These aren’t real people. This is not really happening. I should not care. 

But I do.

It’s a promise of something good and true – and a warning. First the warning, which is about how easily it is for us to be caught up and manipulated simply by an engaging, compelling narrative. Authoritarians and abusers sense this and use it in varied ways: by constructing an epic narrative of identity, revolution, progress or restoration that flatters us, engages us and pulls us in or by simply weaving a tale that justifies and excuses and sounds good but is really just a lie. Marketers – whether they’re marketing products or themselves as personalities – know this and work hard to try to make us feel connected to their personal stories and daily adventures. Another self-serving lie.

Now the good part: The power of the story – even the insanely dumb story – tells us that our lives have a structure, meaning, purpose and direction. We’re pulled into the story because we know we are in the midst of a story ourselves. The challenge is to find and live in the true story – which, by the way – actually has an ending. And, I’m told, a pretty good one.

The only reason i took spanish 2 was to find out if they ever get the jersey signed by Trini Salgado

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A very, very smooth trip. I am not in anyone’s fan club, least of all an airline, but I have to say that this Southwest flight from Birmingham to Houston to Mexico was one of the better flights I’ve had lately. First, there were no lame Southwest flight attendant hijinks, which I was dreading. Secondly – when the plane pulled away from the gate…it kept going. And going. Faster and faster until it was in the air! Fancy that…no ten minute waits on the runway followed by another ten minute wait, then followed by a thirty minute wait in which we are told, “Looks like we’re almost maybe perhaps next in line for takeoff.”

Airport moment:

Older (I can still say that! Sometimes!) woman sits down next to me at the gate. Gets out her phone. Starts talking. Loudly. This is what she says, no lie: Oh, she has no class. She speak so loudly all the time. Just no class. Well, yes, I hope they’re happy, but I doubt it will last. You know how it started right? They had an affair? He was married and left his wife for her?

Too bad she’s not as classy as the dame loudly gossiping about her in the airport!

****

One of the very tense moments in any transition from airplane to vacation stay in any city is the issue of actually getting there. Airport taxi rip-offs are everywhere, from Paris to Rome to most other places I’ve never been. Mexico City actually has an excellent system for minimizing the chances of being overcharged or taken to parts unknown.

The taxi companies all have booths in the actual airport. You go up to a booth, and tell them the address of your destination. If you don’t have a lot of people with you, be sure to specify sedan or they will stick you in a van and it will be a hundred pesos more. (Not a lot but still). You pay the booth attendant, he or she prints out a ticket, and then you take it outside to the outside attendant and he or she hooks you up with a taxi. You’ve already paid, they know where you’re going – almost like Uber!

So that’s what we did – taking then about a thirty minute ride through a very busy city to our apartment. There was one stretch of road which was lined with market stalls, thronged with people, and with even more people darting towards cars stopped at intersections with toys, ice cream, and water for sale, and bottles of sudsy water ready to wash windshields.

***

The apartment’s good. The only negative (which I’ll mention to the owner and in the review) is that there’s no “guide to the area” – I’ve rented a lot of vacation apartments before and leaving a guide with directions for transportation (here’s the nearest subway stop, this bus line runs near the apartment, and so on) and favorite local restaurants and grocery stores is absolutely standard. It certainly makes life easier. But other than that, it’s good – two bedrooms, a large living room/dining room.

After a bit of a rest, we set out walking. I hadn’t intended walking all the way to the Zocalo, but that’s what we did, taking a break along the way for Mass. It was a long way (almost 3 miles) and (spoiler alert) we cabbed it back (I couldn’t get Uber to load properly at the moment).

We walked along the Reforma, the main central drag through Mexico City – lots of higher end hotels are located here, there’s a central walking and biking path lined with trees and benches almost the whole way, and I understand on Sunday mornings, they make the road pedestrian-only, which must be lovely.

It was busy, and the closer we got to the center, the busier it got  – it wasn’t unruly or crazy – mostly families of one size or another – but it was certainly a surging river of folks. In a way it was just like any other similar scene in any other city: lots of characters, from Iron Man to Mickey Mouse and street performers – the street performers were, however, in three categories and three categories alone: Hurdy-Gurdy organs, then a man playing an accordion while a woman holding a baby stands with a cup, and little children – no older than seven or eight years old – playing beaten guitars.  Those in the second category reminded me of the beggars in Rome, and I wondered if, as it the case with the Roma and their babies, the children are sedated. As for the little boys banging on their guitars? You might think it’s cute, but it’s really not. You can’t help but wonder what’s going on, and the little boys are clearly tired and even a little angry.

Our primary goal was Mass, which we hit about halfway through at a church I thought had something to do with St. Francis, but which I cannot for the life of me locate on the map right now. We’ll pass it again at some point – I want to go in and look at the décor more carefully, and take phots with my real camera. Some interesting points:

Those of you familiar with Catholicism in Latin countries probably already know this, but it was new to me. And I don’t know if this is standard practice everywhere, but at this parish in Mexico City, it was. In the US, we have our palms  given to us at the beginning of Mass. Regular old strips of palm leaves. We process, have Mass, and that’s it.

It’s different here. Outside of the church are crafters and vendors of artifacts made of palms – the intricately woven standards you might have seen, but even very elaborate figures, such as the crucifixes you see in the photo. People buy those before (and after) Mass, and bring them into church.

Now, we were not there at the beginning, so I don’t know if there was a procession, but it was the end of Mass that intrigued me.

After Mass, everyone who has something – either purchased that day or from home – brings it up to the front for a blessing (It’s like what I’ve seen at the Hispanic community’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Masses in Birmingham – everyone brings up their religious objects, no matter how big, at the end for blessing.)

What was thought-provoking to me was that while, as is normally the case, perhaps ten percent of the congregation received Communion, almost everyone had a sacramental to be blessed and take home. I need to think about it more and work it out, but the dynamic seems to be that Mass is the locus of blessing, the presence of Jesus. From the Mass, we can take the sacred back into the world, into our homes.

Those of us who are frequent Communion-receivers frame that dynamic in terms of the presence of Christ within us in Eucharist – but those who don’t receive the Eucharist frequently still find a way. A powerful way, it seems to me.

 

 

One of the reasons I want to go back to this church is to take a closer look and better photos of the medallions of the evangelists in the sanctuary – you can barely see them running across the center above. What was great about them (again, maybe this is a common motif – I’ve just never run across it before) is that each of the evangelists is, as usual, paired with his symbol – ox, eagle, man, lion – but here they are riding them. It’s fantastic.

After Mass, we just made our way over to the Zocola, which is massive. The added treat was that there was obviously something going on – we could see a crowd gathered, attention directed towards a covered concert area. It was to be a symphony performance – Beethoven’s Ninth.

If it hadn’t been the end of a long travel day with two boys who’s only consumed donuts in the morning for their daily sustenance, I would have stayed for the whole thing. But as it was, I could sense the mood in my crew, which was a hungry one, and there were no food vendors of any sort around, so we took a turn around the square and peaked into the Cathedral (Mass going on in two places within – we’ll go back later in the week for a closer look during the day), all with the first movement resounding in the air. It was a lovely, stirring welcome to Mexico City, and a reminder of the contrasts so much a part of this culture: Beethoven in the square, with impoverished little boys banging on beaten-up guitars four blocks away.

 

We took a cab back to the area of our apartment, and started looking for food. The restaurant at the end of the block I’d been thinking of was closed. We walked around a bit, almost decided to do just sandwiches from the 7-11, but then I said, no, we’ll go back to the Argentinian restaurant not far from the apartment, and that was a good decision. The food was great – excellent fresh empanadas, two huge hamburgers and a fabulous skirt steak for me. It was a fairly casual restaurant, but the service was so old-school and so many levels above the Hey guys, how’s everyone doing style of American eating, the boys were intrigued.

So there you go. I’m writing this Monday morning, and we have a long day of Teotihuacan – the main attraction – ahead. We are knocking it off today because museums are closed on Mondays, so we might as well….

Video at Instagram. 

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In New Orleans, studying Mayans. 

Today was a full day of glyph-chasing at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

And the 13-year old wasn’t even completely out of place today, since there was a high school group present for the morning session.

The workshop began with 2 hours of presentation on Mayan glyphs. Then in the

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afternoon, the workshop leaders facilitated some large-group translation.

Turns out that you can’t rest on your laurels of knowing the Mayan number system and month glyphs when playing this game….

#humilityonaLentenFriday

During lunch, we walked around City Park a bit.

We’d been there before – a couple of years ago, both boys and I came down to New Orleans for a couple of days – recounted here – and one of our favorite things was renting bikes and riding through the park.

No bikes today, but we did see a sweet little turtle in the reeds…

and a snake….

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always a good day when you see a snake. Mayans and snakes in a single day? Choice!

What we later identified as apple snail eggs.

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We wandered back inside and took in some art.

 

Here’s a Madonna and Child and Goldfinch painting. The goldfinch is often present with Madonna and Child because of its association with the Passion. The legend was that as Christ suffered with his crown of thorns, a goldfinch came and attempted to ease his suffering by plucking thorns from his brow – hence the touch of red in the bird’s plumage.

What interests me in this painting is that the goldfinch is not in the Child’s hands or even that nearby – it’s flying away.

(You probably can’t even see it – it’s on the upper left.)

I was also intrigued by this 17th century painting by one van Schreick. Called Serpents and Insects, the artist painted from his own collection of living creatures. It has a rather contemporary sensibility about it.


(My main memory of a former visit to the museum – two trips ago – was leaving my camera there. Somehow. And somehow, it was retrieved.)

The day ended with a close look at the some of the museum’s Mayan holdings, and then a not-very-penitential Lenten meal of a shrimp po-boy at the Parkway Bakery and Tavern. 

For more, and to keep up, check out Instagram

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See what I meant when I described this as a rather crazy learner-led unschooling activity?

To be honest, it’s not as if he himself did a search for “MesoAmerican history and archaeology conferences Near Me.” No, I did that part – last fall some time, not knowing until that search that Tulane has this well-established institute and a long-running conference, and that the theme of this year’s conference would be Mayan warfare (bonus points).

I presented it to him, we looked through the program and he agreed, that yes, he’d like to go.

My justification has (not surprisingly) several parts.

(Not that you are arguing with me, necessarily. Rather, I’m arguing with myself, as I always do.)

  • Parents take their kids on multi-day soccer/volleyball/baseball/gymnastics trips. They accompany their kids on the traveling sports teams journeys. This is our version of that.
  • He’s really, really interested in this stuff. This gives him exposure to the actual academic world of this discipline, and he can get a better grasp on whether or not this is something he actually wants to pursue as part of a career.
  • He’s going back to school for the 8th grade year. We must do many, many homeschooly-things before this year ends! They must be spectacularly home-schooly!
  • He probably won’t go to traditional high school. This is a trial run for that kind of life.

And now you’re thinking…what about you, Amy? What about your interests? 

Well, no I don’t have a deep interest in ancient Meso-American history. Here’s what I do have though:

  • An interest in history in general. Actually, I have such a wide net of a brain that I can manage to find something of interest and a way to connect with almost any subject matter (within reason). And if I can’t find compelling points of interest in the subject, you know, there’s always people-watching which never fails.
  • (And do remember that having a wide net of a brain means that the same brain that enjoys taking in a lot from every direction as it sweeps through the Ocean of Life also has …holes. Lots of them. As the Flannery O’Connor quote I have framed says: Total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me. 
  • Even more than historical events and narrative, I’m intrigued by the fashioning of historical narrative and historiography. The Mayans are okay and all that, but what really interests me and what I have actually purchased books about of my own free will are accounts of the “rediscovery” of ancient MesoAmerican cultures, their structures and past. That whole journey of the decline of Mayan civilizations (intriguing in and of itself), the encroachment of the jungle and the the rediscoveries that began in the 19th century and continue today is just fascinating to me.
  • That thread is reflected in this conference (at least from the abstracts…we’ll see), mostly because there are constant new discoveries and the accepted wisdom of the past is being continually reevaluated. Everything you thought was true was wrong is always  going to get my attention, and there’s a lot of that in this field.

And then on a more personal level, there’s: I’m 57. He’s 13. This is what I can give him now.

Yes, my eyes glazed over at certain points today and my attention wandered and  I checked the time but it’s no different than you waiting outside of softball practice or dance lessons or taking on that extra project that you’re not crazy about so you can pay their tuition. It’s what you do, it’s what you can give now, and so, trying to balance your interests and theirs, your resources and their dreams and the good of the family, you do what you do and pray it’s the right thing for everyone, and if you discern it’s too much, you put on the brakes, you say no,  and everyone learns another kind of lesson.

Who knows what I’ll be able to give him in 5 or 10 years? But here we are now, kid. Go for it. And sure, I’ll come along. Well, I guess I have to. I am the driver, after all. 

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The return?

Well, it won’t be daily, because I’m sure it won’t be that interesting, but since I made such a big stinking deal about returning to homeschooling, here you go – the first day:

Brother rose at 6:30 am, got himself ready, drove to school. I didn’t ask him to text me when he arrived – I figured that if something bad happened…I’d hear about it.

(I’m typing this at 7:23 on Day 2, and it’s pouring outside. Still didn’t ask for him to let me know when he got there. Go me.)

Homeschooler rose…later.

I’m hoping to use that time between the two of them starting their days as some work time. I actually did it yesterday. A good start.

M. rose and got breakfast. I then I had a phone meeting with Loyola. After that we got going, very slowly.

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Math warm-up.

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Math. Did sections 1.1-2, including the famous Richard Videos. 

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We talked about what he’d study this year and he brought up something I’d forgotten about – the History Bee. He participated in it last year through school and went to Nationals, and enjoyed it. As he competed in the nationals, he also discovered that with a little more study and aggressiveness, he could probably get to the finals…and he wants to.

Academic competitions have varied rules governing the participation of homeschoolers. I don’t know what the spelling bee rules are because I have Zero Interest in spelling competitions, but I do know that the Geography Bee requires that homeschoolers form a group that holds a qualifying competition. The History Bee at this point is a lot looser. The potential competitor just has to take the online test during the allotted timeframe, and then if he or she qualifies, they can go to the regionals and so on. I talked to one of the organizers at the National competition in Atlanta in June and he was very open and accommodating.

So…although it had slipped my mind, M had not forgotten, and was already planning his course of study. He’d noted his weaknesses in the competitions, and is geared up for filling those gaps.

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Okay!

Went to the store and he picked out an accordion file for his work.

Lunch at his favorite place.

Library:

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Home. His neighborhood buddy doesn’t start school for two more weeks, and the word came that guys were down there, so they spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the neighborhood a bit.

Piano practice. Piano non-practice. Reading (The Far Side and The Fellowship of the Ring)

Day 1…in the books.

And now, it’s my turn to work for a bit….

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Hey, it’s the beginning of August, so I guess that means it’s time for Amy to write yet another post on Our Schooling Decisions and Why We Made Them. Sheesh.

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For yes, as I have mentioned a couple of times, we are back to some homeschooling around these parts. Here’s the deal:

Older son is staying where he is, in high school. My experience with my kids and my own experience teaching is that the quality of instruction in high school improves in the higher grades, and this looks to be so in this case. A junior, he’ll be taking challenging classes in the areas in which he’s interested and it should be good. Seems to be from what I have seen so far of the course materials (school starts tomorrow) at least. He started working in a grocery store in the spring and should be able to continue through the school year, saving up for…what I’m not sure.  But he’ll have full, busy days and will be learning and will be spending his days with good friends. Worth it.

Brief recap of the younger one: in school PK-1st, homeschooled 2nd-5th, then in school last year for 6th. Very smart, self-directed kid. No learning or behavior issues. Just curious, mostly mature, and (this is important) the youngest kid of a 57-year old mom who is…over your weekly folders and gift-wrap. 

He has strong interests in history and science, and is a fairly talented musician.

So…what happened between then (my post on the first day of school last year) and now?

Actually, not “now” but…about three or four months into the experience?

Nothing huge, and I really don’t want to discuss the particulars in a public forum. There’s no point to it. We’ve shared our experiences with the people to whom it might matter, and that’s all that’s important.

It all really comes down to what Sally Thomas said in a comments section in a post of mine, words I quote in this post:

And largely what motivated us to stop going to school was the feeling that school was largely an annoying middleman that wanted to dictate our schedules for us.

It’s a deal, it’s a contract, it’s an agreement that you, as student and family, make with educational institutions. It’s an agreement in which, for it to be worth it to you, elements must stay balanced.

As in: Not everything the school is going to ask of me is going to great or even valuable. There are going to be irritating aspects of school. But all of that is balanced by what the school experience gives.

Just like the rest of life, right?

So just as in the rest of life, we make constant cost-benefit analyses. Is the good I’m deriving worth the cost I’m paying? 

I’ve written about this many times before. As I put it almost exactly a year ago in a post describing my educational background as it related to my original decision to homeschool back in 2012:

In terms of my own life with my two remaining kids at home in 2011, I was not ecstatic with institutional education, but was fairly comfortable with the agreement I thought we had reached. After all, I only had a decade or so left, but who’s counting. I’d send cooperative kids in every day and support what they were doing in school. School was then going to do its part: teach the basics, enrich, inspire a little. School was going to do no harm. School, because it was called “Catholic,” was going to be holistically, counter-culturally Catholic.  I wasn’t asking school to transform our lives, but I was expecting that school wasn’t going to waste my kids’ time or my money. School would do its thing, and then school would step back and school would get  out of the way.

Deal?

Flash forward to 2016.  Older kid was doing fine in high school. The younger one really wanted to go to school. He was curious, a little concerned that what he was doing at home wasn’t keep him up to where his peers were…

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….and he wanted a more consistent posse of friends. The school his older brother had attended for 8th grade seemed to fit the bill.

And….here we are a year later, with him getting ready for school…at home. No regrets, no bad feelings, and yes, lots of new friends made  – friendships that will be sustained through sports and other activities – but just a sort of been there, done that kind of feeling.

(No predictions for 8th grade being made at this point)

There were some specific issues, but the broad issue that I think might be relevant and helpful to others is this:

The dissatisfaction he experienced was not with any specific school, but with the whole concept of curriculum as it plays out in elementary/middle school, period. Anyone who teaches struggles with this, as well.

Let’s put it this way:

There’s this much stuff to learn about:

billions-and-billions

During the course of  a school class, period or even a lifetime, you have time to learn this much of that:

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So…

Why learn about – or teach – one fragment rather than another? What governs those choices?

This of course, is the core educational question. What shall we learn and how shall we learn it? It’s not an easy question, especially in a huge, diverse society. It’s why we don’t need a single educational system, but countless schools teaching All The Things in any of the myriad ways or for any of the purposes students want to learn them.

Now, we can and should learn about subjects that we don’t think we need or want to learn about. That’s certainly true. This isn’t an argument for pure interest-driven learning. That produces a whole other type of narrowness and is not, in the end, actually educational.

I’m not a science or math person, academically speaking, but when I think about high school and in which classes I learned the most, I don’t think about English or history. I think about the physics class I took when I was a senior, a class I was required to take, but never would have chosen for myself. It was agony, especially for the first semester, but then, as I was studying for the mid-term, something clicked, and I ended up making an A. That experience of working through something that didn’t come naturally to me was very valuable, but I also learned something about myself – I learned that the more abstract a subject is, the more difficulty I have with it, and I experienced physics as very abstract – it wasn’t as concrete as say, biology had been. I learned this in relation to physics, but then it helped me make sense of a lot of other areas of my life, even at the point in which I was moving towards more advanced studies in religion. I knew that history was where I needed to be, not theology.

So no, I’m not saying that we all should just follow our bliss.

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BUT:

Is it absolutely necessary that a “quality” educational system be one in which elementary school students are required to learn, not just how to read and calculate, but the minutiae of all sorts of specific subjects? That they spend an hour a day learning a particular aspect of science or the humanities, are expected to keep learning about it with half an hour of homework almost every day, and are judged, in some sense, on their mastery of this particular way of learning about this particular subject?

When they are 12 years old?

Once you’ve lived and learned in Homeschool Land, particularly if that learning has been facilitated by a loosey-goosey, INFP mother whose favorite thing is rabbit trails of inquiry….you might be able to live with that bargain  for a while (I’ll put up with this if the other parts of school balance it out)…but then you might start wondering about it.

You might start wondering if rising at 6:45 and doing all the other School Things and being super tired at the end of the day because of it – too tired to practice your music in the way you want, too tired to spend much time outside, even too tired to read at night….you might start wondering if it’s worth it.

You’ve had some good teachers – even a great one. You’re glad of it. You’re grateful. You’ve made good friends. But….there’s that photography class through the homeschool co-op. And the classes at the science museum. And that writing program at the art museum – that sounds interesting. And the iron-pouring session at the historic furnace site. And you might even be able to start volunteering at the zoo.

The thing is….you like science and history and literature and even math is okay.  You read and study about all of that on your own. You learned that you’re not “behind” your peers. At all. You will study scientific and historic topics. It might not be what the curriculum committee of your state has determined all 13-year olds should know…but who cares? Is that really important?

You can be trusted to learn.

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And this, I’ve promised.

I’ll trust him to learn.

I wrote before that when I began this homeschool journey…I was convinced I was definitely Hip Unschooling Mom.

Er..no.

First, I had an older son who was very amenable to being taught. As in: “Teach me something. Thanks. Are we done? Can I go now?” He was not an unschooler at that point in his life.

Secondly…well…I’m a teacher. Life is just amazing and fascinating, and I just want to….

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BUT. THIS TIME GUYS I MEAN IT.

I told my son that except for math, this would be unschooling time. It would all be up to him. We are going to have conversations about what the typical 7th and 8th grade curricula are all about and how that feeds into the traditional high school model. He may not – and probably will not – do traditional high school – but he needs to know how that is structured and what is generally required for graduation.

It will be my job to facilitate. To find resources, to take him to the library, and so on.

Of course, much of this is determined by his sense of what he wants to do or be. There are people around him who think that music is in his future, but while he wants to keep studying piano, and enjoys it, he is pretty firm that he’s not interested in music as a profession in any way. His vision of himself in the future involves some combination of archaeology, photography and reptiles.  We’ll see.

So this is my sense of what “school” will be like for the next year for him:

Prayer/saint of the day/Mass readings or Mass

Math: Art of Problem Solving Pre-Algebra

Aside from his music lessons, homeschool co-op, science center classes, boxing and other activities…what he studies will be up to him, and I’ll help in whatever way I can. The only rule is that he must be engaged in something during the “school day.”  It can be outdoors, it can be reading, writing, drawing, studying, talking to me, whatever. But no screens (unless we are watching an educational video together), and if he can’t use his time….I’ll take over.

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Today he mentioned Spanish, for example. So I’ll get a Spanish I program of some sort – either middle school Spanish or a high school Spanish I program – and he’ll start on that with the wealth of supplementary materials out there and if he wants to, at some point, involve a tutor or an online class.

This will be very interesting. It will require discipline and self-control on both ends – he’ll need it to stay focused, and I’ll need it in order to keep that Sort Of Unschooling Promise.

Paperwork: As I have mentioned, Alabama is a fabulous homeschooling state. The only requirement is attendance records. No testing, no need to submit curriculum.  So our process will be, not planning, but recording.

I have a daily planner, and at the end of every day – or in the course of the day – he will note what he did: what he read, wrote, saw, did. At the end of the week, he’ll write up a summary, and that will be our record-keeping, which I know will be important for future reference, to prove that he actually did things.

So that’s it.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

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For more homeschool posts with many more Thoughts:

Balancing Equations: The decision-making that led to homeschooling back in 2011/2012

The first stage of our homeschooling…in Europe.

School at Home and Other Places….my family’s background in education. 

An INFP Homeschools

The main resources I used in homeschooling that first go round.

Homeschool Takeaways: What I Learned. 

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