Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why aren't there alternatives to skipping?

So... maybe the girl could skip ANOTHER grade. I'm stewing about this today. In her typical, unflappable way, her response is "cool, when do I take their tests?" My response is much more complicated (witness my last post). Today, however, I'm finding myself pissed -- pissed at a system that is so inflexible, that fetishizes grade levels, that is so lacking in creativity. (I am not alone in this, just read this post/comment thread from Edutopia.)

When I contacted a teacher about curriculum in her classes and where my daughter and kids like her (those who are highly motivated in this subject), she accused me of advocating tracking. I'm having a hard time not seeing that as a direct attempt to shut me down. The challenge is, and this is what I've been asking for all along, is how to provide just some -- one or two -- opportunities for my kids to work with a motivated peer group and have the full attention of a teacher, while staying in the 'regular' school. E likes band and art. She has a pretty diverse group of friends. She is at ease in this school. I do value these things but there is no getting around the fact that she is bored and stuck in classrooms that just lump kids together without any regard to ability, motivation, or experience. In these situations, my kid gets A's because she manages to turn in all her work and is quiet. And she knows this. She wants those A's to mean more.

When I was in 5-7th grades, we lived in Virginia in a huge school district that had a much wider range of students than the sheltered world of Midland public schools from which I had come. I was identified as "Gifted and Talented" somehow and experienced three different programs during my time there. One year, there were a handful of days where we were taken out of regular classes to attend a district-wide day of activities. This was lame because I knew no one (I was in elementary school and didn't even know the other kids from my school) and it wasn't a sustained program, just a series of one-offs. The next year, there was a short time in the afternoon once every other week where we were pulled out of class to go work on projects with other kids from around the (large) school. I learned about flow-charts and rudimentary computer programming, we built electrical circuits, and stuff that was cool, but again, there was not rapport with the other students or the revolving adults who lead the projects.

The third model, however, had a significant impact on me. In 7th grade at a gigantic, overflowing school, I spent 4th period in a "special" class with less than 20 other kids. I can still recite poetry I learned in that class. I designed and adminstered my first survey. I learned the mathmatical explanation for "magic" tricks... Projects aside, it was neat, it was special, and I got to know a diverse range of students who made me a better student because they were better students -- and that compensated for the shortcomings of my other classes. There were four teachers for the class, so each quarter we had someone new who was excited to be there because they got to try out kooky projects or teach about their passions to a small, motivated group. I certainly hope it was as rewarding for them as it was for me.

Okay, that was many years, er, decades, ago, but surely there must be some models out there for creating that kind of experience for kids -- even if it is just for 50 minutes a day. And I don't just mean the kids who test well. Why can't we borrow a page from the "free schooling" movement and get kids to pick something that interests them and then get them a peer group and teacher that will encourage them in this?

I tried some of these ideas out on the principal of the middle school and got nowhere (E calls her "weak-minded") so now I'm laying this challenge in front of the school board and the district adminstration today. We'll see. In the meantime, I still need to figure out if I should cut my losses with this school and jump through the hoops to move E straight to 9th grade (at the ripe old age of 12 1/2)...


Victoria said...

Nora is in a GT program called "Young Playwrights." They wrote their own scripts, casted them, and are now filming them. Maya is languishing with nothing like this available in sixth grade. We just tell her to hold on and it will get better. But Emma in high school next year? I'm not sure... There must be better solutions than that.

Stella said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stella said...

The cynical part of me has this response: there aren't other alternatives to skipping in the public system because such alternatives wouldn't be cost effective.

Of course, there's also the "Harrison Bergeron" (a.k.a. the lowest common denominator) phenomenon which can be, I think, an unintended consequence of some institutions. (In Berkeley, for example, a community which largely embodies my values, the schools have eliminated all accelerated programming on the grounds that have such programs gives some students advantages.)

I have had some additional thoughts about non-public alternatives. I'll send them to you in an email.

Zoe the Wonder Dog said...

It seems like there must be more to the Berkley story... I do know that many districts have abandoned accelerated classes, but have "ability groups" within classes. It is supposed to have the benefits of putting kids in challenging groups but less permanency than tracking.

Unfortunately,it seems that our district administration suffers from an extreme lack of creativity in meeting state mandates. They definitely focus on the LCD. Sigh.

I am thinking about the combo public school/online school possibility. But at the moment, I'm feeling exhausted by it all. This is more work than work.

Zoe the Wonder Dog said...

We've decided not to skip. The agony of this process was good, though. E is a bit more aware/critical of her education, but I think it was good for her to decide that her social world mattered too... and she decided she likes her friends and how she fits where she is. It feels pretty good (for now). She'll stay in middle school and I'm working on getting into the curriculum and school/district planning circles so I can advocate for a bit more experimentation/challenge.