What I Learned About Learning from My 12-Year-Old Son

This week’s blog post comes from Tara Marcus, a long time friend of camp.

 

I went into this proposition kicking and screaming. It really wasn’t until we exhausted all other possible options that I said yes to this one – home-schooling. My husband and I have three boys and have our own consulting practice together. For the first ten years of the business, I juggled my children’s needs against the business needs. They didn’t go to daycare, so I worked around their schedule and arranged for babysitters to come into our home. So when all of our kids were old enough to be in school from 9:00 am – 3:30 pm – it was nirvana for me, 6+ hours of uninterrupted work time. Whoo, hoo! I could finally give our business my full attention for pretty much a full day, without attending to the needs of my kids. Many of you may know as parents, one huge milestone in life is when all of your kids are in school for a full day.

So when my 12-year-old son wrote my husband and I a long email asking to be home-schooled – I was deflated by the idea. Mostly, what I could see was that my hard-earned world of six hours of free time to finally dedicate to our business was being threatened. Even though I had met home-schooled kids over the years and found them to be intelligent and super capable of having meaningful conversations with adults – we didn’t have the time to home-school our kids and run a business. And besides, I was a product of the public school system and I didn’t turn out that bad.

Our son’s plea came mid-year of his 6th grade – he wanted to be home-schooled more than anything. As a Mom, I saw the stress our son was under. His schedule was rigorous, up by 6:00 am, on the bus at 7:00 am, home by 4:00 pm, dinner, homework and time for bed. After about two weeks of this rigor, he would start to buckle.

His school, although well meaning, adopted a paddy-wagon style of discipline. It would punish all of the students for the transgressions of a few – this meant days of no talking – not even in the hallways in between classes. Early on in his 6th Grade year, Dylan found himself swooped up with a bunch of boys at lunch time by an aid and sent to the Principal. He, along with some other boys, were reamed out by the Principal – for a pretty minor incident by one of the kids. Dylan wasn’t involved but was treated to the Principal’s tirade none-the-less. I found out about the incident because the school nurse called us. Dylan was so upset by the whole thing he had a panic attack – crying, hyperventilating. He had never been in trouble before and had little capacity to handle it.

My husband, an avid believer in experiential learning, had long been a fan of home-schooling. While I liked the idea of it, I didn’t want the responsibility — the responsibility of my son’s learning to be on me. Our business needed my attention and I did not have the time to take on Dylan’s education. We considered linking up with home-schooling groups for support and came to learn that most are religiously based which did not appeal to us. So we ignored Dylan’s request for a few months hoping he would “get over it”.

By spring break, Dylan’s aversion for school was getting stronger. Getting him into the building each day had become an anxiety producing battle for us all. On one particular day, he wouldn’t go. I had driven him to school so he could avoid the hour long bus ride but when we arrived he wouldn’t get out of the car. I went into the school, let them know what was happening and a Counselor came out to try and coax Dylan in. When the Counselor came out to the parking lot, Dylan looked at me as if I were a traitor. He had barricaded himself in our mini-van and was crying hysterically. (And I should note that Dylan is not a crier by nature. It takes a lot to get him to that place.) We spent more than an hour trying to get Dylan into school. He never did go. Instead we went home. The Counselor and I were defeated. Because in this paradigm, going home is failure, staying at school is a win.

We had Dylan tested by a psychiatrist. We had him receive a physical by a doctor. We sent him to hypnotherapy — all in effort to “fix Dylan” so he could go back to school. The undertones of all of our efforts were that public school was normal and anything else was abnormal.

Dylan received home-bound tutoring for the last few weeks of his 6th Grade year. We were shocked to learn that he only needed two hours of instruction for each subject. Worried that he would fall behind, we asked his tutors if two hours was enough for him to keep up. We received a resounding yes from them all. And they were correct. Dylan confirmed that what he learned in two hours of private instruction was equivalent to what he would learn in a week of instruction in school. It was a bit shocking to us – so if a student only needed two hours of learning a week what was going on for all the other time? Suddenly the thought of home-schooling was less daunting – it was now a 10 hour task vs. 40 hours.

I laugh now looking back at all of the upset and angst we all had about this decision and the events leading up to it. We were (or perhaps it was just me?) holding on to the mental model of our son going to public school. And there were lots of reasons for holding on. Our school system was one of the better ones. It was known entity. His cousins went there. It’s easier when you just fall in line.

But as parents, we could no longer ignore the truth – our amazing boy Dylan, who loved to learn, was not thriving in school. He and his spirit was diminished and in some respects, damaged. For his sake, we needed to make a change so we did it – we said good-bye to public school and hello to home-schooling.

I have to say, once we decided, unhooking from the public school system was surprisingly easy. You just need to write a letter to the school telling them that you are home-schooling your child and that is it.

Dylan spent his 7th grade year directing his own learning. Together we created a schedule for what subjects he would focus on each day and he kept a journal to track his progress. Everything Dylan wanted to know was at his fingertips. He learned Math from Kahn Academy and followed a whole host of YouTubers for learning on other subjects. It was amazing to see how in science he went from the boring task of writing word definitions down on index cards in public school to teaching himself about string theory – something he has an avid interest in. He worked on his spelling at night while his younger brother’s did their homework. When we would meet people and they discovered that Dylan was home-schooled, they automatically assumed that I, his Mom, was his teacher. While as a parent, I am his life-long teacher, the truth was, he taught himself. I took an interest, pretended I knew what he was saying about string theory and applauded his interests. (Although, I do now know, because of Dylan, how Morse Code really works.)

At the end of this summer, Dylan said to his Dad and I, “I want to look into alternative schools.” So on his own, he Googled “Alternative Schools South Jersey” and the name Sudbury came up. Turns out, a brand new alternative school was starting in South Jersey. It’s called South Jersey Sudbury, (http://www.southjerseysudburyschool.org/). He read the website and really liked their philosophy. It was exactly what he was looking for – self-directed,  learning in a group setting. It’s a democratically run school where the students have as much say as the staff. An added bonus is the campus is a beautiful YMCA camp in the woods – Camp Ockanickon in Medford NJ. We went to Sudbury’s open house and discovered their guiding beliefs include:

– Children are naturally curious.
– The deepest learning happens when pursued by the learner.
– All people are creative when allowed to develop their unique talents.
– We learn best by playing.

In his of excitement of discovering this school, Dylan told his friends about it – a school where if he wanted to play basketball all day he could. They were skeptical – they didn’t want to go themselves because they didn’t trust themselves to ‘do the right thing’ and learn. They thought, left to their own desires, they would goof off all day. I wonder, if given absolute freedom to learn what they wanted, what would happen? My guess is that they would surprise themselves, coming to understand when they are fueled by their own interests and passions, the work of school would feel more like play.
If you look at the pictures on the school’s home page, you’ll see really happy kids doing things that you know in your heart, kids should be doing – playing. (www.SouthJerseySudburySchool.com). Dylan learned a lot about nature while being in nature – he caught a fish on his first day of school!

Knowing what I know now, looking back, all of that worry about Dylan falling behind or being out-of-step with his peers was so unwarranted. He thrived at home. His schedule was so much more forgiving. Learning in the morning. Accompanying our 75-year-old neighbor Claire to the gym where he played basketball, ping-pong and swam. Our dog Cleveland was his best friend. No panic attacks. No grueling schedule. Learning subjects he was interested in. Making his Dad and I lunch.

The most import lesson that Dylan has learned is to trust his own inner guidance system – to hear what it was saying and to not be afraid to act upon it. While others did thrive in his middle school, it didn’t feel right for him. It didn’t align with his values and it didn’t support his style of learning. Can you imagine getting that lesson at 12? I’m 50 and still working on that one.

I have the utmost respect for our public school system. No doubt they’ve got a tough, tough job. I’ve experienced first-hand the 100% dedication my son’s elementary teachers have had to their education. It just seems that in a world where our choices in everything have expanded, I wonder why we as parents haven’t asked for more choices in the way our kids learn? When I asked his middle-school for other options, there weren’t any other than home-schooling. Dylan is not an anomaly. There are other kids like him.

And if the purpose of going to school and going to college is to get a job – I can tell you as someone who has worked in a Fortune 5 company and who consults with hundreds of Senior Leaders in all types of industries – we need adults who know how to think. We need adults who know how to lead. The best way of guaranteeing that is to trust their thinking from the beginning and fan the flames of whatever lights them up.

 

Tara Marcus

www.SouthJerseySudburySchool.com   www.ycamp.org

 

 

By |2015-10-19T11:01:09+00:00October 19th, 2015|