Beyond Measure by Vicki Abeles

51xuPFNA3-L._AC_UL320_SR212,320_ Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation

by Vicki Abeles

If you’ve never seen the documentary Race to Nowhere and you are either a parent with kids in public school currently or kids who will be in public school in the future, or an educator, you need to see it.  Race to Nowhere came out a couple of years ago and it’s a well-researched expose on the state of modern education in America, and what it’s doing to our kids.

Beyond Measure is a follow-up book (there is also a film, which is not yet available for general viewing), written by the creator of Race to Nowhere.  Beyond Measure, too, is a further expose of today’s educational climate – with the extreme focus on testing and ranking and achievement and competition and resume-building – chock full of statistics, data, and anecdotes.  It’s very much a wake up call: something’s got to give, because we are making our kids sick; we are cultivating a generation of stressed out, depressed, disengaged kids who are terrified of failure or risk, and who don’t know what they’re truly interested in or passionate about because their whole lives have been so structured, guided, and micromanaged.

I can vouch for the reality of this gloom and doom prophesy, as I watched my own brilliant kid crash in high school.  There is not much that can compare with watching your child suffer such mental and emotional anguish.

Beyond the grim data, however, Beyond Measure offers hope.  Abeles has tirelessly traveled the country visiting schools and interviewing educators and administrators who DO see the damage being done to our youth, and who DO want to effect real change.  There are numerous schools across the U.S. that are implementing positive changes, big and small, in an effort to turn things around before it’s too late.

It would be wonderful if every parent and educator read this book and took it to heart.  I keep thinking that I should buy a couple of extra copies and give them to our elementary school principal (who is all about the numbers and not very much about the actual children) and our Superintendent.  I keep thinking that if they only read this, they would see the light and start making changes.  But the truth is, I’m not that hopeful.  I feel like our particular school district is too far gone – too entrenched in everything that is wrong with public education today, from academic expectations that are developmentally inappropriate, to unreasonable homework expectations, to withholding recess as a punishment, to supporting and defending Common Core and all the attending standardized testing.

Change, if it is to happen on a large scale, nationwide, will happen so slowly and incrementally that it will be years and years before this mess is turned around.  I can’t wait that long, which is why I’ve turned to homeschooling.

In any case, Beyond Measure is an excellent read, and really is a must read for all parents and educators.

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Unknown Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

by Peter Gray

I’m still digesting this book, and plan to write on my other blog about how it’s affected my views about schooling, and how it’s impacting my thoughts on how to move forward in my own homeschooling endeavors, but for now I’m going to try to share some general thoughts about the book and its premises.

Free to Learn was recommended to me by a friend when I put out a request on Facebook for suggestions of books about unschooling.  I immediately ordered it from Amazon and spent the next week devouring it, highlighter in hand.

In a nutshell, the basic message of Free to Learn is that kids learn best by being left alone by adults.  That is not to say that children should not be cared for, nurtured, and provided for by adults, but we, as a society, have gotten to a point of believing that adults must direct every aspect of our children’s lives, including their learning.  For some reason we went from trusting children and believing them to be competent and having faith that their natural curiosity would serve as a strong enough drive to lead them down the paths of learning what they need to know, to believing that children are inept blobs of clay who must be molded into desirable shapes, and who can’t or won’t accomplish anything of use without supervision, direction and coercion by adults.

You really can’t help but see that this is the model of conventional schools.

The whole idea of compulsory schooling, with its compulsory subjects that must be learned in prescribed ways at prescribed ages (prescribed by anonymous adults who are far, far removed from classrooms), with its grouping children together by age rather than by interest or desire to be grouped together, with its never-ending ranking, grading, comparing, testing, rewarding, and doling out of consequences, with its adherence to conformity – all of these things that characterize pretty much every neighborhood public school fly in the face of how children actually learn best.  By sucking all the joy out of learning for learning’s sake and instead making learning a means to an end (a good grade, a gold star, an award, something to put on a college application), we are failing our children.  Rates of depression, anxiety, and cheating in school have skyrocketed, and we’re raising kids who increasingly don’t have any idea how to run their own lives and make their own decisions, let alone take responsibility for the direction their lives may take, face adversity, and learn and grow from their mistakes.

The key to real learning, posits Peter Gray, is a childhood full of free play, and a democratic model of education.  What this translates to is that children should be given as much freedom as is safe and reasonable (and those are subjective, and therefore raise plenty of questions about what is safe and reasonable) to direct their own learning, to interact and form friendships with people outside of their own age groups, to explore, experiment, and just play – and adults need to back off and trust that the kids will be alright if we stop managing their every waking moment.

So much of this struck a deep chord in me.  I absolutely see the truth of all of it.  The problem is making the leap to applying these principles in real life when you’ve become so entrenched in the “conventional” way of doing things.  While I absolutely see the wisdom and truth of what Gray sets forth, I’m having a very, very difficult time actually thinking about what it would be like to let go and give my kids the reins.

Two criticisms I have: on some level, this book feels like a giant advertisement for the Sudbury Valley School and its offshoots.  Sudbury schools are democratic schools in which the students direct and take complete responsibility for their own education.  I can’t imagine that it’s not wonderful, and that it doesn’t instill in kids a myriad of things that conventional schools can’t or won’t.  My problem with the endorsement, though, lies in the fact that Sudbury schools are private, tuition-based schools, and although they are apparently less expensive than a lot of conventional private schools, they’re still not cheap, and many, many families – especially those with multiple kids – just cannot afford to pay tuition to send their kids to school.  Further, relatively speaking, there aren’t a whole lot of these schools.  The numbers are growing, but it’s not like you can find one in every neighborhood, so most families will have to commute at least some distance, and this isn’t practical or even feasible for a lot of families.

The other thing is that I wish this book, and other books that discuss alternative educational paths for children, talked about how these methods might apply to a-typical kids (i.e., kids with disabilities).  I feel like just about every book or article out there that discusses all the wonderful ways in which children can be educated and reared outside of conventional standards are really talking about “typical” kids.  How do kids with intellectual disabilities fit into all of this?  Nobody really seems to want to delve into that in any depth, and that’s a disappointment.

In any case, I think this book is a must read for anyone who has kids or plans to have kids.  Seriously, a must read.

One Good Year by Laura Brodie

51k9ql9RGhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ One Good Year: A Mother and Daughter’s Educational Adventure

by Laura Brodie

I was eager to read this memoir about homeschooling, being that I have recently waded into the homeschooling waters myself.

Ten years ago, Laura Brodie decided to pull her ten-year old daughter, Julia, from public school in order to homeschool her.  The decision was made after much contemplation, and was based on Julia’s social, academic, and emotional difficulties with what seemed to be the institutionalized school setting itself.  A free spirit who related to animals better than humans, who bristled at the confinement of school, and whose mind tended to withdraw and wander to such an extent that focusing on schoolwork was a real problem, Laura decided to give her daughter a respite for her fifth grade year.  She hoped that a change of scenery for a year would give Julia a chance to regroup, refuel, and prepare for middle school.

There were certainly things in Brodie’s contemplation of homeschooling that I could relate to.

“Every child has a misery quotient, the line at which mere whining turns into real unhappiness . . . . And there’s nothing like homework to squash a child’s joy.  In Julia’s mind, homework was the shadow haunting every day, the shapeless dread that grew larger with each passing year.”

This very much sums up my decision to pull my own daughter from public school in order to homeschool her; the misery school was causing her wasn’t worth whatever benefits she was supposedly getting from the experience, and I finally decided to take matters into my own hands in the hope that I could turn things around for her.

I didn’t get very far into the book, however, before I found myself irritated with the author.  She scoffs at the propensity of parents to “grasp at straws of genius” in their children, but seems oblivious to her own tendency to do the same.  All three of her daughters are above average, apparently – at least in the author’s eyes.

Clearly, Julia had a unique intelligence churning inside her head . . .”

“I never did worry very much about Rachel, largely because of her intellectual gifts . . .”

And although I can’t locate the quote now, I believe her other daughter, Kathryn, was deemed “bored” with the academic aspect of school because she was so bright.

And, of course, Julia is a better violinist than any of her peers taking violin lessons.

This, too, rankled:

“The thought that in forty-nine states any parent who’d scraped through high school with a D average could then teach high school to their own children struck me as setting the bar very low.”

(As if letter grades are the only – or even the best – indication of ability and intelligence; as if there aren’t a million factors that might play into low grades in high school – from depression, to poverty, to various traumas, to illness, to instability of family life, and the list goes on and on – none of which are indicative of one’s ability to teach one’s own children.  This struck me as appallingly narrow-minded, and even elitist.  The author’s elitism continued to bother me; a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D., she clearly saw herself as more qualified to homeschool than the “average” parent, and had no qualms throwing around terms like “idiot” and “spelling moron,” and even calling her daughter a “dumbass” in a fit of temper – which she admittedly regretted, but, it seemed to me, more because name-calling isn’t nice and not because her terminology is disparaging to certain sectors of the population.  There was also a remark by her husband about the stigma of being held back a grade: “Being held back is one step above wearing a helmet.”)

It seemed to me that trouble started brewing as soon as Brodie and her daughter began that year of homeschooling.  When she describes how, “She and I had agreed that if her sisters were going to attend school from 8:30 to 3:00 every day, she would follow a similar routine . . . For the sake of sibling equality, we would find activities to fill six and a half hours each day,” it struck me how oblivious she seemed to the utter arbitrariness of a six-and-a-half hour school day, and the fact that much of that time is spent on classroom management and paper shuffling in “regular” school, and not on actual learning.  And what about meeting each child’s individual needs?  If she was going to base their school days on “sibling equality,” it seemed to me something important would be lost – namely, the meeting of Julia’s unique needs.

From the very beginning, Brodie sets stringent expectations for Julia, and from almost the beginning, tempers flare and mother and daughter clash again and again.  I wanted so badly to see Brodie just stop and take a deep breath and change tack – and eventually she does, sort of, but not until the spring when their year together is already drawing to a close.

I don’t know . . . I know myself to be an anal-retentive control freak, but Brodie made me feel like a lamb.  In the end, I don’t think that their year of homeschooling was any sort of “respite” for Julia.  Brodie acknowledges this when she says,

“Still, part of my goal in homeschooling had been to reduce Julia’s misery, and it seemed that over the past few months I had only managed to give her misery a new name.  I had granted her a break from traditional schooling, but not a respite from oppressive expectations.”

***

“In the end, our version of homeschooling had not escaped the worst aspects of school: the pressures of daily work, the crush of high expectations.”

Ten years later, I wonder what Julia would say about her homeschooling experience; I wonder how she feels that it benefited her, how it impacted her return to public school through her completion of high school, and how she feels it affected her relationship with her mother.

Brodie knows how to write (she’s an English Professor, after all), and thus her book is very readable, though I didn’t find it very relatable.  She makes a lot of good points:

On conventional school –

“The division of children’s attention into arbitrary time slots is an artifice established for the convenience of schools, and is not designed to match the development of the human brain.”

On motherhood and anger –

“There’s plenty of anger in American society, and some of it might require therapy, but if all moms had to consult a psychologist every time they blew their tops, most U.S. households would be bankrupt . . . Mothers were supposed to be endlessly loving and encouraging.  We were supposed to resemble Carol Brady or Shirley Partridge or June Cleaver, unfailingly good humored in the face of enormous exasperation.  Now, in the new millennium, I find those saccharine maternal stereotypes to be as unhealthy as Barbie’s grotesquely arched and tiptoed body.”

Still, the writing and the author seem to lack a measure of warmth, and that kept me at arm’s length.

Ultimately, I thought the title of this book to be misleading, because it doesn’t seem like their year of homeschooling was good; in the end, I see it as more a cautionary tale than anything else.

Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids Without Religion by Deborah Mitchell

Unknown Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids Without Religion
by Deborah Mitchell

My initial introduction to Deborah Mitchell came a little over a year ago by way of an article she wrote for CNN iReports entitled Why I Raise My Kids Without God.  The title of the article alone spoke to me; I was curious to see what another parent had to say on a subject that has been fact in our house for years.  As it turned out, Debbie’s article went viral and, I believe, remains the most viewed and shared iReports article on CNN of all time.  I was so impressed by her article, and appreciated and agreed so much with what she wrote that I did a little digging and found that she also has a blog, Raising Kids Without Religion, of which I’ve become a loyal reader over the last year.  I’ve also had the privilege of corresponding with Debbie privately and getting to know her on a personal level.  Imagine my surprise when she contacted me and asked if I would be interested in making a contribution to her forthcoming book that would be coming out in the spring of 2014!

Growing Up Godless is that book . . .

Read the rest of my review, and enter to win a free copy of Growing Up Godless here.

Down Syndrome Parenting 101 by Natalie Hale

DS101Down Syndrome Parenting 101: Must-Have Advice for Making Your Life Easier
by Natalie Hale

Surprisingly, there actually hasn’t been a lot of hype about this book in the Down syndrome parenting community – at least not in my circle – since its publication in 2011.  I only recently became aware of its existence and wanted to take a gander at it, not so much because I feel in need of a special parenting guide, but I like knowing what’s out there concerning Down syndrome.  Maybe this book would offer up some wisdom that’s not already out there.

The book starts off strong with a Foreword by Martha Beck. Let me just say right off the bat that I’m pretty sure I’m in some weird minority in that I did not particularly like her book, Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic
, which I read at a friend’s urging when Finn was a baby.  Too full of paranormal and supernatural hooey for my constitution.  However, I liked her Foreword in this book. First, she acknowledges “early intervention therapies designed to make him [her son, Adam] more ‘normal.'” Then she says,

But at the end of the day, I knew my child was simply genetically different from those without the syndrome. The more I heard people talk about teaching my unborn baby to be “normal,” the more they began to sound like animal trainers whose speciality was teaching kittens to act like puppies. The assumption seemed to be that everyone wants a puppy, and that getting a kitten by mistake was a tragedy, to be avoided if possible, grieved and mitigated if necessary.

She goes on to say,

They seemed to take it as a given that children with Down syndrome must be made as “normal” as possible, and that their success should be measured by how close they come to “normalcy.”

Yes. That’s how I see it. So I really appreciated that.

In the first chapter, the author says flat out that her 26-year old son with Down syndrome is “average. This book didn’t grow from life with a super-achiever; Jonathan is somewhere in the middle of that wide spectrum we call Down syndrome.” I also appreciated that. There seem to be so many books and articles that focus on the “super-achievers” with Ds, and the truth is that most people with Down syndrome fall in the middle, or average. This feels real to me, honest.

Unfortunately, further on in the book, she loses me with her yogic/spiritual spin on Down syndrome.  She makes sweeping pronouncements about the uncanny abilities of children with Down syndrome to see right into people’s souls, about how they are like angels on earth, blah blah blah. I can’t stomach this type of thing, and frankly, I’ve never seen this type of uncanny ability in Finn. Is he friendly to people? Yes!  But I don’t think it has anything at all to do with a special intuition endowed upon him by that extra chromosome; I think it’s more a sort of innocence and even naiveté. He’s not jaded. He’s not worldly enough to be jaded, and perhaps he never will be. In any event, he displays less than angelic behavior all the time, and I don’t think he’s unusual in that regard – so the whole “angel” spin doesn’t sit well with me.

Despite Martha Beck’s remarks about interventive therapies for kids with Down syndrome in the Foreword, the author goes on to say, “Most parents choose to enroll their baby in Early Intervention; it’s considered absolutely best practice.” Blech. She acknowledges that some kids do fine without EI but the only example she gives is a family that had several children, all of whom were homeschooled.  I honestly wish there was more discussion about the pros and cons of Early Intervention – at least as it pertains to Down syndrome (I can’t presume to speak to other disabilities since I’m not knowledgeable about them).  I wish Early Intervention were presented as more an option than a stringent necessity.  I think there needs to be open discussion about what the underlying goal of EI is – to “normalize” kids as much as possible? – and I think a lot more thought and discussion needs to take place about the actual value of EI.  Disability Is Natural: Revolutionary Common Sense for Raising Successful Children With Disabilities
is, as far as I know, the only book out there that presents a viewpoint on EI that differs from what’s widely accepted; every other book out there on Down syndrome presents EI as a must.

In any event, Down Syndrome Parenting 101 does contain some useful information on schooling for kids with Down syndrome, and one of the big things that drew me to read this was that I had read somewhere that the author is a Down syndrome literacy guru, and I’m at a point with Finn where I am seeing how ripe he is to learn beginning reading, and what a positive impact that could have on his future school placement (among other things).  And I’m also completely intimidated by the prospect of undertaking the endeavor to teach Finn to read, so I was looking for information and encouragement to that end in this book. It did at least set me on the right track as far as beginning to research methods that seem to work with the visual learning style that is inherent in Down syndrome.

All in all, I think this book has a lot of fluff in it, some useful things, but it could have been a lot more invaluable than it actually is.  For instance, I was secretly hoping for a chapter devoted to Potty Training Kids With Down Syndrome, but no dice.  Despite my long review here, it’s a pretty quick read, and it would probably be somewhat useful to new and fairly new parents of children with Down syndrome.

Why Have Kids? By Jessica Valenti

Why Have Kids? By Jessica Valenti

I saw a write-up about this book in some magazine and I was intrigued.  I know – the title alone asks a question one might not associate with me, a mother of seven kids.  What drew me was the real question as posed in the write-up: given the fact that parenthood is so hard, given that there is so little social support, why do people keep having kids?

I read the book in two days and it really struck a nerve with me.  Because, you know what?  Parenthood – motherhood in particular – isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And although many points in the book left me feeling pissed off, frustrated, and even sad – because of their truth – it was actually refreshing to have some of the feelings I’ve carried around validated.

Why do we have kids?

“Because after all, the expectation of happiness is why we’ve had kids . . . When that happiness doesn’t pan out, it’s difficult to admit – not only because it seems ungrateful, but because to the truth seems like an insult to the children that parents love so much.

“But maybe kids aren’t supposed to make us happy.  Historically, Americans had children to help with the family farm or to have an extra set of hands around the house – to produce members of a larger community.  Today, parenthood has become less about raising productive citizens than it is about creating someone to love us unconditionally, someone on which to focus all of our energy and love.  The enormity of that expectation not only leaves unhappy parents wondering why they’re not swooning over their children, but it is also creating a generation of young people who think the world revolves around them.  (After all, they’re just kids – that’s an awful lot of pressure to put on such tiny humans.)”

Written from a purely feminist point of view (the author, Jessica Valenti, is a celebrated feminist), the book is nonetheless based on numerous studies, statistics, and interviews, and it’s hard to argue with the underlying message: although motherhood is touted by our society as “the most important job in the world,” actual attitudes and policies certainly don’t support that notion, and as a result, mothers everywhere feel isolated, frustrated, guilty, overworked, and under-appreciated.  The author argues, in fact, that society gives so much lip service to the institution of motherhood – from the medical community’s attempts to dictate the way women should care for their reproductive health from puberty on, because females’ highest purpose, after all, is to conceive and reproduce, to society’s pressure on mothers to breastfeed (with very few policies in place, however, to actually support breastfeeding mothers) – as a way of continuing to oppress women, to subtly but surely keep them at home where they do their best “work.”  The very notion is enraging, isn’t it?  And yet . . . one can’t help but wonder.

Even in this supposedly enlightened and progressive age, when you get right down to it, having children impacts the course of women’s lives far more than the men who father those children.  Once a baby comes onto the scene, even the most previously egalitarian couples tend to adopt “traditional” roles, with the mother shouldering the bulk of the child rearing responsibilities – whether she also works outside the home or not – and the father playing a “supportive” role at home.

Valenti also postulates that the so-called Mommy Wars are born from frustration and feelings of guilt on both sides of the battle line: on one side, smart, talented women sacrificing autonomy and self-sufficiency in favor of the drudgery of everyday motherhood, and on the other, smart, talented women trying to balance work-for-pay with the demands of motherhood; both sides are desperate for validation, and rightly so.

Also under attack by the author is the notion of branded parenting styles, especially those that tout a “natural” or “back to basics” philosophy –

“It’s easy to appropriate a condescending fixation on “underdeveloped” motherhood when you have the financial means and leisure time to pick whatever kind of parenting works for you at the moment.”

***

“And for moms who don’t have time and resources to put a name to their parenting, the brouhaha over AP [Attachment Parenting] seems a bit trite.  Mothers who worry about having enough food to feed their children don’t necessarily kvetch on online forums over whether or not you should wear your baby.  Some parents cosleep not because they think it will promote the right kind of bonding but because they only have one bedroom – and maybe no crib.”

Whether you’re talking about Attachment Parenting or Elimination Communication, guess who shoulders the brunt of the work?  You guessed it: moms.

“But if one kind of parenting is “natural,” what does that make all other kinds of child rearing?  Despite all the empowered rhetoric around the new maternal ideal – women’s intuition! maternal instinct! – isn’t this just a spiffed up version of telling women that their most important role in life is a domestic one?”

The author covers a lot of ground, and brings up issues that we would all do well to consider.  The only criticisms I have are the fact that there are numerous typos in the book, and although the author pushes for changes in attitudes and national policies to better support healthy, well-rounded parenting, the book isn’t big on ideas about how to make that happen.

I really think this is a must-read, though – for men and women alike, although I suspect it will be more women than men reading it.  It’s unlikely that anyone will come away from this book without experiencing some outrage.