Last Thursday, Tom’s already unreliable helper — the Alberta advantage continues in the face of the recession — failed to show up for the first day of a big reshingling job. All of the shingles needed to be removed and the roof tarped, and it was hot (31 Celsius) so moving quickly with several pairs of hands was much better than moving slowly with only one. So I suggested he take the boys along, since we’re done with school for the summer. The three of them worked long days, until seven pm or so, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then Monday with Laura along to make sure the job got finished by the end of the day. Tuesday, the boys begged to go along for Tom’s new project — renovating two bathrooms, which included the demolition of walls, which couldn’t be any more fun if you’re eight-and-a-half and ten years old and are smashing down drywall with hammers and wrecking bars. And under Tom’s supervision and tutelage, the boys finally got to use the air nailer. They’re very pleased and proud of themselves.
I was in town by myself yesterday and Tuesday, and at every stop at least one person asked, “Where are the kids?” Each time I explained that Laura was home (yesterday she took her bicycle off to the corrals and with newborn kittens in her lap wrote her 4H essay) and the boys were working with Tom. Twice I was asked, “Are they old enough already?” I was torn between replying “Old enough for what?” and mentioning that our junior apprenticeship program started a long time ago. The kids have been going off to work with their father, and doing farm chores with both of us, since they were old enough to walk. When I was pregnant with Daniel, Tom took Laura, who was not quite a year-and-a-half old, to work where he was building a new house. She would help him by passing tools to him, and kept busy for hours at a time hammering nails into a large styrofoam block. When Daniel was six months old and Laura two years old, we took off for Toronto so Tom could help his sister and her husband build a new garage. Laura had no interest in spending her time in the house with her baby brother and newborn cousin when she could be outdoors helping her father, which she did, much to the consternation of her uncle who wasn’t used to useful and capable young children. Really, the question shouldn’t be, “Are they old enough?” but “Are they able enough?” And the answer is yes.
It was last night while the boys were enjoying a well-deserved sleep after a hard day’s work at their father’s side that I read Holly Robinson‘s heart-breaking story of her sixth grade son’s experiences in his Massachusetts public school, with school as “a necessary evil instead of an inspiration”. I want to write to her and say “break the rules”, or “send him to us, sight unseen, for a summer at the farm”. Here’s some of the article, at The Huffington Post, including the beginning of the article which I confess confuses me:
A couple of weeks ago, I was volunteering at my son Aidan’s elementary school after hours. The building was empty but for a knot of teachers clustered in the hallway. As we entered his classroom, Aidan leaped up to touch the door frame. Immediately, one of the teachers scolded him about safety.
Aidan apologized. As soon as we were alone, though, he rolled his eyes at me. “Teachers don’t like boys, Mom. If I was a girl, she never would have said anything.”
“They’re just trying to keep you safe,” I said.
Aidan is in sixth grade, no doubt old enough to be safe no matter how he leaps or touches a door frame, no? Also confusing, and just plain misguided on the part of the teachers, who seem to have little understanding of classroom management and the nature of children in general and boys in particular,
Aidan earns A’s and B’s in school, yet I’m constantly fighting battles like this one: When he misbehaves, his teachers take away recess. Please. Are they out of their Vulcan minds?
The less confusing, more heart-breaking part:
Now that Aidan, the youngest of our five children, is in sixth grade, I have little hope that the system will change. Our public school curriculum in Massachusetts, as in so many states, is designed to help students conquer basic skills and prepare for the state-administered MCAS exam. Not a bad goal. Just one problem: our teachers now scramble to teach to the tests. This means lots of worksheets get handed out and there’s little time left for creative, hands-on projects.
This is a tragedy, especially for boys. Research tells us what most parents know: boys are apt to be “kinesthetic learners.” That’s educatorspeak for the fact that most boys learn best while they’re in motion. Boys want to get their feet wet and their hands dirty. They want to build things and take them apart, trap small animals and climb tall trees. Or jump up and touch whatever they can.
As Aidan observed once, after spending an entire science class watching a movie about the life cycle of frogs, “We’d learn a lot more if the teacher just brought tadpoles and frogs into the classroom and we could look at them.”
“Send him to us.” Or let him go pond dipping near home, if possible.
Ms. Robinson writes,
But I can’t help seeing school as a necessary evil instead of an inspiration. It’s great that Aidan has learned how to do algebra, read a map, write an essay and navigate social situations without a black eye. Outside of school, though, is where Aidan does most of his real learning. He pursues his interests with passion: rock climbing, coin collecting, fishing, engineering, snowboarding. Our house is one big science lab; in recent months Aidan has built a hovercraft in the driveway, figured out that you could shrink potato chip bags in the microwave oven, and erected a K’nex roller coaster taller than he is. He has memorized the periodic table and taken apart an old computer. He surprised me in the kitchen by saying, “Here’s a cool invention for kids, Mom,” and pushing a cup of milk onto the ice dispenser of our freezer. Instead of dispensing ice, cereal came pouring out of the freezer and fell into his cup of milk. Messy, but way cool.
What would a perfect school for boys be like? Classes would be small and held outside half the time. Boys of all abilities and temperaments would build, paint, draw, take things apart, play computer games and listen to music while reading if they felt like it. If they wanted to write about volcanoes instead of the weather, or study the Civil War in January instead of September, why not let them choose? And, if they wanted to do math standing up or run a few laps between exams, why not?
Oh, wait. Our boys couldn’t do that. That would be breaking the rules.
Yes, break the rules. Perfect.