So I just got back from a neurology lecture and book signing that I attended with my 10-year-old son. The author of the book gave a presentation along with some readings, basically describing the composition of Mind, as illuminated by disease, walking up from the level of the atomic, to the molecular/genetic, the cellular (intra- and inter-), to substructures, the brain itself, and then alluding to the further extension to the body and even beyond into the environment. It was a little over an hour of one guy talking and showing powerPoint slides with mostly words, and the occasional picture. No animations, no movies...just stories and concepts with the odd illustration. The audience sat on folding chairs in a small gallery - by the end even I was getting fidgety.
I'm not sure which surprised me more - the fact that he was not the only kid there (it was close - there was one other family speaking French to each other and English to the presenter), or the fact that he actually seemed to enjoy it.
Some background - a few weeks ago, we pulled him out of the local public school. It wasn't an easy decision in many ways; we actually liked the school (he was there K-3rd and up through March of 4th grade) and had put a lot into supporting it. Lee was extremely active in the PTA and on campus in general, I chaired the School Site Council (and still do, actually, for the rest of the year), and we knew the faculty and many of the parents very well. They are good people trying to do good things for the kids. It had simply become the wrong place for our son.
A little more background. This school is a very small neighborhood school, walking-distance from our house. The student body is a little over 300 kids, K-6. When we moved to the neighborhood, it was one of those schools people move to get into. The principal at that time had instituted all these fantastic programs, the test scores and API's were excellent, the culture was close-knit yet diverse. Then the budget crisis hit.
Since we enrolled Jasper in Kindergarten almost 5 years ago, we've been through 4 principals (5 if you count the one we never even met who was hired in June and had quit by August). The school narrowly escaped closure 2 years ago, and is now threatened again. Many of the more involved families have left, unsure of the school's future and tired of the emotional roller-coaster and the uncertainty. The budgets are miniscule and getting smaller, and the district is basically a giant money-sponge between the state and the actual classroom (or so it seems to me). Classes are large and in some cases chaotic. The district-imposed curriculum, with it's burden of no-child-left-behind-ism, has cut everything but math and language arts to the bare minimum, while doing the same with the number of hours/days of instruction in a given year. There is no funding or support for GATE or other programs for gifted and talented students; instead, the focus is on bringing those who are performing at low levels up to grade level standards - a very good and virtuous goal, and one that I support. Unfortunately, in the current budget climate that only has room for one priority, it leaves the kids who could go farther and faster to fend for themselves, and to become bored and demotivated - and at the critical middle-elementary stage, puts them at risk of becoming disenchanted with education as a whole.
This is exactly what we had started to see happening with our son the last couple of years. In the beginning, he was really excited about school and learning. But gradually, as he started pulling ahead in some areas (his mutant power is reading - he was reading at an 11th-grade level in 3rd grade) there was nowhere for him to go in class. In other areas, he was quickly learning the tricks of doing just enough to get by and escape reprisals. It didn't help that the bar is set so low in many cases. Like any other kid, he was starting to live down to expectations.
So when a string of incidents (I won't go into them here) started to get us worried about not only the academics but the overall climate of the school, we decided that it was time to change the strategy, and we got connected with some local families who were homeschooling. We could have transferred to another - larger - school, but right now transfers, especially mid-year, are hard to pull off unless there's a disciplinary issue. We could have gone to a private school...but even the lower-end of that spectrum is just beyond our means on one income (which is how we like things - we feel the "luxury" of one stay-at-home parent is something our kids should have). So, emboldened by the stories of a few friends and a strong network of like-minded people, we're giving the homeschool approach a try.
One part of the homeschool scene that many people (including me until recently) are unaware is just how much opportunity there is to, well, attend classes outside the school environment. There's a geology class at a nearby Natural History museum especially for homeschoolers - there are 6 sections of it, and we got the last spot of the last one. They're going to go visit a volcano at the end of the unit. We'll be doing some Oceanography, culminating in a trip to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. Basically, we'll be building a curriculum from components, filling in the spaces with impromptu lessons (using math to calculate the tax at the grocery store or convert units in the kitchen, for instance), and using resources out there to make sure we're keeping track and documenting progress against benchmarks and that kind of thing (the one we've chosen is affiliated with the state, and even provides a certain amount of funding for independent classes). Living where we do, there really is a wealth of opportunity to design your own education.
Which is what brought me to this small gallery, to spend an hour in an uncomfortable folding chair, listening to a doctor and professor of neuroscience discuss the nature of the mind and how it relates to, and transcends, the physical structures it inhabits in the form of the brain, body, and environment.
With a 10-year-old boy, who sat through the whole thing in rapt attention, seemingly finding it just as fascinating as I or anyone else in the audience.
He listened to the various discussions brought up by the attendees, even asking a couple of questions himself. At the end of the lecture, he wanted to buy the presenter's book so he could get it signed, which we did. I think it's going to be a while before he can actually read and comprehend it, but maybe not. At the very least, it sparked an interest and something to reach for, in a way that wasn't specially-packaged or downgraded for kids.
Right now, at the beginning of this journey/experiment/adventure, I think that's what excites me most - the notion that we can give him the opportunity to learn about and participate in the real, actual world of real, actual ideas, on its own terms as well as his. Rather than picking an education from a menu that started out akin to McDonald's and is now trending more towards White Castle, we can take him to the farmer's market, and even the gourmet store now and then, so he can get not only a better educational meal, but a more real connection to its ingredients and where they come from.
It may not work out at all - we may discover that it's just not effective for him, that he doesn't take to it or progress well with it. Ultimately he may end up back in "regular school" if it becomes apparent that it's better for him. Then again, if it's really great for him, I'm glad we're giving him the chance to find out, and to take a shot at defining his own mind and its boundaries from the inside out. Or maybe from the atomic up.