The Schooling Dilemma, Part 1: My School Experience

Photo Credit: usag.yongsan on Flickr

School has started in our neck of the woods this week and it feels a bit strange. This is only the second year since I was a young child that I have not been going back to school, whether as a student, a teacher, or both. School has been such a huge part of my life for so long that it feels strange watching the back to school busy-ness from a distance. I am involved, however, in that I’m reflecting a great deal on my own school experience as I work through my thoughts and concerns about school now that I’m a parent. 

As someone who previously made a career in the field of education, I find the subject of school to be an important one. Until recently, I thought my options were pretty simple: public school, private school, or homeschooling. Thanks to the blogging community, however, I have discovered the concept of unschooling as well, and the existence of a whole spectrum between unschooling and rigid, hyper-structured schooling. It seems I have a multitude of options. Two years ago, I would have told you that my children would go to Montessori primary school and transition to a public elementary around first grade. The daddy, on the other hand, would like to see our children homeschooled. 

As she gets older, I believe the choice should largely be left up to Annabelle. I was so inspired by the way MJ trusted her own children on the schooling decision, and I wholeheartedly agree with the value of doing so. Still, I think it’s important that the daddy and I examine the pros and cons of various possibilities in the months and years to come so that we are prepared for our part.

All that said, I have come to realize that I have a great many biases when it comes to the issue of schooling, and I think it’s important for me to examine them now, before they creep in and influence my choices as a parent.

My Schooling Journey

My official education began at a private preschool in Arizona. My memories of this time involve tricyles, one special friend, having to sit in the corner during rest time, and that one day that we got to roast marshmallows and make S’mores outside. 

By my kindergarten year, we had moved states and I was attending a public elementary school, my memories of which include painting, being grossed out by a boy who ate glue, and walking to and from school. That’s about it. Before first grade, we moved again, this time to a rural area where my sister and I went to a new public school. I did well and enjoyed my class, but there were a couple of girls on the playground who singled me out and teased me regularly. It bothered me a great deal because they insisted I was stupid, and I identified very strongly as exceptionally smart, so this drove me crazy. The whole issue really upset me, and subsequently my mother who decided to pull me out of school halfway through that year.

My mom worked with me one-on-one for the rest of the year, simply teaching me things as she saw fit. I enjoyed learning new things, but when the next school year started, I eagerly went back to my public school. By this time, I had received enough one-on-one attention to be far ahead of my peers in terms of academic skills. I was restless, and I was also the “teacher’s pet.” I always finished my work very quickly, so the teacher would look over it to make sure all was correct. My job for the rest of the time would be to collect the rest of the students’ work and mark it against my own, then set it aside for the teacher to record. Other times, I was sent off to the library by myself to choose and read books which I would write reports on to present to the class. My teacher’s husband happened to be my sister’s 5th grade teacher, and I was often sent me up to his class as well. 

As you can probably imagine, this didn’t do much for me socially. I developed a superiority complex and took my role as, “like, the smartest kid in class” very seriously. I can only imagine how obnoxious I was, and how rude to some of my peers. My sister was never one who cared for school, and I’m surprised we have maintained such a close friendship since I liked to point out, at every opportunity, the fact that I could answer questions in her class that she couldn’t (this probably happened once and I never let my poor sister live it down). I also loved to brag about my adventures in the 5th grade when I returned to class with my ordinary 2nd grade peers. 

My parents wanted me to skip a grade, but the school district was firm in their policy of keeping children with students their own age wherever possible, so it was decided that I would go to a private Christian school the next year. This school used the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, consisting of fill-in-the-blank booklets that students completed individually and checked against score keys. Because the school was expensive and a 45 minute drive from our house, it was decided the following year that my parents would purchase the curriculum and I would use it to home school. 

I started off strong, but eventually realized there were far more enjoyable things to do than fill in workbooks, so I started copying answers from the score keys before my mom woke up. After a while, I realized that no one else was checking my work, so I left entire booklets blank and simply took the tests. I remember spending the following summer with my grandparents in another state and waiting nervously every time my parents called, certain that someone had looked at my work from the school year and found me out. No one ever did. 

Fifth grade was similar and in the years that followed, I don’t remember having a set curriculum, but it’s possible that we continued with the same. Despite my lack of interest in the official curriculum, I loved to learn. If I could convince my dad to take me to work with him, I would ask to be dropped off at the library and spend my days reading. At home, I would sit with the encyclopedias and read up on any issue that sparked my interest that day and flip through, reading all of the “see also” references, getting lost in the same way that I do nowadays when following endless links from Wikipedia. 

Speaking of Wikipedia, in hindsight, I’m pretty proud of myself for discerning at such a young age that our curriculum wasn’t worth my time. This from the wiki on Accelerated Christian Education:

“D. Flemming and T Hunt of the education journal Phi Delta Kappa wrote in a 1987 article regarding the emphasis on rote learning.
“If parents want their children to obtain a very limited and sometimes inaccurate view of the world — one that ignores thinking above the level of rote recall — then the ACE materials do the job very well. The world of the ACE materials is quite a different one from that of scholarship and critical thinking.”[14]

During these years of homeschooling, I struggled a lot with the lack of social stimulation. Many homeschoolers have fantastic cases against the argument that you have to send kids to school in order for them to learn social skills, and I definitely side with the homeschoolers on this one now. Still, back then I was starved for good friendships. We lived in a very rural area, thirty minutes from the nearest gas station, post office, and grocery store, and thirty minutes from all of my friends. At eight years old, the friendships I had built were based entirely on attending the same school, so when I stopped attending that school, the friendships dissolved. I remember crying alone in my room on my ninth birthday because I wanted a birthday party, but I realized I had no one to invite anyway, so there really wasn’t a point. It was pretty sad.

The summer before starting high school I also convinced
my parents to let me go to St. Petersburg, Russia.

When I reached middle school age, I started attending a church youth group and finally started making a few good friends. I didn’t get to see them nearly so much as I would have liked, however, because of the distance. I was dying to go to school. Finally, the summer between what would have been my 7th and 8th grade years, I wrote a long letter to my parents detailing all of the reasons I felt it was best for me to go to the public school, and they agreed. My parents still felt that it would be “too easy” for me, however, so we went to the district and they agreed to let me take a placement test. I did well and they agreed that I could skip 8th grade and start at the public high school the following year. I couldn’t have been happier!

To be continued…

(Update: You can find Part II here and Part III here.)

What type of school did you attend? Has your experience colored your decisions surrounding your own children’s education?

12 thoughts on “The Schooling Dilemma, Part 1: My School Experience

  1. Annicles

    Wow – your childhood sounds like my worst personal nightmare! I am a firm believer in Authorititive parenting – which Montessori ethos, personified really. Children can't make decisions based purely on their limited experience. If all a child has known is homeschooling or poor school -schooling then that is an unfirm basis to make a decision on.

    The other thing to bear in mind when giving children choices is that until the age of around 13 they will almost always choose the last option. That is part of a child's developmental make-up so a choice may not be quite as free as it seems.

  2. Melissa Kemendo

    I definitely don't view my experience as ideal – far from it, really. Between switching schools most every year, and the lack of oversight into what I was doing, I feel like I was at quite a disadvantage in the end, but that will all come in part two! 

  3. Wanderwonderdiscover

    Wow, as usual you have a post that's created a multitude of thoughts swimming around my head. The challenge, how to respond without leaving you a novel. Here goes:

    I have done both. I have done the authoritative, traditional, public and private school route. Both my kids were either in montessori, a church preschool, and finally public by the time my son was 7 and my daughter 4. At that time, homeschooling was an entertained, but distant thought. It was because of the time I spent volunteering in public school, and even in montessori, that pushed forward my decision to homeschool. It was an agonizing decision because for me growing up, public school worked out just fine. I was involved, I had good friends, and I had excellent grades. The biggest indicator that it wasn't working out for my children, was their attitudes about learning. It was going downhill and fast. Not only that, our relationships were suffering because they were exhausted, resentful, and cranky. What I had when they got home, were the leftovers of children.

    What my son did have in school was a great group of friends. My daughter, well, she didn't quite get along with the other girls because while they wanted to play princess she wanted to be the wolf that ate the princesses. I began to notice too that she struggled with attending during groups, and she was beginning to get singled out as a nonlistener.  I learned that she was receiving time out after time out in the principals office for fidgeting during circle time. She just couldn't sit still–and this was in a montessori! I couldn't imagine her in a pubic or private school setting. 

    Long story short, after all the choices I have made, whether it's been the public/private, homeschool/unschool, none of them have offered the perfect choice. Every single one has had benefits as well as sacrifices that were made somewhere. And yes, the social interaction part can be difficult at times only because homeschooling families are the busiest people I know. But because the number of people homeschooling are increasing, the number of homeschooling groups, co-ops and classes are increasing. There are far more opportunities to be in groups now than there were even just two years ago. Being in a bigger city is imperative I think when choosing homeschooling. 
    Ultimately though, it's about me letting go of expectations and stop trying to think I can predict anything. Every decision we make will have some sort of repercussion where hindsight may say "I told you so". At the same time, every decision will show its own worthiness. My challenge is, and has always been, to have faith that all will be well no matter what choices are made. My children are bright and creative enough that they will find a way to make it work for them regardless of homeschool, unschool, public or private. I trust them for that. My role is to provide loads of opportunity, to remain attentive to their needs, and to be open to change on any day. It wouldn't be the end the world if either of them went back to school. It would just again mean that some of their needs will be met while others will not, and what can I do to help fill in those gaps. The best part of learning is that we adapt regardless. So much for being succinct…
    thanks again for the pondering
    xx oo

  4. Annicles

    I am sorry – that was a really tetchy comment. I didn't mean it to sound like that – I must remember to read what I write.

    What I meant was, I am sorry you had such a patchy schooling. It sounds like it was pretty hard going in places.

    Authorititive parenting is not authoritarian parenting! I hope it didn't look like I thought that telling a child "because I said so" is a good answer! The best explaination I can come up with is firm and loving. Not permissive, not authoritarian and not aloof…..

    Listening to your child is not the same as letting him/her tell you what to do…. There's a whole new post in there!! I think you do an amazing job of parenting so please don't think I was criticising you. xx

  5. Melissa Kemendo

    No worries, Anna. I always appreciate hearing your thoughts, even if we're not in agreement. In fact, often it's better if we aren't because I can get an entirely different view on the subject. I try not to take anything as criticism … except of course when it *is* blatant criticism, but I don't think you dish that out too often ;)

    I agree that there's a line between listening to and being considerate and respectful of our children and catering to every whim. I would love to read a post from you on the subject! 

  6. Melissa Kemendo

    No proofreading necessary, and novels always welcome ;)

    "My children are bright and creative enough that they will find a way to make it work for them regardless of homeschool, unschool, public or private. I trust them for that. My role is to provide loads of opportunity, to remain attentive to their needs, and to be open to change on any day. It wouldn't be the end the world if either of them went back to school. It would just again mean that some of their needs will be met while others will not, and what can I do to help fill in those gaps. The best part of learning is that we adapt regardless."

    How true that there really is never a perfect choice, just the one that works for us in the moment, and that one may need to be revisited sooner than we would think. There is so much to be said for trusting our children to thrive so long as they're given adequate resources and opportunities. Learning and adapting really do go hand in hand. 
    Thanks so much for sharing your take, MJ! 

  7. Melissa Vose

    Awesome, I think I might write about education too! Though I’m no expert like you~but anyone with kids is bound to have thought of this topic, since it is so important!

    1. melissa Post author

      I’m pretty sure that having four kids makes you an expert already ;) I look forward to reading anything on education that you decide to write!

  8. Terri

    I hopped back to this post after starting part 2! Glad I did…very interesting. I’m struggling at the moment with my love for both the unschooling and Montessori values whilst also acknowledging that we live in a small isolated area with no homeschool groups or opportunities to go to clubs, groups or even play parks and I don’t want my children to be isolated and lonely. I’ll go back to part 2 now and wait for part 3!

    1. melissa Post author

      Thanks for your feedback, Terri! I’m looking forward to sharing part 3, which includes discussion of Montessori, Montessori homeschooling, and unschooling all three. Trying to find the right answer is an overwhelming task, but you are so in tune with your kids that I’m sure you’ll continue to evolve in your approach to accommodate their needs at any given time. Despite the lack of groups and other resources for homeschooling families, it sounds to me like you have a tightly knit community and no shortage of friends around, even if they aren’t exactly your children’s age – I’m sure they gain a great deal from being a part of that, and watching your and your husbands roles as well.


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