Monday, April 23, 2012

He's Advanced!

I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago that had me laughing till my sides hurt.

It was at a small get-together and as usually does amongst parents, the topic of education came up. As a homeschooler, you kind of get used to third degree grilling about what you are doing and you learn to expect the ubiquitous question about socialization. To my pleasant surprise, this group of people were either homeschooling themselves or at least open to the idea of homeschooling.

I was speaking to another mother and her major concern was that her son was advanced. How could homeschooling work for him? I pointed out that as a homeschooler, you have the ultimate freedom as to how you structure (or unstructure) your child's education. There are so many flavors of homeschooling that you can pick the approach that works best. You can pick the speed with which you cover subjects. There are no rules saying that if a child is 6 and in first grade, he must stick to first grade curricula. You can go as quickly or as slowly as your child needs. I gave Z1 as an example of someone who can spell and read on a fourth grade level but when it comes to reading comprehension, history, or science, I would say he is on a 2nd or 3rd grade level. I know for sure that he would probably be bored with most of the academic stuff in first grade at a typical school. (In fact, this is perhaps the most common complaint I hear from parents who send their children to school: that their children or bored or could do the school work 2 years ago.) So I tailor his school work to his individual ability and to the particular ways in which he learns. Certain curricula are actually too hands on for him or have too much review of a concept. For Z2, however, it might be a completely different story and I will adapt accordingly. The discussion really seemed to warm her up to the idea of homeschooling and we talked a bit more about curricula and approaches.

What was so funny about this interaction? Well, it was not until she was ready to go and was standing at the door with her husband and son that I nearly fell out. Her baby boy was EIGHT MONTHS OLD. How in the world did she determine that he was “advanced”? I just couldn't . . .

You know, the words “advanced” and “gifted” are bandied about with regularity in my neck of the woods. Everyone insists that their child is not your average child but different and special. To a certain extent, of course, this is true. But I honestly believe that truly gifted children are not a frequent occurrence. In fact, of all the children I have worked with over the years, I can count on one hand how many impressed me with very unusual ability of some sort. I'm reminded of one little boy who at age 5 totally understood the concept of multiplication being repeated addition and could repeatedly add any number any number of times well past 150. It was impressive. So when someone tells me their 8 month old is advanced, I can't help but balking. And breaking into a fit of laughter. Seriously? She was very serious.

A label is a label, after all. Even a positive label can carry a serious burden with it. In school, I was always labelled a “smart” kid. One of the “intelligent” ones. I took on that label and embraced it. Yes, I also worked really hard at school but underpinning all that hard work was the belief in that label and my proof was the grades I got. I didn't choose classes based on interest. I chose them based on a confidence that I could probably do well in them. So when in college I received grades of 35 (out of 100) on chemistry exams, my self-esteem nose-dived. I couldn't, with those grades, hold on to the label of being smart anymore. And frankly, I gave up on chemistry and other challenging classes and believed I was too stupid to understand it at all and wondered why all these years I had been lied to. That label had basically put me in a box and if I wasn't fitting into the box, I had a hard time figuring out who or what I was.

Interestingly enough, this past weekend I had the opportunity to work out a chemistry problem similar to one I am sure I encountered in college chemistry. It was a question about the concentration of a solution and how much salt would be required to produce that particular concentration. For some reason, that question that in college would have befuddled me made complete sense. So much so that I was able to explain it to a student in a way that she could totally understand. To the extent that I was (maybe a little overly) eager to do similar problems! I slowly realized that it wasn't me. I wasn't the reason why I didn't understand what was going on in chemistry. It was the teaching. For the first time in my life, the way I was being taught didn't match up to the way I learned but I had no way of knowing that then. Instead, I believed the lie that who I was (i.e. the “smart” girl) was really a lie.

Of course, over time, I've rebuilt my self-esteem in that area but it's taken a lot of energy and work to get to that point. It was a long fall and it is a long journey to pull myself back up to a place where I respect my intelligence but don't let the level of my intelligence define everything about me.

When I speak to my children, I acknowledge that they are indeed intelligent and special but I am adamant against pinning labels on them. And believe me, it's very easy to do especially when you have two siblings who are so vastly different from each other. The temptation is certainly there to label Z1 as the cerebral one and Z2 as the instinctive, silly one. What happens with that? When Z1 does something off-the-cuff, there's the attitude that he “should know better” instead of an acknowledgement of the fact that he's 6 and does some silly stuff at times. I'm working hard to make sure to eliminate the labels that actively work to keep myself and my children in boxes. Every moment is a moment to redefine oneself, if one wishes.

So I thought I'd share that experience . . .

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