Friday, March 26, 2010

When It's Your Kid...

The Boy complained again this week -- it's becoming pretty regular -- that he's bored with math, because it's too easy. Worse, he's frustrated with his classmates, since they keep needing to review stuff that he mastered two years ago. He's in third grade.

Peer pressure is starting to kick in, too. A few days ago he got a problem wrong in class, and several of the other students did that "oooo" sound they do. He was embarrassed, and angry, and a little upset at the teacher for not doing anything about it.

I was glad he told me about it, but not really sure how to respond. I empathized that it was no fun to be singled out like that, and tried to explain that the "oooo" thing was rooted in the other kids thinking of him as incredibly smart, and feeling some relief that he was actually human. He agreed, and promised me that he wouldn't try to dumb down his answers to fit in. He just got really frustrated at his classmates, both for being so far behind and for being so unpleasant about it.

(Just for the record, he wasn't posing; he really is bouncing off the ceiling of the curriculum.)

It was hard to hear, both as an educator and as a parent. As a parent, you hate to hear your kid get frustrated with school, and I remember going through some similar stuff myself. And as an educator, I hate to see a bright and curious kid get turned off on math because it's moving so slowly.

I told him it would get tougher and more interesting as he got older, and even volunteered to teach him some more advanced stuff myself, just so he wouldn't get completely turned off. That night I helped him figure out how to determine his average points-per-game in basketball; when he figured out that it was just division, he lit up. It solved one problem -- he actually had to grapple with something for a bit, and got the satisfaction of meeting a challenge -- but it may have caused another: now he's even farther ahead, and therefore subject to even more boredom.

As an educator, though, it brought home to me again my conflicted attitude toward 'tracking.' I know the arguments against it, and concede a great deal of truth to some of them. Yes, it tends to recreate socioeconomic class lines. Yes, it can lead to a sense of entitlement in the 'honors' group, and a sense of futility on the other end.

But at the same time, I see a bright and curious child basically forced to circle the airport over and over again waiting for others to eventually get out of his way, and I don't see the point. He's bright and curious now; if he's frustrated for too long, he'll turn his attentions elsewhere. It's well and good to talk about diversity, but he's getting mad at his classmates for holding him back, and they're getting mad at him for outshining them. It seems like respect for diversity should include diversity of talent, and should involve letting different levels of talent express themselves.

If he had outstanding athletic talent, he could express it freely and win approval for it. If he had outstanding artistic talent, the same would hold. But as a really bright kid whose wheels keep turning, he's considered suspect. It's a waste, and it's causing him real pain.

Kick me out of the Liberal Academic Club for saying so, but I can't wait for tracking to start. The kid is bored to tears -- literally -- and I just don't see what purpose is served. He's bright enough to notice how other kids react to him, but still young enough that he can't just tune it out. At that age, school is huge. It's his world. Being ostracized and bored on a daily basis seems like punishment, but he hasn't done anything wrong. He's a great kid with a lively mind and a true appetite for learning; I don't want that beaten out of him. I understand that other kids haven't had some of the advantages he has, but punishing him won't solve that. It's not his fault.

Philosophically, I get the arguments in favor of public schools and against tracking. I haven't yet given up on the public school, but my anti-private-school dogma is starting to fray. (In the words of a button from the 80's, my karma ran over my dogma.) I hope the school is able to raise its game soon, but ultimately, I feel much more obligation to TB than I do to the school. If we can't track within schools, we certainly can track between them. I'd hate to have to go that route, but this is just wrong. Egalitarianism is nice, but when it's your kid...