Wednesday, August 11, 2004

School Is In Session

So I now have a couple extra hours of free time in the daytime. My 7year-old goes to school 8a-3:30p. My 2 year-old takes a 2 hour nap daily. My son just changed schools - from a private Montessori school to a Charter School Montessori. Both he and I like this Charter school much better. Private schools from our 2 years of exploring and interviewing at various ones around town were not at all impressive. Their biggest attraction is that they can expel kids at the drop of a hat for various infractions, so theoretically, you keep all the punks and disruptive kids out of class. What you see in real life however is a class of fairly conservative/conforming, well-to-do white-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant kids. You also see a lot of wimps and basket-cases who couldn't cut it in the real world of public schools. Surprisingly, you don't see a lot of smart kids in private schools. I attended private school from grade 5 to 12th grade (graduated from one). I had the same experience as described above - a bunch of spoiled rich stupid kids. I have to admit though that the sheltered environment made for a fairly stable, safe environment with very little fighting or other violence. Our plan is to let our kids attend well-selected public or charter schools at least up through middle school or so. This not only is the frugal way to go, but I think provides the better, more diverse and grounded educational environment.

As many parents who send their kids to Montessori schools do, I read most of the recommended Montessori books. Maria Montessori's The Montessori Method and her the Absorbent Mind are the best of the bunch. Her history, her theories and practical applications and her descriptions of her teaching methods make the Montessori method incredibly attractive. I can't see how any parent would look elsewhere once they read her books. The many books by her disciples and adherents (Lillard, Gettman, Hainstock etc.) similarly make this educational method seem unbeatable. But of course, the reality does not fit the hype. I've seen some classes where the method is closely followed and the children seem to behave in the ways described. But more often, the teachers of the Montessori method do NOT adhere closely to the methods - they take liberties here and there and improvise their own "take" on the Montessori method. The final corrupted product often leads to poor results - you can end up with an unfocused, lazy, overly-concrete and uncreative child who can't take standardized tests well. You have to realize the short-comings of the Montessori method - this method was originally designed to work in a day-care-like setting among kids whose parents were working all day long and unable to bring up their kids well.

As such, the "teachers" use efficient techniques to corral and organize learning activities individually assigned to each child - they minimize their interactions with each child partly because there are too many children and not enough overseers. Therefore a very curious, bright, out-going child might do poorly in this environment where they are unable to obtain maximal attention from their "teacher." Of course the Montessori teachers would say this method of supervision is designed to encourage independence and self-motivation etc. There are kids whose personalities fit the Montessori method absolutely perfectly. I think more often this method comes up somewhat inflexible and more kids than not lose by it if this method is used alone. There is also no evidence that this method works at all beyond the middle elementary years. John Chattin-McNichols describes most of the recent research on the method in his The Montessori Controversy - what you find is that not a lot of research is out there and what there is doesn't reflect too favorably on this method when it comes to actual testing.

Homeschooling is a great option if you as a parent are adequately trained, educated, and motivated. I think ideally you need a deep, broad and solid background in childhood education. You also need to be very proficient in the various mathematic fields, the sciences. You need to know the details of world history, you need to understand, not just appreciate all the great movements in the Arts, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Music. You need to be extremely well-read. If you are not, you are potentially short-changing your own kids. You of course need to have the free time to run a "school" in your home. Also, you need to have the type of sunny disposition and great relationship with your kids that can allow them to tolerate sitting and taking lessons from you for hours a day everyday for years at a time. If your local school district does not have well-trained teachers, then homeschooling might be an acceptable, though not always optimal, solution. From what I've seen many home-schooled kids turn out very well, and the WORST home-schooled example is very likely to turn out better than the WORST public- or privately-schooled kid, and the BEST home-schooled kid is also likely to out-perform the BEST product of the public/private schools. But I think there is quite a bit of selection bias here - the failed cases of homeschooling are likely to go into hiding and not announce what happened. Also the most uneducated, unreasonable, and frankly, most stupid parents often have no insight into their own inadequacies and therefore will inflict their own homeschooling on their unfortunate kids. Conversely, often the most ideally educated and trained parents I've seen often suffer from feelings of self-doubt and will NOT homeschool their kids for this reason and because obviously, the most highly educated parents often can and will earn much more money in the work force rather than staying at home with their kids.

What we've settled on is letting our kids go to public or charter schools, do additonal "homeschooling" at home to reinforce and confirm what they know/don't know. We're going to give Montessori methods more looks before giving up on them.

A new school year is so exciting in so many ways - especially when you change schools like we just did. I changed schools 7 times before I hit 4th grade so changing schools was pretty unremarkable for me. My wife only changed schools at the elementary-middle and middle-high school interfaces so changing schools seems much more traumatic to her. We are also for the first time Car-pooling with 2 other neighborhood families. This is to save on our commuting costs in terms of time and money (no school busing at charter schools currently). It's still early (just 2 days) but it''s working out so far. Overall I think the whole situation fits into our simple living ideologies well. My wife wants to take the results of two recent tests (WoodCock Johnson and Iowa) my son took to his teacher to show her that he is pretty much an "academically gifted" child - I'm worried this is going to only cause troubles for him. I think many teachers don't really enjoy the smarter kids in class - the conforming middle-of-the-road students are so much easier to deal with. I can imagine how a long-time jaded teacher could prefer a class full of mediocre kids who do what they are told and turn in the results expected - punch in, punch out, go home and worry about my own life instead.

I used to fantasize about how I could be a spectacular teacher and have a handful of brilliant and talented students who endlessly stimulated each other and our class. In real life of course, I'm much too reserved, introverted and non-dynamic to be any good as a teacher. When I was a resident I think I did a better than average job as a teacher to medical students and interns on the wards, but I was never the spine-tingling dynamo of a teacher I fantasized about being. Teachers in the Wake County region are paid ok, I've read something in the range of $35,000/year - far better than they used to get, though admittedly they should be able to make much more IF THEY ARE GOOD. Compared to say what a medical resident makes after completing medical school, this is not bad. I made $31,000 as an intern just out of medical school and I thought that was pretty good money at the time (of course I had never made any real money to talk about previously so my perspective on money was skewed downwards). I was looking at various governmental jobs online and what they offered - typically we're talking salaries starting around $20,000 or less right out of college with no job experience. These are for jobs requiring you to forfeit your entire day Monday through Friday - a pitiful sum seen in this light. I know that college professors can make greater than $100,000/year once tenure is earned and their track record is established. From what I've seen from my college years (Univ of Penn), I can't say that many of my professors deserved a six-figure salary. The ones that earned that kind of money really seemed to perform minimal duties and the the hardest workers, usually the graduate students or junior faculty, seemed to do most of the work.
Whenever this time of year comes around I get little tingly feelings of excitement and anticipation, even though I've long finished my schooling. I almost want to start back in 2nd grade like my son and do it all over again. I think I was not like other kids because even as a child, I never hated school - I used to have trouble sleeping at night because I would get so excited thinking about going to school the next day. I had perfect attendance from Kindergarten to 12th grade - I missed the very last day of my Senior year (the Awards Presentation Day) out of some bizarre sense of rebellion and rejection of my perfect attendance record. I actually ENJOYED taking tests and preparing for them! These are all things that I would never confess to my own friends. School was always a wonder for me - the babble of kids and all the clashes of personalities and histrionics, the lessons and tests, and the goal of trying to get "100"s on all the tests - the sheer satisfaction of seeing that "100" with a smiley face on a difficult Pre-Calculus or English or Biology Exam. Later in college, the studying was much more difficult but the satisfaction of seeing an "A" on an Organic Chemistry Exam was so much more exalted. My college years were much harder and while I was doing them, the years were much more miserable than earlier, but in looking back my college years were so much more intense and wonderous. Medical school and residency was mostly fun and really not as challenging as my undergraduate education. I hope I could take some courses at a local college when I'm retired years from now - maybe I can get another degree purely for fun. They say Youth is wasted on the Young. I think School is wasted on the Schooled - if they only knew how rich their school years are.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Contemplating the Passage of Time
Someone asked me whether I remembered when I was in Kampala this weekend. I didn't know how he knew I was there at all, but I've since realized I once spoke about it in small-talk with a gastroenterologist - he must have spread this news. It's funny that the first thing I told him was that I remembered monkeys in the trees - I was between 8 months old and 2-1/2 when I was in Kampala and I don't remember much. But I do remember this and I also remember being inside an automobile going down a rough dirt road and watching the passing trees as I drifted in and out of sleep. I remember some dreams about Africa also. It is peculiar to think that I actually lived in Africa at one time in my life. My father was a surgeon working for a British hospital there - he describes doing C-sections on tribe-women in such huge numbers that it was like working on an assembly line. At some point he had his fill of this type of work and we all came back home.

In fact those earliest of memories stand out for me and seem to be time standing still stretching backwards infinitely. It's like the cliche of time accelerating as we age. My life does seem to be leaping by in large chunks of weeks nowadays. I'm sure time will be humming past in monthly blocks for me within the next score of years.

What struck me about being asked about Africa was that I had recently been reading about how hopeless this continent seems to be in Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague, the tome detailing the litany of diseases which have struck and is yet to strike mankind over the past hundred or so years. It describes more than Africa but the most interesting parts of the story is about the "Andromeda Strain"-like viruses endemic to this region particularly. Nowhere else has viruses like the Marburg or Ebola killed so many thousands of people. It makes it seem so inevitable that in the long view, we will be wiped out by a final incarnation of an aerosolized zoonoses developed from a rodent or ape. Last week I read Philip Ziegler's Black Death which is an old 1960s book about the Bubonic plagues which swept through Europe in the mid 1300s wiping out about 33% of the European population - tens of millions of people. It is so interesting how mankind can at one moment be so shocked and outraged over a single murder by a husband of his wife (as with the cases going on in Utah and California currently in the news), yet in another time and space, mankind can become so inured to hundreds of dead bodies littering the streets of his own neighborhood. Philip Gourevitch's haunting description of the events surrounding the Hutu-Tutsi genocides in Rwanda in We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: is a perfect example. Not that Africa owns a monopoly on genocide - we all know about the Nazis, and Stalin, maybe we need to talk more about the KimIlSung-KimJongIl regime. Kang Chol-Hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang recounts the horrors of the current regime's silent genocide. I think it was Stalin who said when you kill one person, it is murder, when you kill thousands, it is a statistic.

6 years ago I applied to work overseas for Medecins Sans Frontieres, an organization which I thought at the time was admirable. I was promptly rejected for lacking foreign language skills required and they urged me to seek further training and re-apply. Since then, my family life has interrupted this mode of behavior. When I was in college I was quite a liberal - I put up posters for Amnesty International. I voted for Dukakis, then Clinton twice. Over the past decade I've taken a More Thomas Hobbesian view of civilization, Maybe a touch of Adam Smith. Was it Turgot who described first the principles of laissez faire? Maybe I've got all my political philosophers all mixed up. In any case, the World's problems seem both more hopeless and less important to me at the same time. Voltaire keeps repeating the phrase "you must cultivate your own garden" in his Candide - I'm coming around to this way of thinking more and more. I think this is why I voted for GW Bush the last election - the first time I voted Republican. As unadmirable as GW is, you have to admit he provides the requested benefits for his constituents. When all the world is falling apart, it can be comforting to pick lint out of your bellybutton. And so I'm now thoroughly domesticated, tending to my suburban bourgeoisie Capitalist life here in NC. Last week while emptying out our safe deposit box, I came across my passport which showed it had recently been renewed. When trying to recall why I had so recently renewed, my wife reminded me in an offended tone that I had planned to skip out on the family by going over to serve with Medecins - it was a jolt to realize that I had actually intended to abandon my way of living in that way so recently. In fact, I was probably under a lot of stress and was looking for an escape hatch; I was probably too apathetic and lazy even then to actually go into a warzone.

When you think about the mass death of humans in the various parts of the world at this time, you must balance this fact with the problems of global warming, global over-population, and the overall inexorable destruction of the Earth from the by-products of human industry (as described perfectly in the film Koyaanisqatsi).

If you believe Adam Smith, there is a guiding hand in all this, but this is magical thinking. I tend to favor a Darwinian view over all this so I don't think humans are any more favored to survive than the Dinosaurs. If you'll detach yourself emotiaonally from it all, it's almost an artistic denouement to imagine that the "cradle of mankind" is where the seeds of mankind's destruction may spring from - this is assuming Garrett's fears outlined in her Coming Plague comes to fruition. With the super-resistant species-jumping superviruses boiling over in Africa and Asia, why do we continue to prescribe antibiotics, anti-virals, and anti-fungals to hopeless vegetative patients in nursing homes to deflect lawsuits or to persistently irritable children to allay whiny parents, or to hordes of animals in stockyards in order to maximize meat profits? But then again, we will lose the war against disease in the end anyway won't we?