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Rethinking school: book offers sage suggestions

If you have school-age children, by now they are two months or more into their routine of classes, books, extracurricular activities, and homework. Perhaps they love their teachers, excel in their academic studies, are popular among their peers, and look forward every morning to whatever new challenges may come their way.

But what if the opposite is true? What if 10-year-old Jimmy arrives home every day worn-out and discouraged, telling you he feels stupid because he’s lagging behind in math? What if the teacher sends a note home with 8-year-old Sally explaining that she seems disconnected from the class, staring out the window while the other kids are copying out words for spelling or drawing pictures of flowers during arithmetic? What if you pick up 6-year-old Elizabeth from school and find her in tears for receiving demerits in class for talking, when she doesn’t even know what a demerit is? 

“What’s wrong with my kid?” you ask yourself aloud.

But what if it’s not the kid?

Susan Wise Bauer raises that question in Rethinking School: How to Take Charge of Your Child’s Education (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018). For 15 years, Bauer taught at William & Mary, is the author of such books as The Well-Trained Mind and the History of the World Series, and has worked with many parents and their children on difficulties vis-à-vis school. In this latest book, she offers wise counsel to parents on how to “flex” the K-12 system, making, as much as possible, school fit the child rather than the child the school. 

Bauer’s first point regarding our schools in general is crucial and rarely addressed. She shows us that our K-12 education follows a one size fits all approach to learning, a sort of factory producing a widget, the “modern product of market forces.” The educational environment, particularly in public schools, is artificial: Billy heads out to school each day with a backpack weighing as much as his toddler sister; he boards a bus; bells govern his day; he sits in classes, eats lunch, and plays outside, all with children his own age; he boards the bus and returns to his family with another hour or more of homework. 

Bauer then examines the struggles of students in such a system, looking first at those with learning disabilities, some of which are real, some of which come about because the student’s style of learning doesn’t match the demands of the classroom, followed by a chapter on gifted students, particularly how to help them work past a tendency toward perfectionism. 

In “The Toxic Classroom,” Bauer addresses such issues as bullying by classmates or teachers who “sometimes take a dislike to a child.” For parents who find themselves trying to help a child in these situations, Bauer’s advice is both specific and invaluable. She has a long list of questions to help the parent get to the root of the problem. Here are some samples from this list a parent might ask a discouraged child:

  • “If you could send anyone in the whole school to live in a colony on Mars, who would it be?” (Whoever gets exiled to Mars might be causing a problem.)
  • “When were you happiest today?”
  • “If your teacher suddenly turned into an animal, what animal would it be?” Lions and boa constrictors suggest that the child doesn’t feel safe. 

If we feel our child is mistreated at school, Bauer instructs us to “Document, document, document” and “Go up the chain of command properly.” Write out specific incidents, for example, when a bully has taken money from your child, and then “always start with the teacher.” Present your case to her, and if she fails to help, then take your complaint to the administration.

“Part III: Taking Control” is the heart of Rethinking School, especially for parents whose children are enrolled in formal institutions of learning. Here again Bauer gives excellent practical advice on how to flex the system, ways to make it work to the benefit of the student. She begins by suggesting that whenever possible parents should involve themselves in the classroom, offering the teacher services ranging from chaperoning a class trip to donating supplies. She next tutors parents on how they can control the standardized tests required of their children, how to make those tests more compatible to the student’s abilities or how to opt out of them altogether.

Many parents know the stress that homework brings to their children, and here again Bauer offers sage advice. She first explains that study after study have shown homework “is ineffective for elementary students,” that for middle-school students “homework is helpful … only in much smaller amounts than is usually assigned,” and that for those in high school “productivity plateaus at two hours per night.” 

To ease the homework burden, Bauer again gives parents practical advice. She encourages them to keep an accurate count of time spent on homework over two or more weeks, and then average out that time. If Sally is spending too much time on homework, she suggests contacting the teacher with that specific data and explaining that the schoolwork at home is eating into your family time. In many cases, the teacher will be happy to make adjustments. If not, and if your child is in elementary school or even middle school, you can simply limit the amount of homework yourself. 

Here Bauer makes an important point often forgotten by parents: the grades received through 8th grade have no bearing on an application for college. They will not appear on the high school transcript. 

Bauer also addresses such topics as acceleration (skipping a grade), developing your child’s sense of self-awareness, and a section on homeschooling for those parents who cannot flex a formal classroom.

Rethinking School is a timely reminder that the parent is the principal and chief educator of the child. 

Two thumbs up on this one.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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