Tuesday, December 11, 2012


This was a crazy, hopeful, and exhausting day.

I am so fortunate that my mom-in-law is here, so she could play with the kids today, and get them to their acting class. It was like cloning myself, except much better, because I got to spread the exhausting wealth.

(Really, Java? Update EVERY DAY? Is that really necessary?)

So, the day started out by meeting at the local coffee shop with Monika and my school board member. I was really nervous about it. People are usually confused as to why a homeschooling mother (or relaxed or eclectic or unschooling, or whatever I am at the moment) would have any business talking to people like the local school district superintendent, or the other administrators, or the school board members. They themselves are puzzled at first. If I have such a sweet deal on my end, why talk with them?

Well, because... I think more people can have this sweet deal. It's not out of reach.

Research shows that what standardized tests measure best is socioeconomic status. If that's true, then my kids were going to "be fine" (on the basis that doing well on a standardized test means "being fine") no matter what. And, no matter how much song and dance we do, are we going to raise the test scores of kids in the lower socioeconomic levels, if that's what is really being measured?

Judging from the information that a child's likelihood of staying in school through adolescence is directly related to whether or not he or she was talked and read to by an adult before age 3, it's my opinion that the school system, whether or not its true purpose these days is to make factory workers or not, is trying, the wrong way, to minimize this "achievement gap" which is really a resource gap from early childhood.

I think it's safe to say that most teachers become teachers because they have a passion for making a difference in the lives of children. Only now, because of legislation like No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, they are slaves to standards and bureaucracy, rather than serving the young souls for whom they care so much. So often, the finger is pointed at them.

There's a lot of finger pointing going on, because everyone is under so much pressure. We could try pointing fingers at the administration, but I can tell you that those folks are doing more than we know, too. These are also people who went into the field to serve young people, but instead, they too are slaves to standards and bureaucracy. They collect all the information given to them to report to the State so that the schools can get money, so the teachers can eat and clothe their families, and the school buildings have light and heat and cafeterias with food.

Every cent that goes into schools has to be justified by hours in a seat (that is the October Count, if you are in Colorado), and now test scores.

So, if we are incapable of changing the achievement gap through forced education, the schools with the lower test scores and attendance (from the lower socioeconomic strata) are going to continue to have less and less funding.

Rather than be a slave to the almighty dollar (which is easy for *me* to say), because we really can't get in a time machine (a TARDIS!) and go back and make sure that child was well-nourished in the womb, or that his or her parents only had to work one job a piece, so that they would have time to read and talk to that child, there are two major things we can do to remove barriers to success for these learners.

We can provide opportunities. We can provide resources.

Well, unless your school district is one that has decided that after-school programs will now pay rent. Then, the lower-income schools and families will automatically be locked out of using that *public space* after school. And, if your school district has decided in addition that after-school programs must be attended by a certified teacher employed by said school district, and said teachers are already overextended, then you might just see most of the after school programs disappear.

And, of course, if you have too much homework to participate in after school programs, or there is not adequate transportation to where they happen, because the school district cannot provide buses to take you where things are happening.

The school day, in general, entailed much boredom for me. Like everyone else, I lived for that last bell. That's when the fun began. So many opportunities for growth and learning were provided after that bell, like drama club, Odyssey of the Mind, Optimist Club, Mathletics, United Nations, dancing, art, gymnastics, piano... all the things that don't "count" in traditional schooling, but serve, rather, to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to college applications.

In our city, we have a fairly large pool of retired individuals, many of whom worked in engineering at the original Hewlett-Packard facility. We have many talented artists, too. But these folks aren't considered useful as mentors by our current school district policy. They have a system for background checks in place. Why not use it?

Liability. Nevermind that most of the big news-making stories of late, the ones that, when I hear about them, drain the blood from my body as fast as light leaves a room when I flick a switch, happened in schools, and were perpetrated by people who are part of the school system.* People who would have passed a background check. Before they cracked. Students, or teachers. The people whose performance we are watching so closely these days. The people under a great deal of pressure. (*Note that because so many of us are affiliated with the school system -- a third of the world's population is school aged -- the chances are pretty high already that tragedy will somehow be associated with schooling).

We have essentially put community and school in separate silos, not allowed to intermingle during the September through June, 7 am to 4 pm time periods. So, for most of a child's life, he or she is not allowed to interact with the whole of society; rather his greatest connections come from those he makes with other immature humans. Any connections he makes with adults are usually fleeting, and fraught with assessment. Every adult has an agenda when they meet a child. We're all consumed with worry about the future of the planet and these children, we can't help ourselves. "So, what do you want to be when you grow up?" And then we give our stamp of approval, or we don't.

So, when I brought up this troubling situation of tweens entertaining the idea of suicide, I thought my school board member would be surprised, but he was not. He knew all too well of this phenomenon. And he also said that he hears over and over in his position with his church, the message that "Nobody knows me" from the youth.

Teen angst. Adolescence. What if these are manufactured, and not natural, phenomena? What if they are the natural outcome of an existence without relationships in which one can be authentic? What if they are the natural outcome when every adult in our life has some sort of agenda for us?

And that brings me to exactly why I am so passionate about this topic. I was working on a PhD in Neurobiology and Molecular Biology in the mid 1990's, having completed an undergraduate degree in Psychology. My specific interest was the biological basis of Learning and Memory, and our laboratory was interested in the mechanisms underlying Alzheimer's Disease. My specific research was on the relationship between estrogen and memory. In the background research I did to prepare my hypothesis and research design, the groundbreaking work had been done on one particular topic -- that stress hormones, particularly the glucocorticoid cortisol, block memory formation.

That's right. So increasing the pressure on every child to do better, and every teacher to *make* those children do better, may be accomplishing the opposite of what we intended. Instead, our "achievement" (since we like that word so much) yielded adolescence, teen angst, low test scores, and a population who has learned to be helpless. Because the harder the system tries -- the more stress is placed on achievement -- the harder it becomes to "achieve" or even remember what was "achieved." So, why try at all?

For this reason, whenever I sense stress in my children, during a learning situation, I encourage them to take a break. And, well, nothing is compulsory for them, so any learning they do is usually in the context of neurotransmitters of pleasure. It's amazing how much they remember.


On the biological front, I've been studying a text written by Gerald Combs. The Vitamins: Fundamental Aspects in Nutrition and Health was published earlier in 2012. I purchased it -- the first current textbook I have purchased since I left the educational system in 1999 -- because it looked like it had a good recent summary on the research done on Vitamin K2. I was not disappointed! I read that chapter back in April of this year, and after a busy summer, have finally picked it up again.

Related to the rest of my post today, and heavy on my mind, are the long-term effects of malnutrition in utero. See for yourself (from page 318):

"Animal studies of long-term potentiation, a synaptic model of learning and memory, have revealed that maternal deprivation of the vitamin during gestation and lactation specifically reduces the development of the N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor subtype in the young. Although the metabolic basis is not understood, these effects appear to be related to the loss of dendritic arborization in vitamin B6 deficiency. These lesions are thought to underlie reported effects of impaired learning on the part of the progeny of vitamin B6-deficient animals and humans."

Considering how I was wasting B6 on a low-carb diet, I wonder about the potential effects on babies born to mothers in similar situations. More research for another day.

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