Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Third World Green Daddy 49: Education at home and at school

This recent article from the NYT highlights the importance of talking to kids for their early development.  It seems that even with uneducated parents and in economically poor settings, kids that are talked with more will do better in school and their careers.  I like the idea that kids can reach their full intellectual potential despite class differences, but I wonder if the research findings reported in the article just correspond to another fantasy that we can surmount the ugly inequalities rampant in the US through noncontroversial, apolitical means.  I also wonder if part of the higher achievement ascribed to kids that are talked to and talk more really relates to better intellectual development, or simply the better insertion of talkative people into a dominant culture that highly values, perhaps overvalues, talking.  I want my kid to talk a lot, but I'm not interested in his joining in the frivolous, unobservant talk-a-thon that is a big part of middle-class culture in the US and abroad.  I wonder about the value of silence, or of non-verbal communication, or doing physical tasks while pondering to oneself.

I talk a lot to Sam, and read a lot, though I'm still not very good at eliciting detailed responses from him.  I wonder what the research referenced in the article above considers as "conversation changes", which is to say responses between one party and another.  Often my conversations with my son are just me rambling about what we see as we walk along, or what I did with my day.  I also pass a lot of silent time with Sam, just sitting together or doing things or contemplating.

At any rate, my son seems to understand speech very well, and he hears a lot of it between our family conversations and reading out loud.  I have even convinced myself that he can identify the word "Beep" whenever it occurs written in big, blue letters in a book about a beeping truck.  But though he is making lots of progress in his speaking (especially now that we all live together again), he still is nowhere near many of his classmates.  Physically he is very adept at many things other kids his age can't do yet, but in verbal terms he seems to take a more practical, minimalist approach.  Recently Caro remarked to him about how much a younger classmate talks.  Sam said (talking, of course), "Not me.  I don't talk", to which my wife replied, "You're learning two languages, so it's taking a bit longer for you to talk much."  Sam let out a big yell, and Caro interpreted, "Yeah, you have a voice.  So you can talk once you feel more like it."

Sam's new school is not at all alternative, and I like it that way.  The kids wear a navy blue cardigan with the school crest and plaid pants on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and a sweatsuit in the same colors and crest for gym class on Tuesday and Friday.  I didn't know if Sam would go in for this, especially since he shares my childhood aversion to "scratchy" materials, but he's been great.  Every morning after his shower we put on his underwear, socks, shoes, and undershirt, and he throws his uniform next to the door to put on before heading out.  In the meanwhile he eats breakfast in his skivvies, sometimes topped off with a knit scarf and winter hat.

I did like Sam's Bogotá school, though like many alternative, progressive institutions, I found it to be too self-satisfied, without much to challenge us and draw our opposition.  When things are really nice and to my liking, I don't like it!  I feel as if I'm in the land of the lotus eaters, like I've lost my critical capacity or am insulated from the dramas of existence.  The new school is to our liking, but it also gives us some annoyances to deal with, which I think is good.  In a parent meeting, the director scolded parents for packing junk food in their kids' snacks, but then they give sweets to the kids all the time.  At a birthday party for a classmate, Sam apparently didn't want to drink pop, which drew the surprise (and implicit normative censure) from a teacher who commented it to us afterwards.  Once a week the school provides the kids' between-meals snacks, the first of which was potato chips and box juice!  So as not to become the school's designated self-righteous, scornful bourgeois parents, Caro and I are thinking we should gently propose and offer help with other snack options, instead of complaining too much.  At any rate, some marshmallows and pop once a week won't kill Sammy.  Lastly among our differences of opinion, the school philosophy encourages affection, but then the professor criticizes that Sam is "spoiled", meaning he likes physical contact (though happily, he doesn't throw frequent tantrums like some other kids in his group, which is more my definition of spoiled).  That said, I think his teacher is falling for him as his teachers in Bogota did.  I have always assumed Sam is more or less typical in both his affections and his uglier moments, but according to his teachers in Bogota, and what I see now with the new teacher, I guess there is a sweetness and gentleness to him that isn't universal to all kids his age. 

At his new school, Sammy also has homework assignments, once a week.  The first one was to rip pictures from a magazine representing different professions.  I of course didn't want to proffer my beloved National Geographic collection for this, so we used some old Chicago magazines, as well as a 2009 issue of a Colombian current-affairs mag I'd never gotten around to reading.  This made for an odd mix of bourgeois, frivolous images, as if Chicago were composed mainly of chefs, real estate agents, and high-end doctors, and then photos of imprisoned paramilitaries, starched politicians, and solemn guerrillas standing watch over kidnapped military contractors.  Nevertheless, we managed to get an orchestra conductor, soldiers (legit ones, not extra-legal armed groups, which wouldn't be a very appropriate career aspiration), a doctor, and even a few farmers from an old seed catalog of mine.

This week I am alone with Sam, as his mother closes out various things at her Bogota job.  It was rough going the first day, with constant cries for Mamá mamá mamá...  But now we've arrived at a more harmonious routine, consisting in part in my putting him to sleep at night with episodes of Jacob Bronowski's documentary series The Ascent of Man.  We'll have to get used to being without Mom for short stretches, and I'm looking forward to becoming closer to my boy.

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