Thursday, June 14, 2007


My Children’s Literature students are in the midst of essay-writing this week, visiting my office each day with thesis statements and outlines. They are well-schooled, this group, in the lit-crit trick of arguing the opposite of what they really believe: many of them are developing cogent arguments about the uselessness of classroom education. (I’m trying not to take it personally.)

"Formal education," one student wrote, "encourages children to do little more than show off their acquired knowledge." She plans to support this thesis with reference to Alice in Wonderland, who hurtles down the rabbit hole muttering to herself about Latitudes and Longitudes, not because she understands these concepts or finds them useful, but solely from a desire to display her impressive vocabulary. The students at Hogwarts are just as bad, pitted against one another as they are by the House Cup competition, which encourages them to repeat memorized answers but does little to encourage collaborative problem-solving.

Showing off is not merely a symptom of the failure of formal education in these books; it is also a causative factor. In order to learn something, we have to stop showing off long enough to actually listen to another person.

That could be a problem for Bub when he starts junior kindergarten this fall. I took him to an open house yesterday, picking him up from day-care just as the other children were going down for their naps. "We’re not sleeping!" he exclaimed ecstatically as we drove along. "We’re going to the school! We’re almost there!" He repeated this mantra throughout our visit, impervious to my attempts to persuade him that we were already at the school, that this was the school.

Impervious was the very word for him. The thing about kindergarten classrooms is that they are simply bursting with numbers and letters (two of Bub’s favourite things – all he needed was a Thomas train table and a few lead-contaminated toys and he would have been in perfect bliss). "There are numbers on the apples, Mama!" he shouted excitedly. "Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten!" Words bubbled from his lips, all punctuated by exclamation points and delivered at high volume. "It’s an ostrich! It’s a puzzle! It’s spelling!" he exulted.

His running monologue was no two-way street. Any attempt to direct his attention was promptly brushed aside, as were the friendly advances of the kindergarten teachers. One clever teacher tried to engage his attention by appealing to his evident interest in numbers. She saw him looking at a photo of an ostrich, so she got down to his level, addressed him by name and said, "How many baby ostriches are there?"

No response. It wasn’t merely that Bub refused to answer her question – he refused to acknowledge it in any way. No turn of the head, no shadow of pause or hesitation.

It didn’t look like shyness, this determination to ignore her friendly overtures. I’ve seen him shy before, a nervous smile playing on his lips, his eyes averted except for an occasional quick, darting glance. No, this looked an awful lot more like not caring. "I am indifferent to your silly ostriches," he seemed to be saying. "Do you not see that I am examining the coloured markers?"

He did make eye contact with a teacher on one occasion: he had found a numbers puzzle and was barking out the numbers, checking the teacher’s face each time to make sure she was paying attention. Bub’s showing off usually seems to be an internal affair – he displays his knowledge for his own satisfaction rather than to gain attention from others. An appreciative audience never goes amiss, however, and he was willing enough to cast the teacher in that role. His communication has increased exponentially over the last few months, but it is still mostly outward-bound: he is reluctant to accept input of any kind, whether it be instructions, suggestions, or playful repartee.

I’ve been doing an Ages & Stages questionnaire with him this week, part of a research project I’ve participated in since before Bub was born. I’m meant to do a series of activities with him this time, checking off the tasks he is able to perform successfully. This requires no small amount of ingenuity on my part, as Bub flatly refuses to participate. He’s not as clever as he thinks he is, though. Take for example the test for word recognition. "What does that say?" I ask, handing him a piece of paper on which I’ve printed the word "dog."

"No!" he protests, scribbling it out violently with a blue crayon. "No dog!" (Check.)

I move on to number sequencing. "Can you say 7-2-5?"

"No say 7-2-5!" Bub shouts. (Checkity-check.)

He’s developing by leaps and bounds, that boy, and fighting tooth and nail against every bit of incoming knowledge. Like Alice or Hermione, he would always rather show off what he already knows than learn something new – he would always rather speak than listen. It’s not difficult to imagine him taking after his namesake from The Secret Garden, giving makeshift lectures about his "scientific discoveries" while the other children sit quietly on the grass. (The great thing about lecturing, says old Ben Weatherstaff, "is that a chap get up an’ say aught he pleases an’ no other chap can answer him back.")

So I sat down with one of the teachers, explaining that Bub is a November baby and young for his age, asking how essential it was for him to be able to do everything on the checklist they’d provided (print his name, take care of his toileting needs without prompting, put on and remove all outerwear, etc.). And while I did that, Bub threw in his own remarks, counting to twenty, pointing at the word "circle" and reading it aloud, until the teacher gave me a look and sent us on our way.

"We’re going to the school!" Bub said as we left the building. "We’re almost there!"


slouching mom said...

What a lovely post, and what a kid Bub is!

(BTW, quirky kids are my favorite. Bar none.)

And what an intuitive mom he has. He's lucky to have you, who understands so much about who he is and how he works.

Karen said...

Honest to God Woman(!!!), I can't tell you what reading your Bub posts do to me - it's like seeing the future of LP but in this really comforting way, a day dream instead of a night dream, all the confusing bits making some sense while the sun shines. It's spooky with a good happy soundtrak playing.
Impervious, good word for "it" - whatever "it" is.
Also, hoping/believing all our trains were manufactured before Jan 2005, but not 100% sure about 100% of all our trains and of course they are LPs favorite this week after about 1 year of ignoring them, sigh/irony.

Beck said...

"No dog."
He sounds like such a FUN kid. I hope he loves JK.

Christine said...

My son does that "no I won't say 7-2-5!" thing, too. My boy is very stubborn.

Maybe I ought to stop him from sucking on that red train caboose now. . .

Suz said...

I miss the calculated earnestness of traditional-aged learners, something that I thought that I would never hear myself say!

Lawyer Mama said...

Ah, I love your posts about Bub. He sounds like such an endearing child. And he's just so damn smart! You must be busting with pride. I know I would be.

PeanutButtersMum said...

i figure it's basically all about tricking our kids: with PB, as long as i can make him think that he ISN'T learning, he's an open book, tabula rasa. BUT: if he figures out what i'm up to? end of lesson...

great anecdote!

Heather said...

I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall at the school.

Very cute about the ages & stages too. LOL! I used to do those for work sometimes and the obstinate responses were always my favorite.

Bon said...

the rabbit hole...oh yes. i'm a teacher, but in many ways i agree with your's when we go down the rabbit hole that we really learn, when our worlds and expectations get tilted on their heads that we truly change.

and in a sense, maybe, Bub is your rabbit hole?

Mad Hatter said...

Almost, Dear Bub. Almost.

I also agree about the showing off and the house cup. That's why I want to join the Defence Against the Dark Arts league.

wordgirl said...

I think Bub's going to be JUST FINE! It's amazing what kids will be open to learning after Mom or Dad walks away and he becomes the pupil of someone else.

Kyla said...

Oh, I just love Bub. He seems like such a fun, intelligent guy. You are quite clever to work around his stubbornness. :)

And I can imagine the look the teacher gave you...I'm sure it was the same one the nurse at KayTar's CT scan gave me when KayTar identified that pentagon. *lol*

theflyingmum said...

What a charmer! My Ben likes to invent big-sounding words. Then he asks US what they mean.

Luisa Perkins said...

Your post is funny, poignant, and articulate, as always.

Your experience is one I have had many times with my own children; I guess I have raised a bunch of show-offs. BTW, I love Bub's name.

Julie Pippert said...

I know he'll adore his pre-K time. My kids love love love school!

cinnamon gurl said...

I love the "NO dog!" and "No say 7-2-5!" I can so relate to that. ;)

Kelly said...

My daughter is already talking about, after her first year of preschool, how she can't wait for September. (Me too, kid, me too!)

Bub'll love it.

kgirl said...

Love this post, for all the reasons I love reading B&P.

A few things that stood out - how perfectly I recognized Bee's ability, like Bub's, to completely ignore someone she is not interested in talking to, and also I couldn't help but wonder about the Ben Weatherstaff reference - that's not why you are such a good professor, is it? (wink)

ewe are here said...

Mine is saying "No ___" a lot these days, too. Sigh.

Sadly, it's already in the archives, but the NY Times had an interesting story about when kids should start kindergarten about 10 days ago. I admit, I'm already worried about it. I want to make sure MF is completely ready before I send him.... because I was too young, right at that birthday cutoff, when I started and had to repeat the year (best thing for me).

bubandpie said...

Kgirl - I'm always a little embarrassed when I read that quote to my students as I'm lecturing to them from behind my little podium. (But I do try to encourage discussion and let the others get a chance to talk - I promise!)

Ewe - I read that article and have been mulling it over ever since. I think Bub will benefit a lot from the socialization aspects of JK, and even from the presence of older children who can model social interaction for him (and possibly be more willing to initiate social interaction with him - JK and SK are all together in a single classroom at this school, which means he'll be thrown in with almost-six-year-olds even though he'll be only three). That said, I'm quite willing to delay his advancement to grade one by a year if that seems to be necessary when the time comes.

Magpie said...

Great post about a great kid.

nomotherearth said...

Baby #2 will be a November babe, and almost certainly a boy, so I'll be interested to read how Bub fares in JK. From the sounds of it, he's going to teaching the teachers a thing or two..

Also, I am VERY familiar with the selective ignoring already.

Blog Antagonist said...

We had a similar experience when DO started school. He is somewhat insular and decidedly oppositional. But while he does enjoy learning new stuff, he doesn't want anybody to KNOW he is enjoying learning new stuff. He's a complex kid, and it sounds like Bub is too. And like Slouching Mom, I'll take an interesting enigmatic any day.

I wish I had some of your educational, I'm struggling with how to handle the unique learning challenges that my son faces. Bub's lucky to have you as a Mom.

painted maypole said...

fun story. The May Queen had to be tested for Kindergarten several months ago, as she is several days past the cut off date (a thing I will surely blog about at some point, as it is much on my mind)and I was so worried that she would refuse to answer the psychologist's questions, and that she would say things like "I don't know how to draw a square," although it is quite obvious that she does. However, she did just fine, and he was so good with her, and it was such a relief. She is the opposite, really, of an intellectual show off, even though she is quite bright. Somehow that brightness still manages to leak through, though.

melody is Slurping Life said...

Reading this post about Bub was like reading about my Mac (Asperger's) at that age. He is now 9, close to 10 and btw he loves "The Secret Garden". It's one of the books he relentless quotes.

Bub will be a delight to his teachers. :)

(I tried to work in the word "frantically" for your entertainment, but it just didn't happen.)

Terri B. said...

After reading your comment over at my place regarding The Goose Girl, I'm assuming some of your essay writers mentioned here include the ones arguing that the passive maid deserved what she got. I remember the days in lit classes arguing POVs that I didn't even agree with just to prove I could see that POV. I'm so glad I've passed the stage of wanting to argue a point even if I don't believe it. Probably my age showing ;o)

Jen said...

Sounds like Bub is right on track. Rosebud starts JK this fall and cannot recognize words yet or write all the letters. She is a pro at the bathroom and getting things off and on though. She is a September baby so she will be a bit younger too.

I was extremely concerned when Papoosie Girl started JK her b-day is late December the absolutely youngest kid in her class - still. When she started school she could write all the letters, the numbers to 10 and could write her name (short version). She was reading right after her fourth b-day.

At this point I doubt Rosebud will even be able to write all her letters by September. I have had to accept the fact they are different and while Rosebud seems so far behind, she really isn't. They gauge the progress over two years of Kindergarten and by the end of the second year, by and large they are all on par.

I would say Bub even sounds advanced for his age in many aspects. I have been trying hard not be too concerned and while I am working hard on the letters, I will be fine if she cannot write them all. Six months ago I could not say that.

Bobita~ said...

Great post. Your Bub is a wonderful little boy...and is lucky to have such a clever Mom!

Veronica Mitchell said...

I don't know how I missed this post! I'm glad I came back to find it.

I laughed out loud when I read "No Dog!" "No say 7-2-5!" And then I got a very uncomfortable feeling that that is exactly what happens between me and God sometimes.

Alpha DogMa said...

I'm commenting for the sake of bumping up your comment count to a number not ending in 9. See I HAVE been paying attention.

Omaha Mama said...

Here I'm going to leave you with 31 comments! And now all of your readers are going to perseverate on the fact that you like certain numbers. People pleasers that we are!

I love this post. Picturing you going with him to school - he is so excited that you are going to school! I'd like to know, when you got home, did he realize you had been to school?

And I love how you got him to recognize words and remember sequences! Through his utter refusal (thank goodness it was out loud!). My little almost 4-year old is so obstenate right now, we try to trick her into many things.

She likes to say things like, "Yes mom, you told me that already 5 times!" When I would have stopped, had she completed my request on the 1st! Exhausting.