This week, Logan brought home from school a glossy, full color certificate. He earned the highest grade in math class on the recent unit test! What a confirmation of his new attitude toward academics. About a week ago, he ran out of credit with the school cafeteria. He and I studied the district calendar and counted the school days in December. I wrote out an equation to multiply by the price of a school lunch. He snatched the pen from my hand and calculated it himself, handing it back so I could write the check. Later that night, he showed me his latest Lego creation: a complex spacecraft with geometric wings and escape pods. “You know what kind of person is good at math and made Lego things like this when he was thirteen?” I ask him. “Engineer?” Logan replies. I nod, knowing that career path would never have seemed possible to the kid he used to be.
The first draft took him a year, and revising the first draft took a second year. His family decided to self-publish the book, entitled Eragon, and when it first came out in 2002 they toured the country to promote it. During one year, they showed up at 135 events, book fairs, bookstores, libraries, schools, places where the teenage Paolini would stand behind a table in a medieval costume… If he sold 40 books in the course of eight hours, it felt like a good day. The whole experience was really stressful, since his family was risking all their financial future to promote the book, and the book was not selling… But then the stepson of novelist Carl Hiaasen read the book, loved it, and showed it to Hiaasen, who sent in on to his publishers. Soon, Paolini had huge offers from major U.S. and UK publishers.
Yesterday, we met with Logan’s teachers at his new school. He’s thirty days into the seventh grade, carrying As and Bs in all his classes but one! We discussed his IEP in light of recent observations and specialized testing. His scores are solidly average, with some strengths (creativity, expression), and some weaknesses (reading speed, spelling). A big improvement in sixteen months! These results were topped off by a crackerjack review by the school psychologist, detailing his enthusiasm for learning, engagement with teachers and peers, and overall positive attitude. It worked! 50skatekid worked! The academic nosedive is a distant memory, and Logan is now holding steady at a comfortable cruising altitude!
Logan is eight days into seventh grade at an all-American middle school in farm country, upstate New York. Last week Logan said, “I never thought I’d actually be excited to go to school. It’s kind of cool. I’ve never had a locker before.” After soccer practice, he attacks his homework. He makes short work of an English worksheet, pokes holes in the assigned reading, whips off a response paragraph. Fifteen months ago, it would have taken anguished hours to complete.
The crazy idea worked: Logan’s attitude toward school has completely reversed! How long will it last?
It has been almost a year since Logan and I set off on our epic journey, and three months since our return. During our trip, everyone asked “What happens next year?” and our answer changed over time. Logan joked, “50skatekid tours the world!” but we seriously considered on-line schooling, where the teacher/student ratio stays 1:1 and the heavy lifting of the teaching workload is done by a pro, remotely. But we decided that after a year of isolation from his peers, Logan stands to learn more (good and bad) from navigating the mysterious galaxy of pre-teen society than from any academic subject. So, in a few weeks, he’ll enroll in seventh grade at the local public school, where he’ll keep pace with his peers, socially and scholastically, while getting support in his weak areas.
In my educational fantasies, however, he attends a futuristic school with equal socialization but greater customization, wherein each student pursues a personalized curriculum, tuned to his interests, ability level, and learning style – instead of marching through standard courses in groups of twenty-four under a rigid bell schedule. According to an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates (“The Littlest Schoolhouse”), my dream is coming true. Starting with math education, the “school of one” system uses personality surveys and computer testing to determine learning styles and isolate areas of weakness, and then computer software produces a tailored lesson plan, which the teacher vets, adjusts and executes. “The result is that one student might learn to add fractions at a dry-erase board with a small group, while … another student learns about factoring through a game on his laptop.” It tries to “move from the classroom as the locus of instruction delivery, to the student as the focus of instructional attainment” says Joel Klien, chancellor of New York City’s schools. Hopefully, this program will spread to other schools and other subjects.
Ray Duckler wrote an article about 50skatekid in the Concord Monitor on Tuesday. Like his earlier article, he does a great job of capturing the essence of our journey. I have one correction to make (in italics) concerning this passage: “”You’ve got a place to sleep, food, travel to all fifty states, and your sixth-grade education,” Winkler said.
I love to quote experts when they support my thesis.