Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mom's Story: When School Left My Child Behind...He Was Finally Able to Learn

Guest post by Jo-Anne Tracy

Editor's note: The story of Jo-Anne Tracy's son who experts called ineducable, dispels many learning myths i.e. there are many lessons to learn from a dropout, you don't need a teacher or a class to learn, you don't need to know phonics to know how to read, ADD/ADHD can be a symptom of school, there's a lot you can learn by doing rather than by sitting and getting inside a classroom, and more. When she escaped the system, he was finally able to learn. I asked her to share his amazing story. Here it is.

Schools are failing many of our children.  I know because they have failed my son and others like him. This happened because the system is run like a business. Children are expendable if they can not be educated cost effectively. Unions are more interested in teaching conditions and teachers benefits, than the individual children in the schools. Administrators, teachers, and legislators, educated in the past are unable to imagine the world of the future, yet they control the destiny of the students. There are better ways than our industrialized school system to care for our youth and until we begin offering such solutions, too many children will be left behind. 

This is the story of how my son escaped the system and was given the freedom to learn naturally and exceed all expectations.  

The  “experts” diagnose my son
My son had been in his new school for only 3 months when the “experts” (a teacher, administrator, and school psychologist)  told me, without any doubt in their minds, that I would be foolish to keep thinking that he had what it takes to succeed in any academic field and that he was being placed in a class where ineducable children would taught life skills and a vocation. I, his mother, who had watched him explore and investigate the world for 9 years, knew that they were wrong. However, the school system does little to honor or respect the insights of mere parents who don’t have the “credentials” necessary to properly identify “problem children” like mine. They refused to consider my input and explained they were not giving my son any other options.

When I had faced a situation with my high school-aged daughter that had caused me to question the school’s reasoning, I had been able to find an alternative school within the public school system where she could complete her graduation requirements. However, my son was in elementary school and there was no alternative program available without charge. We were struggling financially and could not afford a private school or an intense tutoring program. I had, recently, heard from my mother that she knew people who homeschooled their kids. Her comments about that situation had not been positive, but at least I knew that it was legal to not send my child to school.

Not send my child to school?

My father would have been horrified. He had dropped out of high school to fight in the war and afterwards had struggled to find a way to become a teacher. Teaching was his natural calling and I had been blessed as a child to grow up in a family where every situation had been a learning situation. However, I also knew that my son was not ineducable. He just needed time. He was diagnosed with ADD, but even with medication he found the classroom distracting. With no viable options for my son within the school, I removed him from the system.

Proving the experts wrong
At first, the plan was to prove “the experts” wrong. I would spend one year teaching him to read and then, perhaps another working with him intensively to bring him to up to the academic level of his peers. The first few weeks were a blur, I had to find a way to teach him to read. Reading had been natural to my older children. They had both read fluently before entering school. I knew in my heart that my son, JAT, was just as bright, but was confused about why he could not read. I searched the internet. I went to the library and took out dozens of books about teaching reading, and at the same time let him choose books to take out. He would not take out picture storybooks. He wanted grownup books, books about geography and mountains, books about South American explorers. However, books were books and I was just happy he had chosen more books than the library would let him take. JAT had argued with the librarian and she finally relented, saying how lucky I was to have such a reader. I knew he just wanted to look at the pictures.

I was wrong.

One day about 3 weeks later, while I was writing to a reading expert, whose work I was reading, JAT came to me and asked me how they knew that Mount Everest was the highest mountain. I told him they had ways of measuring mountains and that we would search to learn more about that as soon as I finished the letter. I continued writing... then I stopped. How did he know that Mount Everest was the highest mountain? I went to find him on the couch looking at a book about Sir Edmund Hillary and his climb. There,  under a picture,  was a caption telling that Mount Everest was one of the highest mountains in the world. He has understood that piece of information. But yet, he could not identify the difference between the letters H and V. How was this possible?

I did not care how it happened, I knew that he could acquire information. He could reason. He was intelligent. He just did not read as schools said he should. He wanted me to read that book with him so he could learn more. Forget my research, forget my letter writing. We were going to read. And read we did. That winter, we read every book he could find about South America, the Andes Mountains, Climbing Mount Everest. Every once in a while I would bring out the math workbooks and the flash cards. He would do these grudgingly, so that we could get back to reading. I would read to him. I would leave out words and he would look at the book and figure out what it said. But, he still could not read Dolch word flash cards. He could read 4 syllable words that were important. However, the word ‘about’ was beyond him. I was beginning to see that his mind worked differently.

Some months later, when I explained to an online friend about how we were homeschooling, that I did not push math and phonics, that we just read and explored what he wanted to learn about, I was told that we were unschooling. Labeling what we were doing did not matter to me. 

He was learning.

Never looking back
My son never did return to school. He never expressed an interest. He read in the mornings until I returned from work about 10 am. He helped me begin a catering business and learned to make an excellent Shepherd’s Pie. At 12, he attended a local Sea Cadet program, and was selected to attend a 3 week camp, 1000 km from home.

Others worried that he would not adjust to working with a group. But, off he went with 5 other friends to this camp. I did not hear from him for days. He did call me after 2 weeks to ask me to send more spending money. He did just fine . . . No, better than fine. An adult leader at that camp told me that he had been one of the only ones who was not homesick, who did not argue about taking part in any activities. I no longer worried about socialization.

"We have to rethink what learning means. When my son has learned something, he has mastered it for life, not just for next week's test. That is knowledge." - Jo-Anne Tracey

Providing home learning options even when both parents work

We moved 3000 km away, to a remote northern Manitoba community. There were jobs there. My husband had recently lost his and we needed to move. I would need to work, at least part time. He was 13 and could spend time alone. I arranged to work split shifts. I could be home from 10:30 am - 2:45 pm. So off I went. On days I was needed to work through the day, my employer let him come and help out, stocking shelves and sit in the office discussing how to run a small business. He showed him how to repair a computer that needed a new power supply. He offered to help him build a computer if he could get the needed supplies. So, my son collected broken down computers from any source he could. Then, together my boss and my son built a computer that worked. What better computer lesson could a 13 yr old learn? This started a 16 month long passion with computers. He asked questions, learned more and soon he was fixing friends’ computers.

We were living in an apartment building at that time. The apartment manager offered him any computer he found abandoned in apartments, if he would help him out around the building. He learned to install doors and and caulk windows. He learned to patch drywall and lay tiles. He was becoming quite the handyman.

An unlikely tutor
During this time, I had been offered a chance to run the store in the owner’s absence, but I would have to work full-time. I could not afford a qualified tutor, but I knew that at 14 he could not spend everyday alone in the house. He needed some social interaction. A very shy friend, a young female high school drop out offered to stay with him. She was intrigued that he could learn what he wanted when he wanted. But, she wanted ideas on what they could do, when they were bored. 

I started to develop list of fun learning resources. I challenged them to learn history from songs and poems. They did. They learned about the Battle of New Orleans, thanks to Johnny Horton and they learned about the Crimean War through Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. That was the beginning of JAT’s 'passionate about history' period. He had always been passionate about history, but now it was the focus of almost everything he did.

We were moving again. We had an offer to take over a store about 1000 miles closer to home and closer to his brother who was in university. He had to leave behind his drop-out tutor, who had discovered herself that learning could be fun. She promised that she would find a way to continue to advance her knowledge. And we were off to a new life.

Real Life Apprenticeship
The position came with a house, but it needed work. The contractor asked my son to give him a hand. Together they renovated the bathroom and installed new fixtures, and my son decided that plumbing was a profession that he did not want to pursue in the future. He learned to use power tools from an expert. He learned the proper way to measure and check measurements. Somewhere along the line, he had learned enough about fractions to understand that 3/32” add to ⅜” was 15/32”. I have never determined where he learned about fractions. He had used them a bit with me when we had run our catering business, in the first years he had been at home, but he could add them and multiply them, what more could matter. He had asked questions and observed well enough that he was able to build himself bedroom furniture, including a desk and display shelves for his large Star Wars collection. He worked off and on with the contractor over the next 3 years. When we built our new store, he worked part-time with the contractor and was now proficient with tools.

Discovering life passion
We were living in Canada’s richest gold mine community and where he was meeting geologists and talking about new strikes and other shop talk. This reawakened JAT’s interest in earth and geological science. He also developed a passion for space science. One day, he came to me and told me that he wanted to be a NASA planetary geologist. We discussed that it would take more than four years of university. He said he was willing to do the work. He researched and discovered he needed math including calculus, chemistry & physics. He also realized that he would need to improve his writing skills. Writing had never been easy for him, either the physical act of hold a pencil and forming letters or spelling words. However, he knew what he wanted to do and he was prepared to get it done. He was 15 and knew that his peers would be in grade 10. He had never worked much at math, other than what he used daily at home and at work. He had completed many science inquiries and experiments through the years, but had never learned any theory.

Taking ownership of learning
He started with the Annenburg media video courses. He watched every one that was of interest. He watched every Nova movie and every TV show he could. We found chemistry courses online, starting with Chalkbored and MITs free courseware. He purchased an interactive physics program, complete with labs. He asked for more challenges like those I had given to him and his tutor a few years before. Together we designed more than 400 that he could choose from to show he had a well rounded education. He made a pinhole camera, studied ancient man in-depth and learned to play the flute. He studied grammar for 15 minutes a day. ALEKS, a unique online learning program allowed him to move from preAlgebra to preCalculus in just 19 months. He moved on to open courseware in Astronomy and Physics from Yale. I was learning that nothing was impossible when a student is determined.

I was still unsure about his writing skills. It was the year that he should be applying to universities, and I was concerned that he was not ready for essay writing. He had never written more than the one essay about ancient man. I suggested he take a university preparation course in essay writing. His results amazed me. This young man, who had been written off by the school system, received a 92% on his first essay. His average going into the exam was 84%, but he still faced his toughest challenge. He had to hand write his final exam. Until this point, all his written work had been completed using a keyboard and word processor. His handwriting still looked like a that of a young child. JAT could print, but not use cursive. He practiced for weeks, without improvement. He wrote to his tutor and expressed his concern.  The tutor told him just to do his best. As long as he achieved 60% on the written exam, he would still get a B grade. The exam came and went. After 3 weeks the marks were available. They were very long weeks. When the day finally arrived, JAT called me excitedly. He had a final grade of 76%. Not bad, for the teen called ineducable at 9 years old by the school system.

My son was ready for university. He was also ready for life. JAT chose to remain at home and study through distance education, since the nearest university was 6 hours from home.. He wanted the support that the community, his friends and family could give him. He knows that he will have to complete his last year away from home. But he will be ready. He knows how to learn. He is not ineducable. The system was wrong. The system had failed.

Jo-Anne Tracey was a classroom mother who became a passion-led learning advocate, when the school system decided her 9 year old son did not have the ability to learn to read and write.  So, the Tracey family left traditional schooling behind and became homeschoolers.   After 9 years of a passion-led, unschool education, her son is now studying geoscience at university.   

Jo-Anne, now advocates for passion-led learning.  Recently, she created an online learning community, Discovery Portal Active Learning Community, www.discoveryportalalc.com offering homeschoolers the active learning challenge program that she designed with her son and other virtual learning opportunities.    


  1. Joanne,such a compelling and inspiring story. A mother's love is awesome.

  2. What you have done is great for your son. But you have done nothing to help fix the system you so despise. Demonizing teachers is not a solution.

  3. @Mary Ann Reilly, It was not me that accomplished this. I was there and supported him, but I did not push or give any of the learning experiences. Until he was 15, he learned from the world around him, by working side by side with the adults and friends in his life. His natural ability to learn was amazing. The classroom was just not the place he could learn.
    He learned at his own rate, sometimes, like with the ALEKS math program, he learned very quickly, other times, like the hand writing, it was difficult and frustrating. He has read and understood Shakespeare. He has lead seminars on the history of science.
    What he did teach me is that we have to rethink what learning means. When he has learned something, he has mastered it for life, not just for next week's test. That is knowledge.

  4. @Nick,
    First, I don't see where the author is demonizing teachers. Please clarify.

    Next, two questions...
    1) How do you know what this person has done to help fix the system?
    2) If a system is hurting children is the best course of action fixing it or helping to develop something new and better for children? That is what this mom is working hard to do.

    I work with thousands of educators. Teachers and school leaders today feel powerless against a system gone awry. They have resorted to the response that even though they know what they are doing is hurting children, "We're just following orders." Dangerous!

    The system is going in a dark and dangerous direction and there are more and more of us who believe parents should have alternatives for the type of learning environments that are government funded.

  5. @Nick, I did not demonize teachers. I said that schools are run like a business. I said that the unions do not care about the individual kids. But never did I demonize teachers. My oldest is a teacher. I am working very diligently, with teachers and others to bring awareness to the innate learning abilities in all children. I advocate for passion-led learning and education reform for all children around the world.

  6. Jo-Ann,

    Great story, so glad you removed him from that horrible system- It sounds like reaching University is a wonderful goal that your son reached. I just want to point out that success is not measured by a child attending college- That is public school's definition of success. Success is when a child is loving to learn and is learning on his own without being forced, when he goes out into the world and follows his passions, lives his dreams and is happy to be alive. Success for each child will look different. :)

  7. @Laurie A Couture, I agree that college is not a goal for everyone. However, it is necessary for someone whose dream is a NASA planetary geologist. I would have been very content if he had chosen to build furniture, or repair computers. I would be happy if he chose to work in a museum, become a historian, or an archeologist. These are more passions that he has. He also loves to cook and could easily choose to be a chef or run a home catering business. He is a qualified material estimator for residential projects, through a course that he chose to take through his part time job.
    I truly believe in passion-led learning and living and he chose the educational path, because he has a dream. He could have chosen any path, and that choice was his!

  8. I homeschool all 8 of my kids, but it all started with my oldest who learned differently from what the school system expected... the system failed him, but he is doing well now with his community college courses and has plans to attend a university.... He's been on the dean's list every semester but one! He learns much like your son, but I wish I'd had more opportunities with other adults feeding into him, like you had for your son... what a blessing!

  9. I started reading blogs so that I could advertise my own blog. However, it is reading blog posts that you have written that make me realize the inherent value in reading. This is really an incredible story.

    I wonder if it is unfortunately fair to say that you pulled your son out of school at the right age. Maybe if you had left him in an extra year or two you would not have been able to help him achieve in the way that you did help him achieve? (I'm primarily wondering because I know of a 16 year old in school who has had just a terrible experience.)

    Thank you for sharing.


  10. @Andrew Pass, I have befriended a young man, BJ who quit school at 15 and hid from authorities until he no longer had to fear being returned to school. I have known him for 4 years and have watch him flourish. He could now, at age 25, easily be an engineer.
    I do not believe that it is too late for anyone to learn. They just have to find their passion and move past the passive learning experience.
    Passion is the key.

  11. ah.... Lisa.. one of my fav posts of yours to date. thank you for sharing Jo-Anne's story with us. so very poignant... in so very many ways.

    these stories are indeed the pearls to changing the way we do school, the way we do life. more people sharing stories.. till we all start realizing and believing - that deciding what is normal and labeling kids/people accordingly is one of our greatest mistakes.

    Ellen Langer, in MIndfulness, writes, prejudice decreases as discrimination increases. that's what this story is saying to me. finding and facilitating the genius/gift in each person.. is what the world needs. we're missing out on so many incredible people. they are incredible right now. no credentialing or proof needed. let's start there.

    and - most often the teachers hear this heart's cry the most. it's just very difficult to facilitate such a thing, given a room of 30 or so kids, most of whom did not choose to be there, most of whom did not choose to learn what you are being told to teach them.

    this is a story teachers are craving as much as anyone. differentiating to infinity. we can now do that. that's our new normal. no normal.

  12. Nick wrote: "What you have done is great for your son. But you have done nothing to help fix the system you so despise. Demonizing teachers is not a solution."

    Do you really want us to help fix the system, Nick?

    Perhaps before you get too far into that idea you might take a few minutes to think about what it is you're defending.

    Schools were designed at a fundamental unchangeable level for a society that no longer exists; historically, in terms of helping our children fulfill their potential, they have a success rate of no more than 5%; they continue to defy everything neuroscience tells us about how human beings learn best; and they've had what little educational efficiency they ever had soundly kicked into the garbage can of history by the unprecedented and superior learning opportunities of the "Digital Revolution".

    Should we really waste our energy on trying to fix that? Perhaps it would make more sense to just walk away from the reformers and their delusional mantras, as I did nine years ago when I took my son out of school so he could learn for himself in five minutes what it was taking his school an hour to teach him. Perhaps if we all walked away from schools and their self-serving nonsense and got on with our lives we could focus our energy on creating a genuine learning society where everybody gets the education they want.

  13. Monika Hardy...."that's our new normal. no normal." Love it! May I use it?

  14. Thanks for sharing this story. In my opinion this should be the normal way of learning and not the unnatural way of placing little humans in little boxes to be taught by other humans (teachers) who have been taught to put things in unnatural boxes
    Demonizing teachers? Sure! If they are prepared to condemn children by suggesting they take drugs to conform and fit into the "education" system they should not just be demonized: they should hang for it. Them and their puppet masters.

  15. This is a great story confirming what has been happening in the US for decades. I also became a reluctant homeschooling parent in 1995, when our 2 kids were mislabeled and recommended for Ritalin. Since then, I have spoken to hundreds of parents and have helped them realize that children learn differently and that the symptoms of ADD/ADHD are identical to the traits of a gifted, right-brained learner. We are creative, tend to be hyper or daydream, we think in pictures and therefore don't do well on timed tests. Therefore, different techniques and a different form of education are necessary.
    Our 2 kids homeschooled through high school, received scholarships to college, and graduated last May.

  16. What an inspiring story. I started homeschooling my dyslexic son when he was 9 because he just wasn't fitting the school system. He is now 15 and we have pretty much traveled a similar path to you. I learnt that dyslexia isn't a disability but a way of seeing things differently. He and his brothers have taught me so much more than I ever could have taught them. It was nice to hear that you have homeschooled in rather remote locations because we live somewhere very remote and I struggle with that. He still has difficulty writing but is a great researcher and computer whiz. I still worry about his future but your story has inspired me that he will sort it out in his own time. Thankyou for sharing.