Wes Beach On At-Risk Students, Gifted Children, and Homeschooling

Pat: I was unaware, until I read Forging Paths, that you have such a strong background working with gifted children. Tell me a little bit about the exploring advanced education class (EAE) in your gifted program, and how it's evolved over the years.

Wes: Well, when it started it was a regular period during a school day. Then it moved to a period outside the school day. We had something called an X period, where a few classes met early in the morning outside the regular schedule. Then it moved to no class period at all, but I was working with these kids. But basically, when it started, I actually lay awake at night wondering, was I going to screw up these people's lives or what?

Basically the EAE program involved, at the very first, my sitting down with 22 kids and just talking to them about school and what it was they were happy with, what they were unhappy with, what they wanted to do beyond what they were offered by the school. And what it turned into was—well, first of all, they had permanent hall passes, so they could roam around the school at will as long as they behaved themselves. Which they typically did, but not always. They took challenge courses, which was a matter of the regular school policy. It wasn't any special permission for them. It's just that this policy was made known to them. They could devise their own courses, which was not part of the regular school's offerings, and they could take courses outside the school. And I actually went over to the community college and I set it up so that anybody in my program could take all of their coursework at the community college if they so chose.

So it was basically a matter of talking about what schooling was for them, what it could be, and how we could arrange it so that it would be more than what the school was ordinarily offering, and that was typically only by allowing them to devise their own courses, go elsewhere for their coursework, and leave school early if they chose to do so by means of the proficiency exam.

Pat: You've been involved with kids and education in a way that I find fascinating. You're actually talking with the kids, instead of talking at them, and as a result they've let you define new ways to help them learn. You also talk in Forging Paths about how you were able to use your position as a credentialed teacher—I think you called it as a supervising tutor. Why aren't more teachers doing this? It seems to me, at least in California with this little niche that you've been able to explore and exploit, that you actually have all the ammunition you need to create a counter-revolution in schools if the teachers would follow this lead. What do you think?

Wes: Well, my view of it is that in order to maintain your income and your livelihood as a public school teacher you have to buy into it and not think about it otherwise. One of the principals I worked for at So. Cal High School said to me once in a moment of vulnerability; he typically wouldn't say things like this, but at one moment when he was particularly open, he said, "You know," he said, "in order to do this job, I have to wear blinders. And if I take the blinders off, I couldn't do this job." And I think that's true of a lot of teachers, and I think many of them are not aware of the fact they've got blinders on.

Another teacher at that same school once said to me, "I am so tired of hearing kids saying they're bored. I'm not going to listen anymore." And I said, "Well then I guess you're not," I mean I didn't say this out loud, but what I thought was, well, I guess you're not interested in the kids anymore, are you?

You need to take seriously what they're saying to you, even if they say it over and over and over again, and the more they say it, the more the likelihood is that it's true.

Pat: And the sad thing is here it is, the 21st century, and the students are still saying they're bored in school. I want to talk about gifted students with you, because you told me how anxious you became about working with your son when you realized he was gifted. Parents seem to get really intense about education when they are told their child is gifted, which is a word I have difficulty with. Do you observe parents of gifted students being more anxious or less so about their children's education when they become homeschoolers?

Wes: Well, I guess I would have to say, sometimes, yes. But in terms of the word, gifted, I have really mixed feelings about it myself. I mean, I don't think a gifted student is worth any more as a human being that anybody else. I don't think they deserve any more careful attention than anybody else. But, I do think they need a different kind of attention. One of the stories I tell in Forging Paths is that when my son was 8 years old, we had a nighttime conversation about numbers. And it was our habit to go to bed and talk for a while before he went to sleep. I don't remember what prompted this, but I said to him one evening, I said, "Look, do you understand that we have base 10 numbers? And what this means is you start at the decimal point and you work to the left, and every place value is another power of 10. So it's one, ten, hundred, thousand, and so on and so forth." That's all I said. I said no more than that, I didn't put anything on paper, I didn't work out anything, I just told him that in about that brief a form. The next morning, he was at the kitchen table doing long division in base 8, multiplying multiple-digit numbers in base 5 and so on and so forth. He did all that by himself. It's a fact that most 8-year-old kids are not going to do that and may not be capable of doing that. So, that puts him in a different category, needing a different kind of attention. We left a free school after a year and he was in a perfectly ordinary public school in the 4th grade in Portland, Oregon. And he was sick the whole year. Couldn't figure out what was wrong. He missed as much school as he attended. Into a clinic, they couldn't come up with a diagnosis, and his chief symptoms were a low-grade fever and lethargy. And, so, we never did figure out what was going on until we came down here, and out of sheer desperation, after having tried everything else I could think of, I went down to the community college to see if I could hire somebody for him for a math tutor, because he was clearly gifted mathematically. And the math instructor said, "Why don't you have him sit in on my class?" And inside my head, I said, "You're crazy, he's 10 years old." But, we tried everything else, so we went ahead and did it. He sat in class 3 days out of the week, it was a 5 day a week class, we didn't want to disrupt every single day in an elementary school. He did a really super-sloppy job on his homework, and we thought we had made a serious mistake until he took the final exam and got the second-highest grade. So, he continued auditing for a while, as I've already said, with special permission from the vice president of the school. And, the whole point of telling you this story is, his illness disappeared, completely disappeared. And I'm convinced at this point he was bored sick. He was physically ill because his brain was shutting down because there wasn't enough to chew on, and made him sick.

Pat: You know, Wes, that's one of the ironies that really irks me about school. In Britain, in the late 1980s, they came up with a diagnosis called school phobia. It hasn't quite hit America with the same force, but educators here talk about it. However, we willingly accept iatrogenic illnesses—illnesses caused just by being in a hospital—but we refuse to accept the same thing can be true in school? The thing you describe, being made sick by boredom, is one of school’s iatrogenic illnesses. It really is striking how everything is just stacked against someone who wants to learn, but who doesn't learn in the way school wants him to.

Wes: Right. I've had a few therapists in this county refer kids to me because they felt the kid was being depressed by school. And the most extreme case, this happened once, but the most extreme case was a mom who called me up after her kid left high school, went to a community college, and then went to BYU. Mom said, "You prevented a suicide." This kid was so depressed, she was ready to kill herself because of school. And the other thing I want to tell you is that one of the most ironic things that I come across, and I come across this fairly often. In order to graduate from me and get a narrative transcript that will send a kid to a community college, the fundamental thing they have to do is write a long, detailed essay. And in that essay, several people have said to me, "You know what? When I was in school I hated to read. And as soon as I got out of school I loved to read." Or more broadly, kids will say, I want to get out of school so I can learn things. If that isn't the most ironic thing you can possibly imagine.

This also strikes me as extremely ironic. A lot of schools, and I would guess virtually all or most high schools in this country claim that they teach their kids critical thinking. The last thing in the world that schools want to do is critically think about what they do.

Pat: Absolutely. There’s no mystery why Socrates was killed, you know? He was encouraging the children to ask questions and talk back to authority.

Wes: Right, right.

Pat: And that's an eternal tension. Based on what we’ve said about how school causes so many of the problems it then tries to fix, what do you think about your work with at-risk students?

Wes: I have to say, I hate that term, at-risk students. I mean, that's not my word—that was the school's word. And, the only way I think it would be acceptable is if you'd expand it and say "at risk of being damaged by the school." But, in that case, I did that for 2 years. And, what I discovered was there were lots of kids in that program who were living through horrible home lives, or catastrophes, or illnesses, or whatever.

Well, let me tell you a story. This is kind of off-the-track and then I'll come back to it. The summer I was worrying about what I was going do when I started EAE, I kept getting phone calls from a young woman who wanted to be in the program. She called me at home, and I said to her, "Well, because of state rules I have to have something on file that provides a reason for putting you in this program." And so, the best she could come up with, it was a fairly strong letter from a junior high school science teacher, but that was it. Her school record wasn't great, nothing was outstanding about this kid. But she kept calling me. And she kept saying, "I want to be in your program." And I said, "Okay, Carmela. I will meet you at Erik's Deli at Rancho Del Mar at such-and-such a time and such-and-such a day." And Erik's Deli was a place that was across the county. I mean, Santa Cruz county is the smallest one, the second smallest one in California, but nevertheless she had to travel across a good part of the county to come and meet me, on the bus, when she was 14 years old, to meet this strange man, to talk her way into getting into this program. What I did not tell her was, if she showed up, I was going to let her in. Because, the state policy allowed me to make exceptions, and in her case, it was going to be simply because she was so persistent. So, she came, she talked to me, and I did let her in. I spent state money to enroll her in a couple of correspondence courses, which she blew off. She didn't do very well in school, and I thought, well, I've made a serious mistake. Without any spurring from me, she took the CHSPE, she went to Cabrio College, she did reasonably well there, she kept doing better and better. And, ultimately, she did well enough to transfer to University of California, Santa Cruz, where she did really well. She did super well on the GREs, and with a biology degree, Stanford hired her as a researcher. So, she went to Stanford as a paid researcher, and at one point, when I got back in touch with her, she showed me this long list of published research that she had done, and that was a good part of what got her into medical school. And she is now an emergency physician near Seattle.

This kid went to medical school and became an EMD. What I found out years later, is the reason she was not doing well in high school is because her mother had an alcoholic boyfriend who was beating her up when she went home. So, she didn't always go home. She was just out on the streets. You know, and when you're having to face living on the streets and being beat up when you go home, you're probably not going to focus a lot on schoolwork. But, when she was 12, she decided, "I'm going to be a doctor." And she did.

Pat: That's an inspiring story.

Wes: What I found in that group of kids was that many of them were suffering like the young woman I just described, because of stuff that was happening outside of school. It wasn't their fault. Obviously they're not focused on school because there are much heavier things going on in their lives. But what I also found was there were a lot of kids in that program who were really talented. They were doing all kinds of amazing things. They were managing restaurants, they were raising championship dogs, they were volunteering at old folks homes. What they were interested in wasn't academic. So, the school said you are at risk because you have interests different from what we think your interests should be.

Pat: Right. Paul Goodman, in his book, Growing Up Absurd, wrote how one of the most important things an adult can do for a child in school is to tell them, “Yes. School is kind of crazy and absurd, but I'm in here with you and we'll get through it somehow." But most adults tell the child, "Shut up, don't question it." There aren't that many people out there willing to tell kids, "No, the school made you at risk, you're not at risk."

Wes: Well, I have standard packet that’s now online and part of my website. I haven't mailed out a printed packet for a long time, because people look at my website now, but one statement there is that telling people, "Look, the question is not whether you're smart or not, the question is, how are you smart?" That's the question. And, one of my comments is that, well, if you have been told by the school that you're not smart, it is the school that is behaving stupidly, not you.

Pat: Because they haven't figured out how you're smart.

Wes: Right. So I'm thinking that kids who are labeled at risk at school typically either, or maybe both, have something really heavy going on in their lives that prevents them from focusing on schoolwork or they just have different interests. They're interested in dancing, or they're interested in rock climbing, or they're interested in hands-on stuff. And, you know, meanwhile the whole society is screaming at them, "You have to go to college."

And to go to college, you have to go to high school. But one of the crazy things is there are school districts here that now are requiring every single student, in order to graduate from high school, must meet the admissions requirements from the University of California. There are several local school districts that have now made those their graduation requirements.

Pat: Oh, goodness.

Wes: And, aside from all of the arguments about kids having different interests, not everybody can nurture their talents to be going to college. There's the extremely rock bottom, practical issue of the fact that if everybody went to college or if everybody tried to go to college, there would be nowhere to put them. We don't have enough college classrooms to accommodate everybody going to college. We don't have the infrastructure to do it, in spite of the fact that it's a crazy idea.

The dialogue that goes on in this country about schooling, is, by and large, confined by the status quo. I’ve heard school reform stuff, I’ve been an educator now, for 51 years, and I’ve heard school reform stuff that whole time. One reform after another is proposed, and not much changes.

Pat: The one thing that’s actually changed things for families and school since you began work in school has been homeschooling. It’s heartening to learn how you chose to work with the students and not the system. If you believe school is about helping students find the education that helps them grow best, it leads to very different answers versus taking the position that we shouldn’t allow these options because they undermine the school system.

Wes: Good, Hooray!