Monday, August 7, 2017

Schooling is not inevitable

The New York Times article on "6 Things Parents Should Know About Sending Kids Back To School" begins:

"Surely there are some kids who are eager for school to start, but I have not met them. My 9-year-old and 5-year-old daughters have little interest now in trading day trips to the beach and family movie nights for an unfamiliar classroom and nightly homework."

So don't make them.

Our culture treats schooling as if it's inevitable. Like death and taxes, it's a necessary evil. Even if we know kids don't want to return to school--are dragging their heels or are downright obstinate--we laugh it off. Everyone knows school stinks. You just have to hold your nose and jump.

For many progressive reformers, dating back to the days of John Dewey, the key is just to make schooling gentler. Spruce it up a bit, make it more engaging and relevant, paint the classroom walls a prettier color. Then it will be ok. I don't buy it. You can add curtains to the jail cells but it's no less a prison. 

I often have people say to me when I advocate for alternatives to school that we shouldn't "throw the baby out with the bathwater." There's no need to do away with compulsory schooling, they say; we just need to reform what we've got. But progressive reformers have been trying this for decades with little impact, at least inside of the mass schooling monopoly. Not only have progressive reforms not worked, by most accounts mass schooling has become even more restrictive. 

Within the context of a system of coercive schooling, created by 19th century ideologues to bring order and compliance to the masses, there is no room for creativity, no palate for innovation. We need to look outside of standard schooling for education models that actually work. And we often need to look way outside for models that work and that retain children's natural curiosity and exuberance for learning.

NorthStar, a self-directed learning center for teens in western Massachusetts, has a great motto: "Learning is Natural, School is Optional." Schooling alternatives, like NorthStar, recognize that thinking out-of-the-box about education isn't enough. You have to reject the box altogether and create an entirely new geometric shape. Schooling is the box. What does learning look like?

This process takes some imagination. Most of us have been schooled to believe that schooling is necessary, that learning is unpleasant, that all kids dread September and the daily confines of the classroom walls. That is Life, we are told. Suck it up. Because then someday you'll have to be an Adult and spend your days in a job you hate with bosses you can't stand in a confining, mind-numbing workplace that saps your soul. Get used to it. 

We rarely question why. We rarely challenge the origins of mass schooling to cultivate such conformity, such hopelessness, such inevitability. It just is.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Schooling is one mode of education, but it is not the only one. There are other ways to learn, to know, to be educated. There are real models of education--that look nothing like school--that are wildly successful in nurturing children's learning and development. Unschooling, democratic schooling, self-directed learning centers are just a few of the education possibilities that reject the schooling box and create something entirely new.

As back-to-school time approaches and articles swarm on how to make the transition to September easier and more successful, maybe it's worth pausing to ask: If something is so unpleasant for so many of us, why are we doing it?

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Glimpse of Unschooling Through Fiction

Earlier this year, veteran homeschooling moms Milva McDonald (no relation) and Sophia Sayigh, released their book, Unschoolers. Using the distinct lens of fiction, Unschoolers offers a glimpse of the homeschooling lifestyle. Both parents and their homeschoolers are likely to see bits of themselves in the rich characters presented in the book. 

In my interview with Milva below, she shares more about the development of this book, her own experience with homeschooling her four, now-grown children, and what she hopes readers take away from Unschoolers

Finally, Milva's name may sound familiar to some of you. It was her unschooled daughter who graced the cover of Boston Magazine two years ago for their feature story, "Our Kids Don't Belong In School."

1. What prompted you and Sophia to create this book?

I’d been thinking about writing a book for a while and I’ve written fiction in the past, but it was Sophia who had the idea of portraying unschooling in fiction. When she suggested it, I realized it was perfect. Not only have Sophia and I homeschooled six kids to adulthood, we’ve been active in the local and statewide scene and still serve on the board for the non-profit organization we co-founded about a dozen years ago, Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts. We’ve presented conferences and lectures on homeschooling, and facilitated book clubs, writing groups, and debate clubs for homeschoolers. We’ve organized countless field trips, camping trips, potlucks, and so much more, so we felt we really had the knowledge and experience to tell the stories in the book. The lack of representation of homeschoolers in fiction was definitely a factor in the decision, as was the perennial question “What do homeschoolers do all day?”

2. Why a fiction book? How do you think fiction offers a special lens for examining homeschooling in general, and self-directed education (e.g., unschooling) in particular?

The book isn’t meant to sell anyone on homeschooling, unschooling, or anything else. It’s fiction, so it’s really about a particular set of characters and their lives. It just so happens that realistic portrayals of homeschoolers and unschoolers have been mostly excluded from fiction and movies. Instead we often appear as crazy or extreme in one way or another. Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a great TED talk on “The danger of a single story.” In my experience, a lot of people carry a single story about homeschoolers in their minds. Maybe they once read an article, or they know one family, or they heard about a family. As a result they tend to paint all homeschoolers with a broad brush. This is a very human thing to do, of course, but recognizing that homeschoolers are distinct individuals, and people like everyone else, can help allay the problems that stereotypes create. We’ve had non-homeschoolers exclaim, after reading the book, that they were surprised that the homeschooling families in the book are so variable in their motivations, styles, and approaches, yet their concerns and struggles are so recognizable. That’s gratifying.

3. You unschooled your own four children through high school. What have you found to be the most notable homeschooling/unschooling trends over the past couple of decades?

The biggest change is in the numbers. There are so many more homeschoolers now than when I started back in the early 1990s. That growth has attracted attention from curriculum developers, alternative education specialists, and even public school advocates seeking ways to bring homeschoolers back into the system, a topic Patricia Lines wrote about back in 2000. Technology, of course, has also created huge changes in homeschooling, as it has everywhere. There seem to be a lot more families than there used to be choosing to homeschool as a last resort or temporary stepping stone to what they hope will be a better school situation (rather than choosing to homeschool for its own sake), and they are perhaps more vulnerable to the marketing message that homeschooling is hard and you need the help of experts to do it, which really isn't the case.  One of the things that hasn’t changed is the need to find community, which seems, ironically, a bigger challenge now than when there were fewer people homeschooling. People are much more likely to congregate on Facebook or other internet sites rather than gather at a meeting or playground day or other support group event, and while it’s nice that they can instantly communicate with scores of other homeschoolers, it can’t substitute for developing the kinds of relationships and friendships that sustain homeschooling over a long period of time.

4. What do you hope readers take away most from the Unschoolers book?

I hope homeschoolers and unschoolers find themselves reflected in it, as my 18-year-old daughter did when she was reading a draft of the book. She remarked on how strange—and strangely wonderful—it felt to be reading about her life in a book. She’s been gobbling up fiction her whole life and characters who homeschool are rare. Forget finding a book that explores the lives, motivations, hopes, and fears of homeschooling parents. Other than that, I just hope people enjoy reading it.

To purchase the book and learn more about the authors, please visit the UNSCHOOLERS book website, and follow them on Twitter @UnschoolersBook.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

15,000 Hours of Playing School

I learned quickly how to play and succeed at the game of school. I was fortunate to be an early reader and to come from a supportive, white middle-class family to give me the initial advantage, and then I learned what I needed to do, how I needed to behave, to gain the teacher's affections and get the A. 

As so often happens when we reach adulthood, and especially parenthood, we realize how much we don't know. I realized that I might have been successfully schooled, but I didn't feel well educated. When I reflect on the approximately 15,000 hours I spent in K-12 public school, I think of what a waste of time most of those hours were. What else could I have been doing, learning, in those hours? How much more genuine could those hours have been if I wasn't spending so much time playing the game, but actually learning, reading, doing?

As Ken Robinson candidly states in his book, Creative Schools: "The success of those who do well in the system comes at a high price for the many who do not. As the standards movement gathers pace, even more students are paying the price of failure. Too often, those who are succeeding are doing so in spite of the dominant culture of education, not because of it." [1] 

For many children, the harm of compulsory schooling is obvious. Many are at a disadvantage right out of the gate and those disadvantages are amplified and embedded as their schooling continues. Others are bullied, labeled, tracked, or medicated. But beyond these obvious harms are the more subtle ones. Most schooled children, myself included, become conditioned to value and seek extrinsic rewards and superficial achievements. We lose creativity and individuality as we conform to arbitrary curriculum demands, teacher expectations, and institutional mores. 

Parker Palmer writes in the Preface to Kirsten Olson’s book, Wounded By School, about "the hidden and long-lasting wounds that result from the structural violence inherent in the ways we organize and evaluate learning, wounds that range from 'I found out that I have no gift of creativity,' or 'I learned that I'm no good at sports,' to 'They drained off my self-confidence,' 'I emerged feeling stupid,' or 'They put me in the losers' line and I've been there ever since.' Equally sad and profoundly ironic is the wound that may be the most widespread of all: the eagerness to learn that we all bring into the world as infants is often diminished and even destroyed by our schooling." [2]

So while it may seem that some of us made it through compulsory schooling unscathed--and even on top--I believe that few, if any of us, really do. We don't know how else we might have spent those 15,000 hours: to follow our curiosities, to reveal our interests, to pursue our passions, to read, and read, and read some more. We don’t know how well educated we could have become in our youth if we hadn’t spent so much time memorizing, repeating, forgetting, and otherwise playing the game of school.

Are you on Twitter? Follow me there @kerry_edu

[1] Robinson, Kenneth. Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. New York: Penguin Books, 2015, Introduction (xxi-xxii).

[2] Olson, Kirsten. Wounded By School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture. New York: Teachers College Press, 2009, Preface.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Worksheets or Wonder: A Story

The sky was a bright blue, clear with wispy white clouds and a strong June sun. My four children were ankle-deep in ocean water, shrieking with excitement each time they spotted a hermit crab or a sea star or a snail as the tide retreated.

We were at “rocky beach,” the made-up name my kids call that stretch of coastline near Cape Cod. It is a favorite family spot, a place we spend hours together from spring through fall marveling at the critters living precariously along the shore. The beach was quiet that day, but for the crashing waves and seagull squawks. It’s a good half-mile wooded walk to the public beach from the parking lot in this state-managed nature preserve. The short hike and the rocky coast keep the number of beach-goers to a minimum even at summer’s peak.

On that late-spring morning, the beach was nearly empty for the first hour of our visit. Then, a busload of middle-schoolers from the town’s public school arrived--worksheets and pencils in hand. I overheard the teacher, a pleasant, middle-aged man, giving instructions. The students, he said, were to explore the immediate beach area searching for the items listed on the worksheet. When found, they were asked to write their observations and cross the item off the list.

I watched the students scatter with joyful enthusiasm, delighted to be at the beach on a warm day on the cusp of summer. While my children continued their exploration and discovery of the tidal critters, shouting now and then when they spotted something new or fascinating, the middle-schoolers consulted their worksheets. I sat on a rock, noticing: the schooled children with their worksheets and instructions and inevitable assessment, and the never-been-schooled children with the wide-open beach and all its treasures as their natural learning space.
One of the students ran past me toward a classmate shouting that she had found something really cool along the beach, a critter of some sort. She wanted to show it to her friend. “It’s not on the worksheet,” the friend replied matter-of-factly and turned to walk away. Her enthusiasm deflated, the girl dropped the critter and caught up to her classmate to find the next item on the list.

Monday, June 26, 2017

How Mass Schooling Perpetuates Inequality

While visiting a public park out-of-state recently we met a young boy who shares many interests with my 8-year-old son and is also homeschooled. They hit it off immediately and we met up with Matt, along with his mom and younger brother, several times.

We learned that life is tough for this family. Matt's father isn't around, and his mother struggles as a single mom supporting two young children on her own. She pulled Matt out of the public schools a couple of years ago feeling that it wasn't working for him. He was labeled as hyperactive, a troublemaker, a slow reader, a kid with a temper. As I interacted with this engaging, polite, energetic boy, it became obvious to me how mass schooling would be a terrible fit for him--a square peg in a round hole. Mass schooling was designed to crush a child's natural exuberance and make him conform to a static set of norms and expectations. 

For kids like Matt, schooling can bring out the worst behaviors. Like a trapped tiger--angry and afraid--they rebel. Unable to conform properly to mass schooling's mores, they get a label: troubled, slow learner, poor, at-risk. They will carry these scarlet letters with them throughout their 15,000 hours of mandatory mass schooling, emerging not with real skills and limitless opportunity, but further entrenched in their born disadvantage. A tiny few may succeed at overcoming these labels--a dangling carrot that sustains the opportunity myth of mass schooling--but the vast majority do not.

Monique Morris writes in her book, Pushout:The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools: "Literature on the structure of dominance and the socially reproductive function of school tells us that schools may reinforce and reproduce social hierarchies that undermine the development of people who occupy lower societal status." In referring to the black girls she writes about in her book, Morris concludes that "these socially reproductive structures constitute educational experiences that guide them to, rather than direct them away from, destitution and escalating conflict with the criminal justice system."[1]  

That is why I was heartbroken to hear that Matt is going back to school in the fall.

I understand why his mother feels she has no other choice but to send him there. She's struggling to support her family on her own, to build a better life for her kids. It's hard to be a single mom and to homeschool. In fact, a new homeschooling report issued last week by Boston's Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research shows that 90 percent of homeschoolers live in two-parent families, and they are three times more likely to have one be a stay-at-home parent. Homeschooling as a single mom is beyond hard.

But it doesn't have to be. If Matt's mom could enroll him in a self-directed learning center, like those scattered across the country, she could support her family and continue to homeschool Matt with a complementary learning environment that encourages freedom and autonomy and pursuit of his passions and gifts. These learning centers, where tuition is typically only a fraction of a standard private school, often rely on donations to offer sliding scale fees or scholarships. Of course, if Matt's mom had a voucher that could help too, not only in defraying some education costs but also in encouraging the innovation and entrepreneurship necessary to launch more of these self-directed learning centers--and other alternatives to school--across the country. And imagine if some of the over $600 billion that American taxpayers are charged each year to pay for U.S. public schools were re-allocated to create alternatives to the mass schooling monopoly. Imagine what that might do to help families like Matt's.

I can see the reel playing before me of Matt's remaining years in school: the endless discipline, the daily detentions, the force-fed academics, the testing that masquerades as learning, the sadness and despair that will only be amplified now that Matt has had a taste of education freedom and autonomy. He knows how learning can be, should be, but for most children is not. As Schooling the World documentary filmmaker, Carol Black, writes in her powerful essay: "Children's resistance takes many forms; inattention, irritability, disruption, withdrawal, restlessness, forgetting; in fact, all of the 'symptoms' of ADHD are the behaviors of a child who is actively or passively resisting adult control. Once you start to generate this resistance to learning, if you don't back away quickly, it can solidify into something very disabling."

I hope I'm wrong. I hope school will be ok for Matt this time around. But I am not optimistic. And I am angry: angry that mass schooling is the only other option for Matt, angry because this was how the system was designed to be. Remember: Horace Mann, the proclaimed "father of American public education" who created the nation's first compulsory schooling law in Massachusetts in 1852, homeschooled his own three children with no intention of sending them to the common schools he mandated for others. The Pioneer Institute homeschooling report says of Mann:

"This hypocrisy of maintaining parental choice for himself while advocating a system of public education for others seems eerily similar to the mindset that is so common today: Many people of means who can choose to live in districts with better schools or opt for private schools resist giving educational choices to those less fortunate."

Matt is an important reminder for me of why I advocate so strongly for education choice and parental empowerment. He should be a reminder for all of us that mass schooling was created as a system of social control for those without privilege. If we truly care about equity we should care about choice.

[1] Morris, Monique. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. New York: The New Press, 2016, p. 188.