Friday, September 29, 2017

Sustainability and Self-Direction in Boston: JP Green School


Instead of complaining about the education status quo, build alternatives to challenge it. That is just what pioneering educators and entrepreneurs are doing across the country. Disillusioned by increasingly restrictive, test-driven, one-size-fits-all mass schooling that crushes creativity and originality, individuals and organizations are clearing a new pathway of learning that is non-coercive and self-directed. Earlier this month, I highlighted Ingenuity Hub, a new self-directed learning center founded by a public school teacher who was fed up with forced schooling and decided to create an alternative to school. 

Today, I am delighted to share with you the story of JP Green School, a self-directed learning center for homeschoolers/unschoolers in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston that combines a passion for sustainability, a deep desire to preserve and protect the natural world, and a focus on non-coercive, self-directed learning. Here, co-founder Andrée Zaleska, a climate activist and educator, shares her story of launching and growing JP Green School. 

If you have a story of creating an alternative to school focused on non-coercive, self-directed education, please share it! I can be reached at kmcdonald@post.harvard.edu.

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1. What is the JP Green School and why did you decide to create this innovative education space?

JP Green School is a small alternative "free school"--a space for self-directed learning. We focus on teaching the mindset of sustainability and respect for the living world. We offer experiences involving gardening, cooking, green building, basic science, and free play in an urban environment. While we do some science "lessons," most of the day consists of free exploration.


2. Tell us a bit about the space, location, and your offerings. What is it like to be a learner there and what programs are you offering this fall?

We are based in my home and garden -- a place called JP Green House created as a demonstration home for sustainable living. The house is "energy positive," meaning it creates more energy than it uses through both active and passive solar technologies. The large garden is densely planted with vegetables and native flowers. We have a beehive, and we'll be starting up a chicken coop next year. A large play structure with a climbing wall, hammocks, a slack line and crow's nest sits in the yard, next to the concrete patio where we do most of our lessons. We have a funky indoor classroom featuring a loft and a firepole, books, games and art supplies.

We have 8 kids in each class, ages 5-10. There is a teacher and one teen assistant per class. We also have a part-time certified teacher who develops science curriculum and teaches the more formal lessons. 

Last year, our first year of programming, we started with 2 students! The number doubled several times, and this year we began with 24, in four classes. There are two classes for homeschoolers each week, and 2 for after-school students. We expect to attain our goal of 4 days/week programming for homeschoolers by fall of 2018.


3. You have a strong commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainability. Where did your passion for this come from and how does the JP Green School integrate these themes?

JP Green School is the synthesis of two different passions on the part of its founders. Kannan Thiruvengadam and myself (Andrée Zaleska) met in the climate movement. We have worked for years as activists and educators to call attention to the grave threat of climate change. As we worked in this mindset of opposition--fighting the fossil fuel corporations and the forces of denial in our culture--we both felt a need to also model the potential beauty of a sustainable future in which humans live in harmony with the living Earth.

Both JP Green House and JP Green School are attempts to do just this.

Additionally, I was leaning decidedly towards a belief in totally non-coercive schooling while raising two sons (now 16 and 19). After much exploration and observation of different schools, I have seen happy schools and schools that feel Orwellian. Non-coercion and emphasis on community appear to be key factors in all the successful models. (I credit much of my thinking on these matters to years of conversations with my son Kuba, who has been to 5 different schools, studied others, and has developed clear opinions about successful educational models.)

JP Green School aligns philosophically with local learning centers such as Parts and Crafts, Macomber Center and North Star. We also take inspiration from Montessori and Waldorf, unschooling, and forest schooling.

It is the devotion to modeling human beings in healthy relationship with the natural world and each other, that makes JP Green School both a happy place, and a powerful experiment in the times we live in.


4. How do you see JP Green School fitting into the larger alternatives to school movement in general and to Self-Directed Education in particular? Why do you think these alternatives to school are important now?

People educated in coercive models will be damaged for life (most of us are). The lack of respect shown to their autonomous selves as children translates into a lifelong tendency to "get what they need" by any means necessary. Much of what we think we need are acquisitions and achievements -- hollow substitutes for love and belonging. In most cases what we demand in substitute for love is robbed from the natural world. A community of people, plants, and animals is what ​human beings long for at their core. 

Our little experiment returns children to those primal relationships, in a quirky house and garden in the middle of urban Boston. We are part of a growing counterculture which finds traditional schooling damaging in ways that are intertwined with the general brokenness of our culture.


5. How can interested families connect with you?

Interested families should go to our website jpgreenschool.org, contact us at jpgreenschool@gmail.com for a visit and tour of the school, or call Andrée directly at 617 512 3502.

Like Boston, our school is diverse. LGBTQ families, many ethnicities, religions and races, and diverse economic backgrounds, are all represented here. We welcome all families and make our best effort to make our programs accessible financially to all.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Balancing Multiple Ages and Stages (Or How To Survive Toddlerhood)


When I get asked what the biggest challenge of homeschooling/unschooling is I say that it is balancing multiple ages and stages. With four children ages 3 to 10, I find that my kids' needs and interests don't always intersect. 

I think this is especially true if a toddler is in the mix. Toddlers and homeschooling can be a tricky combination. Spending our days exploring our children's interests and ideas can be tough when a toddler's needs and interests are so immediate and often so different from those of older kids. And they are urgent! Mommy, I need food NOW! Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom NOW! 

I wish I had some perfect solutions and astute wisdom to share with you about how to navigate toddlerhood while meeting the needs of your older homeschooled children, but the truth is that I am very much in the weeds of this now too! I think flexibility, support, asking for help, and gaining perspective are important for all this juggling--regardless of the ages and stages of the kids.

For some families, managing the multiple and varied needs of homeschooled children with different ages and interests involves some reshuffling of priorities and routines. For our family, we try to divide and conquer when possible. As some of you may recall, my husband left his crazy job with long hours and weekly travel a bit over a year ago so that we could both be more present at home. He now runs his own business part-time and I write part-time so that we are both able to dedicate time to our kids and their blossoming passions, while also supporting our family. 

For example, yesterday morning I took my eight year old to the skatepark with his friend and did some work calls there while Brian did chores at home and played games with the younger ones. My 10 year old spent the time at her sewing machine working on the dolls she is making for an upcoming fall craft fair. In the afternoon, he took the three older ones (10, 8, 6) to the Omni planetarium show at the Museum of Science where they headed into deep space. I took my 3 year old for a walk to the bank and to the park and to get ice cream. It has been hot here in Boston!

That's just one day-in-the-life of managing multiple ages and stages with homeschooling, and it certainly varies based on class schedules, work schedules, play dates, visitors, seasons, and so on. The key, I think, is flexibility, collaboration, communication, and the acknowledgement that this is all temporary. Toddlers grow up and their needs become less of an emergency, and older kids grow up and are able to go off all on their own, pursuing their passions without us in tow. 

In the meantime, when we're in the weeds, it's reassuring to know that this is simply life with littles. It's busy, it's loud, it's unpredictable, it's frustrating, and it's exhausting. But it is also beautiful, and fun, and rewarding, and hilarious, and fleeting. It's life. And it's learning.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Unschooling and Workbooks


Unschooling and workbooks. Isn't that an oxymoron? Isn't the whole idea of unschooling that you don't follow a curriculum or adopt a schooled mindset? 

It's true that unschooling, generally speaking, means living as if school doesn't exist. It means avoiding curriculum and the classic stereotype of "kitchen table" homeschooling, all gathered around the table doing lessons that the parent dictates. 

Unschooling, or Self-Directed Education, means giving young people the freedom and opportunity to direct their own learning, following their own interests and passions, using the full resources of real and digital communities, without coercion. 

That's a mouthful, but the key phrase is: without coercion. Learning is not forced. Unschooling parents surround their children with abundant resources and tools, making the wider world as accessible as possible to explore.

John Holt, who coined the term "unschooling" in the late 1970s to differentiate Self-Directed Education from traditional, school-at-home homeschooling reinforces this point. He writes in Learning All The Time:


“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions -- if they have any -- and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

Just as we have crayons and paper, books and computers, yarn and playdough, magazines and watercolors, we have workbooks. They are nothing fancy--just the ones you can pick up at a local store or online (my gang seems to like Brain Quest)--but they are scattered around our home. These workbooks are available to the kids, just like all other tools and supplies, to use and explore as they like. 

And you know something? They love them. Often if they are looking for something to do, they'll grab a workbook, find some pages that look interesting, and work at them--asking questions when needed. Sometimes they will get so into these workbooks, (particularly my older two) that they will spend a long while completing page after page.

When I tell people my kids like workbooks and often seek them out, they think I am either crazy or lying. Who likes workbooks? But they do, and so do other unschoolers I know. Partly I think this is because my kids have never been to school and have no mental model to associate worksheets with drudgery. And partly I think they like workbooks because they are not forced to do them. They freely use workbooks when and how they choose, focusing on the content that matters most to them, and they can freely stop using them whenever they want to.

Kids don't need to be forced to learn. They want to learn, to explore and discover their world, in ways that are meaningful to them. When young people are granted the freedom and opportunity to learn that we adults take for granted, their learning is deeper and richer and more enduring than anything learned under compulsion. Grown-ups provide the time, space, resources and support for learning. The kids do the rest. 


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Letter to a prospective homeschooling parent


I have been getting emails like the one below more frequently lately, so I thought I would share my general response. What would you add?


"Dear, Kerry: I ran across your website while doing research on homeschooling. I am a mother of 3 children ages 6,4 and 2. We moved to the suburbs when my children were smaller to take advantage of the top-rated public schools in our town. We had a wonderful pre-school experience due to the choice of school focused on play, outdoor exploration and emotional development.

However, as my 6 year old embarks on her education in the public school system, I find myself becoming more and more disappointed. More importantly, I find her becoming bored and disinterested in learning as a 1st grader.

All of this said, I am contacting you because I am thinking of homeschooling and I'm scared to death!

What are the resources? What curriculum should I use? Where do I begin? So many questions! Help!"

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Hello mama!

Welcome to the exciting world of learning without schooling! You have already taken the important first step in redefining your child's education by acknowledging the limitations of mass schooling, recognizing the ways it can dull a child's curiosity and exuberance, and seeking alternatives to school. Now it's time to take a deep breath, exhale, and explore.

1. First things first: Connect with your local homeschooling network. This network could be a message board through a Yahoo or MeetUp group, or a Facebook group, or a state homeschooling advocacy group (like AHEM for Massachusetts homeschoolers). Maybe you have already joined the Alliance for Self-Directed Education and have connected with the local SDE groups that may be forming in your area. Tapping into your local homeschooling community, posting your questions and introducing yourself, can be incredibly valuable. You may be surprised at just how many homeschooling families are nearby and the many activities and resources available to you. You may also find families on a similar path as yours. This can alleviate much of the anxiety you are experiencing as you take a peek into this new world of learning. These local networks can help you to navigate your local homeschooling regulations and guide you through the process of pulling your child from school.

2. Second, start reading! Obviously you are already doing this or you wouldn't have found my blog, but there is much more to learn. Homeschooling and education blogs and websites are great resources. Here is my short list of favorite books/articles/films to get you started:

Free To Learn, by Peter Gray
Teach Your Own, by John Holt (Anything by John Holt is worth reading. Here is the Holt/Growing Without Schooling website.)
Life Learning Magazine, by Wendy Priesnitz (editor)
Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto
Free-Range Learning, by Laura Grace Weldon
Home Grown, by Ben Hewitt
The Teenage Liberation Handbook, by Grace Llewellyn
The Unschooling Handbook, by Mary Griffith
The Unschooling Unmanual, by Jan Hunt
Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich
Free To Live, by Pam Laricchia
Class Dismissed documentary
Schooling the World documentary

3. Third: What about curriculum? Personally, I am an advocate for Self-Directed Education (SDE). Sometimes referred to as "unschooling," SDE shifts our view of education from schooling (something someone does to someone else, often by force) toward learning (something humans naturally do). With Self-Directed Education, young people are in charge of their own learning and doing, following their own interests and passions, with grown-ups available to help connect them to the vast resources of both real and digital communities. Children direct their education, adults facilitate. 

I am a realist though. (Or at least I try to be!) So I know that it is often challenging for families to go directly from a schooled mindset to an unschooled one. Whenever parents ask me what curriculum they should choose, I say *if* you are going to use a curriculum, I recommend Oak Meadow. A Vermont-based company that incorporates a lot of Waldorf-inspired educational ideas, Oak Meadow is a gentle, rich curriculum with a stellar reputation. 

4. Next, think about your family values, needs, and rhythms. Shifting from schooling to learning may involve some big changes to your family life, your routines, and your schedules. It may lead to reassessing priorities and to carefully juggling multiple work and family responsibilities. It also means you need some help to avoid burning out! Consider your support network of family, friends, and community and get the help you need to make this work for the long-term. If there is a self-directed learning center or homeschooling co-op near you, these resources can also be incredibly helpful in enabling you to find balance and connection.

5. Finally, talk with your kids! Learning without schooling is a collaborative endeavor that is mostly focused on your child's distinct interests, learning styles, and needs. Talk with your child and find out what she wants to do. If you are coming directly out of a school environment, you may need some time to "deschool"-- to fully embrace living and learning without being tied to the expectations and accoutrements of a schooled lifestyle. Go to the library, the museum, the park, or the beach. Take a walk in the woods. Spend long, slow mornings reading books together on the couch. Bake cookies. Ride bikes. Write a letter to a friend. Watch a movie. Play Scrabble. Go to the grocery store, the bank, the post office. Live life. Soon you will see that living and learning are the same thing.   

Best wishes to you as you embark on this exciting life journey! Remember: schooling is a relatively recent societal construct; learning is a natural condition of being human. Happy learning!

Warmly,
Kerry

P.S. For glimpses into our unschooling life, visit me on Instagram.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Self-Directed Education Is Instinctual


When my older daughter was born I knew nothing about parenting. Once we were settled in our hospital room after birth, I actually asked the nurses if I had permission to pick her up! Needless to say, I was very green when it came to parenting and babies.

Those first few days of new motherhood were overwhelming and filled with self-doubt until I met a lactation consultant/nurse who forever changed the course of my parenting. I am quite certain I would be a very different parent and have a very different life if it wasn't for her guidance and support. What miracle did she perform?

She taught me to listen to my baby and trust my powerful parenting instincts.

From then on, I stopped listening to so-called experts who told me that my baby should only nurse every two hours and I started feeding her on-demand, whenever she wanted to, which in those early weeks was all the time. I stopped placing her in a lonely crib where she never slept well, and instead brought her into our bed where she slept peacefully--and so did we. I put the stroller in the basement and wore her everywhere in the sling. I listened to my baby and unlocked those ancient parenting instincts I didn't even know I had.

Six months later I happened to be reading an article that explained the key tenets of Attachment Parenting. As I read the list, I realized that I was doing all of those things: baby-wearing, bed-sharing, on-demand breastfeeding, being responsive to baby's cries. My instinctual parenting practices actually had a name--and a wealth of resources and research to go with it! 

The same is true for Self-Directed Education. While I had been interested in alternative education and homeschooling since college and graduate school, it wasn't until I watched my own children learn and grow naturally, and saw the incredible things they were able to do without being taught, that I began to wonder about learning without schooling. Sure enough, I realized that this natural learning process I witnessed in my own children had a name and an entire body of historical and contemporary research to accompany it. 

The key advantage of Self-Directed Education is that it empowers parents and children. Parents learn to trust their children's natural learning instincts while tapping into their own instincts about how to best nurture their children's growth. Children learn to trust themselves, retaining their innate creativity and desire to explore and understand the world around them. Parents provide freedom and opportunity, children follow their interests and passions. And the vast resources of both real and digital communities support both parents and children in this process.

In our media-saturated culture, with opinions and theories and tips and advice bombarding us from every corner, we can take comfort in the simple and time-honored practice of trusting our children and ourselves. We can follow our own instincts and allow our children to follow theirs, watching as they learn and discover and create without coercion. We can use Self-Directed Education resources--not to tell us what to do--but to validate what we already know and do. 

We can listen to our children and to our powerful parenting instincts.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Ingenuity Hub: A New Massachusetts SDE Center


I love spotlighting individuals and organizations focused on Self-Directed Education (SDE), and am delighted to introduce you to Ingenuity Hub! Located in central Massachusetts, Ingenuity Hub is building a community of self-directed learners committed to education freedom and personalized learning. 

Are you a parent, educator, or entrepreneur who has launched an SDE organization? Share your story by sending me an email at kmcdonald@post.harvard.edu.

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Planting a New Orchard: Self-Directed Education in Central Massachusetts
by David Lane

Over a hundred years ago, an orchard was planted in soil contaminated with a poison everyone knew was there. Most people then, though, did not recognize the poison. Instead, they believed it was a nutrient to inspire the growth of the new trees. Over time, the orchard grew vast and sprawling. It now plays a role in all aspects of our society, especially in the lives of children. It is a normal part of life for almost everyone.


Over the years, the poison affected the growth of the trees, and blighted many of the fruit, a failure attributed to natural processes: some fruit ripen, others rot. Keep the ripe fruit and throw away the rotten. That’s just the way things go.

But now the poison has seeped through the soil into every root, trunk, branch, twig, and blossom. Every year, more root systems fail, more trunks crack, more branches snap, and more buds fail to bloom. More of us are beginning to recognize the canker among the trees, and some of us have traced the rot back to the poison in the soil where the first saplings were sown.


The poison? An idea: children cannot learn unless they are forced to. The orchard? Our school system, of course; it was founded in large part because people believed this. Most people agreed that the responsibility fell on adults to coerce young people to learn - or else they would laze around, accomplish nothing, or worse, fall into lives of vice.


When the early saplings were first planted in the orchard, the idea was broadly accepted as fact--but so were other ideas, like the inferiority of women, and phrenology--both other deeply popular ideas among the founders of our school system!


Society has worked hard to eliminate those misconceptions, but many still cling to the myth that children cannot and will not learn on their own, even though that idea is clearly as absurd as the other two.


Are many trees still strong and tall? Yes. Does the orchard still produce some healthy fruit? Of course it does. But it is becoming very clear to people that a growing number of trees are ill every year. Fewer and fewer buds are blossoming, and many of the fruit aren’t ripening anymore.


And many of us are growing hungry - for a new garden. I am part of a group of people in central Massachusetts who are among them. We tired of watching the rot in the orchard grow. More and more of the children in our community--some of them our own--are bored, anxious, and unmotivated in school. We sought out new ways to cultivate learning.


Our search took us to Grace Llewellyn’s great book, The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. In that book, Ms. Llewellyn mentioned Ken Danford, one of the founders of North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens, an organization located (I was thrilled to learn) in Massachusetts. I called Ken, and he invited me to visit.


What I saw at North Star - happy learners and staff who thought of the center as their home - I knew immediately this is what I had been looking for. Ken introduced me to Liberated Learners, Inc., a group he and a few other leaders in the self-directed learning movement had created to help people open centers in their own community. I built a team, raised a little bit of money, and joined Liberated Learners. We created a self-directed learning center called Ingenuity Hub, Personalized Learning Collaborative.


In October 2016, Ingenuity Hub opened inside a business incubator space sponsored by the City of Leominster. Opening the center has been the most difficult and the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my professional life.


We are proud to play a role in the self-directed learning movement. Anyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to what’s happening in the movement will see its effects almost everywhere. Independent groups are opening self-directed learning centers. Philanthropists are funding student-led learning programs. Even the most traditional school systems are beginning to recognize that far too many of their “trees” are ill, even though their response is far too little and far too slow. Kids don’t have time for adults to figure this out - and they don’t need to wait. Self-directed learning is available to them now almost everywhere. We are thrilled that now includes central Massachusetts, thanks to the many people who have helped us open Ingenuity Hub.


Currently, we serve teens aged 12 to 19. Our vision for the center is to provide self-directed learning to people of all ages. We plan to grow by striving to understand the educational needs of our community, and then do our best to meet those needs through self-directed learning. We strongly encourage parents and others in our community to contact us and share what their needs are, so that we can grow in an informed way. Our hope is that families of teens and younger children will see the opportunity we are providing and join us right away.


It is a very exciting time to become involved at Ingenuity Hub. We have established a small but strong foundation in central Massachusetts, and we are growing even as we speak right now: our team of learners has expanded from 2 last year to 6 right now, and more families are inquiring.

One of our teens recently said, “When I’m older, I’m going to be able to look back and say I helped make this place. More kids will be free to learn their own way - because of me!”


That’s powerful. This young man and the rest of the team at Ingenuity Hub are growing a new garden in clean soil. Everyone is invited to join us. It’s already beautiful, and we don’t want anyone to miss out on being a part of it.

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David Lane is founder and Executive Director of Ingenuity Hub. He began his career in education in 1991, but traces his passion for self-directed learning even further back to his early experiences as a young student. He has served as a public school classroom teacher, curriculum writer, testing coordinator, department chair, and director in programs that serve adolescents and adults in central Massachusetts, Los Angeles, New York City, and in New Jersey, where he was born and raised. He currently lives in Worcester, Mass. 

Please connect with David and the team at Ingenuity Hub by email, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Or stop by and visit in person at 24 Church Street, Room 39, Leominster, MA 01453.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Self-Directed Education and the Freedom to Choose


My 10 year old daughter attends Parts & Crafts, a local self-directed learning center for homeschoolers/unschoolers here in the city. She goes once a week and loves it. At the beginning of each session, the facilitators work with the young people to generate ideas for classes and then the kids pick which classes they want to take. They also always have the choice not to participate in any classes and spend their time as they choose, tinkering with the abundant makerspace materials, reading, knitting, playing board games, etc. 

Freedom to choose is a fundamental principle of Self-Directed EducationYoung people can choose to take a class or not, or to leave the class at any time for any reason, or to leave the learning center altogether. This affords children the same respect and autonomy that we grown-ups enjoy. For example, I choose classes based on my interests. If that class is not meeting my needs then I have the freedom to leave. My children have the same freedom. 

I make sure when I register for classes for myself, or for my children, that I am prepared to eat the full cost of that class whether or not I/they decide it's not working, and if I am not prepared to pay that amount then I/they don't register for that class. The freedom to stop doing something that isn't working for us, as long as we don't cause harm to others, is something we grown-ups take for granted but often expect otherwise from our children.

Boston College psychology professor, and Alliance for Self-Directed Education founder, Dr. Peter Gray, writes that the freedom to quit is the most basic human freedom. He asserts: "In general, children are the most brutalized of people, not because they are small and weak, but because they don't have the same freedoms to quit that adults have."

At Parts & Crafts, my daughter chose woodshop for one of her classes this term. Yesterday she was telling me about the class and how she is working on creating wooden swords to give to her younger brothers for holiday presents. I asked her to share more details of the class. She said the facilitator is working on a specific, prepared project with some of the kids but that she and two other kids are working independently on their own projects during that time. I love this. Kids can take a class to learn how to do a project with adult guidance, or they can work autonomously on their own projects if they choose. 

The true promise of Self-Directed Education is in how it enables human flourishing. Young people are given the freedom, respect, and agency to drive their own learning, with adults available to provide resources, guidance, and support when needed. As John Holt wrote in Instead of Education“My concern is not to improve ‘education’ but to do away with it, to end the ugly and anti-human business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves."

Helping people to shape themselves is what Self-Directed Education is all about. It fosters choice, freedom, autonomy, and the ability to learn in non-coercive environments, always with the ability to opt-in or out. In essence, it grants children the same freedom from coercion that adults enjoy.

We need to let go of the notion of schooling—something someone does to someone else—and instead reclaim learning—something humans naturally do. Self-Directed Education provides the pathway to do this. 


Saturday, September 2, 2017

How my daughter reminded me what Self-Directed Education really means


At the playground recently, I chatted with my friend about her fall homeschooling plans. It's always helpful to hear how other families organize their homeschooling days and to realize that the process of creating rhythms that work is ongoing and constantly changing. What works for one season may not work in the next; what works for the bigger kids may not work for the toddler; what works well for the parents may not work well for the kids, and vice versa. Homeschooling is a continuous process of whole family learning.

I love my friend's idea for fall that she has already begun to incorporate into her family's weekly rhythms. She is carving out specific times of the day and week focused on specific activities, "subjects" for lack of a better term. For example, they all spend a certain amount of time (say 30 minutes to an hour), on writing. During that time everyone, parents included, write whatever they want, with whatever tools they want (pencils, crayons, Microsoft Word), on any topic that interests them. They do the same for "art time," allocating specific times of the day and week for making art, again using whatever materials each person wants to use to create whatever kind of art or craft each person wants to create. It is learning together, but separately, at a given time on a given topic. 

I thought the idea sounded fabulous. 

On the walk home from the park, I told my kids about this new idea for a dedicated time allotment for various "subjects." I suggested that maybe it was something we could try and wanted to know what they thought about the idea.

My 10 year old daughter's answer was priceless: "Mom, no, I don't think so. That sounds sort of 'school-y,' don't you think?"

Well....ummm...yes, come to think of it, yes it does. 

This experience was an important reminder for me. It illustrates the difference between typical (often highly progressive) forms of child-focused learning and Self-Directed Education. Giving children the freedom to do whatever writing, for instance, they want to within a block of time designated for "writing" is very gentle, child-focused, and open-ended. Many kids would love this format, and if more schools operated this way it would be an enormous improvement. (See my recent article for Education Next about the Powderhouse School, a public school in Massachusetts trying this.) But my daughter is right that this approach still operates within a schooled framework of subjects and time-on-task learning.

My daughter, for instance, writes all the time. Right now, she is working on a lengthy fiction book called The Land of Four Times, and she recently started a food blog to record the many recipes she has created or adapted. My eight year old son also writes a lot, including his fiction book, Flimm Keltec and How His Life Goes, and his blog about Minecraft and skateboarding. They find moments throughout the day and week to work on these personal projects when it is meaningful to them, and not on some arbitrary schedule that I or others impose. 

In fact, it's quite possible that if I allotted a certain hour every day for "writing time," regardless of how free and self-directed that time might be, my kids might actually end up writing less. My sense is that they would save their writing for that writing hour, starting when the hour starts and stopping when the hour stops, and that would be it. Writing would be reserved for "writing time," and as such it would be much less meaningful, much less creative, and much less authentic than it otherwise is for them. Even more problematic is that as writing becomes a "subject" to cover, orchestrated by me, their intrinsic passion for writing could get eroded by my externally driven expectation.

The larger point that my daughter reminded me of during our walk home is that we don't live our lives in subject silos, connected (however loosely) to school-y thinking. We live, to quote author and life learning advocate Wendy Priesnitz, as if school doesn't exist. She writes:
"Schools sort, slot, categorize, package, and label. And they teach students that those activities are important. Most of us learned the lesson well. Even those of us who have rejected schooling for ourselves or our children - who choose to live as if school doesn't exist - carry those remnants with us... 
"If we truly are living as if school doesn’t exist, we can stop describing ourselves in school terms! We can de-couple learning – and the life we’re living with our families – from the institution of school." 
I love my friend's idea for fall and think it could be great for many families. It's just that, as my daughter so clearly pointed out, it is not compatible with the philosophy of Self-Directed Education that we value as a family right now. Even though one could argue that the activity itself would be self-directed--that is, the writing would be directed entirely by the child--it is not chosen by the child at that time for that purpose. 

This is the primary difference between self-directed learning and Self-Directed Education: the former allows children freedom to learn within adult-determined parameters, often mirroring school; the latter allows the child to direct their full education, with the freedom to choose how they spend their time and without contrived connections to school-y ideas, unless those are chosen by the child. Both models are leaps and bounds better than standard schooling, and have many similarities and synergies.

There are many ways to homeschool and many philosophies of learning to consider. As my daughter reminded me, the philosophy of Self-Directed Education is right for our family right now, living as if school doesn't exist.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Can Self-Directed Education Exist In Public Schools?


Last week on this blog's Facebook page I asked: "Do you think Self-Directed Education (SDE) can be integrated into the current public schooling model?"

Responses ranged from "no way" to "anything is possible," with commenters pointing out the key factors that would need to exist to make it work: increasing parental empowerment and mobilization; loosening compulsory schooling regulations; trusting children more and weakening the authoritarian structure of modern schooling; investing in smaller schools and classrooms.

I particularly like The Open School's reply: "Why would you want to? That would be like trying to convert your car into a lawn mower. You'd stick a blade on the bottom of it? Reduce the engine size? You would still have a hard time making tight turns and probably either get stuck or go too fast and crash. It would be cheaper, faster, and more reliable to sell the car and buy a lawn mower. We already have working SDE schools. But most people don't want SDE."

I agree with The Open School that we already have working models of SDE, but I am not convinced that most people don't want it. I think most people don't know about SDE. For those who do know about it there is increasing interest in this education philosophy, but the model remains inaccessible to the majority of parents because SDE schools and learning centers are currently private and tuition-based, and we don't have a working education choice system to enable parents to access these schools through vouchers, tax credits, education savings plans, etc. A robust choice system would also prompt the entrepreneurship that would create more of these SDE spaces in more places for more families. I also agree that repurposing the car (public school model) into the lawn mower (SDE) is ineffectual; we need to start-over and invest in an entirely new model of public education.

This week I wrote about a Massachusetts high school that is trying to do just that. In my guest blog post for the education journal Education Next, based out of Harvard University's Kennedy School, I write about the Powderhouse School in Somerville, Mass. It won a $10 million innovation grant to build (literally) an entirely new public (non-charter) high school focused on the principles of Self-Directed Education. Alec Resnick, the school's founder and principal, writes: "We think the future of learning doesn't look anything like school. It looks much more similar to work: much more ambiguous, much more interdisciplinary." 

Powderhouse is a promising example of how public education focused on learning over schooling could work. But I am still skeptical that this experiment can be scaled within the existing mass schooling apparatus. 

It is important to understand that the only reason Powderhouse is able to do what it is attempting to do is that it has been able to completely bypass existing district policies, regulations, and union contracts through Massachusetts's Innovation Schools initiative. Essentially, it is a public school that operates nothing like a public school. I would like to believe that everyone would rally around such an exciting new model and all of the possibilities that go with it, but my sense is that there is a lot of opposition to challenging the status quo.

I truly hope I am wrong. I hope more public schools will be able to get relief from stifling district policies and be able to experiment with new modes of learning, but I think the more realistic path is to put families back in charge of their children's education. Give parents access to resources and opportunities through robust choice measures that prompt education innovation and entrepreneurship. Then, standard district schools become one of many options for parents, and not the default spot for nearly 90% of America's children.

I enthusiastically agree with Resnick's vision on the future of education. He states: "It is very clear to me that the world I want to live in is one where families have control over resources to allocate to their children, and have support to allocate those resources effectively." I hope Powderhouse becomes a shining example of what public education could be, and what it will take to get there.

Click here to read my Education Next article in full. 

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?