Sunday, October 16, 2016

Learning About Systemic Racism

Yesterday I hosted a group viewing in my living room of the new documentary, 13th, now available on Netflix and in select theaters. It is a powerful, expertly made film about how the current system of mass incarceration in this country is the modern iteration of black subjugation and white privilege. 

Taking the themes laid out in Michelle Alexander's 2010 New York Times bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 13th presents the compelling case that although the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, it did so with the caveat that Americans could still be stripped of their liberty and enslaved if they commit a crime. 

Over the past three decades, under bipartisan political efforts to restore "law and order" and get "tough on crime," the prison population has skyrocketed, with the majority of inmates being people of color who have been arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for non-violent offenses--often without due process and too frequently for pleading guilty to crimes that they didn't commit. Even after they serve their time, these "criminals" are then branded and denied access to a whole host of privileges, including the ability to get jobs, housing, driver's licenses, an array of social services like food stamps, and even the right to vote. Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and one of the prominent speakers in the film, explains that he often hears people ask how Americans tolerated slavery and then the lynchings, Jim Crow segregation, and police brutality that followed its abolition over the following century. He makes the piercing point that this is still happening and we all are tolerating it. 

13th is a must-see film. 

I am just beginning to educate myself on these important topics, and the systemic--often hidden--racism that pervades our society. I have known for some time about the school-to-prison pipeline, in which high levels of suspensions and zero tolerance school policies label children early on as troublemakers and problems, and then funnel them swiftly into the larger criminal justice system, thus perpetuating inequality and poverty. According to U.S. Department of Education data from 2013-2014, 6,743 children who were enrolled in public preschool received one or more out-of-school suspensions--with black children far more likely to be suspended than white children. Monique Morris's new book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools describes this pipeline in greater detail. 

But the larger issues of black subjugation, systemic racism, and implicit bias were topics I had only peripherally understood. I recently read The New Jim Crow for the first time and was ashamed that I hadn't heard of or read this book in the last six years since its debut. I can blame it on a busy, full, sleep-deprived life with littles that often kept me out-of-touch with media and current events, but the truth is that there is no excuse for not reading about, learning about, and acting upon these ugly injustices. I am just beginning to figure out what I can do, in some small way, to impact change. Educating myself is an important and necessary first step; collaborating with others in this shared effort is another. But perhaps the biggest thing I can do is to help my children understand how the legacy of American slavery endures and how people of different colors remain unequally treated in this great country. 

As I have been reading and learning and watching, I have let my children in on all of this. To them, growing up with an African American president and living in a diverse (although sadly still segregated) city, slavery and inequality and racism seemed like historical relics. I, too, thought that today's colorblindness was a sign of progress and I was ignorant of how the system of mass incarceration creates and perpetuates a massive undercaste along racial lines. I am now much more intentional in sharing these injustices with my children in our daily conversations. As I was reading The New Jim Crow, my nine-year-old asked about it and we had a long, deep discussion about these issues. Now, whenever another unarmed black person gets shot and killed by police, I say that it's very likely that wouldn't have happened if the person was white. On a walk to the park recently, my five-year-old asked out of the blue: "Mama, why did they slave them just because they had black skin?" We then talked openly about the horrors of slavery and its continued effects on inequality and injustice. And we all have been reading children's books from the library that touch on these topics in age-appropriate ways.

It's a start. I will continue to educate myself, confront my own implicit biases, join the grassroots efforts to bring these important issues to the forefront of American policy dialogues, and I will use this space to write about them. But perhaps the most important thing I can do, the most important impact I can have, is to help my children to think about and understand that people are still treated very differently in this country based on what they look like. And that must finally end.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Schooling and Social Justice Myth

On a warm, bright morning at a popular playground near a prized city elementary school, I pushed my toddler on the swings. A group of children from the school's sought-after, integrated public preschool program, which serves many poor and minority children, happily played, and climbed, and laughed. Then the teachers clapped loudly, followed by the preschoolers who repeated their clap. To the tune of "If You're Happy And You Know It," the teachers started singing: "Put your backs against the fence, against the fence." Clap, clap. The children repeated the chorus and the clapping, as they followed the order to put their backs against the fence and prepare to return to their school building.

My jaw dropped. 

We have been fed, and have eagerly gobbled up, the myth that schooling is the only hope for social justice. If only we make the schools better, the teachers gentler, the curriculum more rigorous and offered earlier in a child's life, then the pervasive opportunity and achievement gaps between white and black children, between rich and poor, will disappear. If only we pour more money into the schools, make the buildings fancier, add some special programming and technology, expand the school day and year, then we will halt America's ugly inequality and injustice.

We have placed our country's schools in the impossible position of singularly trying to fix a mammoth societal scourge, while not acknowledging that schooling itself contributes to widespread inequality, poverty, and lack of opportunity. As social justice activist and educator, Dr. Monique Morris, writes in her excellent book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (The New Press, 2016): "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" (p. 188). 

Our system of industrial schooling amplifies and embeds disadvantage, fueling a massive school-to-prison pipeline and perpetuating social injustice. What makes this system all the more insidious is that it is presented under the guise that it's good for us: that it is necessary and important and as American as apple pie. Oh, and it's also mandated under a legal threat of force.

How can we expect our children to grow up and be engaged members of a free and democratic society when we systematically deny them freedom and democracy for most of their childhood? How can we expect to end a school-to-prison pipeline and win the struggle for social justice when our system of schooling exacerbates the problem? How can we go along with this opportunity myth while children, many of whom are black, are singing a jolly tune of oppression as they follow orders to put their backs against a fence?

In her recent essay, my colleague at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, Akilah Richards, shares why she made the personal decision to opt-out of the coercive system of compulsory schooling for her two black daughters as a way to reject institutional racism and injustice. She writes: "Because Kris and I are raising black folks in America, freedom to learn is critical. It is our deliberate resistance to the whitewashed curricula pervasive in America's classrooms. We want our daughters to design their own courses of study through real-life experiences and relationships, not ones formed by sitting in a room, facing one instructor, collecting dots, and negating the contribution of non-white people to the world's civilizations and cultures. More than that, America's judiciary and educational systems embody and normalize a harmful European colonialist worldview."

Relying on the institution of forced schooling to repair the social inequality and poverty it helps to create is like relying on a pharmaceutical company to grow toxic food and then treat the health problems of those inevitably affected. (Oh wait, that's already happening too.) Coercive schooling is part of the problem, not the solution. As I've written here before, we need to disentangle public schooling from public education and de-institutionalize learning. In this way, we will eliminate the structures that often reproduce racism and inequality and focus instead on public, non-coercive educational networks (like public libraries and public museums and a whole host of small, community-based learning initiatives), that empower individuals. We can then finally begin to meaningfully and honestly address the vast and complicated roots of and remedies for social injustice.

In Death At An Early Age (Plume, 1967), Jonathan Kozol's award-winning book about the deplorable conditions of segregated schools in Boston in the 1960s, he writes: "All white people, I think, are implicated in these things so long as we participate in America in a normal way and attempt to go on leading normal lives while any one race is being cheated and tormented" (p. 12). It's time we all get angry about the racism, inequality, and injustice that continue to plague America, and start looking critically at societal institutions that may be doing more harm than good. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Challenging Our Schooled Minds

my seven-year-old son
Yesterday I met a mom who was curious about homeschooling. We chatted a bit about what it's like, why I do it, and what resources are available. Like me, she has a seven-year-old son. Her little boy is obsessed with the Boston subway system (the "T"), and mass transit in general, and spends most of his free time playing with train sets and reading and talking about trains and subways. He attends public school in a sought-after local district and is just starting second grade. The mom mentioned that there is much she does not like about school--the socialization, the heavy focus on discipline and order--but she indicated that homeschooling could never be an option because she's a full-time surgeon. 

I told her that there are many unschool options popping up to support families who, for a variety of reasons, may not be able to make full-time homeschooling work. I told her about the three self-directed learning centers we have here in the Boston area: Parts & Crafts in Somerville, Bay State Learning Center in Dedham, and the Macomber Center in Framingham (which is now offering shuttle service from Boston/Cambridge). I explained how a self-directed learning center works: there is no coercion, nothing that young people are forced to learn or do. Children are surrounded by a rich environment of resources and materials. They have access to helpful grown-ups who understand their role as facilitators, not teachers. They are given the freedom to cultivate and expand on their passions and interests, and are exposed to new ideas and pathways as they collaborate with others, leverage technology, and learn naturally. Some self-directed learning centers, whose attendees are registered homeschoolers in their home districts, offer classes or workshops on various topics of interest; but all of these are optional. Nothing is forced. It is the opposite of school in every way.

After I explained all of this to the surgeon-mom she stated: "My son is not at all self-disciplined enough for that kind of environment. He would just play trains and stare at subway maps all day and never learn anything."

I replied: "That's great! He would learn so much through that process of play and discovery and pursuing his passion!"

The doctor replied: "Well you know, he won't learn anything important like math, history, science, and so on."

Imagine what this little boy would learn! He would learn all of this--and more--by simply having the freedom and opportunity to play, to explore, to read and be read to, to ask questions and seek answers. There is so much math and history and science in exploring the subway, and this little boy would tackle all of that in an authentic, meaningful, self-directed way that would ensure true, deep, retained learning.

This conversation is so typical and so understandable. We have become such a schooled society that we can only see learning through the lens of "subjects" and "textbooks" and "teaching" and "testing." Most of us cannot imagine that learning could be self-directed, non-coercive. We cannot imagine that children could learn without being taught and assessed in a systematic, schooled way.

But they do learn! And they really learn! Self-directed learners deepen and retain their knowledge in ways that the artificial schooled environment cannot allow. I can tell you with absolute certainty that my son would never have learned to read, or at least read well and with enjoyment, if he had to learn through contrived reading assignments and Dick and Jane. He learned to read by trying to decipher the lyrics on the CD jackets of the rock and roll albums he loves listening to and reading countless Amazon reviews before purchasing the things he wanted to buy (mostly related to music and instruments). Now he loves to read and most of his reading these days revolves around his latest passion, basketball.

In a natural learning environment, whether at home or at a self-directed learning center, that mom's subway-loving boy would thrive. His knowledge would deepen, his reading would explode, his math and science and history boxes would all be checked--but they would be checked in a seamless, authentic way that is not artificially tied to "subjects" or "curriculum." There is so much history and science and math--and much more--in pursuing a passion for the subway and it would all be learned in a most genuine, circuitous, natural way.

We know this, of course. When we really start to challenge our schooled minds, we know it. We know that as grown-ups we learn every day in a natural, self-directed way. If we want to explore a topic, we search for it first on Wikipedia and then maybe get a book on it or watch a YouTube video. If we want to learn a new instrument, we may decide to take some lessons online over Skype or take an in-person lesson with a local musician and then practice to improve our skills. If we want to learn a new recipe, we search, read, and experiment. We try and we fail and we try again. We know this for ourselves, but our schooled minds often prevent us from knowing it for our children. All humans, young and old, learn naturally. As Boston College psychology professor and my colleague at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, Dr. Peter Gray, states:
"Through their own efforts, children learn to walk, run, jump and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social and emotional development. They do all of this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything. This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn 5 or 6. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of our system of schooling is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible."

It's possible, likely even, that this mom's subway-loving boy's curiosity for trains may fade as his school year gets underway next week. After all, there is so much reading, and math, and history, and science to cover.

That doesn't leave much time for learning.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Holding On to Barefoot Days

There's nothing quite like the barefoot days of summer--days for our children to run and leap and dance with the warm earth under their toes.

Even as the unmistakable hints of fall emerge--the auburn patch of leaves at the peak of the maple tree, the blanketed nights, the scent of autumn in a crisp gust of wind--we know that there are still many more barefoot days to enjoy in the coming weeks.  And we will make time for these days.  Even as fall classes and activities emerge--soccer, math class, basketball, Parts & Crafts, Museum of Fine Arts classes, homeschool park days, and all those museum and library trips---we will make time for those warm, open barefoot days of late summer and early fall. 

For it's important, don't you agree, to grant our children that time and space--that freedom--so singularly represented by barefoot days, to just be.  Even as jackets and schedules tighten, even as we move into newer fall rhythms, we will make a clear effort to hold on to the message of these barefoot days, the message of slower, simpler schedules and wide-open days.

As Simplicity Parenting author, Kim John Payne, states: "When we really look at what happens for a kid when they slow down, tune in to themselves, take space and get busy in serious play, we can see that what they are learning is how to create a kind of inner structure that will serve them (and us) well in the world ahead."

It takes some doing in the hurried pace of modern life to prioritize simpler schedules, to place a higher value on open, unstructured time for our children--and ourselves.  As Payne concludes: "Until we see clearly what our goals are and how to meet them, we will forever be on this rollercoaster of trying to zoom ahead and then putting on the breaks -- a life of whiplash for American families." 

Holding on to summer's barefoot days even as September nears, even as commitments grow, can help us to avoid that whiplash and place a higher value on slower, simpler days.  It can help us to clarify our values and achieve our goals, and can help us to connect more deeply with family, community, and the soil beneath us.

Monday, August 29, 2016

On math and natural learning

I never liked math. I learned to play the game at school: to memorize and regurgitate to the satisfaction of the teacher and the test, but I never liked it. I never learned it. I got As, but they were superficial: markers of good short-term memory and a keenness for the game of school. It really is a game and I played it well. But I never learned. Not like my children do, anyway.

My first job when I was 16 was as a pharmacy cashier at a drug store. I remember ringing up a customer's order, placing the total sum into the register, and the customer handing me a $20 bill. After the machine spit out the change due to her, the customer handed me some extra money. Looking back, I know that she, of course, wanted to round up to the next dollar and avoid a pile of coins in her purse. But I didn't realize that then. That was never on the test. I only saw what the register was telling me. I said: "Oh, I'm all set! You keep the change," thinking I was doing her a favor. She looked at me, puzzled. I'm certain I got an A on those "making change" worksheets back in public elementary school, and I was definitely getting an A in my public high school math class. In my college Econometrics class, I scored a 98 on the most-failed exam, eviscerating the curve. I can memorize and regurgitate concepts like a champ, but I remember nothing of that statistics class. I was damn good at the game. 

Being good at the game of school is nothing like real learning. 

My children have no mental model to consider math to be drudgery, to be something to just get through. They don't associate it with worksheets or gold stars or hollow letters. They love math, truly and deeply. They see it, live it, know it due to their everyday living and learning within and throughout our entire community. We have been spending a lot of time lately at our local Boston Museum of Science. Like public libraries, community-based museums are hubs for self-directed learning. There is no coercion: nothing anyone is forced to see or know or do. There are supportive facilitators and curators available throughout the exhibits to guide an activity, ask a probing question, give a demonstration. But nothing is required, nothing is artificial. Imagine if, like a public library, every community had a public museum, like the taxpayer-funded Smithsonian museums that don't charge admission. Imagine the possibilities of true public education beyond the singular, age-segregated, outdated method of compulsory schooling. Just imagine.

At one of our museum trips last week, one of the facilitators in the human body exhibit was graphing results of lung capacity tests with various museum patrons and asked my math-loving nine-year-old daughter which was more, 1.8 or 1.25? She wasn't sure. She hadn't encountered decimals in that way before. When we got home, she spent the entire afternoon watching Khan Academy videos explaining decimals, and she downloaded a couple of iPad apps that we helped her find. Now she knows decimals, really knows decimals. And she wants to know even more, to apply more of her knowledge in new and different ways. All of this sprouted from a visit to a community museum, a probing question from an enthusiastic staff member, and access to the unbounded information and resources now available, literally, at our fingertips. This isn't rocket science (though there is an app for that). Facilitating natural, self-directed learning doesn't take much except supportive grown-ups, community-based resources, and--most important of all--a child's natural curiosity and innate drive to discover that have not been scorched in the cauldron of conventional schooling. 

As Andrew Hacker writes in his excellent book, The Math Myth--And Other STEM Delusions (The New Press, 2016): "Mathematics, perhaps more than other subjects, favors pupils who give precisely the answers their teachers want. Perhaps for this reason, there's less inclination to indulge students who don't keep up. So Cs and Ds and Fs are more usual in mathematics than in other subjects" (p. 138). Hacker explains that one of the primary indicators of high school drop-out rates is the grade students receive in 9th grade algebra. He believes that the rigid, one-size-fits-all, abstract way that most schools present mathematics is to blame for this outcome, which disproportionately impacts poor and minority young people. 

I don't want my children to excel at the game. I want them to learn. I don't want them to spend their precious childhood trying to master the rules of mass schooling--rules that unnecessarily create winners and losers, often along race and class lines. I want them to spend their time and energy and talents immersed in community-based, self-directed learning, revealing passions and abilities, and having the agency to chart their own path with an eye toward community and social justice. In short, I want them to learn authentically--just as they learned to roll and crawl and walk and talk--without an arbitrary timeline and a pre-imposed curriculum telling them what they should know, when, and how.

I don't want my kids just to do math. I want them to learn it, to love it, to live it.

And to know when they can keep the change.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Public Education vs. Public Schooling

I am a true believer in, and a full supporter of, public education.

The trouble is that public education and public schooling have become synonymous. Schooling is one method of education; but it is certainly not the only one and, I argue, not the best one.

Until we separate public education from public schooling--to truly "deschool" our perspective on learning--we will be mired in a debate about reforming one, singular method of education (that is, schooling) while ignoring other methods of education that could be (and I believe are) better.

In his pathbreaking 1970 book, Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich writes: "Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring" (Introduction).

A perfect example of educational webs, as opposed to funnels like school, is the public library. I write often about public libraries as ideal examples of currently-existing, taxpayer-funded, community-based, self-directed learning hubs. Libraries are amazing! They are openly accessible to all members of a community and, unlike schools, do not segregate by age or ability. They offer classes, enrichment opportunities, lectures, events, ESL lessons, computer courses and a whole host of other, purely optional, non-coercive public programming. They are brimming with gifted facilitators who love "learning, sharing, and caring" and who are eager to help guide community learning. Increasingly, libraries are expanding their offerings beyond books and digital information to become hackerspaces and makerspaces. Many libraries lend out items such as tools, musical instruments, kitchen supplies, recreational equipment like fishing poles and snowshoes, and even gardening plots. If one library doesn't have what you want or need, you can freely choose another. In some cities and towns, libraries take over summertime distribution of the federal free- and reduced-lunch program to help nourish children all year long. Some libraries, like the McAllen Public Library in McAllen, Texas, which made headlines for taking over an abandoned Wal-Mart building, are open 355 days a year. Public education at its best.

The primary difference between public education and public schooling is that the former is open and self-directed, while the latter is compulsory and top-down. Both are community-based and taxpayer-funded; both can lead to an educated citizenry. But public education, like public libraries and community learning centers, can foster an educated citizenry without the cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual wounding that we so often find in coercive schooling. Parker Palmer writes in the Foreword to Kirsten Olson's excellent 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."

By moving beyond the paradigm of public schooling, toward public education for all, we can open ourselves up to enormous possibilities for learning. We can foster a citizenry that is not only educated, but happy, competent, and fulfilled because individuals' innate curiosity and natural drive to learn and do have not be squelched by schooling's narrow, one-size-fits-all method of education. We can encourage innovation and imagination--skills profoundly important to confront the seemingly insurmountable challenges our planet now faces and that are nearly impossible to cultivate within a forced schooling model that values conformity over creativity.

We can do this. We can support public education in its truest sense and open ourselves up to the panoply of community-based, taxpayer-funded education possibilities that will sprout when we move beyond the shadow of the public schooling dinosaur.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Back-To-School Marketing Campaign

Our whole family adores the Olympics. Over the past week, we have brought up from the basement our dusty tv monitor and rabbit ears antennae and watched, albeit with a slightly fuzzy screen, many of the Game's events. My older two children, especially, are fascinated and eager to know more about the events they see and the places from which the athletes come. 

Since we don't typically watch commercial television, the thing that strikes me most is the advertising. So much focus on consumption! If only I buy this item, go to this place, take this pill, then I'll be happy, healthy, fulfilled. Yesterday, I saw this back-to-school ad by a major retailer. It may seem ordinary enough: kids leaving behind summer camp and swimming pools, organizing all of their back-to-school supplies, and then getting on the big yellow school bus to the musical chorus of "here I go again on my own, going down the only road I've ever known."

The commercial is meant to signal the independence kids are supposed to feel upon returning to school--the only road they've ever known. This is not at all surprising. Despite the myth that government schools were created to foster freedom and opportunity, the origins of our American compulsory schooling system are seedy. Mass compulsory schooling was created to rein-in an increasingly diverse, immigrant-driven population in the mid-nineteenth century that leaders felt threatened national law and order. (Sound familiar?) In Boston in 1852, Horace Mann aggressively enacted the country's first compulsory schooling law mandating children's attendance at school under a legal threat of force. At that time, Boston was bulging with Irish, predominantly Catholic, immigrants who brought with them a culture and a religion that challenged the dominant Protestant, puritan principles. Instead of embracing an increasingly pluralistic society in a great, new democracy, leaders looked to create institutions to promote conformity and obedience. 

One of the primary methods to create this conformity and obedience--this law and order--is to systematically separate parents and their children. Mann had a deep distrust of many parents, especially immigrants. As University of Vermont professor, Bob Pepperman Taylor, writes in his book, Horace Mann's Troubling Legacy: "But perhaps the group receiving the greatest scolding from Mann is parents themselves. He questions the competence of a great many parents, but even worse is what he takes to be the perverse moral education provided to children by their corrupt parents." There were certainly many societal changes and challenges in mid-nineteenth century America, as immigration and industry rose and the horrors of slavery were revealed. Mann and his contemporaries saw societal institutions as the way forward for a fledgling democracy. (Mann is also credited with creating America's first state lunatic hospital, in Worcester, Mass. in 1833.) Pepperman Taylor goes on to quote Mann about the need for compulsory schooling: "Were children born with perfect natures, we might expect that they would gradually purify themselves from the vices and corruptions which are now almost enforced them, by the examples of the world. But the same nature by which parents sunk into error and sin, preadapts the children to follow in the course of ancestral degeneracy" (p. 33). Oh and don't forget: Horace Mann homeschooled his own three children. 

As children were systematically separated from their parents for increasingly large amounts of time (the first compulsory school attendance law was for only 12 weeks a year of forced schooling for children ages 8 to 14), parents' influences and cultural customs declined and parent-child strife skyrocketed. In her excellent book, The End of American Childhood, UC-Berkeley historian, Paula Fass, writes about the expansion of the American high school in the early twentieth century and its effect of further separating children and parents. She writes: "From then on, for better or for worse, school played a large role in the memories of Americans...For many adolescents, the image of the high school as a second home captures the significance and primacy of the institution on a personal level. It substituted for family and displaced parents" (p. 137).

In the onslaught of back-to-school messaging at this time of year, it is no wonder that retailers would highlight the idea that schooling is synonymous with independence. And parents, eager for their children to be self-reliant, happily purchase the necessary accoutrements. The trouble is that this marketing campaign, which began in the nineteenth century, sneakily replaces supposed independence from parents with total dependence on, and submission to, a government institution with sketchy origins. Rather than being free and independent of the potential parental patriarchy and oppression that Mann and his colleagues fretted over, now America's children spend most of their formative years in institutions of equal or worse oppression, slaves to high-stakes tests, labeling and tracking, and a deeply embedded hierarchy enforced by nineteenth century, industrial hold-overs like bells, grades, straight lines, hall passes, and detention. And lest we think that these relics are necessary to help further equality and opportunity and close the "achievement gap" between rich and poor, it is often these oppressive practices (like zero-tolerance policies) that fuel the "school-to-prison pipeline" and prevent the opportunity and upward mobility that schooling claims to provide.

Behind all of the commercial back-to-school buzz lies the legacy of nineteenth century compulsory schooling statutes: separate children from parents as early and for as long as possible, create a uniform culture of conformity to fuel a consumption-based economy, and convince the masses that this is all for their own good and thus needs to be compulsory. Eat your vegetables, you know. As author and New York State Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto, wrote in his 1991 resignation letter published in The Wall Street Journal: "Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents."

Just as it was intended to do. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Boston/Cambridge Homeschool Resources

On several occasions lately I have met or heard from families who are either new to homeschooling or new to homeschooling in Boston/Cambridge and have asked for my tips on local resources. So here goes!

Local homeschooling networks - First things first, Boston homeschooling newbies should absolutely join the very active, local homeschooling networks to get connected with nearby families and learn about classes, activities, and other offerings for homeschoolers. Homeschooling Together and HubHomeschoolers are the two local networks I recommend.

Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts (AHEM) - Our grassroots advocacy group, AHEM provides a wealth of information and resources for new and experienced homeschoolers, including frequent panel discussions about homeschooling and sample education plans for reporting purposes. AHEM also shares information on the discounts and reduced admission at many local museums and businesses.

Museum of Fine Arts - The Boston MFA offers weekly morning and afternoon homeschool classes from September to June. My girls (9 and 5) especially enjoy these classes. As an unschooling family, I love that I can sign up each week on Wednesday for a Friday class so I can gauge how our week is going and who may want to join an MFA class for that particular week.

JP Green School - I wrote about the JP Green School earlier in the year and am impressed by their weekly homeschooling offerings focused on environmental sustainability. Check it out!

Parts & Crafts - Located on the Cambridge/Somerville line, Parts and Crafts is a self-directed learning center for homeschoolers. Young people can attend a day a week (up to 5 days), and participate (or not) in a variety of class offerings and hackerspace resources. We adore Parts & Crafts -- and their Saturday family open shop is fantastic! (I wrote about them recently too.)

Eliot School of Fine and Applied Arts - The Eliot School in Jamaica Plain frequently offers classes for homeschoolers--and encourages homeschoolers to gather a group together for a specific class of interest.

Mucky Kids - Located in Porter Square in Cambridge, Mucky Kids is a children's art center that offers homeschooling classes. This fall's homeschool class is on creative coding and robotics for kids aged 6-10.

Tinkergarten - While not specifically geared toward homeschoolers, Tinkergarten offers high-quality, outside, nature-based programs for parent-child pairs throughout the city. These programs are typically aimed at preschool-age children and can be a great resource for families choosing to delay or forgo formal schooling.

Zoo New England - Boston's Franklin Park Zoo offers weekly homeschool programming for kids age 6-11.

MBTA Reduced Fares - Homeschoolers can take advantage of reduced student fares on the T.

Harvard Extension School - Many local teen homeschoolers take classes at the Harvard Extension School, and some even earn an Associate's degree while their same-age peers are getting a high school diploma!

Beyond this incomplete list, the local homeschool networks listed above regularly share many more class offerings, activities, park days, co-op opportunities, and additional one-off programming. There is so much to do here for homeschoolers and unschoolers! Don't see a program you want? In my experience, many museums and local organizations are happy to accommodate homeschoolers and create a class on any topic, as long as they can ensure a sufficient number of attendees to make it worthwhile.

Boston/Cambridge friends! What did I miss? Please share your additional resources and suggestions for city homeschooling activities and programming!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Learning To Be A Self-Directed Learner

"We like to say that we send children to school to teach them to think. What we do, all too often, is to teach them to think badly, to give up a natural and powerful way of thinking in favor of a method that does not work well for them and that we rarely use ourselves." ~ John Holt, How Children Learn

Have I told you that my seven-year-old is going to be a professional basketball player? 

Given that Brian and I are 5'8"" and 5'4"" respectively, it's probably a long shot. But you never know.

He discovered basketball just about three months ago, when he started watching the kids play at nearby city parks and then got his first ball. Since then, it's been 'round-the-clock basketball playing and researching. He plays basketball at the local courts with other kids that he meets, often who are much older and better, and who have been so gracious and kind and helpful in including my son in their play and teaching him tips and tricks. He plays basketball in his room with the little foam hoop that follows him everywhere. He reads books from the library about basketball history, techniques, and players. He watches countless YouTube videos about dribbling and shooting, and then practices these moves endlessly. When basketball season comes around again later this fall, he wants to take a weekly basketball class for kids his age at the local YMCA. We may plan a trip soon to western Mass. to the Basketball Hall of Fame. He tells everyone that he is practicing and preparing to be a professional basketball player.

I think a big component of shifting from a schooling culture to a learning one is to appreciate the myriad ways that children learn how to learn. With our schooled lens, we grown-ups may think that a child who focuses deeply on a so-called "extra-curricular" activity is not really learning. Playing, yes. But learning? Probably not. And yet, learning is exactly what these children are doing. They are learning how to be self-directed learners. They are learning how to follow their passions, dig for more information, use the tools of our culture to expand their knowledge, read and listen and observe, collaborate with others in a shared endeavor, and practice, practice, practice. They are learning how to learn.

It is unlikely that my son will become a professional basketball player, and likely that his passion for basketball could fade in the coming weeks or months as new interests emerge. But this time he spends immersed in basketball research and discovery, in practice and play, teaches him how to be a self-directed learner. As he grows, he will use these skills of self-direction to explore increasingly more complex topics. He will know how to dig deeply into a skill or subject that interests him all on his own, to use various community and technological resources to help him expand his knowledge, to work with and learn from others, and to commit to intense practice in order to improve.

Our job as parents is to facilitate our children's self-directed learning. We can begin by removing our own schooling lens with all of its associated myths about learning, and instead appreciate that our children are natural learners. They know, instinctually, how to use the tools of their culture to pursue a passion and expand their knowledge. They need us to respect and value their nascent interests, to give them abundant time, and space, and freedom in which to learn and play, to connect them to various tools and resources, and to not stifle their self-directed learning intuition with our own judgments about what is "extra-curricular" and what isn't. 

Our children need us to shift our thinking away from schooling and toward learning. 

Because they already have.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Libraries are so much better than their summer reading programs

When trying to envision what a world without forced schooling might look like, public libraries are the ideal models. Publicly-funded, sometimes supplemented by private donations, libraries are free, self-directed learning spaces in the purest sense. Unlike public schools, they do not discriminate by age. Patrons are not required to be there under a legal threat of force. There are no regulations on what or how to learn. Aside from some basic health and safety rules, community members are free to explore and use the library as they choose, with librarians and assistants available to help when needed. Many libraries host classes or activities, such as lectures, computer classes, or English-as-a-Second-Language lessons, and story times and book clubs. These events are available to all members of the community and are entirely optional. There is no coercion: no one telling others what they must learn or do.

Libraries are perfect examples of community-based, self-directed learning. This is why I believe that their summer reading programs are beneath them. Summer reading programs, while typically voluntary, follow a "schooling" model of education instead of the "learning" one that libraries naturally represent. Setting up reading as a rewards-based competition with certain milestones and markers and comparisons to others creates unnecessary obstacles to a child's natural curiosity. 

Some libraries try to lessen the coercive burden of summer reading programs by encouraging children to create their own reading goals. For example, children may determine on their own which and how many books to read or decide to read for a certain number of minutes each day or week. This sounds harmless, maybe even helpful, right? The trouble is that by setting up any "goal" around reading it has the potential to externalize the process and take away from the intrinsic pleasure of reading. My friend Tracy recently wrote an excellent post about the problems with summer reading programs. She uses an ice cream analogy, saying forcing kids to read is like forcing them to eat ice cream everyday. It's completely unnecessary and misses the point that learning, reading, knowing are simply what we humans will do without the potentially undermining effects of coercive--even gently coercive--summer reading programs.

"If it weren't for summer reading programs my kids wouldn't read anything over the summer," some parents might lament. This is a common chorus that is often used to validate summer reading programs, but it ignores the much larger, more troubling problem: most kids are schooled to believed that reading is work to be avoided. This is axiomatic given the ways in which schools teach reading. Often reading is taught before kids are ready to learn it, using methods and materials that are completely uninteresting and artificial, with quizzes and comparisons and, increasingly, high-stakes tests to measure alleged competency. 

Most kids have the natural love of reading schooled out of them, and summer reading programs simply perpetuate this framework of forced reading. The vast majority of children who are given the freedom to learn without school learn to read on their own, at their own time and pace, following their own interests. My son learned to read by first reading the lyrics to his favorite rock and roll songs, then instruction manuals while helping Brian to fix things around the house, and Amazon reviews for items he wanted to purchase, and, yes, Captain Underpants. He loves to read and would never imagine it to be drudgery or something we had to cajole him to do.

But, some might say, what about the children who aren't surrounded by literacy on a daily basis, who don't have parents who love to read, who don't have mountains of books in their homes? What about them?

I would say it's all the more important for those children to learn to appreciate reading for the sake of reading, and not for the sake of a sticker. Libraries and other community-based organizations can use summertime as an opportunity to ignite--or reignite--a child's natural curiosity; to help a child who is deprived of home-based literacy to discover the joy and adventure that can be found in books; to help a child understand that why she may want to dig into books all summer is so much more than a check-mark on a library form or the promise of a plastic frisbee.

Libraries have a special opportunity in summer to undo some of the damage of forced schooling and help children to reconnect with their innate learning instincts. Children are natural learners. They don't need to be coerced or cajoled into learning. They don't need competitions and rewards, however benevolent they may appear. Children need to be given the freedom to learn what they want, when they want, how they want with helpful facilitators available to assist. They need to be given the freedom to ask their own questions, to find their own answers, to uncover their own interests without others dictating the way. 

Libraries are perfect places of community-based, self-directed learning that support all members of a community in learning naturally, without coercion. Late-nineteenth century steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, who created many of this country's first public libraries, stated: "A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert."

Libraries are uniquely designed to support and encourage natural, self-directed learning. It's what they do best. They can help us all move from a schooling culture that often views reading as a chore, to a learning culture that sees reading as a joy. Avoiding summer reading programs is a good place to start.