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.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Our Little Free Library

In 2009, Todd Bol and Rick Brooks of Wisconsin teamed up to pursue a lofty goal: spread literacy, build community, and cultivate a sharing economy. Using Bol’s talent for creative carpentry and Brooks’s experience as a community development educator, the pair launched the non-profit organization, Little Free Library. Individuals and organizations throughout the world can build or buy a doll-house size wooden library, positioned securely on a post, and placed on a sidewalk, in a yard, by a bus stop, at a park, and many other easily accessible locations. The intent is to encourage a free and vibrant exchange of books among neighbors and community-members.

The original goal of the founders was modest but ambitious: establish 2,509 Little Free Libraries in locations around the globe to match the number of public libraries created by steel magnate and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, in the late 19th century. By January 2016—just seven years after setting their goal—the founders reported that there are now over 36,000 Little Free Libraries around the world, far exceeding the initial goal. Today, Little Free Libraries can be found in big cities and small towns, corporate offices and police stations. Many cities are offering grants to community members and organizations to launch and maintain a little library, and businesses are increasingly donating to the organization to fund little libraries in under-privileged areas.

We installed our Little Free Library in 2014 in a small patch of yard in the front of our city house. Almost instantly it became a neighborhood focal point. My children would scurry outside each day to see what new books arrived from passersby, and we met many neighbors through frequent front-stoop conversations about good books and free libraries and community empowerment. We even received free copies of newly-released children’s books from a local children’s book publisher who wanted to donate to our Little Free Library.  

The Little Free Library program demonstrates broad community commitment to literacy, generosity, and the sharing economy. It also showcases one example of the great possibilities of learning without schooling and the more agile, more innovative, more hyper-local prototypes of education that can emerge as we move from a schooling culture to a learning one.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Top 10 Reasons to Homeschool Your Kids

According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Education, the number one reason that American parents chose to homeschool their children was “a concern about environment of other schools.” This top reason was closely followed by number two: "Other reasons (including family time, finances, travel, and distance);" and number three: "A dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools." As conventional schooling becomes increasingly standardized, test-driven, and overly restrictive, more parents are choosing to opt-out of schooling and instead embrace learning for their children. In fact, according to the DOE report, the total number of U.S. homeschoolers jumped 17% between 2007 and 2011!

There are many reasons to consider the homeschooling option for your family, but here is my Top 10 list:

1. Customize learning - One of the great advantages of homeschooling is the ability to recognize a child's distinct learning styles and needs and tailor a family's learning approach accordingly.  The increasing popularity of homeschooling has led to learning resources for every type of learner, from a wide variety of packaged curriculum options, to countless free online learning sites, to community programming specifically targeting homeschoolers.  For "eclectic" homeschoolers and unschoolers who choose a more unstructured approach to homeschooling, there are museums, libraries, academic and cultural events, classes, lessons, self-directed learning centers, and a host of other resources to facilitate child-led learning.  Homeschooling allows the flexibility to adapt to a child's specific learning needs and use the full resources of the community and its people to facilitate learning.

2. Gain time - Homeschooling provides families with the gift of time.  Time to learn together.  Time for children to uncover and pursue their own talents.  Time to explore nature and the world around us.  Time to read.  Time to play.  Time to dream.

3. Cultivate curiosity - With the freedom to learn and explore, a child's natural curiosity flourishes, guiding him to discover, create, imagine, and synthesize.  As a society, we are moving away from the Industrial Age to the Imagination Age, where creativity is more essential than conformity and imagination trumps standardization. 

4. Reclaim childhood - Childhood today runs at a dizzying pace, with pressures to grow-up faster and better than ever before.  Homeschooling helps to reclaim and retain the spirit of childhood for a wee bit longer.

5. Focus on family - Homeschooling positions family at the center of a child's life, fostering family togetherness and whole family learning, and creating a nurturing, nourishing environment in which to learn and grow. As facilitators, we parents provide an enriching learning environment for our children and identify resources that may help to spark and encourage their innate curiosity.

6. Strengthen sibling bonds - Homeschooling brothers and sisters build strong sibling bonds, learning from and with each other, collaborating and trouble-shooting, and creating together each day.

7. Encourage positive social behaviors - Homeschooling allows children to see daily examples of positive social behaviors through close interactions with grown-ups and peers. When conflict arises, adults are able to model effective resolution techniques that help children to develop important interpersonal skills, while also enabling older children the freedom to resolve conflict independently and constructively. Malevolent institutional behaviors, like bullying, rarely occur in homeschooling. As Boston College psychology professor, and unschooling advocate, Dr. Peter Gray, writes: "Bullying occurs regularly when people who have no political power and are ruled in top-down fashion by others are required by law or economic necessity to remain in that setting. It occurs regularly, for example, in prisons...There is only one way to get rid of the bullying and the general sense of unfairness that pervades our schools, and that is to restructure radically the way the schools are governed." When children are able to learn in freedom, without coercion and with the ability to easily opt-out of activities and interactions that cause them discomfort, bullying and other negative social behaviors cannot occur.

8. Learn from the community - Homeschoolers are uniquely positioned to use their community as their classroom, taking full advantage of the varied and abundant offerings of the community, and the many interesting places and knowledgeable people who become their daily "teachers." Homeschooling also allows children to interact and learn from a diverse population of fellow homeschoolers through active and accessible local homeschooling networks.

9. Simplify schedules - Homeschooling helps families to prioritize how a child's time is spent each week to maximize self-directed learning, and minimize stressors and waste. Homeschooling helps families to slow down, simplify, and focus on creating more peaceful, unhurried family rhythms.

10. Enjoy outdoor learning - Homeschooling creates many opportunities for unenclosed, free play and exploration throughout one's community and through meaningful interactions with the natural world. Nature is an extraordinary teacher.

What are your thoughts on this list?  How does it compare with your own top reasons to homeschool your kids?

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Stay Calm and Let Them Play

"The concept of childhood, so vital to the traditional American way of life, is threatened with extinction in the society we have created. Today's child has become the unwilling, unintended victim of overwhelming stress--the stress borne of rapid, bewildering social change and constantly rising expectations." 

When Tufts University psychology professor, David Elkind, wrote the above statement in his popular book, The Hurried Child, it was 1980-- just the beginning of an American culture of childhood "enrichment" and "opportunity" that has become so pervasive that we now expect kindergarteners to read, preschoolers to sit quietly at desks, and childhood "achievement" to be the undisputed marker of future success in a global economy. It's no wonder that rates of childhood anxiety and depression are skyrocketing, and the pharmaceutical industry happily creates tablet antidotes.

But the real antidote is simply play. Stay calm and let them play.

As Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray, writes:
"By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and various other mental disorders."

Somehow we parents got on this treadmill, believing that we need to schedule the majority of our children's time with adult-led activities and classes. Our intentions were no doubt good. We all want the best for our children. But in scheduling their days and filling their time with adult-directed activities, we strip our children of their instinct to play, to discover their own world, to imagine and create all on their own, without a grown-up telling them how or why or when.

As researchers Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek write in their the excellent book, Einsten Never Used Flash Cards: "Parents who don't want to participate in all of the accelerated opportunities and activities for their children often feel anxiety in this new childrearing climate. As parenting itself has become more competitive, many moms and dads worry that their children could be left behind if they don't take advantage of every available opportunity."

In full pursuit of these purported opportunities, when is children's time to play? I mean really play: on their own, for long stretches of time, without adults leading the charge, without the latest "research" telling them how best to play. As the Einstein authors assert:
"By making children dependent on others to schedule and entertain them, we deprive them of the pleasures of creating their own games and the sense of mastery and independence they will need to enjoy running their own lives. The concept of enjoyment, of silliness, of play, is relegated to the back of the bus. The concept of downtime--when we can just do nothing, reflect a little, and have a chance to become ourselves--seems to be a kind of heresy in the current cult of achievement."
It's easy to get caught-up in the culture of acceleration, easy to be wooed by another class or possibility. The challenge for all parents is to quiet the noise, to follow our instincts and recognize how far from normal we have pushed modern day childhood. Instead of being so focused on "outcomes," on results and scores and other manifestations of so-called achievement, we should focus on giving our children the time and space and freedom to play, to grow, to learn, to be.

It may be the biggest parenting challenge of our time: to fiercely protect and preserve a natural childhood and give our children the gift of play.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Summer Slide Does Not Exist

One of the prevailing assumptions about learning is the idea of the “summer slide.” This widely-held belief asserts that summer hinders and repeals learning. Evidence of this alleged learning loss abounds. A survey by the National Summer Learning Association found that teachers spend a significant amount of time re-teaching content in fall due to summer learning loss. This loss is apparently worse for disadvantaged children. A Johns Hopkins University study of the Baltimore Public Schools found that low-income children lost more than two months of “reading achievement” over summer vacation. This perceived “summer slide” has been cited as a top reason for making summer programs, particularly for underprivileged youth, more academically rigorous. In other words, summer schooling trumps summer playing, especially if you’re poor. A free and unstructured summer, then, is seen as a playful luxury: fun, but not educative, and potentially even harmful.

What if we instead challenge the notion that the children who allegedly experience "summer slide" ever really learned at all? They may have been successfully schooled: that is, coerced, trained, and tested on specific skills and Common Core competencies before summer began. But they likely never learned. There can be no "summer slide," no loss of learning, when learning is authentic and self-directed.

In his classic book, How Children Fail, educator and unschooling advocate, John Holt, writes: "It is as true now as it was then that no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool parts of our lives."

Schooling and learning are stunningly different. When they are schooled, children (with varying degrees of success) may learn how to play the game of school—how to listen and memorize and regurgitate to the satisfaction of the teacher or the test. When children learn, however, their knowledge cannot be forgotten. A “summer slide” is not possible with real learning, only with its institutionally-contrived counterpart. Thomas Edison, who was homeschooled by his mother after his teacher called him "addled," or fuzzy in the head, when he was 8 years old, once said: “The trouble with our way of educating is that it does not give elasticity to the mind. It casts the brain into a mold. It insists that the child must accept. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning, and it lays more stress on memory than observation.”

Despite the best efforts of good teachers and administrators to inject creativity and a love of learning into their classrooms, the rigidity inherent in the structure of increasingly restrictive, test-driven schooling makes this nearly impossible. It’s hard to love something that you are forced to do. It’s hard to take ownership of something when someone else owns it. This sadly applies to students and teachers alike, who are similarly stripped of their own agency and self-direction. In his excellent book, Free To Learn (Basic Books, 2013), Boston College psychology professor and my colleague at Alternatives To School.com, Peter Gray, writes: “Children are pawns in a competitive game in which the adults around them are trying to squeeze the highest possible scores out of them on standardized tests. Anything that increases performance short of outright cheating is considered ‘education’ in this high-stakes game. Thus, the drills that enhance short-term memory of information they will be tested on are considered legitimate education, even though such drills produce no increase at all in understanding.”

The children who purportedly experience “summer slide” are the messengers. We should listen to them. They tell us, loudly and clearly, that our industrial framework of coercive, test-driven schooling doesn’t create learners. It creates mimics. Those who do well in the system are those who have learned to be good at memorizing and repeating, behaviors that Thomas Edison and many others do not master. The answer is not more schooling. The answer is less schooling and more learning. The answer is to overhaul an archaic system of forced schooling and instead embrace the ideals of authentic, self-directed education for all young people.

Authentic learning is deep and enduring. It happens all the time, all year round, including summer. Perhaps especially summer.