Penn & Teller's Showtime series “Bullshit” first introduced me to Lenore Skenazy in their episode entitled “Stranger Danger.” This woman was first made famous by allowing her 9 year-old son ride the NYC subway alone, and was featured in this episode which focused on how evidence shows that the world really is a safer place to grow up these days. Her book, Free Range Kids is amazing, and is what ignited my passion in researching ways to raise children to be independent and free-spirited.
Much of what I read in Free Range Kids reminded me of my summers at Little Sebago Lake and the amount of freedoms we enjoyed there: building structurally unsound tree houses in the wilderness, bashing small rocks against bigger rocks to unearth geological treasures, hammering nails into literally anything we could find, rummaging in the dump (and building new things from items we discovered in the dump!) Yes, there were a million ways we could have gotten hurt or contracted tetanus, but the fact is, we didn't. We were totally free to pursue our interests, be creative, and have fun. Those are type of childhood summers I would wish for everyone.
Free Range Kids lead to reading Dale McGowan's Raising Free Thinkers, which is the a companion piece to another awesome book: Parenting Beyond Belief. I received a lot of strange looks from people when they noticed me reading these two. What is even in an atheist-specific parenting book? A lot of really fascinating stuff, let me tell you. Allowing my children to be free from indoctrination and to pursue whatever belief system they choose is an incredibly important value to me. Additionally, seeing the practical ways one can beautifully and respectfully explain concepts such as death and dying is something I will hold on to forever.
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Reading these books really raised my awareness of how to parent a child to be a ferocious critical thinker. Naturally, this lead to my discovery of John Holt and the Unschooling movement, a concept which has changed perceptions of formalized schooling forever. I'll admit it, Holt can be a bit out there. The utopia he describes in Instead of Education reminds me of my dear little libertarian heart: great in theory, near impossible in actual execution. But I'm not looking to change the entire system, I'm just looking to raise my future children the best way I see fit.
Learning how to implement his concepts of learning with my future spawn has taken over much of my recent reading. The theory of Unschooling challenges that formalized schooling is not conducive to the way children learn and instead you must follow your child's lead and assist (not teach) them in understanding and discovering the world around them. Children are natural learners - they inherently possess a desire to pursue the ideas that interest them. And the so-called basics (reading, writing, and arithmetic) develop naturally from the pursuit of these interests.
I'll let Wikipedia do it the justice it deserves:
A fundamental premise of unschooling is that curiosity is innate and that children want to learn. From this an argument can be made that institutionalizing children in a so-called "one size fits all" or "factory model" school is an inefficient use of the children's time, because it requires each child to learn a specific subject matter in a particular manner, at a particular pace, and at a particular time regardless of that individual's present or future needs, interests, goals, or any pre-existing knowledge he or she might have about the topic.
Many unschoolers also believe that opportunities for valuable hands-on, community-based, spontaneous, and real-world experiences are missed when educational opportunities are largely limited to those which can occur physically inside a school building.
We all have all enjoyed periods of self-guided learning, whether you were aware that was what you were doing or not. Jeffrey was obsessed with weather from ages 8-12. He consumed every library book, watched hours of the Weather Channel, and talked with anyone who would listen about hurricanes and other weather phenomena. At 12 I was a blossoming writer, keeping binders upon binders of my own television scripts stashed away in my closet. I detailed stage directions, A & B plot lines, and character arcs that depicted realistic personal growth.
How different would we be if we had spent our childhoods whole-heartedly following our passions, instead of a great majority of our time being monopolized by asinine school exercises? (Secret confession: I would purposely disqualify myself from spelling bees in the first round just to be done with the horror.) A seven hour school day, plus homework, leaves little time for creativity and self-guided learning. And the point of Unschooling is to thrust that personal interest into the forefront.
Holt's Unschooling theory lead to my discovery of John Taylor Gatto, whose essays I've been reading over and over again for a week now. Jeff has serious praise for his book Weapons of Mass Instruction and I've just finished Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. The sheer amount of knowledge I want to share about these texts is just too much to summarize here. The history of formalized schooling alone is a subject far too big to tackle on one Saturday night. Instead I'll just stick to describing one essay in particular, Gatto's “Seven Lesson School Teacher.”
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Gatto's seven lessons are based on his 30 years of teaching in the New York City school system, and he's a notable teacher, at that. He won Teacher of the Year in '89 & '90, and for both the city AND state in '91. However, as he explains beautifully in the intro, “I don't teach English, I teach School... these are the things you pay me to teach:”
“The logic of the school-mind is that it is better to leave school with a tool kit of superficial jargon derived from economics, sociology, natural science and so on than to leave with one genuine enthusiasm.”
Everything you learn in school is disjointed. One year you learn the solar system and the American Civil War, the next you tackle photosynthesis and the Tigris and Euphrates. The natural flow of learning that solidifies abstract concepts into true meaning is replaced by these arbitrary restrictions of state determined curriculum. Think back to the things you have learned that have truly stuck with you over time. Was it a random school unit, or something you came to discover and pursue naturally? (Let me tell you, my husband still gets giddy when a weather alert is issued...)
“The kids can't even imagine themselves somewhere else because I've shown how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes.”
This one really resonates with me. Children are categorized in school by two factors: your “track” and your “class,” and segregating by either creates a divide that is difficult to break. Stop and consider how you think about others your age. How did you perceive those who were in grades above you? How did you perceive those in years below you? School creates this unnatural breakdown between the ages that I believe remains with an individual throughout his/her life. It just seems ludicrous to me that we institutionalize children for 12+ years in the company of people only born within the same 12 month period. How is this a reflection of the real world whatsoever?
The number one question people ask when I mention that I am considering homeschooling/unschooling is SOCIALIZING. “But how will your child learn to be social?” It takes a lot not to reply back with some snarky “How will YOUR child learn to be social, thankyouverymuch.” There is nothing in the adult world that parallels the segregation one experiences in school. I would much rather have my child's early years include substantial, meaningful experiences with babies, teenagers, adults, and seniors, opposed to isolating them with similarly aged people. I want my children to understand their place in the world as a member of a community, not just an individual.
“When I'm at my best I plan lessons very carefully in order to produce this show of enthusiasm. But when the bell rings I insist that they stop whatever it is that we've been working on and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of. Students never have a complete experience except on the installment plan.”
This one is really self explanatory. I could have played with the LOGO program on my school's Apple Ile all day long. But no, computer class was 50 minutes long, only a few days a week. Can you really argue that allowing myself to be immersed in computer programming in the 1980's would have been a bad thing? HAH. Jeffrey would have spent every minute of the day reading in the library. I just asked him what his favorite aspect of school was, and he replied “finishing my work early so I could read.” That just feels so backwards. Let the damn kid read! I can guarantee that the science and geography and history he would allegedly be “missing” would be covered in his self-motivated pursuits. And the real kicker? Because he would have come across them himself, he would have actually CARED and more than likely REMEMBERED them. Learning opportunity fail.
“The fourth lesson I teach is emotional dependency. By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach you to surrender your will to the predestined chain of command.”
I feel as though the fourth lesson is closely related the sixth, Provisional self-esteem
“The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents, but need to rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.”
I see myself so much in this description, it pains me. I loved succeeding in school. I obsessed with getting A's, making the teacher proud, overachieving for the sake of positive attention. My teacher's approval was a massive factor in how I perceived my value and self worth for those 12 years. Mind you, I rarely cared about what I was actually learning. And the fact of the matter is, much of what learned in school was how to achieve the highest mark with the least amount of effort possible. School was elaborate game for me, in that regard. I never felt as though the obtaining of new knowledge was the goal. It was getting that A.
So yes, I achieved good marks in high school and thus I received scholarships to the college of my choice. On paper, I look good. But really, I think I missed the point entirely. I retained so little of what I learned over the course of my education. My focus was to impress, not the learn. My self-esteem was linked to arbitrary guidelines, not anything of substance. I want my children to learn for the sake of knowledge and for their sense of value to come from within, not a stupid sticker, or letter, or damn smiley face.
“The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I enforce.”
I hope to raise children who are empowered in their learning. I don't want them to see the world as something that needs to be taught, but instead, experienced. I hope to instill in them a sense of personal control over their learning... creators of their own meaning... capable, intelligent individuals.
“The seventh lesson I teach is that you can't hide. I teach children they are always watched by keeping each student under constant surveillance as do my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children, there is no private time. Class change lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels... I assign a type of extended schooling called "homework", too, so that the surveillance travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood.”
I hope I have the strength as a parent to trust my children the way they deserve be trusted. Creativity blossoms in such freedom, as is evidenced by every hilariously odd thing I did as an unsupervised child. Among my favorite memories: collecting dozens of speckled rocks to build a stone dalmatian sculpture (Art! Science! Nature!), death defying adventures of being pulled on a skateboard by my brother on his bike (Exercise! Physics!), and endless detailed drawings on graph paper of my “dream homes” (Math! Design!) I remember loving the solitude of the hidden storage cabinet in the garage, the massive sand pit tucked away in the woods at Sebago, and elaborate theatrical schemes my cousins and I concocted alone in their basement. Time to play and learn and discover independently has become so limited in modern society. When we will stop seeing unstructured time as a problem in need of fixing, opposed to a valuable gift you can offer a blossoming mind?
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Right now you might be thinking I'm a progressive, hippy-dippy crackpot. Or maybe I wrote something here that made you rethink how you approach concepts of learning and schooling (which the very point of this was to argue are two very different things). Regardless, it was nice to finally be able to express these ideas into a cohesive thought, as a kind of marker of how my thinking has progressed since first considering these concepts.
So I am offering this up to my hodgepodge of Facebook friends and am curious what you might think (Am I kidding myself to assume any of you read it this far? Hah.) You come from so many different walks of life: some of you I see every day are used to my theoretical pondering, some of you are professional teachers in the system and have viewpoints I'd love to hear, some of you are my cousins and enjoyed such freedoms of learning in your childhood, and some of you I don't really know as adults, but were present during my formative years in the Falmouth school system.
So yeah. What do YOU think?