Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The end of an unschooled summer

Calvin and Starflower go back to public school tomorrow; he in third grade, she in first. She, being the most social being in our family (although in a family of hermits that isn't saying much!), is excited. He, being a Calvin, is a bit more reticent about it, although I think he's trying to act somewhat excited just because that's what he thinks he's "supposed" to do. I'm ambivalent and struggling with the whole idea.

I'm not going to kid myself and think it's great that they have an opportunity to "get an education" this way. The fact is, I don't think they'll learn anything useful, anything that they could not learn on their own, at their own pace, if given the opportunity. What they will learn is how to obey orders and conform. How to accept things and not ask questions. How to do endless, repetitive, rote-learning worksheets. How to prepare for and take standardized tests. How to cheer for "the team" no matter what. How to be shaped by artificial incentives and punishments.

I could go on and on, but by now you probably get the idea. I'm not a big fan of public schools in general. I'm a big fan of John Holt and John Taylor Gatto's ideas about learning and schools. I think unschooling, not just playing school at home complete with curriculum, but giving my children the freedom to learn what they want in the way that is best for them, is the best way for my children to learn.

I went to public school K-12. I was not aware of any other options. I was good at taking tests and getting good grades. I thought I enjoyed school. Now, twenty years later, I realize I was mostly wasting my time. I had a few good teachers: Dr. Hummel, who introduced me to the formal study of biology and who would jump up on the table waving his pointer sometimes during class. He was that excited about teaching. Mr Luebke taught a vague-sounding senior honors class called "Humanities Seminar" that sparked my interest and appreciation of the fine arts, literature, music, and architecture. And Mr. Thompson made band fun and encouraged excellence from everyone. I was voted Outstanding Senior Girl in Band, the one honor from my school career that I take some pride in. But I barely remember anything else. I didn't come out of any other classes eager to learn more about the subject. I had little interest in reading anything that wasn't assigned. And, most importantly, I did not know how to ask questions.

So why don't I just take my kids out of school altogether? There are a lot of reasons, besides the fact that my retired teacher grandma and the rest of my school-supporting family would think I'd gone totally nuts. I think most of it has to do with the fact that I'm not there yet mentally, not having confidence enough in myself that the idea might actually work. Society kind of does that to a person to make them stay in line. Plus the fact that I work full time, and I would like to be the one to be there to guide their adventures.

I also think that our small town consolidated school district isn't really all bad. There are some well-meaning teachers who genuinely care about the children and want them to do their best, who feel overwhelmed by the demands to prepare for standardized tests and cater to the students with learning difficulties. And I think my children are smart enough to see through the empty praise and false incentives; they are there to learn and they get bored quickly doing the same things over and over.

And, they only have to be in school seven hours a day, five days a week. The rest of the time is theirs to explore, to be kids, and to do what they've been doing all summer. So they are unschooling in a sense, when they're not in school. Maybe some day we'll be ready to take the next step.


Floridacracker said...

Ouch! The public school classroom is a tough place to be these days. You nailed one of our biggest problems, "...teachers who generally care..feel overwhelmed by the demands of standardized tests and cater to the students with learning disabilities."
I could really go on here, but this is for comments, not diatribes.
Short version: The focus from above is on everything, BUT good creative teaching.
I do know this, my best students have loving parents who value learning...not just in the classroom. I have a feeling your kids are going to do just fine.

madcapmum said...

Even though I'm nuts about unschooling, I still think it's all about parenting. We've known public school kids who did wonderfully, due mostly to the fact that they had parents backing them up in everything. (I'm still cheering you on to homeschool though - my bias is showing!)

the dharma bum said...

I'm biased too... My mom has been a high school social studies (mostly U.S. history) for about 30 years. I have a lot of faith in the public schools. I don't like what's happened to them over the past several decades, but I still think the mission and vision of public schools is one of the best things this country has going for it. I wish they could get the resources they need, that the talented teachers (which there could be a lot more of, especially if the school system got the funding and respect it deserves) had the freedom to teach how they know is best, etc.

Anyway, I survived the public schools, but kids are kids and more than anything they'll always find time to use their imagination and learn about the world through their own senses when given the time and the room... which it sounds exactly like your kids will get.

dragonfly183 said...

Iam also not a big fan of public schools. I think so much of what they are learning in completely useless. I swear i think Chris spent half of his year preparing for that damn testing. Then ofcourse there is the cost of going back to school. The clothes, the supplies which in themselves cost 100 dollars. Then we had to add 30 dollars cash for "something" we never got an explination for. Then to top it all off the Clarinet for 600 dollars. The band teacher wouldn't allow the 200 dollar plastic one from wal-mart. Had to be wood. I like to take it and stick it where the sun don't shine.
Dennis think there to old to be home schooled now. I don't agree.

H. Stallard said...

That damn (SOL) testing was one of the major reasons I opted for an early retirement. In Virginia we spend the entire year getting ready for that one week of tests. Nothing else matters. If it isn't about the SOL's we don't do it. School wasn't fun any more. All we did was drill on facts. Nothing on creative thinking was encouraged. Some of us tried but we were on a short leash. One of the reasons I was moved out of the 3rd grade (a biggie year for the SOL tests) was because the principal said I wasn't drilling enough for the tests. I encourage you to go back to homeschooling/unschooling, your worst at that has to be better than the public school's best.

Deb said...

I had a big long comment typed out, then poof! it disappeared into cyberspace. So to summarize:

There are a lot of interesting points brought up here. I think we all agree that the public school system is a good idea that has lost some of its focus and intent. And we agree that parents make all of the difference, no matter whether a child is home schooled or attends public school. That is why I am opposed to any attempt to control my childrens' free time by assigning large amounts of homework, and then telling me "my job" is to help my children develop good study habits. Luckily, this hasn't happened yet.

It's a shame that creativity and enthusiasm in teaching is not rewarded by the system. I had some very good teachers, and some that were just there doing their time at the expense of my desire to learn certain topics (math, for example; my downfall started when I had the basketball coach for tenth grade algebra...not good!)My childrens' teachers have been almost apologetic that they can't do more with the unique gifts that each child has.

dragonfly-I hear you on the school supplies! At least in this state you can deduct school expenses from state income taxes. And it's too bad they don't have some kind of rental program for band, where a kid can try out an instrument and see if they like it without commiting financially to it. But as a musician I know that for beginners it's important to start out with as good a quality instrument as possible; even an experienced player can't make a bad instrument sound good, and a bad instrument can be discouraging to even a talented beginner. I don't know about the quality of the Wal Mart instruments; maybe the band director has heard problems with them. Or maybe they're getting a kickback from the major suppliers of band instruments...hmmm...

Anyway, my kids survived the first day, although due to budget cuts they changed the bus routes and they didn't get home until almost 5 o'clock! We're at the end of a long rural route. Hopefully it won't be that long every day.

Carla said...

Have you read "Summerhill A Radical Approach to Child Rearing?" If not, I think you would enjoy it. It is by A.S. Neill and was published by Hart Publishing Company, New York. Copyright 1960. This book radically changed my views on child rearing and I only wish that I had read it 20 years earlier. It was given to me by my history professor in college (I went back to school after all but one of my children had grown up and moved away.) and the note inside the cover says, "Perhaps somewhere in here there is a thought, a concept, a technique, a phrase which can add depth to your relationship with your children (and others)." I homeschooled my youngest daughter her last 3 years and by not imposing the ridiculous rules and restrictions of the public school system and society in general on her, she finished a full year ahead of schedule. She did not go to college, but in exploring and learning about what she was interested in, she found that she had an apptitude for sewing. My husband and I helped her start a little e-bay business (in the hope that she would start college soon) and now the business has grown so much that I have quit my job and we have moved to the mountains to manufacture and sell the beautiful rennaissance clothing that she designs and sells. The public school system does not know what your children are passionate about and does not allow them to explore any alternatives.
Good luck!! Raising children is so hard these days. Just remember to trust your own judgement. No one can tell you the best way to nurture your own children.