Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”
My first-grader is not reading up to the standard required by the state of Florida. We just got a brightly colored, official looking scholarship warning that says if he does not improve, the system has no choice but to retain him. The year is barely half over and someone has already suggested that he will be held back. How’s that for a little smack of reality.
When I read it, I feel defeated and embarrassed. The “pleaser” in me wants to jump on my kid and “help” him catch up. More books. More book logs. More practice. Let’s go get some flashcards and drill him instead of giving him time after school to play sports, invent games or take art classes.
He cannot fail first grade.
But, all of this is a knee jerk reaction, and thankfully, one that quickly passes. After a deep breath, I settle into the reality of our situation and realize this is exactly the reason we are so grateful to have freedom to make choices in education, and why we are trying to open the Sudbury School. There is nothing wrong with my kid, but he may not be a great fit for our current school. That is okay.
We have been down this road before, so I am not as freaked out by this news as I was the first time it happened with my older son, 3 years ago. Our firstborn tried three schools before we found one that was a good fit. Each focused on a different set of learning styles and techniques. It was not until we placed him at his current school that it clicked. And when it did, we went from Cs and Ds to As and Bs. His most recent conduct grade was an “A”. It was the first time he was not a discipline problem for his teachers since starting Kindergarten. My kid did not change though. His schooling did. It met him where he was, it engaged him and encouraged him, and that made all of the difference.
The average school can be great for many kids, especially those who have historically been left behind, whether because of familial, social or socioeconomic factors. The new standards and the system of accountability that are central to the modern American education system is a huge benefit to those who might otherwise be circumstantially ignored. They make sure that every child is covered. Each kid is given tools needed to advance to a set of predetermined learnings. For those kids and on paper, this is a good thing. If everyone has to comply, then everyone receives the benefit. No one is treated differently, and in theory, no one is left behind.
BUT…and it is a big but, for those who are otherwise loved, supported, encouraged and parented, the pressure to reach certain agreed-upon milestones sets them up for a different and, in my opinion, a far more concerning problem. In these instances, we are taking the self-discovery, self-motivation, and self-esteem out of learning.
If you are exceptional in any way, you have a problem because the system does not have the resources to go at your pace or to meet you where you are…whether that is FAST, DIFFERENT or SLOW. And in the case of different or slow, if you are not ready to move with the pack, you are behind.
Do you see the irony?
At 6, my son is curious, creative, funny, and clever, but he is not ready to read, or alternatively perhaps, the methods used by his school/teacher are not the ones that would help him read at this age. Since the system is not designed to deliver individual instruction or to allow for differences in readiness, then if he is not on task, he is behind. And behind, in this instance is punitive.
To make things a little more complicated, my son is a twin. His brother has been reading for nearly 2 years, far ahead of the required timetable to advance to second-grade. This situation is a no win for us. Split them up and one gets a message that he is less than his brother. Advance him and the system has to remediate a kid who is “behind.”
In a perfect world, my kids would have access to a variety of instruction that could accommodate a variety of learning styles. In a perfect world, there would be no timetable for learning – only the expectation that each child is moving forward and discovering the things they need to be informed, productive and prepared for their future. In a perfect world, my son would not have to repeat this grade level and double-down his focus on reading for another year, at the expense of covering other new topics. He would be able to make the self-determination of how, when and why he learns to read. His instructors and his parents (my husband and I) would support him and help him find ways to use the activities he wants to do as a means to the end.
It can happen. It does happen.
Democratic, free schools like Sudbury schools allow it to happen.
In fact, a parent of a student at the Sego Lily School in Salt Lake City shares this perspective:
“By 2nd grade my youngest son was so unhappy in school, he announced he hated to read, and would never do it! That’s when I moved so he could attend a Sudbury model school. When he was 10 he disappeared into his room, with his computer…his dad was worried by this behavior…I was thrilled, because I could feel him learning! When he emerged from his room (weeks later), he was reading. He had gotten tired of not being able to excel at playing the video games he liked because he couldn’t read. What followed were lots of questions about grammar! He found a guy on Youtube who posted videos on grammar, and downloaded language structure into his own biocomputer/brain. Yesterday (3 years later) he finished building his own Gaming Computer. His interest in video games first led him to reading, and now to computer building! I worry that our children are forced to be so busy, pressured to perform, judged, scheduled, and filled with the fear of “making it in the world”, that they lose their ability to find their own path…to discover their own unique genius…why have we, as a society, stolen our children’s creative joy, exploration, and natural genius, simply to fuel a dysfunctional and soul grinding FEAR…of life.”
The reality that kids can own the process is seen every day at Sudbury. Peter Gray, one of the schools most visible proponents, writes about it in a Psychology today article,
“Most Sudbury Valley students today are learning to read earlier, and with even less conscious effort than before, because they are immersed in a culture in which people are communicating regularly with the written word–in computer games, email, Facebook, cell-phone texting, and the like. The written word is not essentially different to them than the spoken word, so the biological machinery that all humans have for picking up spoken language is more or less automatically employed in their learning to read and write (or type).”
Still not convinced?
Check out any or all of the following pieces by parents, psychologists, doctors, teachers, etc.
- You don’t need to teach reading.
- Kids Can Teach Themselves, by Sugata Mitra, Winner of the 2013 TED Prize
- Can Children Teach Themselves to Read? An essay profiling a study by Cynthia Breazeal, of MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots group
If your child is on a different schedule, consider coming to learn about Sudbury School of Jacksonville. Our next information meeting is Wednesday, February 11, 2015 at the Whole Foods on San Jose Blvd. at 7 pm.