Sudbury

Why I am not freaking out that my kid cannot read.

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.”

-Plato

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.

boyreading

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.

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.

~Jennifer

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Around the web: Perspectives from a parent, Peter Gray and Dr. King, Jr.

Here are a few items I found interesting about free, democratic and Sudbury education from around the web.

Enjoy!

Parent Perspective: “Have you lost your mind?”

Truth.  I am a little surprised that the reaction from friends and family to the idea of starting a Sudbury school has been wholly positive.  And for those whose reaction is a little doubtful, they are helping me to improve my pitch about starting the school.

Most of the people I have shared the concept with have asked questions and smiled. Some nodded and moved onto to other topics or wished me the best of luck.  And then there were the ones whose eyes lit up, who see this as the school they have been looking for their son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter.  They want to know more.  When will it open?  Where will it be?  How much will it cost?  What happens when you finish with your Sudbury education?

I was expecting something different.  In talking with other founders who have launched a Sudbury School, each has shared with me the stories of adults who have had an overtly negative reaction to the idea that kids can be in charge of their own education.  Some got downright angry.  A few even tossed out threats.

For those of you who are considering Sudbury for your child, or are planning to support the decision of a family member or friend to embark on this journey, be prepared for the negative nancy to come along and blurt out, “Have you lost your mind?”

It is for you that I share this essay borrowed from Johanna Schmidt, a longtime Fairhaven School parent and author.  I have copied the text from the Fairhaven School blog.

Are You Thinking Sudbury Parents Must be Insane?

Back when both of my children went to a highly rated public Montessori School, I occasionally ran into acquaintances whose children attended Fairhaven School.  I smiled and nodded politely as they described the model of this “free school” where the kids decided to do whatever they wanted all day, while thinking “Are you CRAZY?”  I couldn’t believe that any intelligent and loving parent would take such a risk with their child’s education.  Didn’t we all agree that solid education was the only way a person could accomplish anything in this mad world?  Were their children sad misfits who simply couldn’t survive other more conventional models of schooling or were they (the parents) impossible idealists completely cut off from reality as we all know it?

Understand, I am a career educator, started teaching right out of college and never fully stopped.  I have taught in public schools, private schools, taught adults, children, and currently teach and administer a program at University of Maryland, partially because I want to be able to afford to send my children there someday.  So I have a lot invested in the world of education as we know it.  If it’s all a big mess than what on earth have I been doing all these years?  If kids don’t actually need teachers, then surely college-age students don’t need me.  How threatening is that?

So.  Here’s what happened.  My eldest son B, got up to 7th grade, where the high-performing public Montessori school took especial pride in preparing a high percentage of their students to successfully test their way into the math and science public magnet school in our area that has the reputation (there’s just no other way to say it) of being the ONLY option for people who can’t afford private school.  We were told that all the 7th graders would be doing between 30 and 100 math problems a night, in homework, in order to increase their prowess and take their rightful places as rulers of the planet.  And I broke.  I snapped.  I couldn’t see it, couldn’t do it, couldn’t subject my child or my family life to it, suddenly thought “Good grief, K-12 is all institutionalized academic rigor and stress and tests, then University is more institutional academic rigor and stress and tests….what kind of education is that, really?” and I compared my own paltry schooling but extremely happy childhood with the one I was providing for my son, shook my head in disgust, and began looking for alternatives.

One thing led to another and I found myself on the back porch at a neighborhood party while two enthusiastic parents related how their son, who had been miserable at a neighborhood public school, actually enjoyed going to Fairhaven, was happy and acting more responsibly at home, and was occasionally cooking them eggs for breakfast without even being asked!  Will you think less of me if I admit it was the promise of my progeny becoming some sort of unpaid cook/housekeeper that made me start to listen?  And once I started listening and entertaining dangerous thoughts, I couldn’t stop.  Then I visited the campus and I was sold.  I wondered “How could a place that feels so good be bad for my sons?” In retrospect, I wish I had had the emotional courage to ask myself years before, how could a place that felt as bad as their former school felt, possibly be good for them.

My husband and I took a deep breath, clutched each other’s hands, and in the face of more raised eyebrows than you can shake a power point presentation at, we jumped off the educational cliff.  That’s what it felt like to me, enrolling at Fairhaven.

The first thing I noticed was different about B. after he started at Fairhaven was that all of his health problems evaporated.  Asthma, allergies, digestion problems, all of which he had suffered for his entire K-6th grade years.  All gone. He didn’t take many classes that first year, and that really freaked me out.  But he was happy and healthy, and my husband and I decided maybe we were just giving him a well-needed break.   He was doing such interesting things and had great friendships so I knew it wasn’t an entirely bad move, but we weren’t complete believers yet;  I kept worrying about my son’s pathway to college.  I couldn’t see it. If I list for you here my son’s involvements and accomplishments, and why I now believe my son will be able to create a future for himself, it will sound an awful lot like bragging, and B. will not allow me to publish this blog.  He’s a thoughtful, modest fellow and would prefer to impress you in person. If he chooses to go to college, he’ll go.  I can see that now. He’s fourteen.  Why, I ask myself, why, why, why did I think I should be able to see it any sooner?

From Around the Web

Here are a few links to content I have found around the web that I found interesting.

Love to know your thoughts on these pieces.  Feel free to share your own findings too!

Parent Perspectives: A life of learning

This is my typical day.  I awaken, shower, get dressed, eat something and brush my hair and teeth and help my little guys do the same (although my husband shoulders more of the morning work than I do, by far – thanks, honey!)  I drive to work, after dropping off my son at school.  I sit at a computer, send messages, prepare memos and reports and answer questions.  I plan events, figure out how to solve problems and communicate with colleagues, clients and fellow professionals.  After the day, I move through a well-choreographed dance of kids’ activities and assignments, all the while running a direct selling business and this blog.   Occasionally, I even find time to read books for pleasure, do projects, watch TV or play games.

When I read this list, I am struck by how so many of the skills needed to do these things were learned outside of my traditional schooling.  My mom taught me the basics of personal hygiene and domestic duties.  My dad taught me to drive. I am self-taught with the skills needed to send an email or design a visual presentation.   I sought out the training needed to learn to plan an event or advocate for my company.  I took advantage of training offered in my community or workplace, and if could not find what I wanted there, then I went further to look on-line or to gather information from others who I admire.

I am not done learning.  I am hungry to learn more.  I am finishing up a class on-line for a new crafting skill.  I listen to audio books in my car.  I watch videos or news shows to get caught up on current events or dig deeper into something I have come across during the day that interests me. I sign up for lectures, attend luncheons and read blogs.

The core skills of reading and writing were learned in school and for that I am grateful, but my learning did not start in preschool, nor did it finish at the end of my schooling days. It began the day I was born and continues even now, as I learn how to prepare this post. It is a journey and every day brings new information to digest and choices to make.

That is lifelong learning.

Destination-unknown

As humans, we are wired to want to learn.  In fact, some might say that it is essential that we do.  Gerald Fischer, of the Center of LifeLong Learning and Design at the University of Colorado, states,

Lifelong learning is an essential challenge for inventing the future of our societies; it is a necessity rather than a possibility or a luxury to be considered. Lifelong learning is more than adult education and/or training — it is a mindset and a habit for people to acquire.

But who is instilling that in our kids?

Nowadays, kids sit passively in school, receiving information that is usually not relevant to the real world.  For the record, I do not believe that is because the system is out of touch, but because the system is too massive and bureaucratic to keep up. It takes months or years to affect change and in the mean time, kids are growing up and aging out, unprepared for what is expected of them or needed from the modern work place.

Fischer uses a great analogy that really hit home for me.  Right now, choice in traditional education is the equivalent of a television with 100+ channels.  A passive watcher can pick one of the many channels, but the information provided is static and someone else decides what content to use.  Yes, we can switch the station, but we are still a passive recipient of the information, no matter what channel we pick. Worse yet, we are couch potatoes, staring at a screen, just watching and watching.

In the real world, we want people to get up off the couch and engage.  We want them to actively learn and challenge the way things are done to see if we can do them better. And with new information being poured out into the world with each passing second, we want people to be adaptable, to make proactive choices, to fail fast, to grow and prosper.

If we expect that of them at age 18 or 22 or 30, then we need to teach them how to do that when they are children. We need to give them the freedom to learn what they want so that they can determine where they’ll find their place in the world.

That is what “free schools” offer.

The Philly Free School shared these thoughts,

The students decide what to learn and when to learn it, every day.  The school IS its students, situating it forever in the now and the yet to be. I can think of no other way that a school can hope to keep up with the rapid pace of change in the 21st century. They are poised for whatever comes next, because they ARE what comes next.

If you are thinking that your kids should be more in control of what and how they learn, Sudbury might be a fit for your family.  Join us this Sunday, January 11, at 3:00 pm to learn more about the efforts to open a Sudbury model school in North Florida.  Click here for details.

Around the Web: Village Free School article and more

A Portland school is changing lives for kids ages 5-18 and The Oregonian has picked up the story.

I love this bit from one of the three founders at the school.

At the Village Free School, there are three foundational rules: take care of yourself and others, take care of our space and things and respect the freedom of others. Otherwise, students have active authority in what they learn and how they chose to spend their school day.

While not a Sudbury School, there a a number of similarities like student-led classes and age mixing, albeit within age groups.

Here are a few other items I have uncovered from around the web.

Around the Web: Direct Instruction

In this article entitled, “Early Childhood Education: The Case Against Direct Instruction of Academic Skills“, Alfie Kohn makes the case against Direct Instruction (DI).   He defines DI as instruction “in which teachers read from a prepared script in the classroom, drilling young children on basic skills in a highly controlled, even militaristic fashion, and offering reinforcement when children produce the correct responses – appeared to produce the best results.”

This paragraph really him home.

When a didactic, basic-skills focus was compared to a child-centered focus in 32 preschool and kindergarten classes in California, children in the former group did better on reading tests (consistent with the short-term advantage found in some of the other studies), neither better nor worse on math tests, and terribly on a range of nonacademic measures.  The skills kids had lower expectations of themselves, worried more about school, were more dependent on adults, and preferred easier tasks.

Better on the test.  Not so good in social or emotional areas. And this is just one of several studies captured in the article.

So what do you think?  Is there any reason to expect that the direct teaching of skills in order to improve outcomes on a test ever make sense in PreK/12 education?

I welcome your comments.