Unschool

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?

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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!

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.

Parent Perspective: By the numbers…or not.

Around the world, millions of people waking up today and focusing on new numbers for their new year. Lose 10 lbs before the summer.   scaleOr work out 3x per week. Read 100 books by the end of the year. Spend 15 minutes per day meditating. Regardless of the merits of the goal, using numbers can be tremendously motivating. For many, numbers keep us moving forward when we might otherwise give up.  Even small goals can seem more achievable with numbers. “I will have one cookie, not 12.”  And many would say that without measurement, there is no way to define success. Measurement via numbers is how the world evaluates job performance, company health and the efficacy of processes.  Sales people have goals which roll up to company revenue. Athletes and teams set times to beat, averages to improve, and wins (and loses) to record. Politicians need votes to win elections and polls to see if their work is well-received by the constituents they serve. Numbers hold us accountable to the roles we play and goals we seek to achieve as individuals and as members of a group. Numbers can also help an outsider make a judgment about a system, activity or pursuit that they are not actively engaged in. They offer hard data for the person who is not doing the work themselves. They show progress. They are “proof.”

However, using numbers to evaluate a system is not always straight forward.  We don’t judge the success of a gym by the weight-loss stats of its membership, although one could surmise that if everyone is dropping LBS like crazy, it is a very effective gym. However, that would imply that the gym can control who walks in the door, with what abilities and how much effort they put forth while they are there. We don’t determine the success of a library by the number of people who have read the books they checked out. That would assume that the library can control the quality of the writing or the schedules and intent of the readers.

Never the less, there is really one visible example of using numbers to make judgments about individuals that aim to prove a point about a larger system. Education. In traditional schooling, the numbers are mandatory. They are compulsory. You can’t NOT get scored because without the numbers, outsiders have a harder time determining what is working or what isn’t.

But the kids in the system may not be better for the score, even if the system is.

walnutcove-grades Kate Atkinson wrote a blog post on the Huffington post earlier this year about how grades and numbers have an unintended consequence, beyond the proof of merit of the system.

If you are in high school, there is a good chance that you have felt defined by your GPA, ACT scores, numerical averages, test grades or the number of AP courses you take. You may have felt inferior to a peer whose class rank is above yours. You may have been looked down upon because you take “regular” math instead of Accelerated Calculus. You may have felt less intelligent because everyone you know is taking more AP courses than you. For the majority of my high school career, I have been just like you. I didn’t share my unimpressive class rank with anyone. I lied about the B I received in math class because I knew my peers would think lesser of me. I constantly allowed low test grades to make me feel inferior.

Kate is made to feel “less than” because she is compared to the mean in order to achieve a holistic view of the system, but it does not serve her as an individual. As an advocate for a Sudbury school, I am not anti-grades, anti-testing, or anti-accountability. Instead, I am FOR giving humans the choice of how, when and on what they elect to be evaluated. The person who chooses to dance with hopes of professional dancing knows evaluation is part of the gig. For the student who elects to go to college, aspiring to be an engineer, accountant, or doctor, etc., course grades are an essential part of determining progress and preparedness for the tasks is expected. The difference is that the person makes the choice to be evaluated. If a student like Kate subjects themselves to a score or grade, they have a choice about how to react, just like a person who sets a goal to lose weight can use the number to motivate themselves. And if the number is not what they had hoped, they can see it as a success or failure. That is up to the student.

One of the most asked questions I hear about Sudbury is about how students who are rarely tested are able to perform in the “real world.” Again, I go back to choice. If I choose to work for someone or do something that requires testing, training, metrics, etc., then I also understand the role that those numbers play in my ability to be successful. If I don’t like the score, I change my methods. I work harder. I ask for help. Or I try something else. The fact is that traditional schooling is the only place were humans are involuntarily evaluated with little to no consideration to how it impacts their sense of worth or personal path.  No evaluation of a diet, exercise regimen, new year’s resolution, exam from an institution of higher learning or job evaluation forced upon humans because, in every case, the person makes the choice to be evaluated. But kids don’t have that choice…that is, unless parents give them a place where numbers are treated very differently. Enter Sudbury.

Step one.

Tonight, December 29, the Sudbury School of Jacksonville held its first informational meeting.  With 8 people in the room, we discussed the Sudbury model, watched a short video about another Sudbury School and shared the story about how my husband Josh and I came to pursue this path, for not only our family, but our community.

In attendance were educators with grown children, as well as parents with small children.  We had folks with kids in “A” rated schools who believe their kids should enjoy school more and parents looking for alternatives to schools that they don’t believe are a great fit for their kid(s) now.  There were lots of questions and we took lots of notes.  The biggest surprise of the night was a woman in town who had researched starting a Sudbury school a few years ago!

It. Was. Awesome.

Thank you to all of the folks who came out.  It was so more exciting than I anticipated and I think it was a wonderful beginning.

If you missed it, not to worry. We are planning our next meeting for on Sunday, January 11th from 3 to 4.  (Kids are welcome, if the weather is nice.  They can play outside and we’ll have a sitter here to help out.)  I hope you’ll join us.

In the meantime, feel free to join our Facebook group or like the school’s brand new Facebook page.

Finally, here are a few links to articles and videos I came across in the last few days:

The Pressure is On.

2014 is nearly over.

And I am only “half” ready.

If 2014 is any indication, the time will zip by.  On the one hand, I am excited about a fresh start.  But there are HUGE unknowns that loom ahead.

The biggest one is the daunting challenge of how to change the course of our kids’ education.  The amount of time we have to make a meaningful change seems like it keeps getting smaller and smaller.   I know that there are others of you out there who are feeling uncertain of the path your kids will take too.  Maybe you have a teenager and you feel you only have a few years left to make a difference.  Maybe you are coming up on a transition from elementary to middle school or middle to high and you want to do something before your kid settles in to the next school.

Regardless, we all feel time slipping away.

For me, with each day, the pressure is more intense.

pressure

I think schools are feeling the pressure too.

Public and charter schools have more required of them, with less funding and, in some cases, with less time to impart the knowledge needed to pass the standardized tests that measure the success of their teachings.  The test scores not only impact the kids, but are often computed into the ratings of the staff’s performance and can affect the schools’ funding.

The stakes are high.

Maybe that is why so many traditional school systems are starting earlier and earlier to get kids ready.  Whether it is having middle school kids pick a track for high school that aligns with a specific career or college path, or piling on more and more homework to “help” with preparation, schools are requiring more instruction and more work in an effort to push kids to be their most successful.

In fact, I recently read an article about a kindergarten in New York who cancelled its end-of-the-year show in order to devote more time to college and career prep.

The interim principal writes,

The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.

And currently, the determination of who is a strong reader, write, and so on, is a series of assessments…standardized tests. Not a successfully executed end-of-year show.

I do not fault the school for making the judgment call.  In fact, if I was them, I may have done the same thing.  If you can only be successful as a school or as a system if your students do well on a test, then surely, you must prepare for the test.  Starting earlier is a natural conclusion.

However, there are several problems with the way our system has evolved.  First, not everyone does well on standardized tests.  Moreover, even if you do well on tests, the methods of instruction most schools use to prepare kids for the tests is ideal for only a fraction of the population.  Generally, traditional schooling is not multi-sensory.  It is lecture based.  It utilizes rote memorization.  Most people don’t learn that way.

In addition, success in life is more than being able to do well on tests. I want our kids to have schooling that reflects modern society.  They need to learn to be self-motivated.  They need to learn to be adaptable.  They need to be able to be curious and innovative.  To achieve this, schools need more individualization.  More customization.   More interaction. More experiential-learning opportunities.  They need to be given freedom and responsibility.  They need opportunities to practice making choices for themselves.  They need to become accustomed to taking responsibility when those choices don’t pan out the way they’d like.

To the contrary, traditional schools pick the time, the place, the lessons, the curriculum, the delivery methods and the measure of success. Kids decide on next-to-nothing about how they are taught and that is doing them a disservice.

I also think that the assumption that a show would not help the students become “strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers” is also flawed.  Time and time again, we learn that life’s softer pursuits can be a great teachers.  Music. Art. Games. Theater. Sports. Cooking. Gardening.  All of these things require reading, writing and decision making.  They just cannot be assessed on a test.  And really, shouldn’t our 5 year-olds have an experience that exposes them to the world around them and allow them to lean into learning things that really interest them?

Shouldn’t we all have that?

When I was looking for a path that would give my kids the best start in life, I NEVER would have predicted that I would be an advocate for something like a Sudbury School.  No grades. No grade-levels. No lesson plans. No tests.

That said, I have come to realize that while some kids are getting exactly what they need from traditional schools, there are plenty more kids would thrive in a new or different environment. Sudbury may not be for everyone, but if you are feeling the pressure to find something else that might be a better fit for your kid, consider joining the effort to open a Sudbury School in North Florida.

Feel free to comment below and I will reach out to you with details about our upcoming information meetings.

Happy new year and much joy, prosperity and health to you and yours in 2015.

~Jennifer